4.3. Isolation of the Gawain-Poet from Other Poets in England

Perhaps one of the most difficult problems about the Gawain-Poet is the apparent lack of any significant influence from the three other great poets of his day, Gower, Chaucer and Langland.  The sophistication of his work, the knowledge of languages required, and above all the intimate acquaintance with courtly procedure insist that the Gawain-Poet had experience at a court outside the north west where he would surely be exposed to his contemporary poets and to modern thought.  This isolation from what was happening in England requires some explanation, the Gawain-Poet could not have been a “provincial” in anything other than birth and early up-bringing.  This ignorance of the poetic developments of the day was also apparently reciprocal, Gower, Chaucer and Langland do not appear to have been influenced by the Gawain-Poet, even though Langland was writing in a style close to the typical alliterative style of the north and west, and Chaucer does refer to the alliterative tradition (rum, ram, ruf), although in a somewhat slighting manner.  The question remains unanswered:  how could such a talented, sophisticated and intellectual poet be unaware of the other three great poets of his day and country, and, equally, how could they be unaware of the Gawain-Poet?  A very similar problem arises with the poets of contemporary France and the northern continent of Europe, such as Froissart (also present at the English court,) Marchaud and Deschamps.  Putter has demonstrated [PUTTER95] very convincingly that the Gawain-Poet was influenced deeply by the older French poets, particularly perhaps by the Roman de la Rose, so there was obviously no language barrier, he must have at least read French very competently.  Why was the Gawain-Poet not influenced by the modern French poets?

To assess the probability that a major English poet could be isolated so completely from his English contemporaries, is not simple.  It might be re-phrased as “what is the probability that one of the four major English poets of the period should be so placed that he was apparently as unaware of the work of the other three as they were unaware of his”.  If the Gawain-Poet was resident in England, and was well aware of courtly procedures, then this probability is obviously very small.  By moving the Gawain-Poet out of England and isolating him in Portugal we easily dispose of the problem.  We believe the question of isolation is certainly very important, and requires more serious thought than it has attracted in the past.  The isolation of James Cottrell in Portugal provides a natural and complete answer to this problem, he was isolated by distance.  The very recent work of Gower, Chaucer and Langland, much of it still under construction in 1386-1390 period, had not percolated as far as Portugal.  It was not until early in the fifteenth century that Gower's “Confessio Amantis” (completed 1392-3) was translated into Portuguese.[16]  One can explain the isolation of the Gawain-Poet from modern French poets by the continual warring between Portugal and Spain [PALENZUELA03] (which closed land routes to France), and between England and France (which restricted shipping), by the papal schism (with England insisting that Portugal recognise the Pope of Rome over Avignon,) and the necessity for all communication between England and Portugal to be forced upon the sea.[17]  Worthy of more consideration is he question of John Clerk of Whalley when we realise that James Cottrell was a member of a family whose headquarters were at Little Mitton, little more than half a mile from the walls of Whalley Abbey.  The family had another major presence at Horton, just north of Leek, exactly where McIntosh places the Nero manuscript.  One might speculate on the likelihood of at least one poetic influence from England:  perhaps John Clerk of Whalley was the poetic tutor of the Gawain-Poet, James Cottrell.  Certainly The Destruction of Troy strikes me as the work of an older man, technically very competent, but lacking the fire of youth.

[16] The original Portuguese manuscript has been lost, but a Spanish version is still extant and the introduction (incipit) to this says that the Portuguese translation was made for Robert Payn, an English man who had accompanied Philippa and had settled in Portugal as a canon of Lisbon cathedral.


Este libro es llamado confisyon del amante, el qual composo Juan Goer, natural del rreyo de Ynglaterra.  E fue tornado en lenguaje portugues por Rroberto Payna, natural del dicho reyno e canonigo de la çibdad de Lixboa

  --Escurial Library, MS g.II,19
It appears that this translation dates the first recorded appearance of English poetry in Portugal, so that it easy to understand the isolation of the Gawain-Poet from the work of Chaucer, Langland and Gower.  One might also ask who translated Gower into Portuguese?  Who better than an accomplished poet such as the Gawain-Poet? who, after 20 years in the country must have been fluent in Portuguese - but see Russell [RUSSELL61] for another view, and Buescu [BUESCU01] for a modern review of the still unresolved position of Gower's “Confessio” in the library of Dom Duarte.

[17] There was extensive trade between England and Portugal in the last decade of the fourteenth century[RUSSELL55] (p.542, footnote 4.).