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  • The Pearl-Poet Manuscript in York
  • Joel Fredell

One of the greatest manuscript treasures for medieval literature is the British Library’s MS Cotton Nero A.x, which contains four poems we now ascribe to one poet: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness. We have learned surprisingly little about this manuscript over the years, despite the importance of dating and provenance to arguments about Gawain and Pearl—and to the construction of a Gawain-poet or a Pearl-poet to supply an authorial identity otherwise missing. For many years the assumed provenance of the manuscript has been “northern” or “northwest Midlands,” and latterly associated with Cheshire.1 However, a substantial body of evidence argues that Cotton Nero A.x as we now have it was produced, at least partially and possibly in toto, in York in the early fifteenth century. This evidence offers no new conclusions about the poet, but it does suggest new possibilities, and reveals how little effort has been directed to understanding the object we have, the single witness to some of the most important poems in the canons of literature. Our attempts to recover an underlying poet-genius and that poet’s ur-text may not be quixotic goals, but understanding Cotton Nero A.x must come first. [End Page 1]

At the outset we should recover the manuscript from generations of speculation about the poet’s origins and patronage. Much about these poems that has long and confidently been claimed to be Ricardian—that is, a cultural manifestation of the court of Richard II of England—and much about them that has long and confidently been claimed to be Cheshire-based, must be reconsidered in light of the actual object we have. Among the features of Cotton Nero A.x with reasonably secure dating are the illustrations, placed some decades ago by A. I. Doyle in the first two decades of the fifteenth century.2 However we date the ur-poems themselves, or even the poems we have in Cotton Nero A.x, which were no doubt produced separately from the illustrations, we must consider a Henrician Cotton Nero A.x—that is, from the reign of Henry IV. Audience response to the manuscript cannot, of course, be associated directly with the author’s composition of the poems. Nonetheless, the context for the manuscript may well be a factor in the production of the object that we have, undoubtedly part of the only evidence we have at hand for interpretation, and a clue in a long-standing puzzle: why the obscurity that veiled these poetic masterpieces after the cultural moment of Cotton Nero A.x?

I. The Cheshire Hypothesis

A long tradition has argued for the composition in Cheshire of the poems in Cotton Nero A.x, given some dialect features surviving in our sole witness and various internal references in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that could be mapped onto a peninsula in Cheshire. These internal references describe Gawain’s journey by means of a series of specific locations through north Wales that end at the Wirral.3 In that area Gawain asks to be directed to the Green Chapel, but the locals “nikked him with nay” in response (706). Gawain then goes on through a series of wilderness trials that could bring him to the Dales of the north, but more often scholars identify the Green Knight’s landscape with the Peak District, which spreads across Staffordshire, Derbyshire, and southern [End Page 2] Yorkshire (713–39).4 The Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (LALME) seems to support this tradition by locating Cotton Nero A.x’s dialect in southeastern Cheshire, near the borders of Derbyshire and Staffordshire.5 Its location for the manuscript thus suggests a region well away from the Wirral and closer to the Peak District; this rugged region, then, could as easily be of interest to a poet working somewhere in the cluster of population centers and great houses on the other side of the Peak District: that is, on the eastern side of the Pennines.

However, the initial problem with this approach to the origins of all four poems in Cotton Nero...


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