Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 6, 2012

When Worlds Collide – Medieval Literature Edition

Okay, class, it’s Twelfth Night, which means that we’re at the end of our annual reading of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” I trust you’ve all been keeping up with your reading assignments, and you should be finished with the poem. Before we discuss some conclusions about our reading, I want to look at some very interesting verses early in the poem, starting with line 495. That should be on page 70 of your texts in Cawley, if you’d open them there.

(sound of books being drawn out, pages turning.)

Umm … Mr. Cabezaloco? What’s that little computer you’re looking at? If you’re making a Facebook entry, I’m sure we’d all be interested in what you’re posting about us.

“It’s not a computer, Professor blaknissan, it’s my Kindle.”

That’s very amusing, Mr. Cabezaloco. However, I’d like you to join us in our study of the text, if you don’t mind.

“I have the text here, on my Kindle.”

You have the Cawley text on that little device?

“Yes. I downloaded ‘Gawain and the Grene Knight’ from Project Gutenberg.”

Is that so? Very interesting. And was it not made clear to you that the authoritative edition we’d be studying in this course would be the edition by A.C. Cawley? Is Mr. Cawley the editor of the version you have there?

“No, Professor. Um …. (Cabezaloco presses keys on his tablet) … this is edited by Richard Morris.”

Ah, I see. So you’re working from a variant of the text we’ve been studying for the past two weeks. I wonder, were you unable to download a facsimile of the actual manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x. in the British Museum? I’m sure that would have been much more authoritative than the primitive printed books the rest of us have in front of us. (tittering from the class.)

“Um … I don’t know. What’s that?”

Had you been paying attention during my introductory lecture instead of texting your girlfriend, you would have known that the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain is contained in the manuscript Cotton Nero A.x., now housed in the British Museum. I was just curious to learn if your skills in Middle English had far surpassed all of us and you were reading from the original manuscript.

“Umm … I don’t think so.”

Nor do I. Be so kind as to begin reading from the line I had in mind today, 495, IF your edition has followed the traditional enumeration the rest of us are following, that is …

(Cabezaloco is pressing a key repeatedly.) “Okay, I’m there.”

Please read lines 495 through 499, if you would, please.

“Ah … OK … ‘Gawan wats glad to begynne those gomne in halle/ Bot thas the ende be hevy, haf ye no wonder; / For thas men ben mery in mynde, quen thay han mayn drynk, / A … uh … serne sernes ful serne, and seldes never lyke, / the forme to the fynisment foldes ful selden’.”

And are you certain of that reading?

“Um … pretty sure … ?”

And, I’m sorry to say, Mr. Cabezaloco, that I am relatively certain that you have NOT got it right. You see, I happen to know that that due to font limitations AND from Mr. Morris’ editorial approach, that engaging little device in your hand is incapable of differentiating between several of the original 14 Century scribe’s representations of different vocal sounds that ranged from the voiced glottal “gh” which we might interpret as an “h,”  to the unvoiced version, which we call a “y” or even the unvoiced labio-palatal “z,” which in your reading you missed several times.

I also know that one can buy the Cawley text online from Amazon for as little as one cent, so your free download of the Early English Text Society version has left you without the edits of Mr.  Cawley, for a net savings of one cent, which may cost you dearly in your grade in this course.


Enough of this. As regular UWS readers know, each year, I mark the holiday season by rereading (and subjecting you to) the 14th Century alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s my way of keeping my formerly acceptable Middle English skills honed to something above nonexistence. In the third year of Under Western Skies,  this is the third annual opportunity for you to journey with me to that  dire and dismal era at the end of the middle ages.

As always, I look for new things in the poem, and ways to make good ol’ Sir Gawain seem compelling for readers with only a passing interest in extinct versions of our language. I discovered a free download of the poem to my Kindle from There, I discovered that one can indeed download a scholarly version of the poem, but in a way that presented some serious difficulties.

Back in the year 1400 or so, the scribes who wrote this stuff down were copying texts onto parchment with quill pens, and representations of the language at the time had no standardized conventions.

To illustrate what scribes did at about that time, here’s a fresco from an abbey in Italy that shows a typical monastic scribe at work (click on image to enlarge):

Hugh of St Cher Brad Nixon 6625 (480x640)

(Notice, by the way, that this monk, Hugh of St. Cher, is wearing eyeglasses. This is, supposedly, the first depiction of a human wearing spectacles, recorded by Tomaso of Modeno, in the Hall of the Chapter of Dominicans, part of the Church of San Nicolas in Treviso, Italy.)

One problem with this free version of the text, vs. buying a used copy of the edited, printed text for 1 cent on Amazon, is that some characters, including “s” and “y” and “gh,” were written in ways that electronic fonts don’t always represent accurately without specialized fonts. Therefore, a text in my well-worn copy of “Gawain” that’s been edited for print looks like this (click on photos for larger images):

Sir Gawain Cawley 8287 (640x480)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Everyman, Cawley, ed.

While the transliterated electronic version you can download from looks like this:

Sir Gawain Kindle 8286 (640x472)

Sir Gawain download from

The electronic version substitutes a version of the number “3”  for a number of sounds that Mr. Cawley edited into various forms like “s” or “y” or “gh,” because that’s what they were meant to represent. While they look different on the edited page, they appear as “3s” on the screen. That’s the source of Mr. Cabezaloco’s problem.

I have seen the original manuscript in the B.M., but without years of study (which I did not undertake) one cannot read it — at least not very easily.

CLICK HERE to access facsimile pages of the original manuscript.

The poem stands as one of the icons of English literature, but it’s tough to read. Over the past three years I’ve shared my enthusiasm for it with you, but, ultimately one has to read it. There are excellent translations by Marie Borroff,  J.R.R. Tolkein and Richard Armitage, among others. I encourage you to check your local library for them.

For links to the previous posts on this subject, which explore more about the poem’s story, language and the historical context, please look at the bottom of today’s article. To start, if you don’t know the story, you may want to review the first of those posts, “Silent Night, Green Knight.” CLICK HERE

Then, I wrote, “A 14th-Century Christmas” on 12/24/10.

Also, “The Knight in Winter”  on 12/26/10.

And, last year, “Don We Now Our Green Apparel” on 1/1/11.

(These and later episodes can be found under “Books, Reading, Writing” in Categories in the right-hand column.)

I hope that 2012 will hold many fascinating reading adventures for all of you, whatever your interests. Don’t forget to support your local library. As the author of Gawain would have written, Happy Nw Yere!

Here are later posts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012

New Year’s Knight Dec. 31 2015

Sir Gawain vs. the Poets Jan. 1, 2017

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017



  1. OK, that was entertaining. But I’m still waiting for the UWS authoritative thesis on Beowulf — or at least explaining its significance to us ot the “hoi polloi” who otherwise would have no clue.


    • Boy, you really have a thing about this. Sometimes I’d swear you were a lawyer, and not the Post-Impressionist-Revisionist painter I know you to be. I know that when they see these Beowulf-baiting notes of yours, the REST of the UWS readership is wailing, “PLEASE don’t egg him on to subject us to more blather about ancient languages. We get enough already.” It gives me an idea. I’ve always said that this blog would remain free of commercialization and advertising, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make money by other means. I think I’ll solicit pledges from the other readers, asking how much they’d pay for me NOT to write a thesis about The Importance of Reading Beowulf, and then give you an opportunity MATCH their dollars/pounds/Euros/Wombats (the Australian dollar). (I’ll have to deal with currency exchange from my faithful readers abroad.)
      Hmmm …. well, maybe not, because then if I ever DID have a great idea about the poem, I’d be precluded from writing it, or I’d have to give back the money — which, considering the declining value of all currency against gold might not be a bad exchange. Well, we’ll see.


      • Perhaps you could do something non-lawyerly, and make it a VERY BRIEF explanation. Shorter than Cliff’s Notes, for sure. One or two sentences, just to distill the essence. Now you’ve really got my curiosity piqued, as it seems you want to hold onto the secret. You sly fox. 🙂


  2. I loved all the background material you included, and spent at least an hour reading through this. Perhaps I will check the local library for the Borroff version. You do have a talent for whetting the appetite for great literature. Thanks!


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