Archives for posts with tag: Pearl Poet

It happened again. The Tuesday before last was a cold winter day and as the bus started moving I heard a familiar rolling sound. It stopped between my feet: the pearl.

pearl 2

It’s become a little running joke with myself that whenever I see a lost fake pearl earring I think of the poem Pearl. It’s like it’s telling me it’s time to read Pearl again – one part serendipity, one part superstition.

Pearl is a medieval narrative poem thought to be written by the same unknown poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness. For this reason scholars often call this poet the “Pearl poet” or the “Gawain poet.” All four of the poems attributed to the Pearl poet are written in the same Northern dialect of Middle English, so you get some interesting Old Norse-sounding words like burne and tulk[1] which may at first seem foreign to Chaucer readers.

It’s a dream vision poem – a popular genre, particularly in 13th and 14th century England and France. Other examples of the dream vision poem are Roman de la Rose (a sort of medieval version of A Christmas Carol except with sex), Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and, of course, Piers Plowman.

Pearl deals with the grief we suffer from personal loss. The troubled narrator (described as a joyless jeweler) doesn’t say specifically what kind of loss he’s suffered – but it seems to point to the loss of a child. In any case, he’s very distraught. He compares his loss to a pearl, one that – literally, figuratively, or both – slipped from his hand[2] and rolled into a garden. The narrator has no hope of ever recovering his precious pearl in the physical world.

A “Pearl maiden” character appears and guides the narrator through the dream vision and “treats” him in a way very similar to that of Lady Philosophy from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, however, the “treatment” administered by the Pearl maiden is that of Christian doctrine.

Aside from the rhyme scheme, the frequent use of alliterative verse, and stanza linking, an aspect of the poem I most appreciate is how the Pearl poet contrasts material objects and worldly desires with higher thoughts and places and uses imagery of cleanness, perfection, and roundness in every stanza in a natural way that never seems tedious or forced.

You’d think that after the 25th “spotless” or “round” we’d want to pull our hair out, but he – and I’m really sorry to do this to you – keeps the ball rolling – especially by using alliteration. Check out most especially 945-948 (just read it, even if you’re not used to Middle English – there’s a verse translation in Modern English below to help you get the gist of it):

“The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake / Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote / And as Hys flok is wythouten flake / So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” It’s a beautiful poem and even if it doesn’t touch you spiritually in any way, its masterful constructed and flows like water. I leave you with a passage[3] from Pearl and a detail of the passage on its manuscript.

Here’s where the dreamer “sees” Jerusalem:

“Thys moteles meyny thou cones of mele,
Of thousandes thryght, so gret a route –
A gret ceté, for ye arn fele,
Yow byhod have wythouten doute.
So cumly a pakke of joly juele
Wer evel don schulde lyy theroute;
And by thyse bonkes ther I con gele
I se no bygyng nawhere aboute.
I trowe alone ye lenge and loute
To loke on the glory of thys gracious gote.
If thou has other bygynges stoute,
Now tech me to that myry mote.””That mote thou menes in Judy londe,”
That specyal spyce then to me spakk.
“That is the cyté that the Lombe con fonde
To soffer inne sor for manes sake.
The olde Jerusalem, to understonde,
For there the olde gulte was don to slake.
Bot the nwe that lyght, of Godes sonde,
The apostel in Apocalyppce in theme con take.
The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake
Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote,
And as Hys flok is wythouten flake,
So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” (ll. 925-48)[4]
“These holy virgins in radiant guise,
By thousands thronged in processional –
That city must be of uncommon size
That keeps you together, one and all.
It were not fit such jewels of price
Should lie unsheltered by roof or wall,
Yet where these river-banks arise
I see no building large or small.
Beside this stream celestial
You linger alone, none else in sight;
If you have another house or hall,
Show me that dwelling wholly bright”That wholly blissful, that spice heaven-sent,
Declared, “In Judea’s fair demesne
The city lies, where the Lamb once went
To suffer for man death’s anguish keen.
The old Jerusalem by that is meant,
For there the old guilt was canceled clean,
But the new, in vision prescient,
John saw sent down from God pristine.
The spotless Lamb of gracious mien
Has carried us all to that fair site,
And as in his flock no fleck is seen,
His hallowed halls are wholly bright.” (ll.925-48)[5]

Here’s how the passage appears in the Manuscript Cotton Nero A.x. (art.3)[6]:

pearl 925-936 cotton nero

Lines 925-936 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 051 verso (image source)

pearl 937-948 cotton nero

Lines 937-948 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 052 recto (image source)

[1] Burne and tulk (man/knight) appear in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. James Winny (Ontario, 1992).

[2] Reminds me of that last verse from the Cure song “A Letter to Elise” where the narrator says, “And every time I try to pick it up like falling sand / As fast as I pick it up it runs away through my clutching hands / But there’s nothing else I can really do / There’s nothing else I can really do at all.” The character in this song may need consolation from the Pearl poet after he posts his letter – unless, of course, he and Elise do this all the time.

[3] The Middle English version presented here has modernized spelling so you won’t find any thorns and yoghs. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming “diplomatic” transcription of Pearl edited by Murray McGillivray and Jenna Stook from The Cotton Nero A.x. Project (currently under scholarly review for publication). They are also working on a version of Cleanness (edited by Kenna L. Olsen) as well as Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Murray McGillivray). For more information, check out: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~scriptor/cotton/publications.html

[4] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) available online

[5] Pearl in Modern English translation from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: verse translations, trans. Marie Borroff (New York, 2001).

[6] British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) is the only known manuscript of Pearl – it also contains Cleanness, Patience (or Job), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All four poems are thought to have been written by the same unknown poet.

Ok, I’m going to try to make it through this post about descriptions of eunuchs in medieval poetry without consulting Chaucer. He’s dying to share his freshest double-entendres with us about these gentle natured folk, but we should let some other poets have their turn at first crack for this cliché.

In the 14th century dream vision poem Pearl, the poet has the dreamer use the words “meek and mild” to describe the Pearl maiden:

Moteles may, so meke and mylde[1] Moteless maiden so meek and mild[2]

nightingale

Medieval poets often used the words “meek and mild” to describe the Virgin Mary and pious women in general in religious poems to the point of cliché. Here’s an example from The Thrush and the Nightingale, a late 13th century debate poem where two birds argue over the reputation of women. The thrush attacks women while the nightingale defends them:

O fowel, thi mouth the haueth ishend

Thour wam wel at this world iwend,

Of a maide meke and milde

Of hire sprong that holi bern

That boren wes in Bedlehem[3]

Your words have now confounded you!

Through whom was all this world made new?

A maiden meek and mild

Who bore in Bethlehem a Son.

I was amused the other day to see the words “meek and mild” used for comedic purpose to describe eunuchs in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. The Metrical Paraphrase is an entertaining 14th century text that has all sorts of amusing asides that we associate with good medieval storytelling. I like imagining English court audiences feasting on encores of these lively versions of classic Bible Stories. Was it the only version of the Bible available in the vernacular? If it was, they sure were lucky!

We tend to think that the dark ages were darker than they actually were and that everyone – save those at the top of the church and select nobles – knew next to nothing about the Bible besides, say, bits of the nativity, Noah’s Flood, and the crucifixion before the Wycliffe Bible went into circulation. Well, they did have The Metrical Paraphrase. Now, I wouldn’t call The Metrical Paraphrase a scholarly translation of the Old Testament, but it is certainly a translation in the sense that most medieval “translations” are more akin to what we would call a retelling. The Metrical Paraphrase is just that – a retelling. The poet’s retelling is surprisingly faithful to Scripture and embellished with amusing asides[4]  and the occasional description of things in the story that would be foreign to his medieval audience.

Esther and Ahasuerus

One example of an amusing aside in the Metrical Paraphrase occurs in the poet’s description of Queen Vashti’s chamber in The Book of Esther. The poet makes sure to point out that the eunuchs – the only men allowed to be in the room with her – are “meek and mild”:

 and thei were ordand in ther yowth
that hei myght do no manly dede,
Bot ever more meke and myld of mouth
servandes als maydyns for ther mede[5]

Poor guys. They were “ordained” in their youth that they might “do no manly deed.” Instead, they act as servants for the maidens, their voices “meek and mild” just like those of the angels in heaven or the Vienna Choir Boys.

After all, it’s their spiritual example-setting and deep scriptural knowledge that puts these eunuchs in the unique position of being the only men besides King Ahasuerus[6] who are allowed inside the king’s harem, right? The cliché of the eunuch being the only male permitted in the chamber with a lord’s object of desire is one that is often used to describe villains in medieval poetry. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, for example, the only person permitted to see the maiden who is kept as a prisoner by her jealous husband besides the husband is a eunuch.

Marie de France initially introduces the eunuch without pointing out what distinguishes him physically from other men:

Uns vielz prestre blans e floritz

Guardout la clef de cel postiz[7]

An old priest with hoary-white hair

guarded the key to the gate…[8]

guigemar l255

Lines 255-56 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

But before moving on with the story, she can’t help but add:

Les plus bas members out perduz:

Altrement ne fust pas creüz

…he had lost his lowest members,

otherwise he would not have been trusted.

guigemar l257

Lines 257-58 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

This is typical Marie de France embellishment. We can hear her delivering the line out of the side of her mouth. The line about how the old priest had lost his “lowest members” is presented so matter-of-factly that if she were called out for obscenity, I can just hear her indignant reply, “Well that’s how he WAS.”

In both The Middle English Metrical Esther and Guigemar, the eunuch is described in places where women live a life in confinement and in both stories these women become liberated. In the book of Esther, Vashti is powerless. She is confined to a room with her maids and the eunuchs and the moment she refuses one of the king’s biddings, she loses her title as queen. This role is replaced by Esther, a woman who empowers herself. Not only do we see Esther enjoying the freedom of being able to talk in private with Mordecai, but she deposes a political enemy in the king’s court and also manages to convince the king to change one of his decrees which, in turn, saves the lives of her people. In Guigemar, the maiden is released from her prison by Guigemar and the magic boat. In both stories the eunuch appears in scenes that describe a woman being ruled by her husband and in both of these situations there is the image of a castrated man – the very absence of sexuality! Are both of these poets trying to say that wherever we find an oppressed woman we will also find a castrated man?


[1] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) v.961. available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl

[2] References to Pearl and The Thrush and the Nightingale in Modern English translation are taken from Medieval English Verse, trans. Brian Stone (Harmondsworth, 1964).

[3] The Thrush and the Nightingale in Middle English from Bodleian MS Digby 86 (Wessex Parallel Web Texts) l.169-73. available online: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~wpwt/digby86/thrushtxt.htm

[4] So I couldn’t resist. Here’s something from Chaucer: Compare this to the Host Harry Bailey’s winning criteria for the tale-telling competition in The Canterbury Tales – “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost.” Is Chaucer suggesting that secular tales could provide moral substance as well as entertainment value by presenting them in a way that was already popular in his day for religious works such as the Metrical Paraphrase, Patience (Story of Jonah told by the Pearl Poet in contemporary 14th century setting) and the Mystery Plays even if the moral substance piece isn’t always from the Christian tradition?

[5] The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011), l.16529-32. Available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/livingston-middle-english-metrical-paraphrase-of-the-old-testament

[6] It’s interesting to note that the religion of King Ahasuerus (“Assuere” in Middle English) is ambiguous in The Metrical Paraphrase‘s Esther (“Hester” in Middle English). He’s a Persian king who – we assume – does not worship the Hebrew God, however, since the story takes place in what appears to be a contemporary English court setting complete with nobles and knights, the king is described more like a misguided Christian king than an infidel. Also, though the heroine Esther is Jewish, she is presented sympathetically as a character in the Christian tradition despite the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval England.

[7] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[8] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

On a winter morning earlier this year, I was reading Pearl on the 27 bus. I was headed to the mall to make a connection with the 98 bus so I could get to work – my regular morning commute. On a good day, the connection isn’t too long, but it’s usually long enough to justify taking a little walk if the weather’s not too bad. So as I walked around the parking lot, passing time until the Norristown 98 bus arrived, I noticed a little pearl on the ground:

pearl

My secret pearl without a spot was sighted in the parking lot near the bus depot at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Some little pearl, from the earlobe of a joyless jeweler, “to ground away it shot.”[1] On the street the pearl “went tumbling wide,”[2] rolling through a few loose strands of tumbleweave and past a cigarette butt, stopping in a patch of weathered asphalt. I wondered if the owner of the cheap plastic pearl earring purchased from Forever 21 was in a marvelous dream vision at that very moment, having just reached “a cliff of crystal bright, With resplendent rays all aureoled.”[3] The person who lost this precious cheap plastic earring was either arguing the finer points of Fortune with the maiden child or already in fellowship with the Lamb of God. Perhaps they’d already learned to let go of their little pearl.

Well, I thought that that was a pretty interesting coincidence – but a few days later I spot the little pearl again. This time it’s on the 27 bus by the exit door:

pearl 27

What started as a rare coincidence, I’ve now encountered several times. Just yesterday the 9 bus was detoured because of some construction on Walnut Street, so my wife and I walked East along Latimer or Locust up to Broad to catch the 27 instead. On the sidewalk under one of those walkways they make under the scaffolding when they’re doing work on a building, what do I see but the little pearl again! Finding a pearl on the ground doesn’t seem like something that would happen as often as three times in the same year. Perhaps I need to read Pearl more often because it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of this line:

O may we serve him well, and shine
As precious pearls to his content!

What are some little things that remind you to return to medieval poems?


[1] Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations, trans. Marie Borroff, (New York, 2001), 125.

[2] Pearl, 126.

[3] Pearl, 129.

christmas in camelot

Ever since our matchless maiden mother Mary delivered our Christ in the most modest of accommodations in Bethlehem, wondrous things have always occurred during Christmastide. That was the selling point that won the Saxons to Christianity during the 6th century – or at least it should have been – and it’s the same thing that mesmerizes us today when we are in presence of life-size inflatable snow globes and the like.

So, as we gather with our neighbors on Christmas Day, we will almost certainly find ourselves surrounded by poor souls who do not share our same ideas of The Holiday. These heathens do not know, for example, the importance of Christmas to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Wondrous things occurred in Camelot during Yuletide, yet somehow we tell stories of other things said to have occurred on this special day.

Let us not forget the miracle of the sword of the stone – for it was during Christmas that Merlin advised the Archbishop of Canterbury to summon all of the barons in the realm to London for a very special Christmas celebration:

Thenne Merlyn wente to the archebisshop of Caunterbury / and counceilled hym for to sende for
alle the lordes of the reame /
and alle the gentilmen of armes that they shold to london come by Cristmas vpon payne of cursynge[1]

Let’s let the King of mankind show us, on this auspicious day, who should be the king of our realm:

And for this cause that Jesus that was borne on that nyghte
that he wold of his grete mercy shewe some myracle
as he was come to the kynge of mankynde for to shewe somme myracle who be
rightwys kynge of this reame[2]

The barons and their knights arrived to a miraculous sight – and it wasn’t what was inside the church either. The visitors were so marveled by the sword in the stone exhibit that Merlin installed, that the Archbishop nearly lost his audience to it:

Thenne the peple merueilled & told it to the Archebisshop I commande said tharchebisshop
that ye kepe yow within your chirche /
and pray vnto god still that no man touche the swerd tyll the hyghe masse be all done[3]

It’s amusing to picture the Archbishop getting ready for his big appearance at mass, only to realize that everyone was outside looking at something else – on one of the biggest church days of the year no less!

Today many men spend mass with their eyes glossed over in a fantasy football game. Not much has changed because in the medieval world, these same men passed their mass thinking about the jousting tournament that would take place after the service. For, it was really the promise of feasting and swordplay that brought these men to London and not the Archbishop’s wise words. After mass, the men gathered around the sword:

So whan all masses were done all the lordes wente to beholde the stone and the swerd /
And whan they sawe the scripture / som assayed suche as wold haue ben kyng /
But none myght stere the swerd nor meue hit He is not here said the Archebisshop that shall
encheue the swerd but doubte not god will make hym knowen[4]

The knights stuck around London for a few more days of revelry. In medieval Britain, Christmas, or “Christmastide” was a festival that typically lasted twelve days and New Year’s Day was part of the Christmas celebration. There was a great tournament in London that year on New Year’s Day and it was on that same day that Kay was in such a hurry to get to church on time for morning mass that he left his sword back at the house. He asked his foster brother Arthur to fetch it for him – and we all know what happened next…

arthur draws the sword from the stone

Arthur (played by Nigel Terry) draws the sword from the stone in John Boorman’s Excalibur (image: copyright 1981 Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)

In medieval Britain, presents were typically exchanged on New Year’s Day and not Christmas Day as is done in America today. Though “Christmastide” typically lasted twelve days, we see in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that King Arthur didn’t follow the status quo – Camelot partied for a full fifteen days!

This kyng lay at Camylot upon KrystmasseWith mony luflych lorde, ledez of the best,Rekenly on the Rounde Table alle tho rich brether,With rich revel oryght and rechles merthes.Ther tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,

Justed ful joilé thise gentyle knightes,

Sythen kayred to the court caroles to make.

For ther the fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,

With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse… (Fitt 1, v. 37-45)[5]

The king spent that Christmas at CamelotWith many gracious lords, men of great worth,Noble brothers-in-arms worthy of the Round Table,With rich revelry and carefree amusement, as was right.There knights fought in tournament again and again,

Jousting most gallantly, these valiant men,

Then rode to the court for dancing and song.

For there the festival lasted the whole fifteen days

With all the feasting and merry-making that could be devised… (Part 1, v. 37-45)[6]

Well, since Arthur pulled the sword from the stone on New Year’s Day and everything, he expected no less of his subjects on that holiday. He was notorious for refusing to eat at holiday dinners until he had either heard some wondrous tale or had at least seen someone jump “over men and horses hoops and garters lastly through a hog’s head of real fire”[7]:

…he wolde never eatUpon such a dere day er hym devised wereOf sum aventurus thing an couthe tale,Of sum mayn mervayle, that he might trawe,Of alders, of armes, of other aventurus,Other sum segg hym bisoght of sum siker knyght

To joyne with hym in justyng, in jopardé to lay

Lede, lif for lyf, leve uchon other,

As fortune wolde fulsun hom, the fayrer to have. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[8]

…he would never eatOn such a special day until he had been toldA curious tale about some perilous thing,Of some great wonder that he could believe,Of princes, of battles, or other marvels;Or some knight begged him for a trusty foe

To oppose him in jousting, in hazard to set

His life against his opponent’s, each letting the other,

As luck would assist him, gain the upper hand. (Part 1, v. 91-99)[9]

So, be sure to tell a tale of wonder during your Christmas holiday and challenge a mate to a sword fight or a wrestling match or something – it will make our trewe kinge happy.


[1] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English from Middle English Compendium (leaf 20v) available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/MaloryWks2

[2] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[3] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[4] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English (leaf 20v)

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992), 4.

[6] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 5.

[7] The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967).

[8] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 6.

[9] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 7.

There are many fantasy novels set in fictional medieval worlds that share very little of the medieval worldview with us. One barely needs to remove a single suit of shining armor to reveal that most fantasy stories have very little in common with the medieval world besides wardrobe. I’m not saying that people who write fantasy need to make it clear in their text that they can distinguish Thomas Malory from Chrétien de Troyes or Beowulf from Sigurd, but I love it when a fantasy author borrows a cliché, a custom, an object, a theme, or a philosophy from a medieval text and fits it snugly into his own story, effectively evoking medieval essence without disturbing the modern narrative. After all, that’s what medieval storytelling is all about and it’s a tradition that should continue to thrive. An example of such a borrowing that achieves this “medieval essence” can be found in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander carried a symbol from a popular 14th century English poem, simplified it, yet kept the kernel of its strong positive moral message, and placed it in his own story for a modern popular audience

The Chronicles of Prydain is a children’s fantasy adventure series set in a medieval imaginary world. Its easy dialogue, storybook humor, caricatures of Tolkien characters, and often predictable story grant it entrance to the children’s fantasy genre, but Alexander added a special depth to his narrative with simple, yet rich glimpses into the wisdom of the medieval worldview.

One such example occurs In The Black Cauldron, the second book of Chronicles of Prydain. In the story, the young hero Taran is on a quest to rescue a magic cauldron from the clutches of an evil lord who uses the anciently powerful object as a sort of weapon of mass destruction involving zombies. During his quest, Adaon, the son of a chief bard, presents Taran with a brooch. Taran discovers that this brooch gives him dream visions with glimpses of future events. Piecing these glimpses of future events together aids him in his quest to save Prydain, the imaginary world where the story is set. In addition to this magical quality, the brooch is decorated with a symbol that represents a powerful system of virtues that is very similar both in concept and appearance to the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Since Alexander’s readers are quite younger than the 14th century court audiences that enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he created a symbol that is less complex than Gawain’s Pentangle. Although the brooch’s symbol is less complex than the Pentangle in terms of the number of virtues it represents and it lacks Christian iconography, it retains and effectively communicates the same fundamental concept of its 14th century ancestor.

As Taran & company head for the Marshes of Morva, the bard Fflewddur takes a closer look at the brooch which is fastened to Taran’s neck. After examining it, he reveals to Taran that, “it bears the bardic symbol – those three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead.”[1] Fflewddur explains that the three lines symbolize respectively, “knowledge, truth, and love.”[2] Fflewddur then comments on the value and rarity of these virtues, “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them all together and you have something very powerful indeed.”[3]

Portrait of Adaon. Notice how the artist depicts the bardic symbol “three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead” on Taran’s brooch. image: http://oboe-wan.deviantart.com/art/Adaon-109317843

The Pentangle painted in pure gold on Gawain’s shield represents “something very powerful” as well. The narrator (often referred to by medieval scholars as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses forty two lines of his poem to provide his audience with a detailed description of the system of balanced virtues that the Pentangle symbolizes.

The Gawain poet narrator describes the Pentangle as a system of virtues organized by five sets of five. Each point of the star symbolizes five different things, and each of these five things corresponds symbiotically with the other sets of five. To briefly enumerate the five equal layers of the system, the five points represent the five wits, the five fingers of Gawain’s hand, the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her child, and the five pure virtues: frankness, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and compassion.

The Gawain poet then tells the audience that these attributes are interconnected:

 Now alle these five sythez, for soothe, were fetled on this knyght,

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

Whereever the gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (Fitt 2, v. 656-61)[4]

 Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

No matter where the line began or ran to an end. (Part 2, v. 656-61)[5]

Detail of lines 656-61 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as they appear in MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3). c. 1400 British Library / University of Calgary, Libraries and Cultural Resources. image: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/

Now, keeping a modern audience’s attention while a five point system which is actually a twenty-five point system is explained in detail would be an incredible feat for today’s storyteller and would require a patient, polite, and engaged audience. A medieval court audience, however, would be quite familiar with the concept of this type of system of organization and would probably be receptive to an even more complex one.

An example of a work where the narrator shares a complex system through which man may achieve spiritual, dietary, moral, and physical balance among the elements (or in Gawain’s case, reaching and maintaining a state of purity) that a medieval court audience would be familiar with is the Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum was one of the most widely read books in 14th century England and France. It “circulated freely in court circles”[6] and was, as Terry Jones puts it, “de rigueur on any [medieval] thinking person’s reading list.”[7] It was a type of advice text that scholars call “medieval Mirrors for Princes.”[8] Secreta Secretorum is presented as material gleaned from letters sent between Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great while Alexander campaigned in Persia. Aristotle organizes various disciplines of study and states of the body into systems of four and describes how these four components correspond both to each other and collectively.

He divides Astronomy, for example, into four components: the position of the stars among themselves, the constellations and their position as it relates to the sun, the quality and the moving of the celestial dome, and the degrees of the rising of the constellations that reside in the moon’s celestial band (zodiac constellations).

Nowe to oure first mater and purpose, it is to wite, In the ordinaunce of the sterres; In disposicioun of ϸe signes and alyenyng and mevyng fro ϸe sonne; and this party is called Astronomye; that other part is of qualitees, and also for to knowe the mevyng of ϸe firmament, and the dgrees of ϸe risyng of ϸe signes that are vndir the firmament of ϸe mone, and this is the most worthi part of Astronomye, for ϸerin is the cheef knowyng of ϸat science. (Cap. 28 ll. 26-34)[9]

Image of an early 15th century English Medical Treatise HM 19079. Notice how the article has a heading and notes in the margin.  Huntington Library. image: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/toc.html (Compare to image below of print transcription of Secreta Secretorum)

Detail of transcription of Cap. 28 from MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M. from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898) Image: http://books.google.com/

To make an Astronomical conclusion one must consider all four of these factors, however, data from one category may be used with data from a category of another discipline when answering a question that crosses disciplines. Of course, according to that worldview, to answer any question effectively, it was necessary to cross disciplines – ideally several times. To make it possible to compare the data among the other disciplines, they too were organized into basic divisions of four. They were each thought to influence each other. Aristotle divides the human body into four basic parts: the head, the chest, the stomach, and the genitals. He also organizes humors (tempers or dispositions), elements,[10] and seasons[11] into four qualities. Not every system or exemplum in the text is exclusively organized in units of four, but so many of them are that it seems to be Aristotle’s favorite method of outlining complicated scientific ideas.

Since disease in the medieval world was seen as an imbalance in the way the body and mind interacted with the physical world, symbiotic relationships were considered among the body and the physical world for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, during spring, Aristotle recommends that one should eat chicken, goat, bitter greens, and milk. It is also the ideal time to “flush out” the toxins that accumulate in the body during winter by inducing sweat, bathing, bloodletting, and eating foods with laxative properties:

In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kydes and eggis, soure letuse ϸat men calle carlokis, and getis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme ; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete things that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer. ” (Cap. 43 ll. 23-30)[12]

While, during winter he recommends one eat hot meats such as chicken and mutton, figs, nuts, and red wine. He also advises to refrain from laxative foods and bloodletting during winter unless it is absolutely necessary.[13]

The Gawain poet doesn’t provide a treatise on medieval medicine and he certainly doesn’t tell us how eating a certain type of food will affect Gawain’s stomach based on his complexion and temper, the constellations as they relate to the moon, and the season. He does, however, include a detailed description of a system (either historical, legendary, or by personal creation) by which one may achieve moral purity.

It is typical of a medieval poet to impart a moral message to a story and one of the methods the Gawain poet uses is describing the meaning of the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield.[14] Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale about a knight from King Arthur’s court who unknowingly agrees to have his virtue tested, the Pentangle’s description appears as Gawain is gearing up to leave King Arthur’s court to meet the Green Knight to receive his long-awaited return blow. The description of Gawain’s shield tells the medieval audience that Gawain will be tested.

Picture of Sir Gawain and the Pentangle from the video The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nAd6fffVvs

The brooch in The Black Cauldron tells the audience, in the same way, that Taran will be tested. Though Gawain isn’t forced to wager with his shield in the same way Taran is with his brooch in the Marshas of Morva, the brooch, like Gawain’s shield, offers protection. Where a shield would protect someone from physical harm in a combat situation, the brooch protects Taran by giving him dream visions that arguably save both his life and his quest, but more importantly, they both serve as a reminder to rely on a system of virtue to guide them through life much the teachings of Secreta Secrtorum are meant to do for a king ruling a state. Simplifying the system by presenting fewer virtues and choosing not to give the three lines multiple layers like the Gawain poet did with the Pentangle, Alexander succeeded in using medieval literary devices to promote a positive moral message within a children’s fantasy story.

The narrator poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the significance of the pentangle painted on Gawain’s shield directly to the audience as part of a character portrait. It is typical in medieval narrative poetry for the narrator to give a physical description of characters and to use their clothing and objects they carry with them to give the audience details about their estate (or social class) and personalities. Medieval scholars call this a character portrait. One of the most popular examples of a medieval style character portrait is when Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims during the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales.

Character portraits can vary in length and they can sometimes give the audience an idea of the poet’s moral or political agenda. In the Gawain poet’s case, we see that he thinks it is very important for the audience to understand (or to know that he understands) the Pentangle’s system of virtues because it takes up half of Gawain’s character portrait. While Alexander used a symbol that evokes a similar values system as the Pentangle, the method he uses to introduce it to the story is different from the one used by the Gawain poet. Alexander describes its symbolism to the audience in a modern way rather than a medieval way.

While the Gawain poet used the narrator’s voice providing a medieval character portrait to describe the Pentangle, Alexander used dialogue by having a character with some knowledge of bardic lore describe the significance of the brooch’s symbol to Taran. Having Fflewddur explain the significance of the brooch to Taran is similar to Aristotle’s method of teaching in the Secreta Secretorum in that you have an older, wiser, and somewhat quirky character providing moral guidance to a young character in an important leadership position.

Though the focus of the Secreta Secretorum as an advice text is on physical, political, and economic survival, Aristotle imparts a system of virtue in his teaching. One gets the sense that “being good” is a fundamental ingredient in the system of good governance outlined in this treatise.

Occasionally, Aristole is very direct in passages like this one where he identifies envy as the mother of lying and hatred as the root of all vices, “enuye is neuyr without lesyngis, the which is roote and mater of alle vicis. Envye engedrith yville spekyng, and of yville speche cometh hatred.” (Cap. 8 ll. 6-9)[15] To balance his sermon on the root of vice, Aristotle later points out that truth brings good faith, justice, friendship, great renown for the leader both at home and abroad, promotes the creation of reasonable laws, and fosters a positive sense of community.[16] These are direct examples, but the tone and underlying philosophy of the text implies that virtue is a necessary component of success.

The teachings in the Secreta Secretorum vary in length. For example, instruction on the proper way to sleep[17] is 27 lines while advice on what sort of clothing a king should wear[18] is only 11 lines, but “each exemplum is short enough to be taken in all at once, aiming for a flash of insight or identification.”[19] Though Aristotle doesn’t use a symbol like Lloyd Alexander and the Gawain poet do, the answers to the great mysteries of life that are explained in the Secreta Secretorum can be summarized in these key points: man should seek harmony by guarding himself from impulsive behavior, stay connected with nature and use his resources in moderation according to its cycles, be kind to his fellow man, and value truth above all. Like Gawain’s Pentangle and Taran’s brooch, the teachings in the Secreta Secretorum also suggest that Alexander the Great will be tested as a ruler.

The physical symbols of Taran’s brooch and Gawain’s Pentangle appear different in many ways on the surface (one is “a sort of arrowhead” and the other is a five pointed star) and Aristotle’s method aims to achieve a “flash of insight” without the use of a physical symbol. Each author incorporates different imagery; the Gawain poet uses Christian imagery while Alexander does not. Alexander doesn’t mention a concept of God at all and while the medieval manuscript of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum referenced in this article often mentions God, the scribe who copied it did not include Christ’s name a single time in the text.

These three authors do not use the same number of virtues in their respective values systems, and these systems are introduced to the stories in different ways. The incorporation of a values system in these texts suggests that the Gawain poet, Lloyd Alexander, and Aristotle all agree that every hero or person in a position of power must have a code or values system to guide him. By looking at the different ways values systems appear in stories and comparing the core of the respective values systems they illustrate, we realize this: the symbol we carry with us on our quest is not as important as our will to practice it every step along the way.


[1] Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rine and Winston: New York, 1965), 117.

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[4] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992).

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

[6] Katharine Breen, “A Different Kind of Book for Richard’s Sake: MS Bodley 581 as Ethical Handbook,” The Chaucer Review 45.2 (2010): 131.

[7] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 50.

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

[9] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 21.

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

[11] The Secrete of Secretes, 27-29.

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

[14] Though this article only describes the Pentangle that appears on the front of Gawain’s shield, the interior of the shield is painted with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

[16] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 8 ll. 16-27) 10.

[17] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 39) 25.

[18] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 13) 12.

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

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