The Identity of the Gawain-Poet

Ron Catterall

Legal Notice

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. James Cottrell and the Gawain-Poet
3. A Template for the Candidate
3.1. The Dates of the Nero A.x Manuscript and the Gawain-Poet
3.2. The Dialect of the Poems and of the Gawain-Poet
3.3. The Education of the Gawain-Poet
3.4. The Use and Symbolism of the Pentangle
3.5. The Familiarity of the Gawain-Poet with Life and Customs at Court
3.6. The Familiarity and Expertise of the Gawain-Poet in the Detail of the Hunt
3.7. The Death of a Young girl
3.8. Access to a Library
3.9. The Legal Knowledge of the Gawain-Poet
3.10. The Bustle of Departure at a Port, the Rigging of Ships and a Storm at Sea
3.11. Conformance of James Cottrell with the Template for the Gawain-Poet
4. Other Supportive Evidence for the Candidate
4.1. Ordered Abroad by his Liege Lord
4.2. The Ring and Girdle Scenario
4.3. Isolation of the Gawain-Poet from Other Poets in England
4.4. Clerical or Secular?
4.5. The Fiend of the Green Chapel
4.6. Stanleys, Chethams, Booths and Dunham Massey
4.7. The Couplet in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
4.8. Poverty in the Life of the Gawain-Poet
4.9. The Order of the Garter
4.10. The Servaunt of a Soverayn
4.11. Moral Conflict
4.12. Water:  Limestone and Gritstone
4.13. The Nero A.x Manuscript in England
4.14. The Authorship of St. Erkenwald
4.15. The Audience of the Gawain-Poet
4.16. Why Green?
4.17. The Arms of Sir Gawain and James Cottrell
4.18. Family at Court
4.19. Patience
4.20. Holly and Peace
4.21. Obedience
4.22. Dublin 1500
4.23. The Use of Sarum
5. Dating of the Poems
6. Conclusions
7. Acknowledgements
Appendix A. A Simple Set Theory Approach
Appendix B. The Manuscript of Salvador Soares Cotrim, 1724
B.1. The Manuscript
B.2. Royal Household in Lisbon
B.3. “Mordomo-Mór” and “Monteiro-Mór
B.4. The Arms Assumed by James Cottrell in Portugal
B.5. Tomar:  the Knights Templar and the Order of Christ
B.6. James Cottrell's Retirement as Jaime Cotrim, Senhor da Quinta do Souto de Eyreira (Paio Mendes).
B.7. Locations of Tomar, Dornes and Eyreira
Appendix C. The Dunham Massey Estate and the Cottrells of Cheshire
C.1. Chantrell of Bache
C.2. The Dunham Massey Estate
C.3. The Manuscripts of St. Erkenwald and The Destruction of Troy
Appendix D. Arms and Pentangles
D.1. Three Mascles and the Pentangle
D.2. Arms Assumed by James Cottrell in Portugal
D.3. The Pentangle at the Order of Christ at Tomar
D.4. The Arms of Assheton of Downham


A method for the identification of the Gawain-Poet based upon multiple elements of the text is proposed, and we identify a candidate (James Cottrell) who satisfies almost all the criteria.  A template of 10 requirements is proposed that a candidate must fulfil, and we find historical evidence that James Cottrell fulfils 9 of these requirements, with odds of at least 85 to 1 against this being a set of multiple coincidences.  We detail another 23 points of additional evidence from concordances between the text and the life of James Cottrell.  We consider only criteria for which we have definite historical evidence, rather than speculative possibilities.  Almost all the evidence accumulated is necessarily circumstantial to the identification, and individually many of the points might not inspire great confidence.  Taken collectively, the candidate's conformance to the 10 requirements, reinforced by an additional 23 parallels between the text and his life, generates a very high confidence level (about 981 to 1 against these all being simultaneous fortuitous or chance occurrences.)  No amount of circumstantial evidence can constitute direct proof, but we conclude it is beyond reasonable doubt that James Cottrell who accompanied Philippa of Lancaster to Portugal in 1386 as Mordomo-Mór (majordomo) of the royal household was the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other poems of the Nero A.x Art.3 manuscript in the British Library.  From events in the life of James Cottrell we arrive at a close dating of Pearl (1388-1390) and a more tentative dating of the other poems.

1. Introduction

Putter summarises the known facts about the authorship of the poems in the Nero A.x manuscript:


… somewhere in England, towards the end of the fourteenth century, an unknown Englishman wrote four poems in a north west midlands dialect.

  --Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet” [PUTTER96] p. 3

The end of the fourteenth century and the dialect are certainly reasonable inferences derived from the Nero A.x manuscript.  It also seems very reasonable to infer that the poet was an Englishman (the dialect in Nero A.x is certainly convincingly idiomatic,) but where is the evidence that the poet wrote somewhere in England?  The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence external to Nero A.x pointing to the identity of the Gawain-Poet.

The Nero A.x manuscript itself, in the British Library, contains only the four poems commonly referred to as Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The manuscript is thought to be a copy, but there is some evidence in the foliation that the poems have always been bound together in this order.  The manuscript has been dated on somewhat slender grounds to about 1400,[1] and the scribe has been localised as coming from the region of south east Cheshire, south west Derbyshire and north west Staffordshire [MCINTOSH86], an area centred roughly around Holmes Chapel in Cheshire to Leek in Staffordshire.  Internal evidence suggests strongly that the poems were composed no earlier than the closing decades of the fourteenth century, and a date of around 1390 is perhaps most generally accepted. The poems were first published in the nineteenth century [MADDEN39] [MORRIS69] and have since been recognised as of great literary merit.  Despite their significance, the authorship of this work remains in very considerable doubt, and most would agree that the only acceptable name for the Gawain-Poet to date is “anonymous”.  As far as dating and location are concerned, all we can say is that the manuscript was prepared by a scribe whose style was that of the Leek area somewhere around 1400.  It is, however, perfectly clear from the text that the native dialect of the author was that of the north west, with considerable influence from Old Norse.  Dating estimates cannot be precise, and error limits of ±10 years are probably the most optimistic we can apply.

It is almost generally accepted on literary grounds that a single poet was responsible for all the poems, but there is no hard evidence for this.  A large part of the evidence for authorship presented in this work comes from the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but we have not hesitated to draw on evidence from the other poems, particularly Pearl, when this seems appropriate.  Although we concur with the general opinion that a single poet produced all the poems in the Nero A.x manuscript, we are confident that withdrawing evidence from the other poems does not weaken the argument for attribution unduly.  Indeed, one could reverse the argument and use evidence from the other poems to increase confidence in common authorship.

There have been many earlier efforts to identify the Gawain-Poet but we must confess to a strong disposition to agree wholeheartedly with Pearsall and Putter that


[these] attributions are based on such naive and improbable assumptions concerning what constitutes evidence as to bring the study of attribution into disrepute.

  --Derek A. Pearsall, The Alliterative Revival: Origins and Social Backgrounds”, [PEARSALL82] p. 52



… it depends on straining eyesight (and perhaps one's credulity) in order to see an anagram of the poet's name in selected words from Pearl [PETERSON74a], or a signature in the doodles underneath an ornamental letter in the manuscript [VANTUONO75].

  --Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet”, [PUTTER96] p. 2

In any attempt to identify the Gawain-Poet it is important to distinguish between direct and circumstantial evidence.  In the absence of any documentary evidence external to the Nero A.x manuscript, it has generally been assumed that any evidence derived from the content of the manuscript can be thought of as direct evidence.  For example, Greenwood [GREENWOOD56] and Kooper [KOOPER82] noted that line 106 in the published editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is line 101 in the manuscript (the “bob” lines are written in the right margin rather than occupying a line by themselves,) and that the roman numeral ci represents the arabic 101.  This line contains the word mas and hence the name of the Gawain-Poet can be identified with Masci, the name of a prominent Cheshire family at that time.  Following up on this name, Vantuono [VANTUONO75] [VANTUONO81] claimed to recognise the name J. Mascy in marginal material of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (folio 114) and beneath an illuminated letter in Cleanness (folio 62v), and the name Macy at the bottom of a folio in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (but see the comment of Putter above).  Next it is important to identify the name with an historical character.  There is documentary evidence that a John de Mascy was rector of Ashton on Mersey from 1364 to 1401.  A John de Mascy of Sale (presumably the same man;  the church at Ashton on Mersey is little more than a half a mile from the centre of Sale) is recorded as a priest and a civil servant between 1377 and 1389.  So it was proposed that a member of the Mascy family of Cheshire (and probably John) was the Gawain-Poet.  Finally we need to compare aspects of the candidate's life with the subject matter of the Nero A.x manuscript.  Any correspondences we find constitute useful circumstantial evidence supporting the identification of the Gawain-Poet.  This leads us to a distinction between the differing qualities of circumstantial evidences:  those for which we have direct evidence, and those which we might infer as possible or probable.  Thus we might infer from his position as priest that it was perhaps even probable that John de Mascy was both literate and familiar with the Vulgate bible, although many local priests at that time had only a very minimal education.  We might also infer it was at least possible that he might have been familiar with the ritualistic detail of the hunt through his possible connections with local nobility.  Such inferences must carry far less weight than if we could produce (which we can't) documentary evidence that Mascy was a university graduate and had been appointed as chief huntsman to some local noble.  If we might misquote T. S. Eliot out of context, it is the difference between what might have been and what has been.

The identification process thus starts from an element of direct evidence for a name in the text, and we next proceed to an identification of the name with an historical person (an imaginative jump.)  Finally we support the identification by linking passages in the Nero A.x manuscript to events or experiences in the life of the historical person for which we should have direct evidence - for a poet can only write about happenings within his own experience.


"The Ricardian poet deals in happenings - happenings which he has experienced or dreamt or read or learned about, or simply happenings.

  --J A BurrowRicardian Poetry” p.47

It is this linking process which can provide good, convincing circumstantial evidence (but not direct evidence) for an identification of an historical person with the Gawain-Poet.  We should be clear that although we require direct evidence (i.e. external to Nero A.x manuscript) about the life of a candidate, the link to the poems is still only circumstantial evidence.  Ideally of course the evidence and the life of the historical person should also lead us to new locations to search for new direct evidence.

We follow this procedure and first find a name embedded in the text, and then identify this name with an historically documented person.  We then compare events and experiences in the life of this candidate with the subject matter of the poems.  When we find a correspondence between his life and the Nero A.x manuscript we are faced with the decision between a coincidence and a significant parallel.  We can only build upon an accumulation of these correspondences to achieve confidence.  A single coincidence might be a chance occurrence and carries little weight, but two related coincidences are a surprise.  When we encounter three coincidences we start to think more seriously that these are not coincidences or chance events at all, and when we encounter many multiple coincidences we are sure we see design behind them.  It is on this basis that we proceed to an identification of the Gawain-Poet.  A more formal presentation of the procedure is given in Appendix A.

All quotations from the poems of the Nero A.x manuscript are taken from the edition published by Andrew and Waldron in 2002 [ANDREW02].

[1] Wright suggested the last quarter of the fourteenth century [WRIGHT60] whilst Doyle [DOYLE82] dated it to the last half of the fourteenth century.  Somewhat later Horrall [HORRALL86] suggested the manuscript might have been produced in the early fifteenth century based on detail in the illustrations.  Cooke suggested an earlier date, 1330-1360 [COOKE89] which was later refined to sometime after 1355 [COOKE99] based on a re-evaluation of the depiction and description of armour in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [LACY97].  A similarity in the subject matter of the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Wynnnere and Wastoure has been noted (both refer to the fabled origin of Britain with Brutus, and the treason resulting in the fall of Troy) and Hulbert [HULBERT20] suggested that the author of Wynnnere and Wastoure was indebted to the Gawain-Poet.  Trigg [TRIGG90] has suggested that Wynnnere and Wastoure might have been as late as 1370, possibly favouring the earlier date for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but I find the argument speculative at best.  Overall a date of 1400±10 seems the most reasonable estimate of the date of the production of the manuscript.  Unfortunately the hand of the scribe has not been found in any other manuscript, which would have helped in dating.