Sir Perceval of Galles: Introduction

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Sir Perceval of Galles: Introduction

The unique copy of Sir Perceval of Galles is contained in the Thornton Manuscript, preserved in Lincoln Cathedral as MS 91. The 322-page manuscript contains sixty-four pieces in all, ranging from saints' lives to medical treatises, and including seven additional romances: the Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Romance of Octovyane, The Romance of Sir Ysambrace, The Romance of Dyoclicyane, Sir Degrevante, Sir Eglamour, and The Awentyrs of Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne. The contents are all written in one hand, a variable mid-fifteenth-century Anglicana Formata, and the dialect - which may not be the original - is northern, reflecting the North Riding Yorkshire district of the scribe. Decorations are confined to initials outlined in black with tinted sprays and foliage, red initials flourished in black or violet, and various touches of red, marking headings and paragraphs. The manuscript is written on paper and is in generally good condition, although certain of its pages have been damaged with loss of text. Worm holes occasionally obscure the writing; ink blots and water stains appear throughout. The original binding, probably the "thick oaken boards, covered with white leather, and fastened with a clasp," referred to by Madden, has been replaced by later oak boards covered with a pig-skin leather.

The scribe was one Robert Thornton of East Newton, Yorkshire, whose own name (and that of various family members) appears several times throughout the work. The British Library Additional Manuscript 31042, containing the unique copy of Wynnere and Wastoure, was apparently also copied by Thornton who appears to have been an educated amateur. A manor lord who died between 1456 and 1465, Thornton likely copied his texts over the years as materials became available to him. At his death, his library passed on to his family where it remained for several generations. In the late seventeenth century, Thomas Comber, husband of Alice Thornton, either gave or sold the manuscript to Daniel Brevint, Dean of Lincoln, and the work has remained in the possession of the Cathedral Library since that time.

Sandwiched between Awentyrs of Arthure and Three Charms for Toothache, Sir Perceval of Galles is the first (and besides Malory, the only) English rendering of the naive and bungling knight made popular in Chrétien de Troyes' twelfth-century Conte del Graal. The young Perceval, his father killed in battle, is raised in the forest by his mother, who abhors chivalry and the courtly world. He wears goatskins, hunts animals with his spear, and, after his first introduction to civilization, rides a pregnant mare that he thinks is a stallion. Encountering three knights in the woods one day, he determines to become like them, and, despite his mother's reluctance to let him go, he sets off for Arthur's court wearing his mother's ring. Coming upon a lady sleeping in a tent, he exchanges his ring for her (unknown to him) magic one, a ring which has the ability to protect its wearer from harm. He then follows adventures familiar to readers of romance where a "childe" triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds. Young Perceval defeats successively the Red Knight, the Black Knight, the Sudan, and the giant Gollerothirame. He liberates Lady Lufamore, marries her, and becomes a king. He then decides to restore his mother. On his return to the woods of his origin he rescues the "tent lady" and restores to her her rightful ring; and he finds his mother in time to release her from the insanity she suffered at believing her son was dead. Finally, Perceval leaves for the Holy Land where he wins many cities before he is killed. And "thusgate," notes the poet, "endis hee."

Despite its persistent liveliness, Sir Perceval has until recent years suffered at the hands of those critics who judged it "uninteresting," "wretched," and "crude." The poet, who probably operated in the north-east Midlands during the first half of the fourteenth century, has been denounced for not understanding his original source and for having little or no poetic "flair." It is true that the grammatical constructions are sometimes loose and that the diction is occasionally labored. Moreover, the poetic line lacks that density and texture one finds in Chaucer and the Gawain-poet, and the kind of "machinery" - such courtly trappings as forest naps, the locus amoenus, catalogues of birds, spices, and food - we have come to associate with the more sophisticated romances is not to be found in this poem. But it is ultimately the comparison to Chrétien's romance - which the English poet might or might not have known - that has worked most to the latter poet's detriment. And Chaucer's supposedly snide reference in Sir Thopas to "sire Percevell" drinking water of the well has added to the poem's stigmatization. Recent criticism, however, views the poem in a more favorable light.

The poet of Sir Perceval was no mere hack writer. Certain scenes, for example, are clearly and effectively parodic of the romance genre, as when the country lad wearing goatskins and carrying a dart rides his pregnant mare into Arthur's court to be made a knight. Chaucer's Thopas, pricking through the forest on a sweaty horse, carrying a too-light launcegay and searching for any available elf-queen, fits nicely into Perceval's cortege, leading one to suspect that the poem provided an impetus as well as an object for Chaucer's satire. Moreover, the crude but successful young hero who knows so little of "nurtour" becomes a foil to the effete and courtly Arthur, thus suggesting the disenchantment with the noble ideal that accelerated as the Middle Ages waned. This attitude seems also to be reflected in the poem's black humor that should not be mistaken for crudity. When Perceval tosses the Red Knight's witch-mother into the fire, for example, he remarks casually that she might "lie still and sweat," and when the knight severs the foot of Gollerothirame, he notes that although the giant might have trouble in walking, he should take pleasure in leaping! In addition to tonal sophistication, the poet has taken some care to integrate the various aspects of his plot. By and large, events are not superfluous; characters are introduced and then returned to; loose ends are effectively sewn together. The maiden in the tent, for example, is not merely a formulaic device to be used and discarded, but instead a crucial factor that allows for the events to follow and assists in securing a conclusion that Chrétien never attained. Nor is the grieving mother left simply to wander in the woods forever (Chrétien allows her to die). Instead she is ultimately sought out and cared for by a more concerned, more considerate son who has now deferentially shed his knightly garb for his familiar goatskins. There is a hint of regeneration as the story comes full circle; the "wilde gerys" [behavior] of Perceval have been tamed.

The poem employs a tail-rhyme stanza of sixteen lines, rhyming (sometimes roughly) aaabcccbdddbeeeb. Key words in the final "b" line are repeated in the first line of the following stanza. Such a rhyme scheme is often found in the so-called "minstrel romances" flourishing in East Anglia in the fourteenth century. Other copies of the manuscript (including the one known to Chaucer) have been lost, although the dissemination of the poem from its supposed north-east Midlands origins to the London area and then to the north presupposes that there were at one time multiple copies.

This edition is based on the Thornton MS. I have regularized u/v and i/j usage according to modern spelling conventions and have ignored ff spellings where modern orthography would write f. All emendations are acknowledged in the end-notes, along with variant readings in other modern printed editions.

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Selected Bibliography


Lincoln Cathedral MS 91 (Thornton, c. 1440), fols. 161r-176r.


The Thornton Manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral MS 91). Introduction by D. S. Brewer and A. E. B. Owen. London: The Scolar Press, 1977.


Baldwin, Dean Richard, ed. Sir Perceval of Galles: An Edition. Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1973.

Campion, J., and F. Holthausen, eds. Sir Perceval of Gales. Alt- und Mittelenglische Texte 5. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1913.

Ellis, F. S., ed. Syr Perecyvelle of Gales. Hammersmith: Kelmscott, 1895.

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. Vol. 2. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930. Rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Pp. 529-604.

Griffiths, J. J., ed. Sir Percevell of Gales. Masters Thesis, University College of North Wales, 1977.

Halliwell [-Phillipps], James Orchard, ed. The Thornton Romances: The Early English Metrical Romances of Perceval, Isumbras, Eglamour, and Degrevant. Camden Society 30. London: J.B. Nichols and Son for the Camden Society, 1844.

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Ywain and Gawain, Sir Percyvell of Gales, The Anturs of Arther. London: Everyman's Library, 1992.

Catalogues and Studies of the Manuscript

Keiser, George. "The Nineteenth-Century Discovery of the Thornton Manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91)." Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 77 (1983), 167-90.

Thompson, R. M., ed. Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Lincoln Cathedral Chapter Library. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1989.


Newstead, Helaine. "Arthurian Legends." In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, ed. J. Burke Severs. Vol. 1. New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967. P. 250.

Rice, Joanne A. Middle English Romance: An Annotated Bibliography, 1955-1985. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987. Pp. 503-06.

Selected Critical Studies

Baron, F. Xavier. "Mother and Son in Sir Perceval of Galles." Papers on Language and Literature 8 (1972), 3-14. [Argues that the sensitive handling of the relationship between Perceval and Acheflour is unique in the traditional Perceval story.]

Busby, Keith. "Chrétien de Troyes English'd." Neophilologus 71 (1987), 596-613. [Examines how the English poet changes characters, shortens passages, adds supernatural figures in his adaptation of Chrétien's work.]

Brown, Arthur C. L. "The Grail and the English Sir Perceval." Modern Philology 16 (1918-19), 553-68; 17 (1919-20), 361-82; 18 (1920-21), 201-28 and 661-73; 22 (1924-25), 79-98 and 113-32. [Claims that the English Perceval is at least partially independent of Chrétien's Conte del Graal, being influenced by motifs drawn from fairy tales and Irish history.]

Fowler, David C. "Le Conte du Graal and Sir Perceval of Galles." Comparative Literature Studies 12 (1975), 5-20. [Claims that the author of Sir Perceval did indeed know Chrétien's work but that he purposefully omitted references to the Grail while retaining the serious theme.]

Griffith, Reginald Harvey. Sir Perceval of Galles: A Study of the Sources of the Legend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1911. [Sees multi-stage development of the English poet's work with which Chrétien had little or no influence.]

Hood, Edna Sue. Sir Perceval of Galles: Medieval Fiction. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1966. [Compares Sir Perceval to the "Fair Unknown" stories; discusses the work as a romance and as narrative fiction.]

Eckhardt, Caroline D. "Arthurian Comedy: The Simpleton-Hero in Sir Perceval of Galles." Chaucer Review 8 (1974), 205-20. [Argues for the merits of the poem, including its skillful integration of narrative details, its effective characterization, and its sustained comic tone.]

Speirs, John. Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition. London: Faber and Faber, 1957. Pp. 122-38. [Discusses the mythological aspects of Sir Perceval.]

Veldhoen, N. H. G. E. "'I Haffe Spedde Better Þan I Wend': Some Notes of the Middle English Sir Perceval of Galles." Dutch Quarterly Review 11 (1981), 279-86. [Stresses the tightness of the poet's structure and the relationships among the various characters.]

Wilson, Anne. The Magical Quest: The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988. See Chapter Three: "Sir Perceval of Galles," pp. 143-48. [Claims that the omission of the Grail castle episode in the English poet's work can be explained by that author's desire to move in a different direction - from the relationship of Perceval to the king (as in Chrétien) to the guilty, incestuous relationship of Perceval with his mother.]