Illustrating the Gawain Manuscript: New Scientific Evidence!

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f125r_129r
The temptation of Gawain; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x, f. 125r/129r; © The British Library

New scientific analysis may completely change our understanding of one of the most famous manuscripts for students of Middle English literature. British Library Cotton Nero A.x is the sole extant manuscript of the works of the so-called Gawain-poet, the anonymous author of Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These jewels of the Alliterative Revival are today some of the best-known medieval English works, but we would not have them at all if they did not survive in this single late fourteenth-century manuscript. Even better for students of Middle English literature is that this manuscript is illustrated, including scenes from all four texts. For years, scholars have offered only a poor critical assessment of the pictures, an assessment that a few more recent scholars have begun to reexamine. Are these really the crudely executed illustrations of an amateur artist?

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f82r_86r
Jonah is cast into the whale; Patience, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3), f. 82r/86r © The British Library

New discoveries, based on analysis of the pigments and ink, may change our understanding of the part these illustrations may have played in the original production of the manuscript. Maidie Hilmo, of the University of Victoria, has studied these illustrations extensively, most recently in a new overview of the pictures that she has written for eventual publication on the Cotton Nero A.x. Project, an international initiative of the University of Calgary to make digital images, transcriptions, and critical editions of the manuscript more widely available. She requested a scientific analysis of the pigments, and one of the most striking results  is that the same iron gall ink was used for both the text and the underdrawings of the images, as Paul Garside, the Senior Conservation Scientist at the British Library, has indicated. Is it possible this may mean the illustrations, or at least the underdrawings, were drawn around the same time the manuscript was originally written, possibly even by the scribe? There is no smoking gun, but it is true that iron gall ink was not what illuminators ordinarily used for their drawings – this ink was far more typically the medium of scribes, rather than manuscript artists, as indicated by Mark Clarke, an internationally acknowledged expert on medieval pigments.

Hilmo Royal 19 D.II, f.395
Jonah emerges from the whale, in an image showing several iconographic similarities to the one in Patience; Bible Historiale of John the Good, Paris, c. 1350;
British Library Royal MS 19 D.ii, f. 395r

Traditionally, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the relative timeframe of the copying of the manuscript’s text and the drawing and painting (not necessarily the same thing!) of the illustrations. Many earlier efforts at dating the illustrations suggested that they were made around 1400-1420, potentially some decades after the 1375-1400 copying of the text.1 This new analysis suggests such dating of the pictures may be off, and invites future scholars to reassess the dating of the various components of the illustrations in relation to the text. Hilmo considers Jennifer Lee’s argument that the heavy-handed painting may have been done by another hand, different from the artist of the underdrawings.2

Hilmo CottonNeroAX_f126r_130r_EnhancedOutlines
Enhanced image of Gawain being welcomed back to court, showing the underdrawing, including some details, like those of Gawain’s leg armor, which have been somewhat obscured by the painting; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, England, c. 1375-1400;
British Library Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3), f. 126r/130r © The British Library

Hilmo invites the meditative reader to reconsider the function of the miniatures not only in illustrating individual poems but also in linking all four poems into a cohesive narrative reshaping and unifying them “into a larger interpretive, typological and iconographic framework.” Whether or not a thoughtful scribe was involved in this visual reconceptualization of the poems as a whole, this study encourages us to see fresh meanings in our successive encounters with Cotton Nero A.x.

For the full explanation of this new research, explore Hilmo’s overview and a draft of the complete article now available on the Chequered Board (she encourages responses).

Nicole Eddy
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

1. See A. I. Doyle, “The Manuscripts,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background: Seven Essays, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), 88–100; Sarah Horrall, “Notes on British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X,” Manuscripta 30 (1986): 191–98.
2. Jennifer A. Lee, “The Illuminating Critic: The Illustrator of Cotton Nero A.X,” Studies in Iconography 3 (1977): 17–45.

Letter? I ‘ardly know ‘er: The unknown language (and letters) of Hildegard von Bingen

Although inventing a language might seem like a purely modern phenomenon, nearly a thousand years ago, the Benedictine Abbess, lecturer, composer, and visionary, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) created her own language, the Lingua Ignota.

The Lingua Ignota can be found about halfway through the Riesen Codex (Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2, ff 461v-464v), also called the Giant or Chain Codex, a compilation of Hildegard’s theological writings that were collected near Hildegard’s death. The Lingua Ignota can also be found in the manuscript formerly known as the Codex Cheltenhamensis (Berlin, MS Lat. Quart. 674, ff. 57r-62r) (Higley, 145).

Apart from a sentence long introduction, the Lingua consists of a glossary of around 1000 words arranged hierarchically. Hildegard begins with the words for God and the angels, then proceeds to human beings, other animals, plants, and so on.

First page of the “Lingua Ignota”. For each word, the Latin gloss sits above Hildegard’s word. Click on the image to blow it up. (Used with the permission of the Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain)


An inner page of the glossary. For each word, the Latin gloss sits above Hildegard’s word. Click on the image to blow it up. (Used with the permission of the Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain)

A sample of some of Hildegard’s words:

  • Aigonz – God
  • Aieganz – Angel
  • Inimois – Human
  • Korzinthio – Prophet
  • Peueriz – Father
  • Maiz – Mother
  • Sciniz – Stammerer
  • Kaueia – Wife
  • Ornalz – The hair of a woman
  • Milischa – the hair of a man
  • Pusinzia – Snot
  • Zizia – Mustache
  • Fluanz – Urine
  • Fuscal – Foot
  • Sancciuia – Crypt
  • Abiza – House
  • Amozia – Eucharist
  • Pereziliuz – Emperor
  • Bizioliz – Drunkard
  • Haischa – Turtle Dove

There are elements of German (particularly the use of the “z”) and Latin in Hildegard’s vocabulary. There is also German influence in her use of compound words. For example, her word for grandfather is Phazur which is the root of Kulzphazur, ancestor. Likewise most of her words for trees end in –buz, probably “bush”. Sarah Higley also identifies grammatical gender in Hildegard’s words, which roughly corresponds to the gender of those same words in either Latin or German (Higley, 103-4). Finally, her words are intended to be euphonic. When applicable, for example, the final two syallbles of her words form a trochee. This gives her language a bouncy, sing-song feel.

Along with her own language,  Hildegard created an alphabet.


The alphabet is in the left column, beneath the block of text. Click on the image to blow it up. (Used with the permission of the Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek RheinMain)

The alphabet shows some possible influence from Greek (or even Cyrillic) in the letter-forms for B, C, and M. The letter-forms for R ,U, X & Y have some resemblance to Roman Cursive. These letters also have some resemblance to the symbols of the zodiac.

So, why did Hildegard create this language? Although she never explicitly said why, it should not be understood outside of her theology, based in part on the limits of language. As Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language define the limits of my world”. If our language is limited, it will hinder our experience and appreciation of the divine. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota thus may be an attempt to redeem our fallen language so that in the world it shapes, the natural holiness of all things (even urine and drunkards) will be manifest.

Works Consulted

Bingen, Hildegard von. Scivias. Trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop. New York: Paulist, 1990.

Higley, Sarah Lynn. Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language: An Edition, Translation, and Discussion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Mayer, Martin. “The Wiesbaden (Giant) Codex.” Hochschule RheinMain Landesbibliothek. Hochschule RheinMain Landesbibliothek, n.d. Web. 22 July 2015.

The Unfinished Book and Medieval Updating

A website updates, a book doesn’t.

This is one of the many ways to dichotomize two of today’s major competing media. However, such a categorical binary has not always been the case, and in the medieval world books were rarely ‘published’ in the way we’ve come to understand. Take for example the manuscript British Library Harley 1758.

Folio 45
Folio 45v

It was produced sometime between 1450 and 1500 and contains a copy of the Canterbury Tales, including the spurious Tale of Gamelyn. It seems to have been written by three distinct scribes and then corrected by a supervisor of sorts. While finely decorated and illuminated, there are notable gaps throughout the manuscript. Such gaps were clearly intentional at some stage in the process and similar blank spaces can be found in other manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The gaps in Harley 1758 (found on folios 45v, 102, 127 and 200) all fall between the end of one character’s tale and the beginning of another’s. The reason behind such premeditated gaps seems to be an intention to fill them with a portrait of the upcoming speaker. For example, on folio 102, the gap in the manuscript comes between the rubricated sentences Here endith the gode wifes tale of Bathe and Here begynneth the prolog of the ffrere.

Folio 102
Folio 102r

Presumably, then, the plan was to place a portrait of the Friar to fill in this gap. Similarly, on folio 200, we find a gap beginning at the top of the manuscript and ending with the sentence Here begy[n]neth the prolog of the ffrankeleyne.

Folio 200
Folio 200r

In this manuscript, portraits of the Cook, Friar, Manciple, and Franklin, were all clearly intended but have been left out in the process of manufacturing. The modern mind, strongly rooted in the print culture of the last few centuries, immediately wants to call this an ‘incomplete’ manuscript. By the simplistic standards set out above for a book, this work is clearly missing pieces intended for inclusion and therefore cannot be called ‘finished’ or ‘published’ in the sense we think of today. However, in a time with limited writing materials and a high cost of production for a single manuscript, books were an evolving entity and constantly updating in purpose and function. Moreover, as stated above, books like Harley 1758 were the product of numerous workers, all of whom had to be paid. In scenarios such as these, the eventual owners of the book funding its production might have simply run out of money. Even still, the book was ‘published’ despite its missing pieces, and its gaps cleverly used for other purposes in later times.

Folio 127
Folio 127r

Folio 127 of the work has been carefully reused to record the birth dates of the children of Edmund Foxe of Ludford, a 16th century clerk. This type of genealogical information is commonly found in medieval manuscripts, since, as stated above, the preciousness of such items made them valuables in medieval and early modern times.

The gaps in Harley 1758 give us insight into medieval and early modern usage of books and thoughts on the concept of publication. It is clear that the print-age dichotomy of finished and unfinished breaks down for medieval books, and perhaps their status is more akin to modern notions of website updates.

Axton Crolley
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame