A Medieval Mystery: Who Was the Pearl-poet?

In this guest blog, Hannah Ryley, an Oxford DPhil student, explores the anonymity of authorship in the Middle Ages. 

In the British Library there is a medieval manuscript with the shelfmark Cotton Nero A.x. Dull though this shelfmark may sound, this manuscript is at the heart of a mysterious case of unknown authorship of four Middle English poems. The manuscript itself as a whole is very interesting and you can freely browse some digital images, of twelve colourfully illustrated pages, and try to decipher the handwritten texts it contains, here: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/ Moreover, we can learn a great deal from this particular case about the difficulties surrounding the identification of authors in the medieval period more broadly, as we will shortly see.

Within this manuscript are found the poems Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and, perhaps most well-known today – largely thanks to a popular modern-language version of the story by Simon Armitage – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.[1] Although the manuscript was physically handwritten by a scribe, and decorated by an illustrator (known as a ‘limner’ in the Middle Ages), both of whom were probably professionals hired for the task, neither of these people are likely to have been the author of the poems. However, because of similarities in dialect, style, and theme it is thought that a single author – distinct from the scribe or illustrator – was responsible for composing all four poems.

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Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness are all narrative poems concerned with moral questions and religious doctrine. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance, in which Sir Gawain, a loyal knight of King Arthur’s court, takes up the challenge of a beheading game suggested by a stranger, the Green Knight. All four poems can be interpreted as being deeply involved with discussions about Christianity, although there are many other themes and symbols at play in the poems. Stylistically, the use of alliteration and alliterative verse form links these poems, with the poet also using the ‘bob and wheel’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The bob and wheel is an ingenious poetic device; the ‘bob’ is a short line that links the ‘wheel’ (a rhyming refrain) to the main alliterative verse. If these poems were indeed written by one person, the author wrote in the late fourteenth-century in Middle English, and the dialect of the four works has been more specifically associated with the North-West Midlands.[2]

Although this poet is without a doubt a ‘great writer you should know’, what is tricky is that he (or perhaps even she) has never been fully identified. Anniina Jokinen plainly states: “Nothing conclusive is known of the author’s identity or biography.”[3] This is quite typical of many medieval authors, about whom records simply have not survived, or where they have survived, are often incomplete or ambiguous. As a result, scholars have often debated – and occasionally conjectured wildly – about the real individuals who may have written various seminal works of medieval English literature. A number of names have been put forward as the authors of the four poems found in Cotton Nero A.x, including ‘Hugo Massey’, ‘John Massey’, and ‘Richard Newton’. However, none of these proposed authors have ever been widely accepted.[4] Yet this mysterious, unsolved case of obscure authorship is not unique; we still do not know the full biographical details of many other authors of medieval literary masterpieces. We will have to be content to refer to this magnificent writer as simply the ‘Pearl-poet’ or the ‘Gawain-poet’, as he has come to be known, and let his poetry speak for itself.

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[1] Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Faber & Faber, 2009).

[2] H. N. Duggan, ‘Meter, Stanza, Vocabulary, Dialect’ in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds., (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997), pp.221-243 (at 240-242).

[3] Anniina Jokinen, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Luminarium, 28 Jan 2010, accessed 9 Aug 2013, <http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/gawainintro.htm>

[4] Malcolm Andrew, ‘Theories of Authorship’ in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds., (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997), pp.23-34 (28-31).

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