Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 24, 2010

A 14th-Century Christmas

It’s Christmastide, to use the antique term, which means it’s time again for my traditional holiday-season reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I explained at this time last year, I reread this 14th-Century alliterative poem most years during the season in which the poem takes place: between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I described the basic plot outline of the verse romance last year, so if you missed it, or need a refresher, CLICK HERE. That post also includes links to print and online versions of the poem.

When one re-reads great poetic works, The Illiad, say, or “Dover Beach,” or Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” or Ogden Nash’s “The Eel,” one hardly needs a justification: they exist in and of themselves, and the joy of reading them once again is an end in itself; any additional insights into poetic form or the forces that make humans what they are simply become gravy on an already-rich dish. But, really, Nixon, more than 20 or even 30 (or so) times through a poem written in an obsolete form of the language in a weird alliterative structure about a knight running a fool’s errand that’s going to get him beheaded? Really!

Yes, really. I know why I read it, but can I explain it?

Well, it’s Christmas Day, or, if you’re one of my readers in those other time zones, it may already be Boxing Day. So, let’s set aside questions of linguistic legerdemain and arcane matters of late-medieval poetic structure, and just read what some unknown poet, writing somewhere in the north of England late in the 1300s had to say about Christmas. If you recall your history lessons, the 14th Century in Europe was a terrible time: famines, plague, wars, no access to Fox News and no Playstations. Today’s news, full of snow and ice and long lines for cappucino at Heathrow were just business as usual back then, when a long line of horrific disasters laid waste to the entire northern part of the continent. The literature of the period reflects that dire, desperate period of dismay, dissolution and defeat.

If, in high school or college, you read the opening of The Canterbury Tales, you have a reference: Sir Gawain was composed at almost exactly the same time that ol’ Geoff Chaucer was sitting down in some corner of the king’s court in London to compose his poem. But, because they didn’t yet have Katie Couric and the New York Times and CNN to regularize the language, there were innumerable variants of English being spoken and even written down at the very same time as Chaucer was writing. SG&tGK was written by an unknown poet in the north of England at the very same time that Chaucer was writing, but in a different dialect of English, and with a different poetical form. The “Gawain” poet was writing in a very ancient mode, in which the lines don’t rhyme, they alliterate. You stress the alliterating words: two in the first part of the line, and one in the second. This practice comes from the days before poetry was written: when it was recited. There’s no real difference between this poem’s alliteration and that of Beowulf, which had been written down 500 years earlier, and recited for a long time before that. Both poems use alliteration as the means for memorizing a huge, long narrative poem.

That being said, the language in “Sir Gawain” will seem quite similar to you if you remember Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with its soures soote” language. They both capture the sound of spoken English as the world was emerging from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and becoming modern English.

Here are a few things you’ll find helpful as we read:

(1) Unlike in Chaucer, you don’t pronounce the “e”s at the end of words. (2) Stress the sounds that repeat in each line. I’ve made them bold in the Middle English version to help you. (3) You DO pronounce the endings of words that have an “es” or even the fronts of words like “kynghtes” (kuh-NIK-tus) (4) Look for the short four lines at the end of the stanza: they rhyme! This was an innovation that was just entering the language, courtesy of poetry from France.

Let’s go to the poem. Here is someone writing at the end of the 1300s, describing the already-ancient legend of King Arthur’s Camelot, as he and his knights of the Round Table celebrated Christmas (Krystmasse) at Camelot. First, I’ll give you the original, and then I’ll translate it into a more contemporary form. What I think we’ll see is the fact that stories about legendary holiday celebrations were just as grandiose 700 years ago as they are now. Remember to stress the bold words.

The kyng lay at Camylot upon Krystmasse

With mony luflych lorde, ledes of the best,

Rekenly of the Rounde Table all tho rich brether,

With rych revel oryght and rechles merthes.

Ther tournayed tulkes by tymes ful mony,

Justed ful jolile thise gentyle knightes,

Sythen kayred to the court, caroles to make.

For ther the fest was ilyche ful fiften dayes,

With alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse:

Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,

Dere dyn upon day, daunsyng on nyghtes;

Al was hap upon heghe in halles and chambres

With lordes and ladies, as levest him thoght.

With all the wele of the worlde thay woned ther samen,

The most kyd knyghtes under Krystes selven,

And the lovelokkest ladies that ever life haden,

And he the comlokest kyng that the court haldes.

For al was this fayre folk in her first age

on sille,

The hapnest under heven,

Kyng hyghest mon of wylle;

Hit were now gret ny to neven

So hardy a here on hille.

And here follows my modern version (remember to stress those repeating initial consonants):

The King was in Camelot on that Christmas

With many loyal lords, and ladies of the best,

The rich brethren of the Round Table, rallied all round

With rich revels aright and reckless mirth.

There they jousted, those thriving knights

And collected in the court their carols to sing.

For there the feast was fully fifteen days

With all the meals and the mirth that men could manage.

Such glamor and glee, glorious to hear,

Dear din in the days and the dancing at night-time;

All was happy on high in the halls and the chambers

With the lords and the ladies as most likely they thought.

With all the will in the world they welcomed together

The savviest soldiers of the Saviour himself,

And the loveliest ladies that ever had lived

And the comeliest king that the court ever had.

And this fair folk was right then in their finest

To see:

The happiest under heaven,

Their king, who held his sway,

It would be hard to mention

A greater man today.

What do I think when I read this poem for the twentieth or thirtieth time? I think that the same things captivate us now: tales of vast halls lit by candlelight, where brave men and beautiful, powerful women gather together to celebrate the season, knowing that outside the walls of Camelot, or outside anyone’s walls, lurks a world full of darkness and danger and threat, but that by the very fact of their coming together, they can  form a bond that will overcome all that threatens them, and prevail.

Let us gather together. Merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

Check back tomorrow. I’ll provide some description from Sir Gawain’s journey into the wild that will remind us that the terrible winter in Britain right now was nothing new to the beleaguered 14th Century.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

Here are my other posts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009

The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010

Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011

Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012

When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012

New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015

Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017



  1. A toast to the bard and the translator!


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