The Colors of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript: The Questions that Launched a Scientific Analysis

For this school year’s exciting inaugural post, Maidie Hilmo shares her request for a scientific analysis of the Pearl-Gawain manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x), containing the unique copy of the Middle English poems: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It shows the kind of questions that help gain access to the viewing of original manuscripts and can result in a technological investigation of specific details. Bringing together science and art history, Hilmo has uncovered evidence that “the scribe was also the draftsperson of the underdrawings. It appears that the painted layers of the miniatures were added by one or more colorists, while the large flourished initials beginning the text of the poems were executed by someone with a different pigment not used in the miniatures.” The results of this request to the British Library—comprising the detailed report on the pigments by Dr. Paul Garside and a set of enhanced images by Dr. Christina Duffy, the Imaging Scientist — will become available on the Cotton Nero A.x Project website and, selectively, in publications by Hilmo, including: “Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)?,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Book Society; and “Re-conceptualizing the Poems of the Pearl-Gawain Manuscript,” forthcoming in Manuscript Studies. To learn more, check out her special project here on our site.

In Defense of Chaucer’s Astrolabe

Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe has not, historically, won the hearts of many academics—much less the hearts of undergraduates making their first forays into medieval literature. The text is a manual supposedly meant to explain the construction and use of the astronomical tool known as the astrolabe. Most interest in Chaucer’s Astrolabe has focused on its preface, where the author professes to write for his ten-year-old son “Lyte Lowys” (“little Lewis,” l. 1) but also speaks to a much more highly educated audience. In this preface, Chaucer makes claims about medieval education, science, and languages that help us piece together a medieval worldview. Few have ventured beyond these opening lines, however, to understand the mechanics of the astrolabe itself. The task is well worth the effort—Chaucer’s Astrolabe, for all of its technicality, can help us understand the role of science in more traditionally “literary” works like The Canterbury Tales.

The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum
The “Chaucer” Astrolabe, England, c. 1326 © The British Museum

The medieval astrolabe was used by teachers, students, travelers, and astrologers to locate themselves in time and space. The legendary (but likely spurious) story goes that Ptolemy’s camel stepped on his celestial globe and, seeing it flattened on the ground, the Greco-Egyptian polymath was struck with the idea that the celestial sphere could be mapped in two-dimensional terms (Hayton 4). In actuality, the astrolabe developed gradually over the course of centuries—it is a testament to the mixture of ancient Greek, Jewish, and Islamic thought that created the intricate texture of medieval Western science. The astrolabe made particular strides under the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, for instance, where it was used to schedule Islam’s five daily prayers. Using geometric principles, it can calculate the time, the date, the position of the sun, and the spread of constellations that the user can expect to see on any given night.

The last of these functions, I like to think, contributed to the intricate sequence of astrological references that threads through The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer frequently matches up a point in time he mentions in his text with the location of the corresponding zodiac sign. The most famous example comes in the initial lines of the Tales’ “General Prologue”: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (“At the time that April’s sweet showers have pierced March’s drought to the root,” l. 1-2). Chaucer gives us the approximate date, and follows up soon after with the time of day and the corresponding sign: “and the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne” (“and the young sun has traveled halfway through the Ram [that is, Aries],” l. 7-8). One can imagine Chaucer using his astrolabe to map out the astrological scenes that matched up with the settings of his text.

The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r
The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS. Rawl. D. 913, fol. 29r

The surviving manuscripts of Chaucer’s Astrolabe show that its early readers experienced it alongside not only scientific texts by astronomers like Abu’Mashar, but also intermingled with poems like the popular French Romance of the Rose—the Astrolabe therefore challenges us to reconsider the divide between the “literary” and the “technical.” In a future post, I will walk step-by-step through my students’ saga to build and use astrolabes this semester. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the experience helps the modern reader to imagine medieval texts within the spatial, visual, and cosmological terms with which their initial audiences would have understood them.

My thanks to Amanda Bohne and Juliette Vuille for their stellar insights and advice.

Erica Machulak
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame
Founder of Hikma Strategies


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hayton, Darin. An Introduction to the Astrolabe. © 2012

Lindberg, David. The Beginnings of Western Science. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

North, J.D. Chaucer’s Universe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Reading Sir Gawain in the Digital Age

The advent of e-books has prompted discussion about the experience of reading and its relationship to a material text. Opponents of digital books speak fondly of holding a book in hand, the ability to feel the weight of the object and physically see yourself progress through the text. There is a sense of something lost when this object changes form, when paper becomes plastic, when clicking replaces page-turning, when your sense of place in the text is measured by percentage rather than pages.

Illumination from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 90v

Of course, changes in the way in which we materially experience reading have been going on far longer than the recent shift to digital media. The book versions of older texts are in many ways even more distant from their original form than digital books are to their print ancestors.

While some these changes are  obvious to the readers—the illuminations, the particular handwriting, the spacing of the text on the page—editors of print editions also make choices that are less apparent. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides an interesting example of how much print can transform a medieval manuscript, as seen in the editors alterations of the bob and wheel form. In this form, the stanza ends with two short lines (the bob) followed by four rhyming lines (the wheel):


The editors follow this form exactly, but as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, the placement of the bob is not as regular in Gawain as modern editions would lead us to believe. Instead, the bob is written in the margin, often not directly before the wheel. Compare the following:

Modern Edition (eds. Andrew and Waldron)

Bot he defended hym so fayr þat no faut semed,
Ne non euel on nawþer þay wysten
Bot blysse.
Þay laʒed and layked longe;
At þe last scho con hym kysse,
Hir leue fayre con scho fonge,
And went hir waye, iwysse. (1551-1557)


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 1521-1558. Note the placement of the bob “bot blysse” two lines above the bob. British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x, f. 111v

As Kerby-Fulton argues, this fluid placement of the bob changes our understanding of certain passages, since it can often be attached to several lines and still be grammatically correct. Andrew and Waldron translate the modern version of lines 1552-3 as “nor were they aware of anything but pleasure.” In the original text, however, the placement of the bob would render the line “But he defended him so fair that no fault seemed but pleasure.”

The placement of the bob obviously has some impact upon our understanding of the poem. But what about that illusive “reading experience”? The modern editions fundamentally change this as well. Imagine, for a minute, that you are a medieval reader. When you read the bob, do you hear it exactly where it is placed? Do you hear it where the modern editor would move it to? Or do you hear it after multiple lines? Perhaps your eye floats out to it on several occasions, placing it in multiple positions and playing with its flexible meanings. Gawain, after all, is a poem of playful language and deceit, and the poet is noted for his use of puns in Pearl.

No modern edition has been printed that maintains the manuscript’s irregular placement of the bob. The solution, then, is to turn back to the manuscript: to printed facsimiles, but also, perhaps counterintuitively, to digital scans of the original pages.

Jane Wageman
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. University of California Press, 1982.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Cornell University Press, 2007.