Cleanness (also known as Purity)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Saint Erkenwald (attributed by some to the Pearl-Poet)
The Pearl-Poet, or Gawain-Poet, is regarded as one of the most important and accomplished writers in medieval literature on the basis of the four long Middle English poems attributed to him. Among English poets of the period, he is ranked second only to Geoffrey Chaucer. Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exist in a single manuscript, MS Cotton Nero A.x, that provides no author’s name and no titles (the titles by which they are known have all been added by modern editors).
The poems were discovered in the British Museum in the 1830’s, bound in a volume with two unrelated Latin works, and no direct evidence survives regarding their reception before the nineteenth century. The poems themselves comprise the only source of information about the poet–indeed, his very existence is deduced from their existence. Despite this virtually perfect anonymity, a number of conclusions about the poet’s identity and biography have become widely accepted. While the poems differ dramatically in subject matter and genre–from elegy to homily to romance–their thematic, stylistic, and linguistic cohesiveness have led to general agreement that a single author wrote all four poems. The manuscript is dated to the later fourteenth century, usually close to the end of that century. The scribe who copied the texts was almost certainly not the author, but scholars believe that the poet composed the poems in the second half of the fourteenth century, not long before the copies were executed.
While the earliest students of the poems offered numerous speculations about the identity of the poet, modern criticism has given up the search for a specific individual and focused on more general characteristics that may be inferred from the works. Assuming that there are no significant differences between the dialects of the scribe and the author, the language of the poems suggests that they were written in the dialect of the northwest midland area of England, making that a likely place of origin for the author. The alliterative verse in which the poems are written is also characteristic of the northern and western parts of England, rather than the rhyming verse produced in London and the southeast. The geographical descriptions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are markedly more detailed for the region of North Wales, Anglesey, and Wirral, suggesting that either the poet or his audience (or both) had an interest in that area. The description of the embarkation of Jonah’s ship from the harbor in Patience and details of the voyage include enough specific technical references to contemporary nautical practices to convince some that the poet must have undertaken a sea voyage.
The literary sources of the four poems also provide significant information about the author’s reading and education, although the breadth of that learning has perhaps expanded rather than limited the range of speculation about his status. The poems all analyze serious moral issues, and three of the four poems are explicitly religious, demonstrating a thorough knowledge of biblical and theological matters, which led many early critics to assume the poet was a monk. The poems are also humanistic and often comical, and the poet seems to have been as widely read and expert in French romances as in the Bible. Especially in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the poet shows detailed knowledge of the etiquette of noble households, knightly armor and arms, castle architecture, music, and hunting, which has led other critics to assume that he must have been closely associated with a wealthy court. Even if one accepts that the poet belonged to a secular rather than a religious estate, as scholars are increasingly apt to do, there is little to help decide if he was a clerk or minstrel writing from observation of the aristocracy or was himself a nobleman.