Middle English Alliterative Poetry:
The Gawain-Poet

The 'Gawain-Poet' is the name generally assigned to the anonymous author of 4 poems in the Cotton Nero MS Nero A.x at the British Museum.  The poems were written in the alliterative style of Old English towards the end of the 14th. century, probaly around 1390. The Cotton MS is the only surviving MS and this copy was made about 1400.  The text appears to be a close copy of the original with few changes, but the illustrations are of much lower quality, suggesting they were added at a later time.  The dialect used in the poems is clearly that of north western England, and is very different to that used by the Gawain-Poet's contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer.

The four poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience and Cleanness are clearly the product of an extremely competent and mature poetic genius, and Sir Gawain (at least) is a recognized element of all English Literatures courses world-wide.

The texts presented here are the best currently available, and are indexed by line and (where apprpriate) by section, stanza, and page of the definitive edition.  The electronic texts are taken from those made available by the Universities of Toronto and Michigan, and my contribution has been restricted to the indexing.  Specific references to the source is given with each poem.

If you read Chaucer in the original, you will find this very different.  Many dialect words are used, and it has been estimated that about 10% of the text is derived from the Old Norse which arrived with Viking settlers in the north west of England.

The manuscipt, first known in the Library of Sir Henry Saville of bank in west Yorshire in the early 16th. century, only came to light in the early 19th. century.  It was first edited and printed in 1839 with further editions in 1864 and 1869.  The most significant edition (of the last of the poems, Sir gawain) was the edirion by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V.Gordon in 1925, with later revisions and a second edition edited by Norman Davis in 1967.  Tolkien's text is still recognized as the definitive version.  Gordon later produced the definitive transcription of Pearl in 1953.

For those interested in the original MS, here is a facsimile of the first page of Sir Gawain (actually numbered p. 91 in the MS,) the transcription published by Tolkien and Gordon, and a copy the best preserved of the illustrations to Sir Gawain.

The 'Destruction of Troy' is not only the longest surviving alliterative poem from this period, it is also known to have been wriiten by John Clerk or (perhaps more likely) by John, clerk of Whalley, Lancashire.  This is a big file and will take about 10 minutes to download via a modem connection.

A word of warning:  the poems are long and take some time to download, but will appear progressively as the download proceeds. Gawain, the longest, is likely to take about 2 minutes.  The links to jump to Pages, Stanzas and Lines will only work after the download is complete.  If you set your browser buffer correctly, the download is only done once.

The charcter 'thorn' ( þ - roughly 'th' in modern English) is not reproduced well by Internet Explorer or Netscape, it appears small and with a following space.  Safari on the Mac displays it correctly.  The character 'yogh' ( 3 ) appears correctly, but its pronunciation depends upon its position relative to other characters.  Other characters have pronunciations close to modern english.