3.8. Access to a Library

At some stage in his life the Gawain-Poet must have had access to a good library of both secular and religious works, certainly in his more mature days, and very likely also in his youth and formative years.  It is also important to show that any library to which a candidate had access possessed copies of the relevant works (outlined in Section 3.3.)  Since we are proposing that the Gawain-Poet was an ex-patriot, living in exile in Portugal and effectively isolated from current literature in England, it is important to demonstrate that he was living in a community which had a strong tradition of literature, and especially of poetry, and that adequate library facilities were available.  Surprisingly, it appears that this library did not hold much, or even any, of the more recent literature of England and northern France.  It would also be an advantage if we could show that he had in his youth at least the possibility of some contact with a mature poet.

The royal house of Portugal had a long history of dedication to literature, there exists a a brief lyrical poem (a cossante) attributed to King Sancho I in 1200.  His son Alphonso III had lived for 13 years in France and returned to Portugal on his accession to the throne in 1248 bringing poets with him.  The reign of Alphonso was one of intense poetic activity under his patronage, and he introduced all forms from Provence and northern France.  The Cancioneiro da Ajuda is dated to this period.  His son Dinis (reigned 1279-1325), educated by a Frenchman, Aymeric of Cahors, was himself a major poet and ordered translations of Spanish, latin and Arabic literature.  The popularity of the Arthurian cycle in Portugal throughout this period is emphasised in the article on Portuguese Literature in the Encyclopedia Britannica, I quote from the 1963 edition:


The early popularity of the matiere de Bretagne is attested … in the five songs based on Breton lais with which the Concioneiro Colocci-Brancuti opens:  the ideals of chivalry and the spirit of sentimental adventure associated with the knights of the Round Table clearly made strong appeal to the Portuguese temperament.  The Historia dos Cavaleiros da Mesa Redonda e da demanda do Santa Graall, an adaption from the French dating from the early fourteenth century is the chief relic of a considerable activity in this field …

  --Encyclpedia Britannica, 1963

After a short period of dynastic disputes, the court became once again a centre of literary culture.  João himself wrote the Livro da Montaria, a treatise on hunting, and created the position of Keeper of the Royal Archives for Fernão Lopes whilst his son Duarte, in the fifteenth century, expanded an already rich library with much ancient and contemporary literature (including Gower's Confessio Amantis.) and created the office of Cronista Maior do Reino for Fernão Lopes.[11]  Duarte also collected medieval poetry and histories, and wrote a moral treatise, Leal Conseilheiro, whilst his brother, Pedro produced a translation from the latin of Seneca's De Beneficus and other works by Cicero and Vegetius.  Henrique studied all the geographical information then available, and established chairs of theology in the University of Lisbon.

In this environment, with this long tradition of literature, and with access to such libraries, it is hardly surprising that James Cottrell was able to produce the major works of poetry in the Nero A.x manuscript.  Nor is it surprising that he not influenced by contemporary English and French poets.

In his youth, perhaps at the main family residence at Whalley, with a member of his family in holy orders at the abbey it is not unlikely that he had access to the abbey library, which is known to have housed one of the two surviving copies of Higden's Polychronicon.  Also, the Princeton copy of the The Siege of Jeruselem which came from the Petre family of Dunkenhalgh near Whalley [TURPET88] may well have been a survivor of the abbey library.  The only surviving copy of Beowulf, which was preserved by Lawrence Nowell of Read near Whalley may also have come from the abbey.  John Lyndelay, abbot of Whalley 1342-1377 was most noted for his scholarship and writing (The Coucher Book of Whalley and De Statu Blagborneshire.)[12]  It does seem highly likely that the library at Whalley must have held copies of alliterative poetry, and James Cottrell would have met the author, “Iohn Clerk de Whalale”, of The Destruction of Troy, who was probably a clerk at the abbey and resident in Whalley close to the family home.

[11] Robert Southey called Fernão Lopes (1380-1460) “beyond comparison the best chronicler of any age or nation”.

[12] Whitaker [WHITAKER72] refers to “the accurate and industrious Lyndelay” (p.96), but the abbey accounts in 1355, following the Visitation by the abbott of Rievaulx showed a “Debito de claro [of] DCCxvl. iijs. ivd.” from which Whitaker deduces (p.97) “… that abbott Lyndlay was more of a scholar than either a disciplinarian or economist”.