The Jeaste of Sir Gawain: Introduction

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The Jeaste of Sir Gawain: Introduction

The Jeaste of Sir Gawain combines two widely separated but interwoven episodes from a twelfth-century French poetic romance, the anonymous continuation of Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval. In this poem, Gawain's union with an unknown woman leads many years later to combat with her brother, Bran de Lys (Brandles in Jeaste); this encounter ends, however, when the sister of Bran de Lis intervenes, presenting to her lover and her brother the son she has borne to Gawain, Ginglain (called elsewhere Le Bel Inconnu, or, as in Carlisle, Libeaus Desconus, The Fair Unknown). In the end, Arthur inducts Bran de Lys into the fellowship of the Round Table. The Middle English Jeaste stitches together these relatively minor components of Gawain's part in the much larger story of the Grail, and, by omitting the reconciliation that ends the episodes in the French romance, turns them into a stark series of trials of Gawain's martial prowess. Gawain's role in the Jeaste therefore differs somewhat from his character as the knight of troth in other Middle English romances; here he more closely resembles the French Gauvain, whose exploits often involve, or even start with, love affairs. The surviving transcription of the poem lacks the opening episode. In the original French, this was a chanson d'aventure, a chance meeting while wandering in the woods; in the Jeaste, Gawain may have been part of an Arthurian hunt ("chase," line 2), as in Ragnelle, Carlisle, Awntyrs, Avowyng, and other romances. Gawain's venture into the woods (not localized here as Inglewood Forest, or connected to Carlisle) transmutes from the pursuit of wild creatures to the stalking of a strange lady in a pavilion. In his study of the narrative core of Ragnelle and other loathly lady stories, Eisner suggests that the quest to discover what women most desire traditionally began with a seduction or a rape, as Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale in fact does. On this argument, an episode like the one that opens the Jeaste would have been an integral part of Ragnelle; the union of a strange woman with Gawain or another hero would thus have formed the kernel story that initiates the action in a widely known Arthurian romance. (All but Gower's version of the story explicitly connect the tale to the Round Table.)

Despite its amorous beginnings, however, the Jeaste is not at all about romantic love. The succession of combats that make up the plot of the Jeaste spell out the nature of honor among men. Yet the least active figure - the nameless sister/daughter/lover - turns out to be the pivotal character, through whom male relations of power and honor receive definition. Retaining the love (and the body) of the woman constitutes Gawain's best proof of manhood, for it brings Sir Gylbert to confess, "Therfore I dare well saye he ys a manne" (line 315). The fundamental cause that sets the anonymous lady's male relations against Gawain is that he has improperly taken from them her "love" - that is, her sexual person, in which they have proprietary rights. The father claims that in possessing the daughter without permission, Gawain has "done me great vyllanye" and "done me muche dyshonoure" (lines 18, 26; my italics), and that her "loss," physical and symbolic, harms him more than the loss of his own blood (line 102). Through proper conduct - by testing each other out according to the rules of chivalric combat, "all gentlenes to fullfyll" (line 427) - Gawain, Gylbert, Gyamoure, Terrye, and Brandles establish their proper identities, their names as worshipful knights. Like Ragnelle, the Jeaste dramatizes the signal function of Woman as the medium by which men establish relations among themselves: in the French poem the woman eventually returns, bearing a son, and so consolidates the bond between Gauvin and Bran de Lys, whereas here, after being beaten "bothe backe and syde" (line 509), the lady vanishes, without name or trace:
Than the lady gate her awaye -
They sawe her never after that daye;
She went wandrynge to and fro.
                        (lines 524-26)
Sir Gylbert and his sons are left to lick their wounds, and Gawain returns "home" to the court (line 529) to share his adventures with his uncle, King Arthur.

In its attention to individual combat and martial prowess as the staple of the plot, the Jeaste resembles Gologras. But here each of the four fights is compressed into a formulaic exchange of blows, so that Jeaste lacks the spectacular and lavish details that themselves constitute chivalric encounter in the Scots poem. A chivalric residue is apparent in the repeated focus upon the knights' discomfort and disgrace in their unhorsing, and the accompanying emphasis upon the identity of these fighters as mounted warriors. But the Jeaste indicates its popular status by its very title: "jeaste" (more often spelled "geste," from Latin gesta, "things done," memorable or heroic deeds) is a generic title for a romance of derring-do. By the end of the Middle Ages it had, at least among literary writers, come to mean a popular or degraded form of chivalric romance, and was well on its way to attaining its modern meaning of "jest," a frivolous or laughable story.

The Jeaste of Syr Gawayne comes down to us in a copy written out by an Arthurian enthusiast of the Elizabethan age; this copy was itself based upon an earlier sixteenth-century print of the poem, perhaps that entered in the Stationers' Register (1557 or 1558), licensing John Kynge to print a book of this title. Still another copy was printed by Thomas Petyt (date unknown); of this, one leaf survives, corresponding to the last fifty-three lines of the surviving transcript. The Jeaste's language indicates it was composed in the second half of the fifteenth century in the South Midlands. It is composed in remarkably regular six-line tail-rhyme stanzas, running aabccb. The Jeaste's survival in multiple copies - hand-written and printed, medieval (at least in origin) and Renaissance - bears further witness to Gawain's enduring popularity as a hero. As a thoroughly popular production, the Jeaste takes its place in the company of other post-medieval versions of chivalric romances, like those of the Percy Folio Manuscript. One can easily imagine it entertaining the same audiences who enjoyed the performances of Captain Cox in the 1570s (see General Introduction); indeed, the Captain was just the sort of reader and performer who might have carried such a story in his collection "bound with a whipcord," ready for recitation.

Text

The Jeaste survives in an incomplete, hand-written version (dated 1564), probably made from a now lost print issued by John Kynge in 1557 or 1558 (Oxford, MS Bodley 21835, formerly Douce 261). The final leaf of a second print, issued by Thomas Petyt, has also survived (London, MS British Library Harley 5927 Arts 32). The manuscript transcription is signed E.B., and contains some drawings as well as several other romances (Isumbras, Degaré, and Eglamoure), all apparently also copied from early prints. The hand is clear, formal, italic script, with few abbreviations. The Jeaste has been printed previously only once, in Madden's edition. I note differences between the manuscript and the print in the notes.

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Bibliography
Selected Bibliography

Manuscript

Oxford, MS Bodley 21835 (formerly Douce 261).

London, MS British Library Harley 5927 Arts 32.


Editions (arranged chronologically)

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Child, Francis James. 1884. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.


Criticism

Bennett, R. E. "Sources of The Jeaste of Syr Gawayne." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 33 (1934), 57-63.