Grotesque Ghosts and Moral Reproof in Middle English Literature: The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn

The day has suddenly turned to night; King Arthur and his knights are all frightened; and Guinevere, who is accompanying the entourage, begins to cry when out of nowhere the woods ring with terrible sounds of howling and wailing and grievous lamentation. A female-seeming being approaches Sir Gawain, having risen from a lake, and

Bare was the body and blak to the bone,
Al biclagged [clotted] in clay uncomly cladde […].
On the chef [head] of the cholle [neck],
A pade [toad] pikes [bites] on the polle [skull],
With eighen [eyes] holked [sunken] ful holle [hollow]
That gloed [glowed] as the gledes [coals]. (ll. 105-106, 114-117)[1]

The apparition continues to yell and murmur and groan as if it were mad and is shrouded in some sort of unfathomable clothing, covered by toads and circled on all sides by snakes.

Gawain finds his courage and, brandishing his sword, demands that the specter give an account of herself. She concedes, saying that she was once a queen—the fairest in the land—and was wealthy and privileged beyond compare, even more so than Guinevere. But now she is dead, having lost all—her body a filthy, rotting corpse—and, she says, “God has me geven of his grace / To dre [suffer through] my paynes in this place” (ll. 140-141).

The place that she is referring to is the Tarn Wadling, a lake in Cumbria, just south-east of Carlisle by about ten miles.[2] Tarn (< ME terne, tarne) is a word that originated as a local northern English term (< ON *tarnu, tjorn, tjörn) meaning ‘a lake, pond, or pool,’ but it has since come to be used to mean specifically ‘a small mountain lake, having no significant tributaries.’[3]

Entrance to the woods surrounding the Tarn Wadling.

King Arthur and crew come upon the Tarn Wadling during a hunt in Inglewood Forest. The finery of the court—and especially of Guinevere—is described in several stanzas, much as the ghost describes the splendor she once enjoyed a number of stanzas later. After Gawain talks with her for a bit, she begs to see and speak to Guinevere. We quickly find out why, for she proclaims to Guinevere, “Lo, how delful [doleful] deth has thi dame dight [left]” (l. 160)! The spirit is her mother, and she urges Guinevere to “Muse on my mirrour” (l. 167). Death will leave her in such a fashion too if she does not give thought to her actions and the afterlife.

Arthur and Guinevere. London, British Library, MS Royal 20 D IV, f. 207r[4].
The first thing that Guinevere’s mother counsels is that, if you are rich, you should have pity on the poor, for it is in your power to do so. When you are dead, nothing will help you at that point, but “The praier of poer may purchas the pes” (l. 178). She stresses this to Guinevere and holds herself up as a counterexample. She failed, and now, she says,

“[…] I, in danger and doel, in dongone I dwelle,
Naxte [nasty] and nedefull, naked on night.
Ther folo me a ferde [troop] of fendes of helle;
They hurle me unhendely; thei harme me in hight [violently];
In bras and in brymston I bren as a belle [bonfire].
Was never wrought in this world a wofuller wight. (ll. 184-189)

While Guinevere’s mother advocates for compassion and generosity, we discover, however, that it was lust and the breaking of her marriage vows that landed her in torment. These sins bear obvious relation to Guinevere’s own life, and the author doesn’t even feel the need to clarify. Her mother is a mirror.

Guinevere and Lancelot. London, British Library, MS Additional 10293, f. 199r[5].
Nonetheless, it is interesting that what this text emphasizes the most is the need for all to have and to practice charity. Sin is bad, of course; and pride is the most hateful fault, as Guinevere’s mother explains. But the Awntyrs is not a treatise on the sins; it is a work that teaches that, of the virtues, “[…] charité is chef [paramount], and then is chaste [chastity], / And then almessedede aure [above] al other thing” (ll. 252-253). The duty of the Christian, according to the author of the Awntyrs, lies in each person’s responsibility towards every other. And this extends ad infinitum, for the prayers of those on earth are succor to the dead. The audience learns this because Guinevere promises to provide Masses for her mother’s soul, praying that Christ will bring to bliss she for whom he was crucified, he to whom she was dedicated in Baptism, though her mother stresses again that Guinevere must also provide for those living who lack food.

Before Guinevere’s mother departs, Gawain pipes in, having clearly been listening. He asks about those nobles and knights who enter other’s lands in territorial expansion, crushing under their heels the people and seizing the glory and the riches without any right. Now, if anyone is familiar with Gawain, this is rather too self-aware for his character—clearly the author is speaking here. The royal wraith responds by denouncing Arthur as too covetous a king and saying that the court should be wary. The second half of the Awntyrs deals precisely with these problems of excess and conquest, and I leave this part of the plot for readers to explore on their own.

Concerning the fifteenth-century text that has reached us, it is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324; London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B; Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91 (Thornton Manuscript); and Princeton, Princeton University Library, MS Taylor 9 (Ireland Blackburn Manuscript).

The beginning of The Awntyrs off Arthure.f. 1r of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324 (c. 1450-1475)[6]. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
The underlying dialect in the manuscripts is northern, being locatable most likely to the historic county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), which is also where the action of the narrative takes place. The work is extremely ornate, making use of both alliteration and rhyme. And as the text’s editor, Thomas Hahn, also notes, given the themes, it is quite probable that the author was a cleric, possibly residing in Carlisle. The Latin exempla tradition most certainly influenced the text, but the genius of the author was to weave his moral teaching into an exciting Arthurian tale, sweetening the medicine, as it were, with a captivating literary exterior.[7]

Be this as it may, the Tarn Wadling has always been eerie, emitting strange sounds and even once having an island appear and then disappear. It is hard to say whether it was due to a desire to bring an end to the place and quash superstitions or increase his arable land and acreage that Lord Lonsdale ordered the lake to be drained and filled in sometime during the nineteenth century.[8] Sadly, the tarn itself is no more, but the stories persist—as perhaps do the spirits.


Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame


[1] The edition used is the following: “The Awntyrs off Arthur.” Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. This can be found online here: And here is an introduction:

[2] You can find information about the location here:

[3] See the entry “tarn” in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as “terne” in the Middle English Dictionary.

[4] The entire manuscript is digitized here: Dated c. 1300-1380, it contains part of the Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle. The image shows Arthur and Guinevere receiving news from a damsel.

[5] See the catalogue description with some images here: This manuscript contains another copy of the Lancelot, c. 1316.

[6] See images here:,t+,rsrs+0,rsps+10,fa+,so+ox%3Asort%5Easc,scids+,pid+f03eea52-0af3-4ff7-9069-c41a4b2f6c6b,vi+6e581efc-2391-4258-b621-0f85fe45f40f. You can find more information here:

[7] On this, see especially David N. Klausner’s “Exempla and The Awntyrs of Arthure.” Medieval Studies 34 (1972): 307-25. Thomas Hahn provides further reading, editions with introductory material as well as scholarly articles, at the end of his introduction (see note 1).

[8] For more on the history of the Tarn Wadling, go here:

Super P[ow]iers

Avengers assemble!

First launched by Timely Comics 1941, and revived by Marvel in 1964, stories surrounding Captain America brought heroism to a new level as they combined contemporary needs with a superhuman figure (Howe 18).  While the popularity of the Avenger may have initially been based upon his status as a World War II super-soldier, the values that he exhibits stem from a long tradition of literary heroes and are still applicable today. Arguably defined as “personal values that philosophers since ancient times have put forward as defining personal excellence,” these attributes appear throughout heroic literature time and again (White vii). In fact, on their way through literary history from Aristotle to Captain America, they even make a pit stop in the fourteenth century alliterative poem, Piers Plowman.

In a comparison of Steve Rogers, alias Captain America, and the devout pilgrim of William Langland’s allegorical dream narrative, Piers Plowman, it is clear that their values conflate on multiple levels. In this blog post, I will address three moral values. These values — drawn from the construction of Captain America and explained throughout The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero by Mark White — are courage, responsibility, and humility.

Covetousness. William Langland, Piers Plowman; England, 1427; Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 104 fol. 27r.

While adherence to these values runs rampant throughout Piers Plowman, I am especially concerned with Passus VIII. Throughout lines 19-111, “Perkin the Plowman” (l. 1) converses with a knight and instructs him in the art of courage in the face of temptation, responsibility to himself and those he serves, and exhibiting humility with all beings that he encounters. (It could also be said that Piers is instructing the knight on how to defend himself against such “super villains” as Covetousness, Sloth, and Hunger.)

Sloth. William Langland, Piers Plowman; England, 1427; Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 104 fol. 31r.

Thus, Piers challenges the knight to remain virtuous in the face of temptation and highlights the internal courage necessary for the promotion of pure judgement.

‘Sikerliche, sire knyhte,’ sayde Peris thenne,
‘Y shal swynke and swete and sowe for vs bothe,
And labory for tho thow louest al my lyf tyme,
In couenant þat thow kepe Holy Kerke and mysulue
Fro wastores and fro wikked men þat þis world struyen;’

‘And a ȝut a point,’ quod Peres, ‘Y preye ȝow of more:
Loke ȝe tene no tenaunt but treuthe wol assente;
And when ȝe mersyen eny man, late mercy be taxor
And mekenesse thy mayster, maugre Mede chekes.
And thogh pore men profre ȝow presentes and ȝyftes,
Nym him nat, and aunter thow mowe hit nauht deserue;
For thou shalt ȝelden hit, so may be, or sumdel abuggen hit.
Misbede nat thy bondeman—the bette may þou spede;
Thogh he be here thyn vnderlynge, in heuene, paraunter,
He worth rather reseyued and reuerentloker sitte:’
(Piers Plowman, ed. A.V.C. Schmidt, C.VIII.23-43)

‘Certainly, sir knight,’ said Piers then,
‘I shall toil and sweat and sow for us both
And labor for those you love all my lifetime,
On condition you protect Holy Church and me
From wasters and wicked men who spoil the world’

‘And still one point,’ I ask of you further:
Try not to trouble any tenant unless Truth agrees
And when you fine any man let Mercy be assessor
And Meekness your master, despite Meed’s moves
And though poor men offer you presents and gifts
Don’t take them on the chance your not deserving
For it may be you’ll have to return them or pay for them dearly.
Don’t hurt your bondman, you’ll be better off;
Though he’s your underling here, it may happen in heaven
He’ll be sooner received and more honorably seated.
(Economou pp. 70-71, ll. 19-44)

Hunger. William Langland, Piers Plowman; England, 1427; Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 104 fol. 38r.

Ultimately, the values exhibited within this passage show that heroism does not necessarily mean that one has to be an Avenger or a devout pilgrim. Like Captain America, Piers is an advocate for the success of the common man, and their conflation proves that values and virtues can transcend both social classes and centuries.  The character of Piers is manifest as a plowman instructing a knight, proving that even in the fourteenth century—and like today—virtues can be found among all social classes and depend more on personal integrity than anything else. Furthermore, as possibly the most celebrated “knight” today, Captain America proves that these values have not been lost, despite the six centuries separating his wars from those of the Piers’ compatriot. Through the success of Captain America and the entire collective of the Avengers within pop culture today, it is clear that just as these values can transcend societal levels in Piers Plowman, so too can they transcend the centuries, remaining valuable to people throughout time, and even appearing in theaters today.

Angela Lake
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Howe, Sean. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

Langland, William, and Derek Pearsall. Piers Plowman. Exeter, UK: U of Exeter, 2008. Print.

Langland, William, and George Economou. William Langland’s Piers Plowman: The C Version: A Verse Translation.Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1996. Print.

White, Mark D. The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero. John Wiley & Sons, Inc: UK: West Sussex, 2014. Print.

Interpreting Impairment in MS. Douce 104 Piers Plowman

Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104, dated 1427 by the scribe, contains the only extant cycle of illustrations in a copy of Piers Plowman. The manuscript contains 72 miniatures, ranging from major characters to allegorical personifications to figures mentioned only in passing in the text of the poem. As Kathleen Scott has noted, illustrators in the fifteenth century generally worked from templates or models of figures used in other texts; because of Douce’s singularity in its extensive illustrations of the poem, we can conclude that the images in the manuscript were inspired not by commonly used models, but by the illustrator’s personal response to the text at hand. Thus, the Douce images offer modern readers a unique opportunity to understand how medieval readers (or at least professional readers, like scribes and illustrators) of Piers Plowman may have interpreted Langland’s famously complex poem–and, for the purposes of this post, the poem’s impaired sinners.

While Langland describes his Seven Deadly Sins as rather grotesquely impaired and occasionally disabled in the C-text, the Douce illustrator largely normalizes physical aberrance in his images of the Sins. When taken together, the descriptions in the poem and their accompanying images encourage an interesting relationship between sin and impairment, namely that while sin indeed results in physical impairment, the impairments are perceptible largely to the sinner him- or herself.

Sloth; William Langland; Piers Plowman, England, 1427; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 104, f. 31r

For example, in MS. Douce 104, Sloth is depicted as a young man with rumpled clothing and a boot on only one foot; the other foot remains bare and tucked up behind the booted foot in what could perhaps be a protective gesture (though it’s equally likely that he has just curled up in his sleep). Though Sloth is initially described in the poem as “byslobered with two slimed yes” (C.VII.1), the only concession the illustrator makes to any physical deformity is that single missing shoe, likely indicative of Sloth’s gout, the swelling from which would have prevented him from wearing his boot. What is most interesting here is that the illustrator’s interpretation seems to have normalized Sloth’s appearance from the description presented in the poem, in which Sloth is quite obviously impaired or even deformed.

Envy; William Langland, Piers Plowman, England, 1427; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 104, f. 25r

Envy provides another relevant example. In the C-text of Piers Plowman, Envy laments the physical repercussions of his sins: “no sugre ne swete thing [may] aswage my swellynge” (C.VI.88); further, he complains that he has become “so megre for Y ne may me venge” (C.VI.94). In spite of these physical descriptions, the Douce illustrator’s interpretation of Envy is in no way noticeably impaired. Envy appears in folio 25r, an adult man wearing a belted tunic and boots, his left hand raised in a fist (presumably in reference to “A wroth his fuste vppon Wrath”) while his right hand clutches his shirt. In contrast to Langland’s Envy, who describes himself as simultaneously swollen and “megre,” his stature is neither stout nor thin; he actually looks quite healthy and strong. When taken together as they appear in Douce 104, Langland’s written description and the illustrator’s image enable an interpretation of Envy’s physical ailments as discernible only to Envy himself, perhaps indicating that the consequences of sin, though physical, are felt most acutely by the sinner.

There is, of course, much more to say about sin, impairment, and disability in Piers Plowman; for the moment, though, let us revel in both the fascinating glimpse into fifteenth-century reception of the poem and the interpretive possibilities for modern readers provided by the illustrator of MS. Douce 104.

Dana Roders
PhD Candidate
Department of English
Purdue University

Further Reading

Hilmo, Maidie. “Retributive Violence and the Reformist Agenda in the Illustrated Douce 104 MS of Piers Plowman.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 23 (1997): 13-48. Print.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, and Denise L. Despres. Iconography and the Professional Reader: The Politics of Book Production in the Douce Piers Plowman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. Print.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Print.

Metzler, Irina. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment During the High Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Scott, Kathleen L. “The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104.” The Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990): 1-86. Print.