3.3. The Education of the Gawain-Poet

The Gawain-Poet was an educated man.  In summary, he was obviously fluent in latin, very familiar with the Vulgate bible (Newhauser [NEWHAUSER97], pp.272-275, gives a formidable list of sources,) with the Roman de la Rose, [PUTTER95] with classical history and the founding of Britain, with Arthurian legend, almost certainly with Dante, and very possibly also with Boccaccio.  But this summary does not do anything like full justice to the depth of reading experience that is shown in the work of the Nero A.x.  Elizabeth Brewer [BREWER92] has documented the debt of the Gawain-Poet to celtic legend and the early medieval French poets.  Although it is by no means easy to distinguish between sources with which the Gawain-Poet may have been familiar, and parallels or analogues which might have arisen within a more general cultural environment, the familiarity of the Gawain-Poet with older French poetry cannot be disputed.  Putter [PUTTER95] has explored in great detail the debt of the Gawain-Poet to early French Arthurian romance from Chrétien de Troyes onwards.  Despite his familiarity with Arthurian romance, the Gawain-Poet treats his subject matter in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a very different manner to that of Jean le Meun, and shows himself to be a poet of his age, far more concerned with personal trawþe then with heroic deeds.  Unlike Chaucer, who treated Arthurian subject matter in cavalier fashion, relegating it all to the land of faery, the Gawain-Poet imposed his more modern thought on the old framework.  Very surprisingly, despite his modern thought and concerns, and despite his obvious learning and familiarity with older literature, the Gawain-Poet shows no evidence of any familiarity with the modern English and French poets – but see Section 4.3.  His educational background is a requirement of the highest importance, and also of very low probability:  only a very small fraction of the population of the north west of England could have been educated to this level in the fourteenth century.  There are also indications that the Gawain-poet was familar with “Mandeville's Travels” (the insular version in French), the “Roman de la Rose” by Jean de Meun of Clopyngel (“Cleanness”, 1057 “For Clopyngnel in þe compas of his clene Rose”), a wide general background of French Arthurian literature, including Chrétien de Troye's “Eric et Enide”, the first continuation of Chrétien's “Percival”, “Wace's Brut” (a translation and popularisation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin “History of the Kings of England”,) Dante's “Divina Comedia”, especially “Purgatorio” and even Boccaccio's “Olympia” although that is not known to have been available in England at that time.  There is also some internal evidence (some of it controversial or speculative) that the Gawain-poet was familiar with Virgil (“Patience”, 129-68), Cato's “Distichs” , Ovid's “Metamorphoses”, Avitus of Vienne (“De Diluvio Mundi” ), the anonymous “Carmen de Sodoma”, Aristotelian economics and other classical literature.

We have no direct evidence for the education received by James Cottrell, but we do know that he was a tutor to the royal princes in Portugal, entrusted with implanting in them the history and the knightly traditions of Philippa's ancestors, her father John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and her grandfather Henry de Grosmont, first Duke of Lancaster.  From his role in the education of the royal princes we must infer that he was a man of some learning.  His youth was presumably spent at the family residence in the neighbourhood of Whalley Abbey, and a close relative of his was a monk in the abbey [WHITAKER72].  Under these conditions it would not be surprising if a bookishly inclined youth obtained some education at Whalley Abbey.  If he spent the years between the expeditions to Portugal in 1381 and 1386 at the Savoy, the London home of John of Gaunt, there would have been further opportunity for learning.  However, all this, however reasonable and likely, is only a “might have been”.  What we can demonstrate is that he effectively did go into exile in 1386, isolated from the latest literary trends in England and northern France, but with access to a good library of older works Section 3.8.  Finally, his last patron, the Infante Dom Henrique, was dedicated in his study of biblical and theological affairs, with a special interest in liturgy, “In official documents he was never at a loss to quote the Bible” [RUSSELL01] (p.20-21), established a chair in theology and became Protector of the University of Lisbon.