Sir Gawain, Eleven Romances and Tales: General Introduction

SIR GAWAINE: ELEVEN ROMANCES AND TALES, GENERAL INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES

1 All citations of medieval texts in the Introduction and in the introductions and notes to the individual poems refer to the editions listed in the Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited. I have usually provided line numbers in the text. Citations of editions or commentary specific to the poems edited in the present volume appear in the individual bibliographies preceding each poem.

2 Again, the Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited provides full information for editions of poems mentioned here but not included in the present volume (except for Renaut's Le bel inconnu, which is not relevant to the traditions discussed here).

3 Two notable monographs in English on Gawain as hero both relentlessly attempt to reach back to an "original" meaning for the hero, and therefore regard the late medieval romances as without significance except insofar as they provide pieces of evidence for the archetype. See Jesse L. Weston, The Legend of Sir Gawain: Studies upon its Original Scope and Significance, The Grimm Library, 7 (London: David Nutt, 1897), and John Matthews, Gawain: Knight of the Goddess - Restoring an Archetype (Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1990). A brief and reliable summary of surviving evidence is given in the entry for "Gawain," New Arthurian Encyclopedia, ed. Norris J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1991). The same volume contains helpful entries for most of the poems in the present volume, and for the characters and places they mention. The most thorough survey of Gawain's appearances in French and English narratives remains B. J. Whiting, "Gawain, His Reputation, His Courtesy and His Appearance in Chaucer's Squire's Tale," Medieval Studies 9 (1947), 189-234.

4 Richard Barber offers a concise yet reliable account of Gawain's identity and his place within larger Arthurian traditions in King Arthur: Hero and Legend (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1986).

5 This special power is described in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, lines 2802 ff., and Malory, Works, pp. 1216-17.

6 For both medieval and modern writers, considerable ambiguity, overlap, and confusion surround Arthurian place names. Carlisle is specified as a setting for Wedding, Carlisle, Avowyng, Awntyrs, Greene Knight, Marriage, and Carle. Lancelot of the Laik, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Malory, and perhaps Libeaus Desconus - all featuring Gawain's exploits, and linked with the popular romance tradition - are the only other Middle English romances to mention Carlisle. (The Boy and the Mantle, a Percy Folio MS ballad, also locates Arthur's court at Carlisle; see Child, I.257-274.) The remarkable geographical unity of the Middle English Gawain poems is discussed further below, pp. 29-33]. In Yvain and Perceval, Chrétien places Arthur's court at "Carduel an Gales" indicating Carlisle, but in accord with ancient tradition locating this in Wales; Ywain and Gawain, the Middle English version of Yvain, casts Arthur as "Kyng of Yngland," conqueror of Wales and Scotland, and sets the romance "At Kerdyf [Cardiff] that es in Wales" (line 17). Other French romances also place Arthur's court at Carduel/Carlisle. The designation of Carlisle as the seat of Arthurian adventure in Middle English romances has sometimes been taken as a misnomer for, or corruption of, Caerleon-on-Usk, Monmouthshire (in the south of Wales, near the mouth of the Severn); Caerleon is prominently mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth (perhaps following Welsh oral traditions), and appears in both French romance and popular English tales, such as Sir Launfal. On the one hand, William of Malmesbury's remarks about the hero's tomb, which he places in Pembrokeshire, west of Caerleon on the coast of Wales, provide a further Welsh linkage for Gawain; yet in the same passage he identifies Gawain as the "miles" (knight) who ruled in that part of Britain hitherto called "Walweitha" (Galloway), confirming his northern, Scots affinity. (For this passage in William, see the following note.) Malory has Gawain buried "in a chapell within Dover castell . . . [where] yet all men may se the skulle of hym" (Works, 1232), and the sixteenth-century antiquary John Leland claimed to have seen Gawain's bones at Dover, and on this basis rejected the authenticity of the tomb in Pembrokeshire.

7 For the Modena archivolt, see Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. R. S. Loomis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 60-62. In his remarks on Arthur and on Gawain's fourteen-foot long tomb by the seashore in Pembrokeshire in Wales, William of Malmesbury takes for granted his readers' interest in (and knowledge of) Gawain. William provocatively describes Gawain as occupying the undegenerate ("haud degener") relation to Arthur of mother's brother-sister's son, and as sharing properly in his uncle's fame, clearly indicating that by the early twelfth century the nephew was already a celebrity in his own right. See De Rebus Gestis Regum Anglorum, Book 3, section 287, ed. W. Stubbs, Rolls Series no. 90, vol. 2 (London, 1889), p. 342.

8 For Geoffrey of Monmouth's portrayal of Gawain, see The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: I: A Single Manuscript Edition from Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 568, ed. Neil Wright (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1984), pp. 144 ff., and The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966), pp. 221 ff.

9 Gawain's reputation in French romance as lover and sometime rake may account for his otherwise odd appearance as the hero of an academic satire in Latin verse, "On Not Taking a Wife" (before 1250). Here Gawain, planning marriage, has the spirits of three clerks attempt to dissuade him; they draw their arguments from biblical and classical exempla and from Latin misogynist writings, though their focus is not the virtues of celibacy but the disastrous results of secular marriage. The choice of Gawain as protagonist seems therefore something of a scholar's inside joke, though his role here suggests just how extensive his reputation was, reaching even to the precincts of learning. The poem survives in more than fifty manuscripts, and there are adaptations in French and Middle English. See A. G. Rigg, Gawain on Marriage: The Textual Tradition of the "De Coniuge Non Ducenda" with Critical Edition and Translation, Texts and Studies, 79 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1986). The most comprehensive study of Gawain's role in Old French literature (with much attention to texts in other languages as well) is Keith Busby, Gauvain in Old French Literature (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1980).

10 I here follow the division already set out in the introduction, which separates the "popular" romances (gathered here) from those with a pronounced literary character or a notable textual source - namely, Ywain and Gawain, Libeaus Desconus, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - as well as the chronicle narratives - Layamon, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and Malory. In all of these but Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain plays roles of varying but subsidiary importance.

11 On the historical development of knighthood, see the essays collected in Georges Duby, The Chivalrous Society, trans. Cynthia Postan (1977; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), and Maurice Keen's Chivalry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984).

12 The question of precisely whose ideals or interests chivalric literature serves, whether asked openly or ignored, shadows every discussion of knightly romance, and admits no simple answer. Kings and powerful knights obviously perceived the value of romance and pageantry as a kind of "top-down" propaganda for their privileged political and economic position, as the proclamation of Edward III (see note 16, below) reveals, and one might therefore accurately claim that such tales were "popular" among this elite class because they maintained its hegemonic position. Yet the romances merit the label "popular" in the more common sense in that many (like Ragnelle and Carlisle) indisputably originate, become embellished and revised, and circulate among "the people," that is, broad and diverse audiences of various classes with overlapping and often conflicting interests. Moreover, as I suggest below (pp. 19-23), far from simply reproducing the values of the reigning culture, the romances open a space for satire or resistance in relation to elite values. Crucial questons concerning the nature of "popular" culture in the Middle Ages - about the social make-up of the audiences for medieval texts, the processes and effects of consuming romance, the overlaps of oral and literate, the determinants of taste for varying groups - have received relatively little extended historical analysis from critics and scholars. See Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson, "Introduction," in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, ed. Mukerji and Schudson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991) for a recent and helpful overview; and on the Gawain romances in particular, see comments below, pp. 10 ff. and 27 ff.

13 It was during one of these Round Tables, while his courtiers were masquerading as Arthurian knights, that a loathly lady appeared to demand deeds of chivalry; see the Introduction to Ragnelle, and more particularly, R. S. Loomis, "Edward I, Arthurian Enthusiast," Speculum 28 (1953), 114-27.

14 For an account of the Order of the Garter, and its place within the ideals and politics of late medieval chivalry, see D'Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton, The Knights of the Crown: The Monarchical Orders of Knighthood in Later Medieval Europe, 1325-1520 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1987), pp. 96-166. Boulton does not mention Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with its appropriation of the Garter motto at its conclusion, though whoever added the phrase, "Hony soyt qui mal pence" (may he be shamed who evil thinks) certainly wished to associate chivalric romance with the codes and institutions of secular knighthood.

15 See Introduction to Greene Knight, together with the note at line 502 of that poem, for discussion of its connection to the Order of the Bath.

16 Rolls of Parliament 18 Edward III, p. 1, m. 44; I quote here the translation published in Boulton, Knights of the Crown (note 14, above), p. 110.

17 One other exception - besides Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - to the non-aristocratic context in which Gawain's legend prospers occurs in a heraldic roll with royal associations, which shows a figure labeled, "Sire Gawyn Mautrevers," connecting this hero with the Maltravers family, whose leading members were prominently connected to Edward II and Edward III. See Gerard J. Brault, Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries with Special Reference to Arthurian Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 43. See also the coats of arms attributed to Gawain in a fifteenth-century armorial album, referenced below in note 21.

18 Sir John Paston of Norfolk (1442-1479) is best known through the numerous letters he and other members of his family wrote. These have mainly to do with retaining and increasing the family holdings, and are usually considered as having little to do with, or as being diametrically opposed to, the world of chivalric romance. See, for example, the remarks of Larry D. Benson, Malory's "Morte Darthur" (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976), pp. 137-201. For the inventory of books discussed here, see Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, ed. Norman Davis, Part I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 516-18. Madden, with his usual encyclopedic knowledge, makes a passing reference to this inventory in his note to the Greene Knight (p. 352). G. A. Lester has discussed the inventory, and provided valuable commentary and background, in "The Books of a Fifteenth-Century English Gentleman, Sir John Paston," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88 (1987), 200-17.

19 The most notable of these heraldic miscellanies has been described in great detail by G. A. Lester, Sir John Paston's "Grete Boke": A Descriptive Catalogue, with an Introduction, of British Library MS Lansdowne 285 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984). It contains, among many other items, a formulary (pp. 80-3) for creating Knights of the Bath (mentioned at the end of Greene Knight), descriptions of armor, accounts of particular battles (historical and fictional), passages from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, proclamations for tournaments, and so on. For a more fanciful armorial album, recording two coats of arms associated with Sir Gawain, see note 21 below.

20 This is the title Caxton gives in his colophon, Works, p. 1260. The notation that Paston's Dethe off Arthur has its "begynyng at Cassab . . ." suggests that he owned some English version of the Arthurian story ultimately derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, which began with the conflicts between Julius Caesar and Cassivelaunus or Cassibellaunus, King of the Britons - Shakespeare's Cymbeline - (section fifty three of the Latin text). See The Historia Regum Britanniae, pp. 46-58, and The History of the Kings of Britain, pp. 106-119 (full citations in note 8, above). Among the English translations that Paston might have owned was that made at the end of the twelfth century by Layamon, though there is otherwise little evidence that Layamon influenced other Arthurian writers, or even found occasional readers, after his own time. For Layamon's account of the struggle see Layamon: Brut, ed. G. L. Brook and R. F. Leslie, EETS o.s. 250, 277 (London: 1963, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 214 ff. G. A. Lester has pointed out that the truncated spelling of Paston's inventory would also fit the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, that of Robert Mannyng, or the prose version of the Brut; see "The Books . . .," note 18, above, p. 203.

21 The link between armorial bearings as the guarantor of identity, status, and entitlement to landed wealth and the celebration of arms in chivalric romance is apparent to some degree in Paston's own "Grete Boke" (see note 19, above). The mix of chivalric reality and fiction is much more striking and suggestive in the somewhat informal collection of "Aunciant Coates" that occurs in British Library MS Harley 2169; here alongside recognizably historical and ceremonial bearings appear the arms of the Nine Worthy, the Three Kings of Cologne, and other chivalric celebrities. Of greatest interest in the present context are the arms attributed to "Uter Pendragon," King Arthur, "Sir Lawncelot de Lake," and the two devices given to Gawain. The first of Gawain's arms consists of a green field with three golden griffins passant (number 29); the second, in an azure field with three golden lions' heads (number 39). The first device corresponds closely to descriptions in various of the Gawain romances; see for example Carle, lines 55 ff. A description of the arms in Harley 2169, together with rough facsimiles, is provided in The Ancestor 3 (1902), 185-213; see especially numbers 27-49.

22 Benson (note 18, above) provides a stimulating and informative discussion of the contexts of late medieval chivalric romance in Malory's "Morte Darthur," pp. 137-201.

23 Robert Laneham, A Letter: Whearin part of the entertainment untoo the Queens Maiesty . . . [1575], ed. R. C. Alston (Menston, UK: Scolar, 1968). The description of the festivities and Captain Cox occurs on pp. 34-36 of this facsimile edition; I have imposed modern conventions of orthography, capitalization, and word division in my quotations of the Letter. The Captain's reputation as a performer was sufficiently extensive for Ben Jonson to mention him and "his Hobbyhorse" in his Masque of Owls (1624); in his novel Kenilworth (1821), Sir Walter Scott gives an account of the festivities. Madden also notes Laneham's mention of Gawain in his Letter, and takes this as a reference to Jeaste (p. 349).

24 Laneham's descriptive phrase was surely proverbial. Though B. J. Whiting, Proverbs and Proverbial Sentences . . . (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968) gives no instances, passing references to Gawain's reputation for hardihood occur in "The Thrush and the Nightingale," Sir Degrevant, The Squire of Low Degree, and Squire Meldrum. See also the list of some one hundred thirty-five Arthurian allusions in non-Arthurian texts compiled by Christopher Dean, Arthur of England (full citation, below, note 26), pp. 130-56. The number and character of these allusions suggest that Gawain's proverbial stature may have been greater outside the literate tradition, within popular oral discourse.

25 One striking title in the Captain's repertoire was "The Knight of Courtesy and the Lady Faguell" - not a version of Gawain and Ragnelle, but a sentimental romance that surivives in an Elizabethan print; see The Knight of Curtesy and the Fair Lady of Faguell, ed. Elizabeth McCansland, Smith College Studies in Modern Languages (Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith College, n.d. [?1922]).

26 J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), p. 140 and note 12. Madden (p. 349) also noted this reference, concluding "It is no doubt this romance [the Jeaste of Syr Gawayne, edited below, and not Sir Gawain and the Green Knight] which is alluded to. . . ." Christopher Dean, Arthur of England: English Attitudes to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), who mentions Cox, also assumes this is the Jeaste. For further bibliographical information on Jeaste, see the introduction to that romance.

27 William Matthews some time ago pointed out the features of orality - archaic diction, formulaic phrasing, alliterative linking, and so on - in the "sollem song" of an "auncient minstrell" of Islington, whose performance during the royal entertainment at Kenilworth in 1575, like that of Captain Cox, was described in Laneham's Letter (pp. 46-56; see above, note 23, for citation). His recital of "King Arthurz acts" was apparently based upon the published text of Malory's Morte Darthur, though whether he had read it for himself or heard it read is unspecified. His performance in any case unmistakably involved improvisation, and Matthews shrewdly adduced this as evidence that traditional techniques and materials (which may or may not have been written down) remained vital through the end of the sixteenth century. What is striking above all is the mixed character of the event - at once literate and oral, modern and traditional, reflecting French verse forms and native poetic practice, a popular improvisation yet part of a royal command performance. The avid interest - Laneham was a London merchant and courtier - attracted by Arthurian narrative in this mixed form perhaps offers a model for the kinds of responses medieval chivalric romances excited; in particular, it points to the diversity of audiences and occasions, and the range of feelings, from unselfconscious glee to patronizing smugness, that listeners might experience. See Matthews, "Alliterative Song of an Elizabethan Minstrel," Research Studies 32 (1964), 134-46.

28 See Derek Pearsall, "Middle English Romance and its Audiences," Historical and Editorial Studies in Medieval and Early Modern English for Johan Gerritsen, ed. Mary-Jo Arn and Hanneke Wirtjes with Hans Jansen (Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, n.d. [?1985]), pp. 37-47, whose summary remarks on oral and literate preservation, on "re-composition" and improvisation in performance, and the "range of possible audiences" complement the presentation I offer here. In "The Myth of the Minstrel Manuscript," Speculum 66 (1991), 43-73, Andrew Taylor offers a careful review of surviving manuscript evidence for popular performance, emphasizing the interdependence of oral and written, official and unofficial cultural elements. Taylor does not consider the mixed nature of the Islington minstrel's performance of Arthurian romance (see Matthews' essay cited in the previous note), or the odd example of such mixed literate-oral material printed by Rossell Hope Robbins, "A Gawain Epigone," Modern Language Notes 58 (1943), 361-66; this comprises a fifty-three line fragment in garbled alliterative verse, apparently composed by Humphrey Newton. The formulaic phrasing seems repeatedly to imitate lines in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (with parallels as well in Awntyrs and Gologras not noted by Robbins); it is not clear whether this is a purely literary excursion or a feeble record of some performance, but the deployment of alliterative linking is so mechanical and haphazard that the fragment seems completely incoherent.

29 While I emphasize in this account the performance tradition that gave continuing life to the medieval chivalric romances, the sixteenth century also produced a significant number of printed romances that circulated among readers. Beginning with the materials produced by Caxton and his successors noted above, a string of knightly narratives issued from the presses, though relatively few were Arthurian. The two surviving fragments of the Jeaste, together with a license to issue another edition of the poem (dating from about 1529 to 1559), seem to be the only publication of verse romances; see the introduction to Jeaste in this volume for a full account. Malory's prose Morte Darthur was issued a number of times during the century, and a prose History of . . . Arthur of lytell Brytayne, translated by Lord Berners, appeared sometime before 1566. See Ronald S. Crane, The Vogue of Medieval Chivalric Romance During the English Renaissance (Menasha, Wisconsin: George Banta, 1919), who lists all editions chronologically; Dean, Arthur of England (note 24, above), offers a selective overview.

30 The preservation and lively performance of chivalric romances among urban working people - Captain Cox was "by profession a Mason, and that right skilfull" - recalls Shakespeare's cast of performers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Coventry and Kenilworth are not far distant from Stratford-upon-Avon, and Cox was likely only one of the more notable of workers who could perform even classical stories, like "Virgils Life" or "Lucres and Eurialus."

31 The Story of England by Robert Mannyng, ed. F. J. Furnivall, Rolls Series 34 (London: 1887), lines 101-02. Mannyng wrote his Chronicle in 1338.

32 See Cambridge University Library Manuscript Ff. 2.38, ed. Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson (London: Scolar Press, 1979). For discussion of the context of the shared and conflicted interests of popular religion and popular romance, see Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 69-71.

33 Among all the verse romances printed by Caxton and his immediate successors for English readers, none are Arthurian. (Malory's Morte Darthur, though it appropriates at least two English verse romances - the alliterative and stanzaic poems on the death of Arthur - is in prose.) Likewise, none of the poems satirized by Chaucer or dismissed in the Speculum vitae has Arthurian connections. The Gawain romances, and other popular Arthurian tales, seem therefore to have held sway mainly outside the world of print, and beyond the notice of literate and official culture (whether because more admired or beneath contempt seems unclear). Except for the print of Gologras and Gawain, and the two surviving fragments of Jeaste, all of the Gawain romances - including those in multiple copies and multiple versions - survive in manuscript copies only.

34 For histories of medieval romance, and the place of chivalric romance in that larger context, see the individual books listed in the "Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited" by Barron, Mehl, Ramsey, Richmond, and Wittig.

35 Questions surrounding romance as a literary genre, the nature of popular writing, and its relation to the reigning values of a society have been considered in a number of publications, none of which directly address medieval chivalric romance. These include Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Colin MacCabe, "Defining Popular Culture," High Theory / Low Culture: Analysing Popular Television and Film, ed. MacCabe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), pp. 1-10; and Bob Ashley, The Study of Popular Fiction: A Source Book (London and Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), which contains a number of classic analytical essays, with introductions and bibliographies.

36 Reactions to the romances as worthless or potentially damaging to one's character or soul come mainly from those associated with literacy - church officials, "serious" writers - rather than from the secular nobility. As Sir John Paston's literary interests imply, everyone within the gentry, from local knights to the royal household, enjoyed chivalric tales, and kings (and their image-makers) continued to see the useful connections between Arthurian legend and monarchical prestige throughout the late Middle Ages. In addition to the comments on the Arthurian interests of Edward I and Edward III above, which make clear the uses of chivalric pageantry in consolidating the interests of a dominant group and in naturalizing estate or class differences as a feature of cohesive national identity, see David Carlson, "King Arthur and Court Poems for the Birth of Arthur Tudor in 1486," Humanistica Lovaniensia 36 (1987), 147-83.

37 See Valerie Krishna, Five Middle English Arthurian Romances (New York: Garland, 1991), pp. 24-26 (on Carlisle); though elsewhere in the introduction the point is made that these romances require appropriate standards for a proper appreciation, these remarks are on the whole representative. Similar assessments occur in the summary accounts of these tales in standard literary histories and in the Manual of the Writings in Middle English (see Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited).

38 The popular, or at least non-literary, character of the romances in the present volume appears strikingly in their complete lack of allusion to any other literary text. Though occasionally a poem refers to another Arthurian character or story, these narratives never demand, or even assume, that an imagined audience be prepared to make the textual associations that Chaucer, for example, assumed his readers would enjoy, and indeed would need to see any value in his writing. Even Malory's Morte Darthur, which for all its length makes no reference to a non-Arthurian text, is more literary than these romances simply because Malory created it in writing out of an encyclopedic array of French books (together with a handful of English poems).

39 Awntyrs and Gologras in many respects constitute exceptions to the general remarks made here about the popular character of the Gawain romances. As their individual introductions make clear, both seem to have been produced by a self-conscious and literate composer, working from a written source, who made the fullest use of alliteration and formulas traditionally associated with native poetic traditions. Both poems enjoyed popularity in being reproduced in multiple copies - four manuscript versions of Awntyrs survive, and Gologras was one of the first Gawain romances in print - but the exceptional artfulness of their meter, verse forms, and descriptive detail separate them from the unchecked narrative movement of the other poems in this volume.

40 Arthur is characterized as "childgered" in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (line 86), as he anticipates adventure before the great feast. The word may imply a boyish merriness or a childish recklessness, or some combination of these traits.

41 From the time of William the Conqueror, the forests were regarded as the special preserve of the king; by the time of Henry II, one third of England was subject to forest law. Hunting was at the king's prerogative only, and large game - specifically deer (the animals pursued in Ragnelle, Carlisle, Awntyrs, and Marriage), and wild boar (hunted in Avowyng, and together with deer and foxes, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Greene Knight) - were reserved solely for the king. The Dialogue of the Exchequer (late twelfth century) describes the forests as "the sanctuary and special delight of kings, where . . . away from the turmoils inherent in a court, they breathe the pleasure of natural freedom"; justice in the forest comes not from the law, but from "the will and whim of the king." Any adventure occurring in a forest would therefore inevitably constitute a fundamental confrontation with the power invested in the person and the office of the king. See Dialogus de Scaccario, revised edition, edited and translated by Charles Johnson and others (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); I have modified the translation slightly.

42 Raymond Williams employs the term "magical resolution" (as a kind of false consciousness that entraps those without power into agreement with social relations contrary to their interests) in his discussion of the social function of literature in the Industrial Revolution; see The Long Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), pp. 65-71. For a general discussion of some of the main issues surrounding the analysis of popular culture from a social and historical perspective, together with excerpts from classic essays, see Ashley, The Study of Popular Fiction (note 35, above).

43 See John Insley, "Some Aspects of Regional Variation in Early Middle English Personal Nomenclature," Leeds Studies in English n.s. 18 (1987), 183-99, which provides evidence that surviving names exactly reflect "the heterogeneous nature of settlement patterns in this northern borderland" (p. 183).

44 On the character of late medieval border territories, see Anthony Goodman, "Religion and Warfare in the Anglo-Scottish Marches," Medieval Frontier Societies, ed. Robert Bartlett and Angus MacKay (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), pp. 245-66.

45 I borrow the term "border writing" here from D. Emily Hicks, Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); for its usefulness in describing cultural situations of the medieval West, I am indebted to Kathleen Biddick. Border writing helps to suggest the ways in which popular chivalric romance joins discreet forms, miscellaneous subject matters, and potentially antagonistic audiences, and splits what might otherwise seem unified interests and groups. In this way, the romances define a border site of intersections and possible resistance to established regimes. Yet their crossover status consists chiefly in their openness to appropriation in different ways and in differing situations they may well have offered a cheerful reinforcement of the status quo for many, perhaps most, audiences.

46 The notable exceptions are Gologras, which sets its action on the continent, Cornwall, which takes place in Little Britain, and Jeaste.

47 For a detailed description of the place of geography and geology in the economic, political, and social life of the area of the Gawain romances, see Angus J. L. Winchester, Landscape and Society in Medieval Cumbria (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1987).

48 The earliest copy of the ballad of Adam Bell is a fragment of a print from 1536; it survives in five additional versions, including one in the Percy Folio manuscript (which contains Greene Knight, Turke, Marriage, Cornwall, and other narratives). At the outset of the ballad, Adam and his companions are, like Robin Hood, "outlawed for venyson" and "swore them brethen upon a day / To Englysshe-wood for to gone"; the odd spelling preserves the original sense of an English enclave in Celtic territories. See The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child (1888; rpt. New York: Dover, 1965), vol. 3, pp. 22 ff. (stanza 4). In the context of such popular tales, it is worth noting that one of the Robin Hood ballads, Queen Katherine, has the knight whom Robin befriends, Sir Richard Lee, descend "from Gawiins blood"; see Child, vol. 3, p. 199 (stanza 22). This ballad also survives in the Percy Folio manuscript.

49 Robert Bartlett has recently argued that armed expansion might be taken as a defining characteristic of European identity in the high Middle Ages; see The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). The extensive documentation Bartlett provides for this earlier period provides useful contexts for understanding the romances and their historical impact during the following two centuries and beyond.

50 William Matthews, The Tragedy of Arthur: A Study of the Alliterative "Morte Arthure" (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960). Matthews' passing commentary on the language and texture of the alliterative poetry is an invaluable feature of his study.

51 Michael J. Bennett, Community, Class and Careerism: Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

52 Bennett takes Sir John Stanley as one of the central figures in his discussion of "Power, Patronage and Provincial Culture," in Community, Class and Careerism, pp. 192-235, especially 215 ff. See also Bennett's discussion of the Stanleys in "'Good Lords' and 'King Makers': The Stanleys of Lathom in English Politics, 1385-1485," History Today 31 (1981), 12-17, and the information on Sir John in The Dictionary of National Biography, entry for Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby. The poem on the Stanleys appears in the Palatine Anthology: A collection of Ancient Poems and Ballads relating to Lancashire and Cheshire, ed. J. O. Halliwell (London, 1850), pp. 210-22.

53 From the twelfth century, knights descended from non-noble families (especially those whose positions depended upon the favor of the king) frequently were attacked as "raised from the dust" (in the words of the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis). Qualification for knighthood, or at least for membership in a formal Order of Knighthood, increasingly required proof of lineal nobility stretching back for two generations; as chivalric romances became more broadly popular, therefore, the highest aristocracy consciously intensified the exclusivity governing its ranks. See Keen, Chivalry, pp. 143 ff.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Sir Gawain, Eleven Romances and Tales: General Introduction

Sir Gawain as Hero

All the glamour, mystery, and moral authority that chivalry might command were invested for late medieval audiences in the charismatic figure of Sir Gawain. Perhaps the most delightful and memorable testimonial to his celebrity is offered by Lady Bertilak the first morning she visits the knight in his bedroom, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He alone, she says, possesses "The prys and the prowes that plesez al other" [line 1249: the worship and daring that gives everyone pleasure];
For I wene wel, iwysse, Sir Wowen ye are,
That alle the worlde worchipez quereso ye ride;
Your honour, your hendelayk is hendely praysed
With lordez, wyth ladyes, with alle that lyf bere
[lines 1226-29: for I know it well, you are Sir Gawain, whom all the world honors wherever you ride; your honor, your graciousness is courteously praised among lords and ladies, among all who are alive].1 Though Lady Bertilak may intend to flatter (and perhaps compromise) Gawain by telling him that every living soul knows and admires his reputation for knightly virtue, it is hardly an exaggeration as far as late medieval readers and listeners were concerned; most English audiences, both courtly and popular, would think of Sir Gawain as the chief ornament of "Arthures hous . . . That al the rous rennes of thurgh ryalmes so mony" [Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, lines 309-10: Arthur's household, whose extravagant fame runs through so many kingdoms]. Chaucer, always attuned to popular taste despite his extraordinary bookishness, pays an equally telling tribute to the universality of Gawain's status as the paragon of knighthood. That most sentimentally chivalric of narrators, the Squire, praises the "reverence and obeisaunce / As wel in speche as in countenaunce" of a "strange knyght" by suggesting he is like "Gawayn, with his olde curteisye . . . comen ayeyn [again] out of Fairye" (lines 89 ff.). To equal Gawain was to be a knight indeed, though it's worth noting that even the Squire links such ideal chivalry to magic and fairy tale.

Gawain's stature and renown - if not in his own mythical lifetime, then among the flesh and blood listeners and readers of late medieval England - had as its source and substance the popular romances that make up the present volume. Almost all of these were composed or written down in the fifteenth century or later. Before these romances appeared, Gawain already enjoyed a reputation in England through two early fourteenth-century verse translations based upon twelfth-century French romances (Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain [c. 1175] and Renaut de Beaujeu's Le bel inconnu [c. 1190]). Moreover, the only surviving copy of a Latin pedigree produced for Gawain - De ortu Waluuani [The Origins of Gawain], an account (from the twelfth or thirteenth century) of his youth and early exploits modeled after the pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1136) - was apparently copied in England in the fourteenth century.2

The Alliterative Morte Arthure (second half of the fourteenth century) extends the chronicle tradition of Geoffrey and Layamon's Brut (thirteenth century), exalting Gawain as a fierce and impetuous warrior, the greatest fighter in Arthur's troop. His slayer and half-brother Mordred eulogizes Gawain as "makles one molde," "the graciouseste gome . . . man hardyeste of hande . . . the hendeste in hawle . . . , the lordelieste of ledynge" [lines 3875-3880: matchless on earth, the most courteous knight, hardiest in strength, most affable in hall, most gentle in conduct]. When King Arthur hears the news of Gawain's death, he cries, "thou was worthy to be kynge, thofe [though] I the corowne bare [bore] . . . I am uttirly undone" (lines 3962, 3966). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight elaborates upon this reputation, establishing its hero as the sterling exemplar of chivalry even as it probes the contradictory links between courtesy and violent death, private conscience and public honor, within the ethos of knighthood.

The glowing testimonials of the Gawain-poet and Chaucer do not, however, primarily pay tribute to a fame conferred upon Gawain by books and translations. The casual quality of their allusions depends for its resonance not upon reading knowledge, but upon pervasive recognition that the name of Gawain was the proverbial equivalent of courtesy itself. The exploits, gallantries, and preternatural encounters rehearsed in the eleven romances and ballads gathered here make plain the nature and the extent of Gawain's appeal as all things knightly to all people of late medieval England. Gawain's perfect courtesy does not, however, endow him with a coherent identity; it simply serves as a touchstone, revealing the true or false chivalry of the various antagonists who test him. To see this as deriving from some original core of myth, or to argue that Gawain's charisma springs from his being before all else an archetypal hero or solar deity, seriously distorts the miscellaneous character of these adventures, ignores their deep and tangled roots in the social and cultural life of late medieval England, and, perhaps worst of all, represses the episodic surges and performative energy that animate these narratives and songs.3

Gawain's celebrity nonetheless stretches far back, beyond his appearances in high medieval literary romances, or in later popular romances and ballads like those collected here.4 He appears initially to have been a legendary Celtic hero with supernatural powers, though the precise origins of the figure who becomes the knightly Sir Gawain are shrouded by typical Arthurian ambiguities. The waxing of Gawain's strength before noon, and its waning thereafter (as in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory) may reflect some prehistoric link with a sun god.5 In his earliest adventures, Gawain seems to have had northern, often Scottish, affinities; he is the son of King Lot of Lothian and Orkney, connecting him through this ancestry with Edinburgh in the heart of Midlothian and with the Northern Isles. These associations may explain why the popular English Gawain romances consistently and distinctively set their action near the northern city of Carlisle, close to the border with Scotland.6 Whether the earliest oral traditions (now lost) constituted a separate cycle of stories, or whether they associated him with Arthur, the legendary British warlord who fought against continental Germanic invaders in the fifth century, is not clear. Written versions of Welsh tales, including "Culhwch and Olwen," make Gwalchmai a companion of Arthur (the king's sister's son) and a figure equivalent to Gawain. Welsh translations of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136) endorse this identity of Gwalchmai with Geoffrey's Walwanus, nephew of Arthur. Gawain's heroism had, by the early twelfth century, become increasingly well known; a sculpture (dated before 1109) at the Cathedral in Modena, Italy, depicts Gawain undertaking a siege, together with Arthur and two other knights, and the historian William of Malmesbury (c. 1125) mentions Gawain in a way that assumes his learned readers' familiarity with this hero's adventures.7 The transforming event in the literary history of Arthur and his knights, however, was the completion of The History of the Kings of Britain by the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth; in summarizing, synthesizing, and inventing a wide range of traditions, the History made available to learned and popular writers and their audiences the fundamental stories of the Round Table, in which Gawain figures prominently.8 As the son of Arthur's sister (Morgause, or, in some accounts, Anna), he enjoys with the king the privileged relationship of mother's brother-sister's son (like Hygelac-Beowulf, or Charlemagne-Roland). Unlike Arthur, whose place at the center of things as the source of law and order sometimes makes him seem immobile - a roi feneant or do-nothing king - Gawain possesses the youthful freedom to take on strange adventures and exotic journeys, and can turn these exploits to his uncle's glory. In this crucial supporting role he stands in profound contrast to his dangerously restless brother Mordred (sister's son and biological son to the king through incest), who in many versions initiates an Oedipal, generational conflict that results in the downfall of the king, his father-uncle.

As knightly prowess, chivalric honor, and sexual love become central motifs in Arthurian narrative, Sir Gawain (Walwanus in Latin, Gauvain in French, with initial G and W sounds interchangeable in Middle English) becomes an increasingly favored hero. In the enormously influential and highly polished French romances of Chrétien de Troyes (late twelfth century), Gawain often serves as a companion and foil to the hero; his single-minded devotion to physical conquest, in combat and in love, makes him a less than ideal knight, in contrast to Perceval, Yvain, or even Lancelot. In later French medieval narratives, his character varies from comic inadequacy to moral imperfection (as in the Queste del Saint Graal) to complicity in the downfall of the Round Table, to outright villainy.9 Sir Gawain's character in other medieval vernaculars was generally more favorable than in the French Arthurian romances that were their source. In German stories, for example, he plays a mixed role, and in romances from the Netherlands he enjoys an almost entirely positive portrayal.

Only in the popular romances in English, however, does a genuine cult of Sir Gawain emerge, making him the unsurpassed flower of chivalry. Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, these poems celebrate Arthurian chivalry in its glorious, even reckless youth, and the vigorous exploits of Sir Gawain offer only an occasional glimpse of the eventual downfall of the Round Table. Gawain's singular renown in these popular narratives - often drawn from traditional tales and oral stories, either with no known sources or with only a distant relation to a literary text - contrasts with the relatively minor role he plays in the two Gawain romances based directly upon French originals, both dating from the earlier fourteenth century. Ywain and Gawain condenses Gawain's role from Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, leaving him less active both as a partisan of chivalry and as an obstacle to true love; Libeaus Desconus casts Gawain as the absent father and sometime instructor of Gingelein, "The Fair Unknown." The only other notable appearance of Sir Gawain in medieval English romance occurs in the three sustained chronicles of Arthur's death: the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and Malory's prose Morte Darthur (which makes use of the two poems). Gawain's character parallels the later French tradition; though his courtesy and prowess remain prominent, he appears as frequently truculent, vindictive, and reckless, and takes a central part in the tragedy of the Round Table.

For the last one hundred and fifty years readers have come to know the medieval Sir Gawain through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This fourteenth-century alliterative poem (roughly contemporary with Awntyrs, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) presents the most elegant and subtle portrait of his chivalric courtesy and valor. Although the composer possessed extensive knowledge of Arthurian story, he only hints at the downfall of the fellowship. In this, he follows the almost unswervingly favorable view taken in the popular Gawain romances, which by far surpass in number those on any other Arthurian (or non-Arthurian) hero, and all of which are collected in this volume.10

Romance and Chivalry

The Middle English word knight derives from Old English cniht, a noun with a broad and variable range of meaning, including boy, servant, attendant, warrior. The abstract noun knighthood did not exist in Old English, for the social role and the code of values it describes did not come into being until the High Middle Ages (after the year 1000). Knighthood is the English equivalent for the French chivalrie, which in its primary sense meant a troop of mounted warriors; through the use of stirrups, swords, and lances, these fighters on horseback had awesomely increased the level of damage a warrior might inflict, and conferred upon knights as a group undisputed preeminence among the secular, land-holding aristocracy. But more and more, chivalrie came to mean the ideals - self-consciously proclaimed, but acknowledged by other classes in society as well - that gave a chevalier or knight his identity.11 Knighthood did not just entail prowess or success as a fighter (mainly this was required, but sometimes not); it demanded as well the distinctive and deliberate identification with a code that virtually all members of society endorsed as a source of privilege. So powerfully did the moral and social authority of this role enhance the identity of the secular aristocracy that by the later Middle Ages even kings and emperors considered themselves first of all knights.

Chivalry (or knighthood) therefore emerged as a code when those who already possessed power claimed this identity for themselves as proper, desirable, and exclusive. Though the first documents to mention knights ("milites," the Roman word for soldiers) occur in Latin, the official language of the Church, knighthood is clearly a secular or lay aristocratic form of life. The deeds of famous knights seem first to have been memorialized in vernacular oral poetry, like The Song of Roland, and great lords and noble fighters must have supported composers and singers who celebrated a warrior ethos in their own tongue before their own entourage. In this way, chivalry worked to define group consciousness, and so consisted not simply in great deeds but in their communal preservation. But chivalry as an identity possessed exclusively by members of a specific class is a social and historical impossibility, for any group's identity depends upon its place in a larger society where those outside validate its existence by acknowledging - adopting, or even rejecting - its distinctive values. The earliest literary versions of chivalry in themselves demonstrate that the leap had already taken place from oral, memorial poetry, celebrating a hero among his own group, to a culturally endorsed chivalry, presenting a hero whom an entire society, with its different estates and diverse interests, might celebrate as its ideal representative.12

From its earliest historical origins, those concerned with chivalry as a code, including knights themselves, thought of it as stemming from some ideal, and therefore prehistoric and unhistorical, golden age. These ancient roots sanctioned its existence and strengthened its prerogatives, but also made every chivalric deed no more than a pale imitation of some lost perfection. Even the earliest Arthurian writings feature this element of nostalgia, and so present chivalry as a normative fantasy. This idealizing tendency continues to shape late medieval aristocratic institutionalization of chivalry as a class code, through the establishment of national and international Orders of Knights with written statutes. This legendary and literary influence is especially clear in Britain, the land of Arthur. In the late thirteenth century, when King Edward I wished to increase his prestige and power as a national figure and military leader in his struggles with the Welsh, he associated himself with Arthur, and held a number of tournaments and feasts that made the Round Table a central feature.13 His grandson, Edward III, proposed to formalize this connection between knighthood and the Arthurian ethos: in 1344, influenced by the modern establishment of Orders of Knights in France and Spain, he proposed to initiate an English Order based upon the model of King Arthur, a "refounding" of the Round Table. Though Edward eventually abandoned these explicit Arthurian parallels in founding the Order of the Garter (1349), the interplay between social reality and literary mythification continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern era, as the Morte Darthur and Don Quixote, for example, make clear.14 The matter of Britain gave stirring articulation to the ideals of knighthood, and these idealizations in turn articulated for their audiences a sense of common national interests and natural class divisions. In offering a vision of chivalry that is both timeless and nostalgic, the romances actively worked to mediate or veil the various conflicts embedded in such interests, at least for their most enthusiastic audiences. The motto at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in this way invokes the historical Order of the Garter as at once a prototype and a product of the poem's chivalry, and its derivative, The Greene Knight, similarly provides a "history" for the post-medieval Order of the Knights of the Bath.15

The historical Orders of knighthood, together with other less formal structures, were attempts to organize and regulate the behavior of a particular group, but they warmly invited the interest and affirmation of other classes. Knights, starting with the king, recognized the power of knightly spectacle to produce chivalric sentiment in all audiences. Edward III, "remembering the deeds of the ancients, and considering how much the use and love of arms has exalted the name and glory of knightly men, and how much the royal throne would be strengthened and dissentions reduced," offered his endorsement of a tournament as a festivity beneficial for all members of society.16 Knightly conduct and ritual thus entailed the staged celebration of chivalry, and the appeal of knighthood as spectacle clearly extended beyond the class of knights themselves. Popular romances, in substituting idealizations of knightly conduct for the conduct itself, may have had greater impact in creating and reinforcing chivalric sentiment (in particular, among non-chivalric audiences) than anything knights did for themselves. In this way, stories like those of Sir Gawain perform social and political functions, making identification with chivalric values possible for a much wider spectrum of the king's subjects than an elite Order or an actual tournament might ever affect.

The Popular Appeal of Chivalric Romance

The dozen and more surviving Gawain romances form a unity not simply through their shared hero, but, perhaps even more, through their character as more popular than literary. As narratives, they manifest the features of romance in all its meanings: chivalry, Arthurian legend, prowess in combat, personal love, intrigue, encounters with the marvelous, and the decisive resolution of every real or potential conflict. These tales celebrate the idealized chivalry of some distant Arthurian past, but in so doing they inevitably enhance the stature and prerogative of late medieval knighthood - an elite, aristocratic, warrior and land-owning class that largely controlled social, political, and military life. Yet the poems themselves do not originate in that class. These romances were composed for broad consumption, perhaps sometimes for audiences including knights, perhaps sometimes for readers, but mainly for listeners in large, diverse, and mixed groups. The manuscripts (and the single printed edition) in which they occur were not produced for the great households: they are in no way deluxe, but at best serviceable, and sometimes downright shabby.17 The survival of individual romances must often have been chancy, depending upon the impulse of an unusual literate and literary listener - like the post-medieval compiler of the Percy Folio - who, for whatever reason, wished a record of such popular entertainment. The texts themselves are marked for oral recitation, with cues for the audience and reciter and conventional rhyme schemes associated with minstrelsy and oral performance. The narratives unfold through traditional plots and reiterated motifs, glorify a popular hero whom everyone knew, and eventuate in happy endings which bring the characters within the story to terms with one another, and which reconcile the audience outside the story to the structures and ideals epitomized by a "chivalric" (or hierarchically ordered) society.

The volume of surviving material, and the number of allusions in every kind of writing, make plain that the legends of Gawain's courtesy were widely known. Yet the precise nature and extent of this popularity within specific social contexts has remained vague. Two pieces of evidence (not much commented upon in the context of these Gawain stories) help to clarify the environment in which popular chivalric romances flourished - how, when, and by whom they were composed, performed, listened to, read, and copied. In the later 1470s Sir John Paston commissioned an "Inventory off Englysshe bokis" from his own library.18 These included religious and devotional works, "a boke off nyw statutys from [King] Edward the iiii," Christine de Pisan's Epistle of Othea, some treatises by Cicero, an impressive collection of Chaucer's writings, and various romances; among the latter were Guy of Warwick, Kyng Richard Cure de lyon (i.e., "the Lionheart"), and Guy and Colbronde (perhaps in Lydgate's version). A series of volumes attests Paston's dedication to heraldry and chivalry: "myn olde boke off blasonyngys," "the newe boke portrayed and blasonyd," "a copy off blasonyngys off armys," "a boke wyth armys portrayed in paper" - altogether, an encyclopedia of coats of arms, which must have held urgent interest for the first member of a socially mobile family elevated to a knighthood.19

The list records as well "my boke off knyththod and therin . . . off making off knyghtys, off justys, off torn[aments, off] fyghtyng in lystys . . . and chalengys, statutys off weer [war]." For our purposes the crowning items in this collection are two other romances: the first title, "A boke . . . off the Dethe off Arthur," and, in the third group, "the Greene Knyght." The appearance of a narrative on the "Dethe off Arthur" in Paston's library is especially arresting since Malory composed his Morte Darthur less than a decade earlier (1469 or 1470), and Caxton published "thys noble and Ioyous book entytled le morte Darthur" only a few years after the compilation of this inventory, in 1485.20 The pride of place awarded this volume within the inventory perhaps implies the special value or interest that Arthurian romance held for Sir John (though it's unlikely that he actually possessed the Winchester Manuscript or any other copy of Malory's prose romance). The "Greene Knyght" which Paston had collected is almost certainly a retelling of the greatest of all English Arthurian poems. Nonetheless, the romance mentioned here as a single, anthologized item in "a blak boke" was probably neither Sir Gawain and the Green Knight nor the Greene Knight, but another, intermediary version of this Gawain story, probably more literary than the poem published in the present volume. Its place within Paston's library shows that the story circulated more widely than scholars have usually allowed, and that it was preserved through the interests of readers whose disparate tastes might range from folk narratives to proto-humanist translations of Cicero.

As a reader, an owner, and thereby even a sponsor of popular Arthurian romance, Sir John Paston represents a telling segment of the audience for such stories. Paston was a member of an influential and wealthy family, and may have studied at Cambridge University. Though perhaps less dedicated to the acquisition of property than his father, his possession of statute books and albums of armorial bearings reveals that his interest in knighthood was by no means anchored in fanciful romance.21 His careful attention to the law and his jealous regard for his family arms (and for those of others in power or on the move) show his energetic engagement with the harshly competitive life of the courts, both legal and royal. At the same time, life as a courtier made him a devotee of chivalry: in 1473 he had himself fitted for a complete suit of armor by the outfitter of the Bastard of Burgundy. Earlier, in 1467, he took part in a tournament at Eltham on the King's side (slightly injuring his hand), and later that year he made his own account of the jousting between Lord Scales and the Bastard of Burgundy. Paston's enthusiasm for popular chivalric romance seems then not to have been divorced from, but to have complemented his personal, familial, and public ambitions. In glorifying a fabulous Arthurian past, tales like Paston's "Greene Knyght" glorified the present as well, and their stylized, even fantasized ideals of knighthood simply reinforced his own sense of knightly identity and social order.22

A second private document, this one a description written some hundred years after Paston's inventory, supplies still more striking clues about the social processes that ensured the preservation and enjoyment of popular chivalric romances. Robert Laneham published A Letter describing "the entertainment" presented before Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575.23 Among the festivities arranged by the Earl of Leicester - the central theme of which was King Arthur and the Table Round - was an "olld storiall sheaw . . . expressed in actions and rymes," an historical and carnivalesque pageant which ends with English women taking the invading Danes captive. This was performed by players from neighboring Coventry, led by Captain Cox, a mason by day who seems also to have been a performance artist of sorts - "an od man I promis yoo . . . very cunning in sens, and hardy as Gawin," blustering about with his sword, acting, impersonating, singing, reciting, with "great oversight . . . in matters of storie." Laneham's unthinking comparison of the Captain to Gawain attests that his popularity as the proverbial epitome of noble English manhood continued from Chaucer's time through Shakespeare's.24

So impressed was Laneham that he devoted several pages of his letter to the Captain's repertoire. These included an enormous "bunch of ballets [ballads] and songs all auncient," which Laneham records by their familiar first lines; "a hundred more [which] he hath fair wrapt up in Parchment and bound with a whipcord"; traditional tales like "Robin Hood," "Adam Bel," "Clim of the Clough," "The King and the Tanner," "The Seargeaunt that became a Fryar," "Skogan," and "The Nutbrooun Maid"; more current stories such as "Gargantua," "Collyn Cloout," "The Sheperds Kalender," and "The Ship of Fools"; and matters of "Philosophy both morall and naturall." The Captain could also draw upon a huge store of medieval chivalric romances - "Bevys of Hampton," "The Squyre of Lo Degree," "Syr Eglamoour," "Sir Tryamoour," "Syr Isenbras" - and he seems to have had particular knowledge of Arthurian narratives, namely "King Arthurs book" and "Syr Gawyn."25 Although J. C. Holt has assumed that the last named romance was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it seems quite unlikely that a performance artist like Captain Cox would have access to, or any interest in, so highly literate a text.26 On the other hand, the skills and repertoire of the Captain and the mixed character of his audience - aristocratic, urban, and rural, consisting of women and men from the Queen to commoners - might well be taken as a heightened rendition of the diverse social environments in which Gawain romances like those in the present volume would thrive.

Laneham presents the Captain as capable of reciting not only romances like "Syr Gawyn," but "many moe [tales] then I rehears heere: I beleeve hee have them all at his fingers ends." Laneham refers to the bundle of written ballads that Cox carries, to the "omberty [abundance] of his books," and to his having "as fair a library for . . . sciences" as foreign competitors like "Nostradam of Frauns." On their face, these remarks seem to imply that Cox's performances were scripted and textual (though in the latter comments Laneham may have meant the abundance of titles in the "library" that Cox could reproduce memorially, "at his fingers ends"). Nonetheless, it is clear that what most impressed Laneham was the Captain's resources as an oral performer who could spontaneously produce "many goodly monuments both in prose and poetry and at afternoons can talk as much without book, as ony Inholder [inn keeper] betwixt Brainford and Bagshot, what degree soever he be."27 The surviving copies of Gawain romances collected in this volume for the most part reflect just such a combined oral-literate context of performance.28 The missing lines, gaps in the narratives, and the well-used (not to say dilapidated) quality of the manuscripts suggest that reciters must have carried them about - perhaps "bound with a whipcord" - and worked from them, beginning at the time of their composition and circulation in the fourteenth century, through the time of Captain Cox, and at least until the compiling of the Percy Folio Manuscript in the mid-seventeenth century.29 And Laneham's elaborate tribute makes clear that for the occasional literate listener like himself, as well as for large audiences from all ranks and areas, their appeal remained undiminished into the lifetime of Shakespeare.30

Nonetheless, evidence that this appeal was not universal, that popular romance might be openly resisted, especially by those identified with high, literate, or official culture, survives in reactions from a variety of sources. Already in the mid-fourteenth century Robert Mannyng complained that "disours," "seggers," and "harpours" - reciters, story-tellers, minstrels, performance artists all - distorted some presumed authentic or original text ("But I here it no man so say / That of som copple some is away" [I never hear a performer speak, except that some part is missing]).31 The Speculum vitae, versified instruction intended for oral presentation to (presumably non-literate) laity, starts out,
I warne yow first at the begynnyng,
I wil make no vayn spekyng
Of dedis of armes ne of amours,
As done mynstrels and gestours,
That makyn spekyng in many place
Of Octavyan and Isambrace,
And of many other gestis,
And namely when thei come to festis -
Ne of the life of Bevis of Hamtoun
That was a knyght of grete renoun
Ne of Gy of Warwick . . . .32
Yet one manuscript of the Speculum, apparently intended for the urban bourgeoise, contains as well (together with other tales) complete copies of Octavian, Beves, and Guy, the very chivalric romances denounced in this prologue. Clerical disdain found a counterpart in the literary scorn of popular narratives of knighthood that occurs in self-consciously artistic writers like Chaucer. "Sir Thopas," Chaucer's parodic narrative "Of bataille and of chivalry, And of ladyes love-drury [passion]," takes specific aim at the further layer of contradiction that "bourgeois" or "urban" brings to the already paradoxical genre of popular chivalric romance. Thopas, the improbable "flour [flower] / Of roial chivalry" shares his pedigree with other heroes of "romances of prys [great worth]," including "Horn Child," "Ypotys," "Beves," "Sir Gy," "Sir Lybeux," and "Pleyndamour." Satires like Chaucer's did not, however, discourage collectors like Sir John Paston from acquiring copies of Guy of Warwyk, Guy and Colbronde, and Chylde Ypotis; moreover, Caxton and his successors mass-produced such romances as Beves, Eglamour, Guy, Ysumbras, and Tryamour (as well as Malory's prose chronicle of Arthur), and a century after Caxton, Captain Cox still featured these chivalric tales in his repertoire of performances.33 The scorn and satire that constitute a rejection of popular chivalric romance certainly did not end their vogue, and in themselves may be taken as a proof and tribute to their continuing power over audiences.

Evidence that Gawain romances were much enjoyed in the late Middle Ages is abundant in the extensive allusions to his knightly courtesy, in the multiple production of copies (for Awntyrs and Gologras), and in the multiple versions and retellings that survive (Greene Knight, Marriage, and Carle all reprise earlier medieval romances, and the other renditions of Ragnelle together with the ballad-style narratives of Turke and Cornwall prove the wide circulation of these stories). Moreover, the worn state of several of the manuscripts that contain single surviving copies of these poems suggests that they were literally read to death, perhaps often before live audiences.34 But however broad their appreciation, can chivalric romances ever be taken as in any sense the literature of the people? Must we regard the celebration of knighthood as an imposition of the dominant culture, by which those largely outside political power are brought to celebrate secular society's most potent institution, and its symbol of the unequal division of estates or classes? When Captain Cox (or any one of his nameless predecessors) performed his "Sir Gawyn" before the Queen, a great lord, or even the Lord Mayor of Coventry, was he reinforcing the position of an elite class over him, or was he giving shape to an identity he as a stone mason shared with other workers, who must have constituted his chief audience?35

Such questions point to the elusive character of "popular" culture, and the difficulties that stand in the way of defining it in terms of the historical interests or lived experience of any distinct or exclusive social group or class. The censure of chivalric romance in high literary writing (Chaucer), popular burlesque (The Tournament of Tottenham), or ecclesiastical chastisement presents an emphatically negative view of popular culture; these imply that only the most simple and undemanding audience could sit through the exaggerations, absurdities, and contradictions of these tales, thereby making "popular" equivalent to ignorant or just plain bad. Yet the persistence of hostility towards chivalric romances from various quarters in itself proves that popular culture did not simply and irresistibly reproduce the values of a dominant order for mindless reception by a passive audience. Some medieval people - especially those in official positions, and those committed to refined or elite literacy - reacted to these tales as potentially subversive, and this rejection marks out one space for resistant or alternative readings and responses.36 Modern readers have often followed this negative assessment of popular culture in their own reaction to the romances. A recent translator of the Gawain stories, for example, remarks that they are "primitive," "rustic," and "crude," though at times "charming" or "touching."37 This critical perspective, in making the romances out to be failed attempts at psychological realism, too easily dismisses the potential in these narratives for laughter and disruption. The mixed character of the romances, their open disavowal of literary credibility in favor of the fantastic, their frequent comic tone and resort to extravagance and hyperbole, all have the effect of highlighting the absurdities, inequalities, and contradictions of a feudal order or chivalric ideals, even as they are idealized or celebrated. These seemingly naive and artless Arthurian stories, in giving pleasure and simple assurance to listeners at diverse social levels, exploit the paradoxical impulses that motivate the adventures of a bourgeois knight or a burger king, and in doing so they foreshadow the ultimate satire of this typically medieval hybrid, Cervantes' Don Quixote.

A fuller appreciation of the Gawain romances' popularity requires, then, a more vivid sense of the pleasure they gave to their sponsoring audiences. Though they may have appeared lacking in sophistication to committed readers of Chaucer's Knight's Tale or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the broad support for these stories among late medieval people reflects a deep enjoyment in listening or reading as a social (rather than solitary) event.38 The circumstances of public performance make "audience" itself perhaps too confining a term, since listeners must have taken some active part in such readings (as implied by the frequent injunctions that the audience behave), or become storytellers in their own right on other occasions. Performance artists must have given boisterous and flamboyantly histrionic recitals, impersonating roles through change of voice and gesture, playing the melodramatic sentimentality and violence to the utmost, priming and inciting their listeners' responses to the wondrous (and perhaps even more, to the incredible) elements in their plots. Chivalric romances achieved popularity by combining the narrative obviousness of a television sit-com with the ambience of a professional wrestling match. Having to read these romances, rather than hear and watch them performed, makes their participatory spontaneity difficult for modern audiences to relish, all the more so because they are in Middle English. Yet it was clearly as popular performance art, with strong elements of mimicry and burlesque, that they initially brought pleasure to the majority of their earliest listeners.39

The performance-oriented character of these romances emerges also in their narrative technique and narrative content. Self-conscious writers considered the apparently simple meter of tail-rhyme and alliterative narratives to be chief among their literary offenses; Chaucer has his Host declare the romance of Thopas "rym dogerel" and "drasty rymyng . . . nat worth a toord," and his Parson refuses to "geeste 'rum, ram, ruf' by lettre" - that is, to use the linking alliterative formulas of chivalric gests or tales. But partisans of popular romance did not seek the novelty of plot, individualized character, verbal ambiguities, subtle allusion, or variation in theme and image so dear to Chaucer. Like those who attend live musical concerts, they expected to hear lyrics they already knew, performed to a memorable beat that allowed them to vocalize along with the performer. Anyone who has attended a sporting event easily understands the power of rhythmic clapping, whether initiated by the crowd, the scoreboard, or the piped-in music of Queen ("We will, we will, rock you"). It was just this kind of participatory and moving experience that made the reading event so enjoyable for the audiences of chivalric romances, and made the romances so disreputable with the keepers of high culture.

The power of such simple meters remains obvious if one reads aloud the dense and richly echoic alliterative verse of Awntyrs or Gologras. There are elements of such alliteration in Avowyng as well as in some of the other romances, and a live performance (even by a solitary modern reader) softens the imputation of doggerel in the tail-rhyme romances as well. The strong beat that underlies the narrative and activates the audience is a striking residue of the orality that marks medieval (and later) popular culture. The performer's calls for order and participatory attention, the cues offered at narrative shifts or to control audience response, the relentless emphasis on surface description of clothing, accessories, armor, weapons, and other details demonstrate the public and social nature of these poems' reception. Just as the words of these tales try to present a vivid picture to listeners who can't review the text, so the words in the tales emphasize the importance of seeing and being seen; the array of synonyms for face, look, demeanor, appearance (which cannot be matched in the modern English glosses) helps convey the importance of direct contact and public self-presentation in the honor/shame culture of knighthood that the romances purport to describe. In the fiction as in its performance, identity abides in what one is seen to be or heard to say. What characters do or wear must be "ful clere" to all, and they must speak "on highe" so that all can hear, and so these frequently repeated phrases are hardly fillers; instead, they define the communal acknowledgment necessary for any action to have meaning or worth. The privileged role of spectacle within orality attaches as well to the rituals of combat, honor, and courtesy enacted by Gawain and the other knights. In a chivalric context, all speech and gesture (including, for example, laughter) require a proper form and an immediate response, or insult follows; knightly conduct therefore resembles the closed code of military speech, where each act demands a prescribed response, and only the unchivalric - Sir Kay, the Carle, Ragnelle - dare to overstep its limits, or speak out of turn.

The Gawain Romances and Tales as a Group

In drawing together all but a few of the romances that feature Sir Gawain, the present volume to some degree assumes that the force of the hero's character is sufficient to overshadow the differences in texts produced over the course of several hundred years. This anthology omits the three earliest Gawain romances in Middle English, Libeaus Desconus (before 1350), Ywain and Gawain (before 1350), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (about 1375). All of these have impressive literary pedigrees and an ease of accessibility for the modern reader that separates them from most of the other Gawain tales. Yet even among the "popular" poems published here there are striking degrees of difference in literariness: in particular, Awntyrs and Gologras depend directly on literary sources, manifest intensely self-conscious artifice, and push traditional, oral poetic traits to the point of hyper-development. Nonetheless, these two poems shared in the popularity of their hero, for Awntyrs survives in four copies (an exceptional number for a romance) and Gologras was among the first printed books from the Scottish press.

Gawain does, then, represent the central presence in these romances. It is crucial to note, however, that he holds these narratives together not through some novelistic sense of "character," as a unique and consistent personality with individualized traits, complexly drawn motives, or psychologized feelings. Instead, Gawain plays a role; he routinely facilitates the extravagant adventures that happen around him, and does so to such an extent that one might even think of him almost as a narrative function. The romances emphatically mark out, in social as well as narrative terms, just what this role encompasses: Gawain is a generation removed from the father-figure of the king, to whom he stands in the crucial relation of mother's brother-sister's son. Gawain shares this slot in the social order with his brothers, Aggravayne and the illegitimate Mordred, but he is clearly the "good son"; despite his exuberance and superior physical prowess, he is unwilling to challenge the fatherly authority of the king. Gawain's courtesy, in both martial and domestic situations, in this way makes him the chief mediator of the father's law, the young man who offers the ultimate reassurance about the status quo in demonstrating the suppleness and strength of the rules governing the social order.

As the exemplary Young Man, Gawain remains unfettered by trammels of authority, the need to think hard about the future or make decisions of political consequence; he is on the loose, constantly ready for adventure. Over and over, Gawain proves the worth of familiar values by facing the marvelous or unknown, and rendering it manageable for the rest of his society. But his preeminence does not simply consist in unhesitating courage or unparalleled ability. Again it is Gawain's courtesy - perfect composure in moments of crisis - that endows him with heroic stature. Repeatedly, Gawain exhibits a willing restraint of available force or a refusal of the authority of position, which separates him from non-chivalrous opponents and also from the arbitrary bullying or domineering impertinence of Sir Kay. Each courteous conquest stages the general triumph of civility, ensuring that the rituals that organize social meaning prevail in spite of confusion or even threat to life. Gawain's exceptional performance of the precepts that bind everyday social existence thus conveys a stirring endorsement of the rightness of things as they are. Moreover, his courtesy makes his conquests all the more complete, for they entail not annihilation or brute suppression, but the ungrudging concession of Gawain's superiority by some previously hostile or unknown Other. Gawain's role in the romances works therefore to effect the reconciliation or reappropriation, rather than the destruction, of the strange or alien, and this happy resolution in turn secures the audience's identification with the hero, and with the naturalness of the social order he represents.

The two other characters who figure prominently in the Gawain romances are King Arthur and Sir Kay, Arthur's Steward. As the great king, Arthur establishes Gawain's heroic stature and authorizes what might otherwise seem capricious escapades as knightly quests. Yet in playing this background role to reckless adventure, Arthur seems sometimes less than dynamic and often ambiguous. If he remains apart from the action, he appears either inessential (as in Carlisle or Jeaste) or bordering on the ineffectual and ludicrous (as in Ragnelle and Marriage). If he joins in the action, he runs the risk of appearing silly or "childgered" (as in Avowyng) or tyrannical (as in Gologras and perhaps in Awntyrs).40 His most kingly function is to appear in finales, confirming Gawain's successes and presiding over the reconciliation of conflict. Sir Kay cuts a still more ambiguous figure: he appears ambivalently aligned to both the older generation of King Arthur, and the reckless younger generation of Gawain, and is made to embody the worst tendencies of both. As Steward, he attempts to exploit the aristocratic privilege conferred through birth and position; he serves as Gawain's foil, trampling on courtesy and showing an arbitrary, impatient crabbedness to all he encounters. Kay lurches through each episode as an image of nobility out of control and in danger of self-destructing; as a character he is saved by unfailingly (and hilariously) receiving the comeuppance he so richly deserves, and by this same device the romances create a vision of chivalry as governed (and governing) through a rough but humane natural justice.

The Gawain romances achieve an obvious cohesion, then, through the name recognition of these central characters, through their repeated appearance and distinctive traits, and through the Arthurian associations most listeners would carry with them as part of their cultural baggage. Within the narratives predictable roles serve as powerful, stabilizing links that join rapid-fire episodes of marvels, violence, and mysterious confrontation, or extended and detailed description. The headlong sequencing of events, often apparently unmotivated or non-causal, and the lavish attention to surface realities equips the storytelling with a kinetic and spectacular quality that may leave a deeper impression on audiences than the characters themselves. This irruption of unforeseen wonders and threats is not, however, without pattern: these provide Gawain with the indispensable opportunity for heroic triumph, but they also illustrate recurrent settings, themes, and processes crucial to the social meaning of the romances. The unity that the poems attain is consequently often more the outcome of structural repetition and thematic variation than of character or event.

Among the scenes that the romances characteristically reproduce are encounters in the forest, on the battlefield, and in the bedroom. Unlike Dante's dark wood, Inglewood Forest is no thicket of inner spiritual crisis haunted by symbolic beasts; here hunters pursue English wild boar and deer, and occasionally meet up with weird or preternatural beings like Sir Gromer, the Carl, or the ghost of Guenevere's mother. Six of the poems in this collection begin with a forest episode; these clearly function as prologues, providing a familiar narrative space for the audience to quiet down and settle in. In each case, the woods at first are a place of aristocratic leisure and self-display, where members of the royal entourage can test their prowess against wild creatures and show their knowledge of hunting lore.41 The holiday atmosphere furnishes, however, a pretext for adventure; the temporary respite from martial rigors and constant vigilance opens the court (and its great hero) to a test not simply of prowess but of mettle, and the unconstrained environs give the unexpected challenger a chance to probe the Arthurian ensemble in unguarded moments.

Battlefield encounters are an expected feature of chivalric romance, and so it is perhaps surprising that many of these poems contain no actual scenes of combat, or furnish only a bare, allusive description of fighting. Only Awntyrs, Gologras, and Jeaste offer sustained accounts of knightly struggle. Typically, all battles take the form of duels, enabling participants to prove their skill and expand their reputations, and giving the audience a concrete portrayal of armed violence. In all the romances, however, fighting constitutes primarily a symbolic, rather than a simply physical, activity: it insists upon the rule-bound character of mortal combat, stretches the limits of courtesy to the extremities of life, and demonstrates the overlaps between masculine rivalry and bonding, and between enmity and reconciliation within a politics of national cohesion. Bedroom scenes, on the other hand, may at first seem out of place in these martial romances, but events staged in this intimate, domestic space work similarly to strengthen the bonds of male solidarity. Pivotal or climactic episodes take place in women's beds in Ragnelle, Carlisle, and Avowyng (as well as in Marriage, Carle, and Jeaste), yet none of these have to do primarily with heterosexual passion; instead, these private spaces take on a theatrical ambience, making a trial of social ties - in the marriage contract between a woman and her husband, and even more in the ties between men within a fictionalized chivalric code. Courtesy's definition depends upon Gawain's response to the Carl's control of his wife's and daughter's sexual availability, or upon Baldwin's response to Arthur's bed trick, and the resolution of societal disruption comes about through the courteous and rule-bound exchange of women among men.

In Ragnelle, Gawain's bedroom scene enacts this reconciliation - between female and male, private and public, old and young, wretched and handsome, peasant and noble - through the outright physical transformation of the loathly lady into a beautiful young woman. Sympathetic audiences, medieval and modern, surely find pleasure in the singular improbability and the poetic justice of this spectacular turn of events. Just as surely, however, audiences recognize, if only subliminally, that such satisfying endings depend on the anticipation and endorsement of normative integration that these marvelous transformations symbolize; their reiteration in story after story is irrefutable evidence that they arise from the desire of listeners and readers, even as they assist in producing this desire. In Ragnelle and Carlisle, the threatening figures of hag and churl - rough, ugly, ignoble, menacing - are literally transformed by Gawain's gentilesse into refined, handsome figures who "naturally" take their place among the ruling elite. This plot recurs, with only slight structural variations, in Marriage and Carle, as well as in Greene Knight and Turke, which introduce elements of the exotic to the characterization of the outsider. In Gologras (and to a lesser extent in Avowyng, Cornwall, and Jeaste), the happy ending is achieved not through shape-shifting but through the transformative submission of enemies to the chivalric ethos.

These happy endings produce a "magical resolution" typical of romance: in this world of unmotivated marvels and fulfilled wishes, social interests quite opposed in the "real world" move into alignment. The stirring portrayals of triumphant courtesy and justice vindicated that mark the conclusions of romances potentially work to hold their diverse audiences together, to reproduce in them the feeling of integration that the narrated transformations dramatize, and to effect a sense of social cohesion (not at all dependent on social reality) that enables the established order to prevail.42 In its crudest formulation, such a view of the romances would give them a crucial function in the conspiratorial imposition of dominant values upon a docile and homogeneous public; their reading would dull perceptions of social inequities and diminish the potential for political change. Yet spectacularly decisive resolutions, like those of the Gawain romances, do not inevitably or uniformly support the ruling order. As the magical realism of Latin American writers like Borges, Garcia Marquez, or Esquivel demonstrates, fantastic narratives can open a space for political critique; contradictions and absurdities, rather than being swallowed whole, constitute a basis upon which audiences - starting from a broad range of social positions - may formulate alternative or subversive understandings. Moreover, the romances themselves incorporate divergent, sometimes openly censuring, interpretations of knighthood: in Awntyrs Gawain self-consciously asks about the potential culpability of chivalric violence, and this romance and Gologras take a troublingly ambiguous outlook on the royal and aristocratic assumptions that underlie individual combat and the enterprise of warfare. Finally, the motifs of magical transformation that so strongly characterize the romances find social correlatives in the hybrid character of the poems. Their composition and consumption - as narratives about the nobility that circulate and are profoundly modified in popular milieux - imply a storytelling transmigration across elite, bourgeois, and laboring audiences, reenacting the metamorphoses by which characters in the plots cross the boundaries of otherwise circumscribed groups.

A last characteristic that marks the Gawain romances as a unified group, and that again exemplifies the intersection of disparate elements within them, centers on their frequent resort to geography to locate their meaning. Almost all the poems explicitly set their adventures in or near Carlisle, a city with long-standing Arthurian associations, located in Cumbria (the north-westernmost territory of England, sharing the border with Scotland). Carlisle was in turn a Celtic and British stronghold, a Roman fortification, part of the area populated by Scandinavian invaders, and an outpost marking the edge of English (and Anglo-Norman) political claims. "Inglewood," the name of the forest in which so many encounters take place in the poems, seems originally to have signified "the woods or enclave of the Angles," a contested English foothold within mainly Celtic territories. A study of the personal names given in Cumberland indicates that the mixed character of the population carried through the central and late Middle Ages, with Celtic, Scandinavian, and English names all continuously in use.43 In short, Carlisle with its environs is preeminently a border territory, a contested area of mixed populations and of shifting and changing alliances. The people of Cumbria - knights, clerks, peasants - were constantly exposed to feuding and factionalization, fueled by fiercely competitive local and national identities and by the struggle for land ownership as a means of social mobility.44 Frontier society, prepared for war at all times and bred on tales of military prowess and conquest transformed into a nostalgic chivalry, made an ideal fictional setting for the marvels and adventures of romance.

These Arthurian romances themselves constitute a "border writing" of sorts, not so much because they are "about" Carlisle and the Anglo-Scottish marches as because they give literary expression to contending interests that intersect late medieval social, political, and intellectual life.45 In specifically geographical terms, poems oscillate between centripetal and centrifugal views of human activity. Almost every one of the Gawain romances shows a remarkably detailed and concentrated attention to Carlisle and adjoining areas.46 Many choose Inglewood Forest or its famous lake, the Tarn Wathelene, as the setting of their principal action; from here, adventures move along the old Roman road, through local villages and to specific manors, whose names are sometimes still recognizable. Turke crosses to the Isle of Man, off the coast of Cumberland in the Solway Firth, and Galloway, the Scots territory north of the border, is frequently mentioned. This profusion of localizing detail furnishes the romances a setting that is at once compact and familiar-seeming, yet remote and wild.47 Cumbria's reputation as romance territory may carry traces of earlier oral tales and of unrecorded border ballads; it continued in popular stories like that of the outlaw Adam Bell, and received belated tribute in Romantic attempts by Wordsworth and other Lake Poets to preserve popular traditions.48

The surviving Gawain romances, even those that appear only in a single manuscript, do not record the dialect of the composer, but are instead copies; nonetheless, linguistic evidence in the poems points to the northwest, and perhaps Cumberland itself, as the likely place of origin for several of them. Even if they reflect knowledge of a local landscape, however, their setting must be regarded as mainly fictional: it represents the centripetal tendency in these narratives to concentrate all meaningful action on the person of the king, and on the seat of royal power at Carlisle (however eccentric such a locale must have seemed in comparison to Westminster). At the same time, the romances provide a strong counterbalance to this tendency in the extraordinarily centrifugal thrust they project for Arthurian territorial ambitions. If Carlisle operates as the indispensable endplace in the plots, the centralized narrative site where everything is brought home and made secure, then all the other marginal, far-flung locations the romances name are the key symbols in the fantasy of world conquest. Gawain's role as the hero who faces the unknown and renders it manageable for the rest of his society is repeatedly figured in geographical terms; in a showdown at the court, or through a journey to a far-off realm, Gawain brings the socially or exotically monstrous under lawful rule, makes the strange recognizable, returns the outlying to the center. Yet, as fantasies of limitless monarchical control, these poems do not take an undifferentiated view of conquered kingdoms, but instead offer a precise, undeviating agenda for just which lands require subduing and colonization: all are Celtic territories that make up the periphery of England - Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Brittany. Their peripheral location defines a symbolic geography, and their conquest consequently enhances the myth of England's centrality and political dominion.49 In locating fantasies of triumph in exoticized Celtic realms, the Gawain romances render these marginal spaces a proving ground for the superiority of centralized royal prerogative (in preference to any claims of local autonomy). Moreover, for English audiences at least, their combination of local and exotic (together with their other hybrid qualities) must have intensified the perception of a coherent and compelling national identity that crossed traditional boundaries of class and estate; in this way, nostalgic idealizations of chivalry and rousing tales of derring-do solicited enthusiastic engagement in an imagined community of the realm.

The efflorescence of Arthurian romance in England during the later Middle Ages, and in particular its regional association with the north, has provoked several attempts at explanation. William Matthews, confining his argument to alliterative poetry, claimed that the romances enunciated a coherent moral and political critique of contemporary conditions, most powerfully epitomized in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.50 This poem, followed by Awntyrs, Gologras, and other non-chivalric romances, articulates a self-consciously anti-courtly, anti-national position, rejecting the centralization of power in a strong king and government bureaucracy, and rejecting the ambitions of a foreign policy based on warfare and increased taxation. Awntyrs and Gologras, according to Matthews, advance an ideal pattern of knighthood as a reproof against the appropriation of chivalric forms to justify territorial expansion, imperialistic foreign policy, and the abuse of feudal and governmental powers. Matthews' interpretation makes a strong case for the potential political dimension of chivalric romance, and for the possibility of reading these poems against the grain, thus turning them against the very institutions they purport to celebrate. Implicitly, his treatment makes clear the linkage of chivalric romance not merely to political interests, but to underlying ideological structures, and in emphasizing the regional character of the poems, Matthews reveals the splits that mark what might otherwise appear a unified noble estate. Matthews' arguments, however, leave a great deal out of account: they do not address non-alliterative poetry, and, by equating the value of poetry with high moral purpose, they effectively dismiss all "non-serious" poetry like Ragnelle, Carlisle, or even Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Moreover, they imbue chivalric romance with a potent ethical vision without establishing any base in social history that would support such a critique, and they posit a geographical locus - the border country or simply the north - that is finally much less defined in terms of local realities than even the Cumbria of the Gawain romances.

Michael Bennett, in a detailed examination of the changing structure and mobility within county society in northwest England, describes circumstances that might well bear upon the hybrid character of chivalric romance.51 According to Bennett, new modes affecting military service, the Church, and governmental administration multiplied the links between local society and the capital, and produced a new, relatively large class of educated careerists. The visible growth of cultural activities in the shires, and the increasing sophistication of architectural and literary productions, depend upon the cultural resources of Westminster and London, brought back to outlying districts by those with associations in the capital, and reshaped by local energies and interests. This interplay between national and local identities, cosmopolitan and provincial styles inevitably resulted in artifacts of mixed character, potentially including such border writing as the Gawain romances, which - given their mixed character and content, and their divergent audiences - might in themselves be taken as evidence of opposites in contact. Bennett, however, confines his scrutiny to the upper nobility, elite administrative personnel, and only the greatest of cultural monuments (such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), in part because surviving documents do not shed much light on the activities of those below this social rank. His study consequently leaves unexamined and unexplained what must certainly have been the most commonly enjoyed poetry of northwest England. Bennett's presentation of an emergent regional self-consciousness, of new classes of readers, writers, and patrons, and even of new modes of knighthood, give a vivid impression of the changes within an outlying society; yet it gives virtually no sense of how these significant changes correspond to a taste (differing with different audiences) for popular romance - perhaps the broadest medium for voicing local and national identities, for recycling traditional stories in new literary forms, and for trumpeting the ethos of chivalry.

Though the studies by Matthews and Bennett offer previously unexplored contexts for regional vernacular literature, they adhere, in their general outlook and in their specific critiques, to canonical assumptions about great writing as an integral feature of elite, literate culture. As a result, their approaches inevitably exclude even mention of popular chivalric romance, and make no attempt to assess, as a formative source of literary activity, the relations between the several official and popular cultures of the English Middle Ages. These gaps underscore the need to produce models of historical analysis that will address the miscellaneous traits that make chivalric romance border writing. But the relation of literature and history is elusive, especially when it attempts to specify the intersections of non-traditional narratives that must often have been presented as performances, or to articulate the experiences these narratives furnished people at different levels of society. A final case may help illustrate the impossibility of simple positions, either in reading romance as direct reflection of reality, or in insisting on its complete divorce from reality.

The life of Sir John Stanley (c. 1350-1414) helps clarify the familiarity and appeal of chivalric romance as both history and fantasy.52 Stanley was a younger (and therefore landless) son in a prominent northwest family, whose holdings included the forestship of Wirral (which Gawain traverses in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Through success in arms (whose highlights included an indictment for manslaughter), foreign adventure - at the court of the Grand Turk, for example - and tournament victories, Sir John won himself a knighthood and royal notice. Through his gallantry, he won the hand of the heiress Isabella, a crucial link in securing property rights and bonding him to other powerful men. From the 1380s, Stanley advanced the national ambitions of English kings, serving with distinction at the fringes of the kingdom - as an official on the Welsh and Scottish borders, as lieutenant of Ireland on three separate occasions, and finally through the hereditary title of King of Man (the office Gawain refuses in Turke). At various points in his career, Sir John was Constable of Windsor, a member of the Order of the Garter (whose motto occurs at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), Steward to the Prince of Wales, and (for almost the entire last decade of his life), Steward of the King's household, the role traditionally held by Sir Kay in Arthurian romance. Though Stanley hardly rose to his high eminence from the dust, his splendid and astonishing career illustrates a remarkable mobility and fame achieved through the characteristic forms of knighthood.53 Sir John might stand as a paragon of chivalric ideals and achievement, and in fact a late sixteenth-century poem celebrates his deeds as founder of this branch of the family. At the same time, it's possible to imagine a figure with such powerful connections in the county and the court not simply as the subject but as a patron of literary activity; Sir John might have supported, like Richard II or John of Gaunt, the elite and prestigious writings of poets like Chaucer or the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But one wonders as well whether such a knight would not have enjoyed on many an unrecorded occasion performances of narratives like Ragnelle and Carlisle, or Awntyrs and Gologras, and whether he would not have patronized their makers for the pleasure of the court and countryside? Intensified reading and discussion of romances like those in this volume may begin the process of answering such questions.

All but one of the tales contained in this collection, along with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, were brought together more than one hundred fifty years ago in one of the monumental works of Victorian scholarship, Sir Frederic Madden's Syr Gawayne. Though Ragnelle has been reprinted in paperback, and several of the others have received modern editions, it is a striking irony that these popular romances have remained generally inaccessible. Madden's volume has been difficult and expensive to come by, and the scholarly editions are neither inviting nor easily obtainable for general readers. To some degree, then, this gathering of Gawain romances is a redoing and updating of Madden's volume; its intention, however, is to make this group of popular stories newly accessible and enjoyable, and not just to antiquarian or scholarly audiences. The texts, introductions, and notes attempt to give reliable, accurate versions of the poems that survive from the Middle Ages, together with literary and historical information that will aid in their reading. I have tried to take account of all scholarly material relevant to these romances, from Madden's edition through the present. No doubt some of this will seem either too detailed or too general for different readers. Through the glosses, however, I have attempted to make the text of each poem completely accessible on its own.

Go To The Wedding of Sir Gawaine and Dame Ragnelle
Bibliography
Select Bibliography

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Aersten, Henk, and Alasdair A. MacDonald, eds. Companion to Middle English Romance. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1990.

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Barber, Richard W. The Knight and Chivalry. New York: Scribner, 1970.

---. King Arthur: Hero and Legend. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1986.

Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London and New York: Longman, 1987.

Benson, Larry D. King Arthur's Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure. Revised by Edward E. Foster. TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.

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Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1884-1898; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, 1965. [Contains editions of Cornwall (I.274-288) and Marriage (I.288-296).]

Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian Romances. Trans. D. D. R. Owen. Everyman's Library. London: J. M. Dent Ltd.; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1987.

De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi. See The Rise of Gawain.

Hales, John W., and Frederick J. Furnivall. Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances. 3 vols. London: N. Trübner and Company, 1868; rpt. Detroit, Michigan: Singing Tree Press, 1968. [Contains Cornwall (I.59-73); Turke (I.88- 102); Marriage (I.103-118); Greene Knight (II.56-77); Carle (III.275-294).]

Hall, Louis B., trans. The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawain. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976. [Contains prose modernizations of Avowing, Awntyrs, Carlisle, Gologras, Ragnelle.]

Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Krishna, Valerie, trans. Five Middle English Arthurian Romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, Series B, Vol. 29. New York: Garland, 1991. [Contains verse translations of the editions identified within brackets: Awntyrs [Hanna] (pp. 153-173); Avowyng [Dahood] (pp. 175-208); Ragnelle [Wilhelm] (pp. 209-234); Carlisle [Sands] (pp. 235-254). This edition contains no explanatory or textual notes, but does include a brief introduction (pp. 1-26) that summarizes the plots of each of the four poems, as well as a select bibliography.]

Lancelot of the Laik: A Scottish Metrical Romance. Ed. W. W. Skeat. EETS o.s. 6. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Layamon. Brut. Eds. G. L. Brook and R. F. Leslie. 2 vols. EETS o.s. 250 and 277. London: Oxford University Press, 1963 (Vol. I) and 1978 (Vol. II).

Libeaus Desconus. See Lybeaus Desconus.

Loomis, Roger Sherman, ed. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

Lybeaus Desconus. Ed. M. Mills. EETS o.s. 261. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Madden, Frederic, ed. Syr Gawayne: A Collection of Ancient Romance-Poems by Scottish and English Authors Relating to That Celebrated Knight of the Round Table. London: Bannatyne Club, 1839. [Contains Awntyrs (pp. 95-128), Carlisle (pp. 187-206), Gologras (pp. 131-183), Ragnelle (pp. 298-298y), Jeaste (pp. 207-223), Greene Knight (pp. 224-242), Turke (pp. 243-255), Carle (pp. 256-274), Cornwall (pp. 275-287), and Marriage (pp. 288-297).]

Malory, Sir Thomas. Works. Ed. Eugène Vinaver. 2nd ed. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1967.

A Manual of the Writings in Middle English: 1050-1500. See Newstead, "Arthurian Legends."

Matthews, William. The Tragedy of Arthur: A Study of the Alliterative "Morte Arthure.'' Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.

Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. [Trans. of Mittelenglischen Romanzen des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts.] London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.

New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Ed. Norris J. Lacy. New York and London: Garland, 1991.

Newstead, Helaine. "Arthurian Legends." In A Manual of the Writings in Middle English: 1050-1500: Fascicule I: Romances. New Haven, Connecticut: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967. Pp. 224-256.

The Quest of the Holy Grail. [La Queste del Saint Graal.] Trans. P. M. Matarasso. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969.

Queste del Saint Graal. See The Quest of the Holy Grail.

Ramsey, Lee C. Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Richmond, Velma E. Bourgeois. The Popularity of Middle English Romance. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975.

The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur (De ortu Waluuanii nepotis Arturi), ed. and trans. Mildred Leake Day. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 15, series A. New York and London: Garland, 1984.

Robson, John, ed. Three Early English Metrical Romances. London, Printed for the Camden Society: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1842. [Contains Avowing (pp. 57-93) and Awntyrs (pp. 1-96).]

Sands, Donald B., ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. [Contains Carlisle (pp. 348-371) and Ragnelle (pp. 323-347).]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. J. R. R. Tolkein and E. V. Gordon. 2nd. ed. Rev. Norman Davis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

The Song of Roland. [Chanson de Roland.] Trans. Frederick Goldin. New York: Norton, 1978.

Stanzaic Morte Arthur. See Benson, King Arthur's Death.

Weston, Jessie Laidlay. The Legend of Sir Gawain: Studies Upon Its Original Scope and Significance. The Grimm Library, 7. London: David Nutt, 1897.

Wittig, Susan. Stylistic and Narrative Structures in the Middle English Romances. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

Ywain and Gawain. Eds. Albert B. Friedman and Norman T. Harrington. EETS o.s. 254. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.