Manuscripts, one of my colleagues once observed, are often like dumplings â€” plain on the outside, but delicious in the middle. Arguably the best dumpling-manuscript is the sole surviving copy of four famous Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience and Cleanness. These anonymous poems, which are almost baffling in their complexity, are masterpieces of their genres. Yet the manuscript which contains them, now known as Cotton MS Nero A X/2, is a bit of a dumpling. Itâ€™s rather plain: the scribal hand is functional and, when originally written, there was little decoration apart from a few coloured penwork initials. Some time afterwards, a cycle of images was added in the spaces between the poems; but you could not, in good conscience, call them the work of a great artist, unless your definition of â€˜great artistâ€™ includes someone with a rudimentary knowledge of perspective and a tendency to inflate the size of the human head.
The first illustration preceding Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 41r
That said, the appearance of the manuscript is not why generations of scholars have been captivated by this book. It is the linguistic finesse and metrical dexterity of the poems that makes this manuscript one of the most important in the British Libraryâ€™s medieval collections.
Pearl â€” the first item in the manuscript â€” is a poem of grief and loss, in which an anguished father searches for a lost pearl in a beautiful garden. His search reveals more than just the lost jewel. Pearl has an astoundingly complicated structure and makes use of the symbolism of numbers, or â€˜numerologyâ€™. The poem is 1,212 lines long and is composed of 12-line stanzas. This is in homage to the heavenly Jerusalem which is described in the poemâ€™s final section. The heavenly Jerusalem is 12 furlongs long, and has 12 gates, each of which are set with pearls. The stanzas are grouped into sets of five, but the fifteenth set contains an extra stanza, which brings the total number of stanzas to 101 â€” the same number of stanzas contained in Gawain.
The opening page of Pearl: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 43r
As well as veining the poem with complex numerological references, the poetâ€™s choice of rhyme schemes is also highly sophisticated. The poet uses a number of rhyme-schemes in the poem. Pearl is end-rhymed, but also contains internal, alliterative rhymes within the unit of the lines themselves. As well as this, it has a concatenating rhyme scheme, whereby each stanza-set is held together by a â€˜concatenationâ€™ word or phrase appearing at the beginning and end of each stanza. In simple terms, the first line of each section picks up and dismisses the concatenation word from the previous one â€” the final line of the poem echoes the first, and this connection between the first and last lines creates a circular, round structure â€” reflecting the poemâ€™s subject. Simon Armitage, who translated the poem into modern English in 2016, writes that this is â€˜a sort of poetic passing of the batonâ€™.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of wild landscapes, knightly deeds and sexual temptation. It begins when a Christmas feast at Camelot â€” the court of the legendary King Arthur â€” is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious green knight with green skin and green hair, riding a green horse. He challenges the assembled company to a bizarre game which sets off a chain of events culminating in a meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight in a strange, green chapel.
The mysterious Green Knight arrives at King Arthur's court: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 94v
Like Pearl, Gawain also has a complicated structure. It uses alliteration but as well as this, it uses a metrical form called the â€˜bob and wheelâ€™, where each stanza ends with a short half-line of only two syllables (the bob), followed by a mini-stanza of longer lines which rhyme internally (the wheel). The use of this complicated form over 2,500 lines of verse is a showy demonstration of the poetâ€™s skill. If writing good prose is a tightrope walk, and writing good poetry is a tightrope walk while juggling, then the Gawain-poet is tightrope walking while juggling with fire.
The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, f. 95r
The manuscript was part of the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, which in the 18th century was stored in the ominously named Ashburnham House in London. In 1731, a terrible fire ripped through the library and many of the manuscripts were lost or irreparably damaged. The fact that this manuscript, which contains the sole surviving examples of these bewitching texts, might also have been lost makes the book especially precious.
Both Pearl and Gawain feature on the British Libraryâ€™s Discovering Literature: Medieval website. On the site you can find an article on Gawain by the poet Simon Armitage, and the whole manuscript can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts.
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