4.15. The Audience of the Gawain-Poet

The Gawain-Poet required an audience for his work.  There are two aspects to consider, visual and auditory.  From the layout of the text in the Nero A.x manuscript it seems obvious that the Gawain-Poet was concerned with the appearance of his work, it was designed to be looked at:  that is, to be read.  However, books were rare, and he must have also expected and relied upon an audience that listened to himself or someone reciting his work, either from memory or by reading aloud from a book.  There are certainly enough indications in the text that the Gawain-Poet expected a listening audience.[21]


If ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot a littel quile
I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herde,
                 With tonge.    (SGGK 30-32)

I am tent yow to telle, þof tary hyt me schulde.    (SGGK 624)

          And ȝe wyl a whyle be stylle,
          I schal telle yow how þay wroȝt.    (SGGK 1996-1997)

Wyl ȝe tary a littel tyne and tent me a whyle,
I schal wysse yow þerwyth as holy wryt telles (Patience 59-60)

Ȝif ȝe wolde tyȝt me a tom telle hit I wolde (Cleanness 1153)

  --Gawain-PoetNero A.x

In a time of a plentiful supply of books these might well have been literary devices targeted at a visual audience, but at the end of the fourteenth century this must be taken as an indication that the work was to be read or recited to an auditory audience.  We can place some constraints upon the nature of that audience.  The members of that audience must have understood the English language, they must have been familiar with, or at least in a position to accept, the dialect of the English north west, they must have been of a social position such that they would be attendant at the social events which included the recital of poetry.  The audience must also have been sufficiently large to constitute a worthwhile target for the efforts of a poet.  All these requirements would be met in a household containing esquires, military personnel, and retainers, such as any noble or royal household, and we must expect to find the Gawain-Poet attached to such a household.

James Cottrell was attached to the royal household of Portugal from 1387 onwards.  His position of Mordomo-Mór in that household was such as to ensure that he was present at all major social events.  The primary audience of James Cottrell as the Gawain-Poet must have been the royal court of Portugal, of which some at least must have been native Portuguese speakers.  However, a sizeable contingent of English men and women accompanied Philippa to Portugal on a permanent basis, and of these it is likely that there was a reasonable contingent from Cheshire and the north west amongst them.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, Philippa was a native English speaker who had spent some of her youth at Lancaster in the north west of England.  Another, and complimentary possibility is that the poems were used in the instruction of the young princes, knowing that Philippa wished them to be aware and proud of the knightly prowess of their English ancestry.

[21] Burrow [BURROW65] notes that “a littel quile” is about two and half hours, although the modern division of the text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into four fitts, based upon capitalisation in the manuscript, suggests it might have been presented as a serial, perhaps on successive nights.