Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Michael Smith

A new and handsomely illustrated translation of the Arthurian mediaeval masterpiece.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written in York?

In my introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I stated that the unknown Gawain-poet was "most likely a north-westerner"; a view consistently held by scholars for many years. The locations for the story, the use of the North-west Midlands dialect and a strong sense of either Ricardian or Henrican courtly regionalism all support this view. However, in recent years, new studies have emerged to challenge these long-held views, tentatively suggesting that York and Yorkshire are the home of the poet.

In an article by Joel Fredell, it has been argued that a Cheshire origin to the manuscript is hampered by three key facts. There is a paucity of Cheshire texts - a "book" producing literary hinterland - from the period; new discoveries in dialect interpretation suggest an inconclusive Cheshire "voice"; and that the Ricardian connection is weak: Richard II spending much of his time between 1389 and 1397 devoting time to York and Leicester rather than in Cheshire. Evidence of Richard's interest in Cheshire "is sparse indeed", asserts Fredell. Can this be true?

York - a natural home

Instead of the romance being a product of the north west directly, Fredell argues that York, as England's then second city, was a more natural home for the Gawain text (one of four poetic works comprising the manuscript catalogued as Cotton Nero A.x in the British Library). The suggestion too is that the work dates from shortly after the death of Richard; it is an Henrican text, written at a time of national reconciliation following Henry's usurping of crown in 1400 and Richard's demise at Pontefract. 

(Above - while the hairstyles are Ricardian, some custume treatment are Henrican)

It is argued that, even if the complete manuscript had been written in the 1390s as is often surmised, those times were not condusive to the work's successful incarnation. The illustrations/illuminations themselves can be adjudged Henrican; by 1403 loyalty to Richard had faded after the battle of Shrewsbury, creating a different political habitat for the growth of new works.

It is suggested rather that the appropriate environment for the creation of a manuscript of the quality and magnate culture contained within Gawain (in addition to Pearl, Cleanness and Patience) required true political stability. A post-Ricardian time.

Such an analysis is partially supported too by issues of provenance. The manuscript we know today was found in Yorkshire; acquired by Robert Cotton and originating in the collection of Henry Savile of Banke, near Hailfax. Henry is thought to have acquired the manuscript from his father, who in turn acquired from Henry's grandfather.

Before this, nothing is known of its provenance except for a tantalising connection: there was another branch of the Savile family, based near Wakefield which, in earlier times, had strong links to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of Henry IV. 

The "York School"

This potential Yorkshire provenance for the manuscript draws the reader towards an actual Yorkshire origin too. Fredell's argument appears to focus on York itself rather than a Yorkshire school, so it is probably more helpful that we view the concept of a "York style" as being broader in range than just the city itself. Indeed the region itself - that governed by the diocese - extended as far south as the Humber, west to the Pennines and north to the Tees.

The York school in this period had developed a distinctive style, with works such as the Bolton Hours being indicative of the quality and style. In the writing of comparable manuscripts from the York school can be seen similarities with the Gawain manuscript - both in terms of the flourishes to the capitals and various scribal techniques within the text.

The illuminations in MS Harley 1808 (one part of which is known to originate in York and features an illustration of the city) also reveal remarkable illustrative similarities with A.x, in particular the green colour palette, the treatment of the water and the somewhat childlike human renderings.

(Above: MS Harley 1808  showing York (left); Pearl (centre) and Gawain (right) from Cotton Nero A.x) 

There is also strong evidence which shows schools of scribes and limners serving a vibrant industry in York, possibly acting as a regional centre for writers from elsewhere seeking specialist skills. Quite possibly, Robert Thornton - he of the Alliterative Morte Arthure and others - knew and employed the school in his work.

So if Gawain did indeed originate in York - or the "York school" - and was enjoyed in one or more Yorkshire households, what lay behind its creation here?

Politics

When I was working on the translation of Gawain, I was struck in particular by a political undercurrent - especially that suggested by Gawain's journey through North Wales and a possible parallel with Richard's demise, the notion of eternal monarchy and the role of the non-dead Green knight.

(Above: detail from the Wilton Diptych)

Fredell suggests that the Gawain manuscript as a whole deals with the issues of "loss of perfection and the willingness to return to the fallen world despite the shame [...] of individual sin". When Gawain returns to Camelot - when Henry returns as King - he must negotiate his position with honour in order to survive.

Certainly, it was during this period that many garter knights of Yorkshire and the north country met their deaths, including major leaders such as Thomas Percy (at Shrewsbury) and Archbishop Richard Scrope (executed at York, 1405). The old order was swept away; a new monarchy was asserting istself. Fredell argues that the collected poems of Cotton Nero A.x "can be read as a brilliant plea for obedience and orthodoxy, a rejection of 'mal pense', or wrong thinking".

The suggestion is that it is this plea - delivered at a very distinctive time in history - which is also responsible for the manuscript's disappearance from view: once the crisis was over, there was no need for the texts. Obscurity beckoned for this exquisite masterpiece.

Questions

But if the work was an apologia for wicked deeds or a reflection on poltical events, as I suggested in the introduction to my translation, it still draws from a key period in history whose defining acts were played out in Wales and the north west. Richard, the "Cheshire" king is taken at Fflint by Bolingbroke, the "Lancashire" usurper to end his days starving to death at Pontefract in February 1400.  This draws us to ask, who was the patron - if not the writer - of this subversive romance;did he (or they) come from the north west?

Fredell points us towards other research highlighting a few candidates, depending on the date of authorship. Sir John Stanley and John Macclesfield were both with Richard in York in the 1390s. Thomas Langley, from the northern border of Cheshire and his "close working partner" a Sir James Strangeways (from Cheshire with a Yorkshire holding) were both in York when the manuscript was illustrated in the early 1400s.

Langley's extensive experience of the court - a key element of the exquisite descriptions given within Gawain - certainly indicates the type of person we need to look for in seeking a candidate, even if he himself is not the right candidate. Figures such as William Gascoigne, steward of Pontefract Castle or Ralph Neville himself, from nearby Sheriff Hutton are also possibiities, placing us in suitable lordly homes of great magnificence.

If we accept that Gawain is some form of semi-political romance whose time came and went within a few short years, we must accept that it was written by someone with knowledge of high court life; in this instance, there is most likely a strong personal connection with Cheshire and the north west. The poem's craft of nuance, skill and wordplay teases us to think of it as a private, subversive read or, tantalisingly, to considerate it as a piece for aural performance for those "in the know" about events at a very high level. 

What doesn't change in Gawain is the geography, the courtliness and those two mysterious parallel worlds. This is story born from the north west and the key players within it; it mirrors a period of monarchical instability and it challenges the audience to choose between conflicting heroes.

If indeed Gawain was assembled - possibly written - in Yorkshire in a time of self reflection, its heart and soul lay just across the Green Knight's rocky Pennine lair in Lancashire and Cheshire; a red rose of Lancaster perhaps, dripping with penitent blood. 

 

 

Michael Smith

Translator and Printmaker

 

PS. Support my next translation of a mediaeval masterpiece! I hope to provide more updates on the history and writing behind Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the coming months. In the meantime, if you've not yet done so and you'd like to support my next project, an illustrated translation of the Middle English alliterative romance of William and the Werewolf (also known as the romance of William of Palerne, King's College MS 13, dating from c.1350-61) please do support it here. As with my other translations, your name will appear in the back as one of its special literary patrons!

  

 

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