From Pearl to Gawain


Material Information

From Pearl to Gawain forme to fynisment
Physical Description:
207 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Blanch, Robert J
Wasserman, Julian N
University Press of Florida
Place of Publication:
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight   ( lcsh )
Pearl (Middle English poem)   ( lcsh )
Pearl (Versdichtung)   ( swd )
Sir Gawain and the green knight   ( swd )
Geschichte 1300-1400   ( swd )
English poetry -- History and criticism -- Middle English, 1100-1500   ( lcsh )
English poetry -- History and criticism -- England -- West Midlands   ( lcsh )
Manuscripts, English (Middle) -- England -- West Midlands   ( lcsh )
Arthurian romances -- History and criticism   ( lcsh )
Knights and knighthood in literature   ( lcsh )
Rhetoric, Medieval   ( lcsh )
Closure (Rhetoric)   ( lcsh )
Gawaindichter   ( gtt )
The pearl (anoniem)   ( gtt )
Gawain and the Green Knight (anoniem)   ( gtt )
Literatur   ( swd )
Aufsatzsammlung   ( swd )
Mittelenglisch   ( swd )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Despite lip service to the proposition that the Pearl manuscript is the product of a single author, critics usually treat the four poems as isolated entities. The two authors of this work - who individually and together have produced a formidable body of research, criticism, and bibliographic study of this anonymous fourteenth-century poet - set forth a different thesis. They assume not only that the works share a common author but that they are connected and intersect in fundamental ways.
They begin with the observation that the four Cotton Nero poems, taken together, extend from Creation to the Apocalypse and then transcendence to the heavenly Jerusalem. Comprising the entire scope of "History," the poems share a Creator whose active intervention in human affairs bespeaks a providential history that is the product of divine Will. Beginning with this premise, the authors discuss a series of interrelated themes (language, covenants, miracles, the iconography of the hand, and the role of the intrusive narrator) that successively arise from their initial observation. Every discussion treats all four poems, using each individual work to gloss the others.
While this study builds on centuries of previous scholarship, much of what Blanch and Wassermann explore has never been discussed elsewhere. Some of the material - in particular their reading of the Green Knight's offer of weapons to Arthur's court, and the thematic significance of moral "handiwork" in the Gawain poems - not only breaks new ground but challenges accepted interpretations.
Statement of Responsibility:
Robert J. Blanch and Julian N. Wasserman.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 177-197) and index.

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University of Florida
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Resource Identifier:
oclc - 31604530
lccn - 94040999
isbn - 0813013488 (acid-free paper)
lcc - PR1972.G353 B57 1995
ddc - 821/.109
bcl - 18.05
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jT arl

TO ^iawain



UNIVERSITY PRESS OF FLORIDA Gainesville / Tallahassee
Tampa / Boca Raton / Pensacola / Orlando / Miami / Jacksonville


Copyright 1995 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
All rights reserved

oo 99 98 97 96 95 6 5 4 3 2 I

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Blanch, Robert J.
From Pearl to Gawain: forme to fynisment / Robert J.
Blanch, Julian N. Wasserman.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 0-8130-1348-8 (acid-free paper)
1. English poetry-Middle English, 1100-1500-History
and criticism. 2. English poetry-England-West Mid-
lands-History and criticism. 3. Manuscripts, English
(Middle)-England-West Midlands. 4. Gawain and the
Green Knight. 5. Pearl (Middle English poem) 6.
Rhetoric, Medieval. 7. Closure (Rhetoric) I. Wasser-
man, Julian N. II. Title.
PR1972.G353B57 1994
821'.109-dc20 94-40999

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agency for the State University System of Florida, comprised
of Florida A & M University, Florida Atlantic University,
Florida International University, Florida State University,
University of Central Florida, University of Florida,
University of North Florida, University of South Florida,
and University of West Florida.

University Press of Florida
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For the Joly compaignye at Kalamazoo,
good felawes alle.



Introduction I

As Good as Your Word: Language, Culture,
and Building Blocks of History 13

As Good as a Handshake: Covenantal History
and the Fate of Monkynde 27

Pardon the Interruption: The Miracles of God
and the Covenant of Kynde 45

Tools of the Trade: The Hand of God,
The Hand of Man 65

Quicker than the "I": The Hand of the Poet
and the Pronouns of Narrative 11

Notes 149

Bibliography 177

Index 199


Beginnings and endings have always been of special importance to
students of the anonymous fourteenth-century Gawain manu-
script.1 No doubt part of our special fascination with starts and
finishes is due to the repetition of material from the beginnings in
the respective endings of three of its four poems, a stylistic signature
that concretizes the poet's recurrent theme that "the first shall be
last."2 Indeed, Patience finds its genesis in the poet's observation
that the first and the last of the eight Beatitudes offer the same re-
ward, the vision of the Creator.3 Yet if beginning and end are, in the
poet's words, fettledd in on forme, be forme and be last" (38) in Pa-
tience, this is the same poet who, in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, interrupts his own narrative in order to warn his protagonist
to "penk wel" (487) because beginnings often fail to match endings:
"Pe forme to be fynisment folde3 ful selden" (499). Sometimes our
lines meet where they begin; sometimes they do not.
To the reader's possible chagrin, this is a book with a premise to
be extended and explored rather than a thesis to be proven. A col-
lection of connected observations rather than an argument where
beginning and end meet, the chapters here form a line rather than a
circle. The observation that follows concerning the historical con-
tinuum that comprises the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript was a start-
ing place from which the rest of this volume grew and upon which
the following chapters might be said to be founded. If subsequent
discussion extends rather than overtly supports this observation,
such a pattern is rooted in the evolution of the study itself, which
began with some observations about history and historical process
in a Gawain-Poet session at the annual International Congress of
Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan. Those reflections led to
some unanswerable but very interesting questions which provided
matter for subsequent papers in succeeding years. For example, the
notion of historical process (a divine plan) expanded into the ques-
tion of what happens when that process or the natural order is "in-
terrupted." The consideration of such interruptions then evolved
into a paper on miracles. In turn, a paper on the counterbalancing

2 Introduction

imagery of the hand of God and the hand of man, a study fueled by
a discussion of miracles, provoked Paul Reichardt to ask us about
the "hand of the poet." That query led us on to the topic of the in-
trusive narrator. And so the manuscript grew in such a fashion that
its parts have sprung from a premise or observation and have moved
linearly, each from the other. The final judgment of the link be-
tween our formee" and its "fynisment," we will leave to our read-
As to our "intratextual" methodology, a word or two also seems
in order since this book contains many theses or, at least, an ex-
tended premise. Even in an age as skeptical of the Platonic univer-
sal as our own, full-length studies of the Gawain-Poet tend to
demonstrate certain unchanging verities of "substance" as well as
of "accident." For example, even a casual observer might note that
Gawain books often have green covers while books on Pearl fre-
quently have white ones. And if such practices attest to an under-
lying unity of thought on the part of publishers (or their depart-
ments of marketing and design), there are deeply ingrained habits of
mind that are equally evident in both the content and structure of
Gawain-Poet scholarship. Books that treat themes in the whole
manuscript invariably have four chapters, each devoted primarily to
a single work in the manuscript. Occasionally, such a study is even
preceded by an introduction that speaks eloquently of the need to
take the poems out of isolation.4 A single thesis allows, perhaps in-
evitably leads to, such an ordering which, in essence, produces an
idea empirically verified four times, once in each poem. Despite the
fact that scholarship on the four poems almost universally pays lip
service to the proposition that the four works are the product of a
single authorial hand,5 critics writing about the Cotton Nero poems
have remained cautious, keeping our readings of the individual po-
ems relatively insulated, in case someone working in a dark corer
of the Bodleian might hit it lucky and establish separate authorship,
thereby forcing us to crack the spines, white or green, and separate
our chapters.
In the study that follows, we will assume not only that the works
share a common author but that they are connected and intersect in
fundamental ways that work against discussion in isolation. For ex-
ample, Paul Reichardt's recent work with the affective faces which
adorn four of the manuscript's capitals transcends the parts for the

Introduction 3

sake of recovering the larger whole.6 The poems' various editors as
well as critics have long struggled to account for the sometimes cu-
rious positioning of the manuscript's 133 capitals, inventing a num-
ber of ingenious rhetorical and thematic explanations for their
placement, each based on the narrative divisions within the indi-
vidual poems. The recent work of Donna Crawford in explicating
the proportional, rather than the thematic, arrangement of the cap-
itals in Purity clearly may be applied to the manuscript as a whole,
rather than just to individual poems, and has great potential for un-
raveling the larger mystery.7 We should, then, pay more heed to the
juxtaposition of these four poems in the same manuscript, brought
together in a deliberate act of association either by the poet or the
compiler who acted as the poet's first literary critic.8
In a sense, the question that faces the reader of the Gawain man-
uscript is the same problem of unity facing the audience of Malory's
Morte D'Arthur or of Joyce's Dubliners-whether, say, the tales of
Lancelot or Tristram are separate books or chapters in one work;
whether Dubliners is a novel or a collection of short stories. And, of
course, the answers to these questions shape our readings of those
works. As is apparent, although we have weighted our argument
somewhat toward Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as the chosen
"fynisment" of the manuscript, we presume an underlying unity
that includes the temporal continuum in which the parts are mi-
crocosms of the whole. In doing so, we presume to lay claim to the
unity that underlies medieval iconography,9 or even the mutual
reflexivity of events grouped together on any given page of a Biblia
Pauperum or in Alanus de Insulis's famous lines from the Rhythmus
Every creature in the world
is like a book, and a picture,
and a mirror for us
of our lives, of our death,
of our condition, of our kind,
a faithful reflection.10
All creation is not only a book or picture but a mirror. All crea-
tures as microcosms reflect each other as well as the larger whole.
The inability to read that book, to see the visual signs, or even to
recognize one's own reflection is a recurrent warning of the cost of

4 Introduction

not recognizing such interconnectedness: Nebuchadnezzar fails to
read the text on the wall; Gawain and the Pearl-Dreamer fail to de-
code the visual icons that fill their worlds; Jonah persists in con-
demning the repentant Ninevites, not recognizing within them the
image of his own sin and repentance.
The same presumption of the essential interconnectedness that
permits the parts of Creation-or even the events in the pageant of
history-to gloss each other allows the animals in the hunt scenes
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to be different from but at the
same time tokens of Gawain and his behavior in the temptation
scenes.1 Thus we suggest that the different works forming the Cot-
ton Nero A.x manuscript had for their author the same type of un-
derlying unity as the disparate Bible stories that comprise Purity. In
short, the similarity that causes one object, trope, or even poem to
gloss another is privileged over the individualizing difference so im-
portant in modem thinking. So, with these principles in mind, we
shall begin with our own beginning, a rather simple observation con-
cerning the notion of history underlying the four poems of the man-

If any one element binds together the fout works ascribed to the
common authorship of the late fourteenth-century Gawain-Poet, it
is most assuredly their shared view of a God who is anything but re-
mote, a Creator who intervenes directly in the affairs of humans-
whether in the destruction of Sodom or in te nswere prayers of
Gawain. In short, the presence of an active intervening God be-
speaks providential history, a purposely laid out plan for hu-
mankind where the course of events is the unfolding of the will of
the divinity.13 To appreciate the poet's overwhelming concern with
this historical process, it is first necessary to realize that, taken as a
whole, the four poems that comprise the Cotton Nero A.x manu-
script delineate a temporal continuum that spans the entire course
of history, reaching from the beginning of time in Creation to the
end of time in the Apocalypse and its transcendence in the Heavenly
Jerusalem. Purity, for instance, begins with the eternal world of the
heavenly kingdom, as illustrated in the parable of the man in the
dirty garment, and moves quickly into the biblical history traced in
Genesis, progressing from the fall of the rebel angels, through the
creation of Adam, the Flood, the destruction of Sodom, and con-

Introduction 5

eludes with the tale of Belshazzar's feast taken from the book of
Daniel. Patience continues the historical narrative by depicting
events of the book of Jonah, thereby extending the poet's historical
account into the time of the later prophets. Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, by means of the rapidly expanding series of kingdoms
and city states that form its opening stanza, further extends the tem-
poral continuum. Beginning in the remote pagan past at the fall of
Troy and skillfully guiding the reader westward through time and
space through Rome, Tuscany, Lombardy, and eventually into the
Christian age of the recent past as embodied by Arthurian Camelot,
Gawain positions itself in the poet's own present with its reference
to the contemporary "toun" in which he heard the tale. Pearl com-
pletes the historical progression by locating its narrator in the his-
torical present and, in the course of the dream vision, by returning
to the transtemporal, although decidedly apocalyptic, New Jerusa-
lem.14 Since this celestial city is presumably the site of the parabolic
feast found at the outset of Purity, the continuum is thus brought
full circle, like the "endless knot" of the pentangle, beginning where
it ends.
Before proceeding further, it is, however, necessary to note that in
presenting the poems as comprising the entire scope of history, we
have already deviated from the order in which the poems appear in
the manuscript, a pattern that seems purposeful because scholars
have generally agreed that the manuscript order of the Cotton Nero
poems fails to reflect the chronology of their composition.'5 Pearl,
which should come last, according to the chronological sequence we
have just outlined, comes first in the manuscript, with the other po-
ems-Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight-fol-
lowing in their appropriate historical order. Pearl, the very capstone
of the historical sequence the manuscript seems to embrace, appears
at its outset rather than at its ending so that the poems chronologi-
cally form a circle, the geometric figure that dominates the mau-
script both numerically in the ioi stanzas of land Gawain as
well as in the reetit rst lines as last lines in three of the
manuscript's four poems. Interestingly enough, Pearl, Gawain, and
Patience-which demonstrate such repetition-are, as we shall see,
primarily about the completed cycle of error and redemption/salva-
tion-the spiritual correction of the Dreamer, the moral correction
of Gawain, the repentance and salvation of Nineveh (and Jonah). In

6 Introduction

contrast, Purity-which lacks the repetition and hence does not
come full circle-is about the falls of men and the destruction of
cities, about the failure to complete the circle initiated by the felix
culpa.16 Indeed, Purity's "Exhortation to Purity"17 presents the re-
demption after sin but, in fact, places greater emphasis on the spe-
cial damnation for those who break the circle of redemption by re-
turning to sin and by beginning an incomplete and unfinishable
cycle that can no longer end where it begins.
If ends and beginnings do not always coincide, what links them is
clear. Cycles, both natural and man-made, reflect the basic tempo-
ral unit in the poet's march through time.18 Of the two poems that
comprise the greatest part of that continuum, Purity presents a
cyclical series of the rises and falls of biblical cities, and Gawain, as
every reader of its famous opening and closing stanzas knows, pre-
sents the cyclical rises and falls of secular postbiblical towns as its
settings.19 Pearl and Patience present the microcosm, the personal
stories of individual cities, Jerusalem and Nineveh, set like pearls
"sengeley in synglure."20
Pearl, however, gives the figure of the circle an interesting twist.
The first of the Cotton Nero poems reverses biological time through
the premature death and the subsequent elevation of the Pearl-
Maiden over her father. In its content, the poem confounds both the
reader's and the Dreamer's chronologically based expectations con-
cerning the two-year-old maiden and her father, since one would ex-
pect the father to diebefore the child and certainly to b i an
the c e Peraps the magteof the reversal is lost on the post-
Romantic reader accustomed to such youthful philosophers as the
"Little Black Boy," the chimney sweeps of Blake's Songs of Inno-
cence, or even the precocious cottage child of Wordsworth's "We
Are Seven." Such reversal, however, would surely have been a cause
for surprise for the medieval reader of Hrothgar's speech on wisdom
or the Wanderer's assertion that "no man may become wise until he
has passed many a winter in the world" (For bon ne maeg wearbon
wis wer, er he age / Wintra del in woruldrice").21 Much more typ-
ical of youth would be the ignorant babes in Patience or the pejora-
tive cast given to youth, especially in the term "childgered" (86) in
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.22 Pearl self-consciously raises the
question of its positioning within the manuscript with its parable of
the workers in the vineyard, its ejimphasisaon .theresJ temp-

Introduction 7

ral expectations, and its explicitly. stated theme of "the last schal
be the fyrst.'The poem's placement in the manuscript, the tempo-
rally last being placed first, demonstrates the reversal that is not
only evident in its content but in its physical manipulation of its
stanza-linked words as well as in its "signature" repetition of mate-
rial from its first stanza in its last.
The relationship between first and last, between Pearl and the rest
of the manuscript, sheds much light on the poet's concept of history.
Certainly, a hristian view of history is by definition a teleological
one, and it is this teleos that imparts meaning to a t
ore. Hence, the last es first in order to introduce that whi
it illumines, thereby making the progression from Pearl to the re-
mainder of the Cotton Nero manuscript a natural one. Moreover, of
the poems that comprise the manuscript, Pearl is uniquely per-
sonal-so much so that it was at first taken as an elegy wrought as
much of personal experience as of theological exposition.24 Like Au-
gustine's Confss ns~g mve er al histo to a ree-
lation pf the di oess of whijhe individual isboth mio-
cosm and part. In the Confessions, personal history is the prelude to
a consideration of Genesis. In the Cotton Nero manuscript, more-
over, this most personal of poems, Pearl, leads just as naturally to
Purity's recapitulation of Genesis wherein the historical process of
individual salvation is placed and glossed by the history of'mankind.
Finally, the presentation of the apocalyptic future (placed in a
most personal and contemporary context in Pearl), followed by a
lengthy exposition of the past (Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight), is not only the ordering of the individual poems
of the manuscript but is also the homiletic structure of Purity. Af-
ter its brief proem announcing its topic, that poem begins with an
analogy taken from contemporary life (35-48) and quickly moves to
a New Testament parable of the apocalyptic judgment (49-I6o).25
The remainder of the poem consists of the history of humankind
from Genesis to Daniel as a gloss or explanation as to how such judg-
ments are affected. In both Purity and the manuscript as a whole,
then, the apocalyptic future of the New Jerusalem is placed in the
context of the present, while the past serves to explain or to gloss
the relationship between the two. The manuscript itself thus might
be thought of as a homily, moving like Purity-or, for that matter,
the discourse of the Pearl-Maiden-from an announced abstract

8 Introduction

subject through progressively concrete exposition, from abstract to
concrete, from the otherworldly spiritual Pearl to the overtly time-
bound and "secular" Gawain. If the announced goal is a presenta-
tion of the Last Judgment or of the end of time, the means of getting
there is history, which forms the subject matter of all that follows.

With the Gawain-Poet's conception of providential history in mind,
it is now possible to examine the thematic focus of the remaining
chapters of this study. Chapter i, for example, explores the poet's
concern with language and culture and their roles in the historical
continuum which underlies and unifies all four poems in the man-
uscript. If "In the beginning there was the Word," history, as we
shall see, was for this poet the unfolding of all that exists in poten-
tia in the verbal act of Creation. The civilizations whose individual
histories are both parts and microcosms of the larger whole will be
seen to define themselves as linguistic communities built around
the common bond of shared symbols, with the king acting as the ver-
bal center, or defining fixed point, in the flux and evolution of soci-
ety. Set against such wise keepers of the word as Patience's king of
Nineveh and Purity's Daniel, Arthur of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight will be presented as an exemplum of improper stewardship
of the word, sharing much in common with Belshazzar in their fun-
damental inability to read as well as to fix the language of the soci-
eties that they govern.26 Throughout the chapter we shall explore
the theme of the inability to read or comprehend,-whether it be the
"rurd" that rings in the ears of the reluctant prophet Jonah or the
seemingly nonsensical wisdom of the Pearl-Maiden whose speech is
illogical, if not incomprehensible, to the mind of the Dreamer. In the
end, moral survival will b linked wth lingujstic survival. The
court's inability to read Alanus de Insulis' "liber et pictura"-both
the words and the iconographic visage of the Green Knight-is a fail-
ure that answers the question, "Why did Camelot-the greatest city
of all, filled with the 'comlokest' and 'hendest'-fail to survive?"
The simple answer is that the court failed because its linguistic cen-
ter gave way. Such a response will be seen to shed considerable light
on a poet whose works are so often about the survival and destruc-
tion of earthly cities and the transcendence of the heavenly one.
While chapter i has language as its focus, chapter 2 examines the
covenants into which words are "knyt" and sets forth the "covenan-

Introduction 9

tal theology" underlying the poet's presentation of history by delin-
eating the series of "couenaunte3" and forwarded3" framed between
God and humanity. The first part of the chapter employs illustra-
tions from Purity, Patience, and Pearl in order to underscore the
significance of free or good "wylle" as part of such covenants. More
than a word of obvious theological import, wylle-along with the
concepts of contract, covenant, surety, and tally in English common
law and juridic procedure-will be presented as an essential element
in any binding contract, whether the Old Testament covenants of
Purity and Patience or the courtly/chivalric pledges of Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight. In fact, the poet's courtly romance will be
seen as a virtual mirror of the status of legal contracts framed be-
tween the occupants of the worldly city. Purity and Patience will
chronicle the binding agreements between God and the human com-
munities, both the virtuous and the sinful, while Pearl will explore
the contractual bonds between God and the elect in the heavenly
city. Focusing on Gawain, we will demonstrate that the protago-
nist's inability to live up to the covenant that binds him to his host
is indicative of the failure of societal bonds in Camelot. Hearkening
back to the first chapter, we will contend that if the linguistic cen-
ter of the human city cannot hold, then the contracts knit of such
stuff, likewise, cannot be anything but impermanent. In the end, the
individual contract acts as a microcosm of the grand contract be-
tween the Creator and Creation as well as of the intermediate
covenant between God and humanity, so that the poet's concept of
history is an expressly covenantal one. As a result, the complex web
of covenants woven in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight both in-
forms and is informed by the covenantal history that takes human-
ity from the fall of Adam to the salvation of Nineveh in Purity and
In the third chapter, our focus is on the role of miracles-those pe-
culiar moments that represent the confluence of divine will and hu-
man events and that trigger a suspension of natural law or of the con-
tract of "kynde"-within the context of covenantal history. Of
particular significance will be the ways in which miracles shape the
history that underlies the manuscript's four works. While we trace
the nature and importance of key miraculous events-the woodbine
episode (Patience) or the puzzling conception of nature in the cre-
ation of the Dead Sea (Purity)-special attention will be paid to the

motif of the confounding of reason, particularly in such instances as
the mysterious writing at Belshazzar's feast (Purity), the beheading
game of the Green Knight, and the inverted relationship between the
Poet-Dreamer and the Maiden (Pearl). What emerges from these nu-
merous illustrations from the works of the Gawain-Poet, then, is a
sense of the "meruayle" as a deliberately transrational sign, the
function of which represents paradoxically the beginning of true un-
derstanding. Finally, as presented in the poems of the Gawain man-
uscript, the central motif of miracles is intertwined with a problem
at the heart of Augustine's Confessions: r it is necess t
to know G -od in order to believe t ne must fi believe in
order to know God.
Chapter 4 takes up the verbal and pictorial iconograph frequently
associated with miracles, such as those appearing throughout the
Gawain canon. The image of the hand, both divine and human,
serves as a major unifying thread in the presentation of the miracu-
lous in the Gawain-Poet's works. As we shall attempt to demon-
strate, history, for the author of the four Gawain poems, represents
a series of interruptions fashioned by the often conflicting hands of
God and humanity. Ranging from the Pearl-Maiden's declaration
that the saved are those who "Hondelynge3 harme lat dyt not ille"
(681) to the Green Knight's challenge (the "ax pat is heue innogh, to
hondele as hym lykes" [289]), there is within the Cotton Nero po-
ems a concern with the way men "hondel" the world around them-
selves. Indeed, whether we focus upon Purity's priests who "hondel
per [God's] aune body" (11) or upon Patience's innocent who 'no3t
cunen' / What rule renes in roun bitwene pe ry3t hande / And his
lyfte" (5 13-15), the uses to which men put their hands are identified
with the exercise of will or with the formulation of moral choices.
We shall observe the poet's employment of this traditional icono-
graphic motif in his two "biblical" works (Patience, Purity) wherein
the poems may be compared with their sources, noting that of the
nineteen references to hands in Purity and Patience, all but three
represent the poet's interpolations to his sources. In discussing the
poet's use of these additions, we will explore the frequent juxtapo-
sition of the hand of God and the hand of man-forces that often dis-
rupt the normal course of nature. In general, the divine hand is as-
sociated with the work of God's presence or voice and with divinely
accepted sacrifice, whereas the human hand is emblematic of sin.



The hand of man, likewise, is ordinarily linked with magicians or
the devil, both of whom are credited with the power to create the ap-
pearance of miracles or of a violation of nature.
Our final chapter takes up the complementary question of the
hand of the poet as we scrutinize the idea of the poet in his position
as maker of a fictive world and the ways in which that role parallels
that of the "Creator of mankynd." We will begin by noting that de-
spite a general critical assessment that this narrator is unobtrusive,
the narrators of Purity, Patience, and Gawain are active storytellers,
frequently intruding into their respective creations much like the
actively intervening God whose miracles are the subject matter of
so much of his work. Indeed, these narrators will be shown to be ac-
tive brokers of their tales, alternately turning their backs on their
audiences to address their characters and abandoning their narra-
tives to exhort their audiences. Keeping in mind God's warning to
Jonah that the man who hastily rends his garment often has to mend
it, we wish to explore how some of those narrative seams work in
tailoring the reader's response to Patience, Purity, and Sir Gawain.
In doing so, we will focus on the poet's manipulation of pronouns-
the juxtaposition of "I" and "thou" and the mediation of "we" and
"us"-in order to create the shifting axes of narrator-character and
narrator-reader as we trace the development of the manuscript's suc-
cessive narrators. In delineating this progression, we will trace the
movement from the strongly centered narrative consciousness of
Purity and Patience to the slightly decentered narrator of Sir Ga-
wain and the Green Knight and conclude with the metamorphosis
of the narrator into an active character in Pearl. Thus, we will, in
circular fashion, close where we began by returning to the order of
the poems in the manuscript with the fynisment reflecting the
forme, if not meeting it directly.







"In the beginning was the Word," an ishomage to
at forme and a recognition of the complexities of that metonymy
that mark so much of medieval art and thought-for Creation itself
was to the medieval mind a linguistic act that began with the ver-
balization, "Let there be ... ."1 History in the strictest sense was the
unfolding of all that lay in potential within the creative word. If the
forme were the linguistic act of Genesis 1:3-15 and if the fynisment
were the Last Judgment, all that lay between was history, which
serves as the means by which the beginning and the end are joined.
Such is the power of the intertwined concepts of history and lan-
guage for the medieval mind, and it is difficult to pass much time
with the poems of the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript without be-
coming aware of the medieval notion of the creative word as well as
of the poet's preoccupation with history, or, more accurately, the
process of history. As we have noted in our introduction, the four
poems that comprise the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript survey the
entire course of history-from Creation in Purity to the apocalyptic
New Jerusalem in Pearl. History, it would seem, is at the center of
this poet's thinking, an assertion that is supported by even a cursory
examination of contemporary criticism focusing on these four po-
ems. Yet, as post-Romantics wedded to the notion of the individual,
those of us who have written about these poems in such contexts
would do well to remind ourselves that for this poet, as well as
for his medieval contemporaries, history is not the story of individ-
uals-of Lot or Daniel or Jonah-nor even of collections of individ-
uals. butrather of societies-that is, of cities and city-states: Sodom
and Babylon in Purity, Nineveh in Patience, Camelot in Sir Gawain,
Jerusalem in Pearl.2 Whereas in Pearl the waking world with its sea-
sons and mortality is quickly left behind so that the bulk of the

poem takes place in the timelessness of the other world,3 in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight, we are never allowed to forg. the
ongoing march of time so precisely ca red in the passin of the
seasons.4 Gawain itself begins with a pluperfect past, a series of
falen civilizations and cities that precede the action of this tale of
past events in Camelot-a tale, as we are told, learned by the poet
in a city of the present.5 Thus, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,
the temporal human city is placed at center stagw.hiJei Pparl the
great Aiu timan siymBoTi6ThstoricalJpcess, the earthly city of
Jerusalem, is but briefly invoked as an unseen counterpoint to the
heavenly city, the subject of the Jeweler's visionary experience.6 In
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this view of history is announced
at the outset of the first stanza and underscored in the last. Camelot,
as it is presented to us, is set in its historical context: Before there
was a Camelot, there was first Troy, then Rome, followed in suc-
cession by the rises-and, more significantly, the falls-of Tuscany
and then of Lombardy.7 Everywhere there are reminders 6f the
meansby which civilization members marktime.8 There
are, of course, the references to the canonical hours and the feasts of
the liturgical calendar,9 but we are also aware of the season of the
deer, the "fermysoun tyme" (1156),10 as well as the season of the
court which is, as the narrator notes, in its "first age" (54).11
Camneloat we are reminded in this tale told in the preterit,a.i fallen
ci -an s such it is heir to the succession of fallen kidmof
te past and recursor of contemporary ondon, presumably the
town in which the poet has ear tle are'Th concern with the pro-
gression of time captured in the sequence of cities seems to perme-
ate virtually every aspect of the poem, from the year and a day con-
tract to the crowing of the cock, which, like the ticking of an
anachronistic clock, punctuates most of the action at the court of
Yet if Camelot-whose description is virtually awash with su-
perlatives of the "louelokkest," "comlokestand est-is doomed
city within the context of th poet apocalyptic vision, ne must
,ask why this is so.13 To understand, in Yeatsian terms, why the
"center cannot hold," it is first necessary to inquire what, in fact,
constitutes that center, what it is that constitutes a society. Indeed,
the poet seems pre~i th whhatholds society togetherre-
oith obligation personal, social, knightly, spiritual-an

From Pearl to Gawain


emphasis manifested in the ubiquitous language of binding both
physical and contractual.14
What, then, are the ties that bid? What is the paste that holds ay
sojietyaghe* whether it be the City of God or one o the many
cities of man that appear in this poet's work? The answer, at least
from this poet's perspective, is shared values or culture-symbol-
ized by sh d ystm o is To put the matter in the termi-
nology of the contemporary linguist, a society is for the poet of the
fourteenth century a "speech community"-a group whose dis-
cose is mutually intelligible and above all whose success as a dis-
tinct and identifiable group is dependent on the status of its bod f %
common knowledge as well as on the system byjhichth members
of societylean andtransmitthat is decode and encode those
shared values. The essence-the central, self-defining task-of soci- ..
ety is communication, and when that communication begins to fal- .,
ter, what ensues is therivatization of language, a type of dangerous r
individualism that for the poet stands injuxtapositionto the com-
The act of naming, the shared conventional association between
an arbitrary signifier and a signified, is, of course, the most basic act
in the creation of such a society. And indeed, the problem of nam-
ing, of using the true or conventional names for things is a theme
that is foregrounded throughout the manuscript but especially in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight.17 For example, the question of ap-
plicability of titles or names hinges on the link between the Green
Knight's appearance and the "trwe tytel" of "wonder" ("Trwe tytel
perof to telle pe wonder" [480]); the proper "tytel" of the pentangle
("Hit is a syngne lat Salamon set sumquyle / In bytoknyng of
trawle, bi tytel pat hit habbe3, ... and Englych hit callen / Oueral,
as I here, pe endeles knot" [625-30]); the feast at Bercilak's court ("pe
freke calde hit a fest" [894]); Lady Bercilak ("A mensk lady on molde
mon may hir calle" [964]); the proper terms for the hunt ("pay neme
for pe noumbles bi nome, as I trowe, / Bi kynde" [1347-48]); and,
above all, the "tytelet token" as well as the "tyxt" of knighthood
("3isterday I ta3tte / Bi aldertuest token of talk pat I cowle, / ... For
to telle of pis teuelyng of pis trwe kny3te3, / Hit is pe tytelet token
and tyxt of her werkke3.... How ledes for her lele luf hor lyue3 han
auntered" [1485-1516]). One might note that there is in all of this
naming a strong Realist undercurrent, as, for example, the "noum-

Language, Culture, and Building Blocks of History


bles" are called such "bi kynde," and the signifiers of love are not
merely tokens but "aldertuest tokens." "Tytels" here are not merely
"tytels" but "trwe tytels."18
For "tytels"-that is, names-it is important to realize that for
this poet the discourse that defines a society is, above all, an autho-
rized discourse, a system of communication handed down to those
who are under the rule of the king. God, upon whom all kingship is
modeled, is apotheosized by tiepoet as "He pat spede3 vche speech"
(1292), and it likewise becomes the duty of the secular king to
"spede3 spech," to set names and fix discourse.19 In Sir Gawain, as
we follow the course o history mapped out in the poem's first
stanza, we note that the poet takes care to tell us that, in regard to
the city he founds, Romulus "neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now
hat" (io), "ives it *eas it is now called." And in the
curious history that follows, in order to reach Britain, itself named
for Felix Brutus, we must travel through Tuscany, named for Tic-
ius, and through Lumbardie, so-called after Langaberde.20 Kings it
would seem, are the Adams of their countries receiving the r
Sfix names-t at is, the power to establish and, as we shall see, to up-
hoTaTscourse-and as such are blessed with both the power and re-
sponsibilities of their stewardship of the word.
Two models for that stewardship become evident in the poems
Purity and Patience. One might first consider the fate of Belshazzar,
whose demise is linked with the breakdown of languageand, in par-
ticular, the inability to read signs. The idols that he worships "were
of stokkes and stones, still euermore; / Neuer steuen hem astel, so
stoken is hor tonge" (1523-24).21 Their muteness is set against God
who "Expouned his speche ... to special prophetes" (1492), a God
whose apocalyptic judgment assumes linguistic form in the "pur-
trayed lettres" on the wall (1536). Moreover, once Daniel deciphers
those mysterious letters, it is clear that Belshazzar still fails either
to comprehend their true meaning or to make Daniel's explication
"malt my mynde wythinne" (1566), even though the fate of the com-
munity literally depends on his ability to do so. In this episode,
linguistic failure and moral failure are inextricably linked.22 In
contrast, Patience's king of Nineveh practices an entirely differ-
ent stewardship of the word. Faced with Jonah's prophecy-words
placed in the prophet's heart by God-the Ninevite king not only
understands it but, acting in his role of king, incorporates it into his

From Pearl to Gawain


own speech, the decreee demed of [hym]seluen," thereby making a
proclamation concerning the repentance of the city as he tells peo-
ple to
... dryue out a decree, demed of myseluen,
Bope burnes and bestes, burde3 and childer,
Vch prynce, vche prest, and prelates alle,
Alle faste frely for her falce werkes ...
Al schal crye, forclemmed, wyth alle oure clere strenpe.
Pe rurd schal ryse to hym pat rawpe schal haue.
Speech thus begets speech: God speaks to Jonah in a "rurd," Jonah
preaches to the city whose king's decree, in turn, makes all cry out
with "clere strenle," creating a "rurd" that returns to God as the
message comes full circle.
From the stories of these two kings, we gradually come to under-
stand the nature of the proper stewardship of the word, a steward-
ship that is founded on a recognition, both medieval and modern, of
the two essential dynamic properties of language. Language is both
fixed and fluid, conventional as well as arbitrary. As the "keeper of
names," the king has the right as well as the responsibility to fix lan-
guage, to preserve its conventions, to protect discourse from the po-
tential chaos of the arbitrariness of signs. At the same time, it be-
comes the duty of the king as keeper of the language to preside over
linguistic renewal by recognizing the creative nature of the word, to
foster what might in Bakhtinian terms be called a purposeful het-
eroglossia, and to restore order by incorporating that creativity into
the remaking of conventions.24 The inability, or the repressive re-
fusal, to participate in such dialogue is the fatal flaw of Belshazzar.
Interestingly enough, an extremely effective model for proper
stewardship might also be found in the particularly intrusive narra-
tor of Sir Gawain who, as both master of revels and arbiter of the
word within his own work not onl arrates a tae ut has occasion
ess himse directly both to his audiencean i charac-
.trs. As we shall note in chapter 5, with his frequent destabilizing
and undermining of the word through his deliberate ambiguities, his
recursive forms, and his purposeful ironies, the narrator shapes the
poem into a factotem image of the Bakhtinian concept of carnival,
with the word constantly reinvolved with itself in a renewing dia-

Language, Culture, and Building Blocks of History


18 From Pearl to Gawain

logue, which "by virtue of its challenge to authoritarian discourse
results in the unmasking, disclosing of the unvarnished truth under
the veil of false claims and arbitrary ranks."25
If Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reminds one of the give-and-
take of Bakhtinian linguistic carnival, the resemblance results less
from the laughter that pervades the poem than from the central
conflict between conflicting systems of communication.26 Like the
courts of Belshazzar and the king of Nineveh, Arthur's Round Table
is confronted by an external messenger and, more importantly, by a
message that tests the ability of the authorized sign system to com-
prehend and incorporate that message into its own linguistic econ-
omy. Because the transmission/reception of signs, both aural and vi-
sual, is the ultimate vehicle of culture, such challenges are direct
measures of their respective courts' potential for renewal and,
hence, survival. As in the case of Belshazzar and the writing on the
wall, that message is unintelligible to those within the court. In-
deed, that this is a competition between disparate sign systems is
quickly revealed as the Green Knight defies the court by demanding,
"Where is now your ... grete words? / Now is be reuel and be re-
noun of be Rounde Table / Ouerwalt wyth a worde of on wy3es
speche" (311-14). For his own part, Arthur responds in kind: "I know
no gome bat is gast of py grete words" (325). In short~ rdsasare he
real weapons in the Green Knight's verbal game or riddlq aLs
suchicom einto play- long before gisarmes. The linguistic nature of
the conflict is then underscored y Gawain's own admission to
Bercilak that the Green Knight, "Per wat3 stabled bi statut a steuen
vus bytwene" (io60), as well as by his host's response: "I schal teche
yow to ba terme bi pe tyme3 ende" (o169). While the terms of the
obligation "steuen" and "terme" are frequently glossed as "ap-
pointment" and "appointed place," respectively,27 both more com-
monly have linguistic associations, signifying as they do "voice"
and "word." Gawain's quest isj in fact u e to find a voic.a
word a new "token" or "tytel," although he is ignorant Tthe fact.
w he is ign otthe fact.
And, of course, the meeting place, the "terme," is siginficaitly
enough an "oratorie."
That the cn flit .r of the poem is between mutual
unintll sin systems may be demonstrated by the Green
Knight's introduction to the court. Since Arthur's Camelot is char-
acterized by noise,28 early in the poem we are told ofitheBabelike
"dyn" (47) and "glaum" (46) of the Yuletide celebration.29 This ef-

fect is underscored by the poet's onomatopoeia in the description of
the kettledrums, the cracking of trumpets, and finally the "Nwe
nakryn noyse" of the pipes (I 18). Then switching from his depiction
of "hor seruise" (130), the poet devotes his first words to the Green
Knight who, here and at the Green Chapel, is heardJle teis.een
"Anoper noyse, ful newe, need biliue, / Pat be lude my3t haf leue
liflode to cach" (132-33).
Note that a noise not a gome or man, will allow Arthur to fulfill
his pledge. And as if to emphasize that these are two competigs-
tems of noyse, the poet immediately follows these lines by observ-
ing the cessation of noise at Arthur's court: "For vnebe wat3 pe
noyce not awhyle sesed, / And be fyrst cource in be court kyndely
serued, / Per hales in at be halle-dor an aghlich master, .. ."
(134-36). Although the exact referent of "noyce" is, like many other
elements in the poem,-ambiguous, its parallel placement with the
serving of the first course would logically make its referent the noise
of Arthur's court, noise stifled if not supplanted by "ano~er nose"
ofthe GreenKigt.
At this point in the narrative, the reader might well ask why the
Green Knight is characterized by nvse-that is, signs incompre-
hensible to Arthur's court-and, more importantly, why Arthur's
court is characterized by a jarring mixture of "dyn," "glaum," and
"noyse." Is it to suggest that they are, in counterpoint to a pre-Babel
society, a.roup whose members' discourse usually incompie-
hnsihbJa 30In order to answer these questions, one must realize that
Arthur's own failure at speech is pinpointed in the narrative, first,
in his poor stewardship of the word through a rash oath, a linguistic
blunder fulfilled by the "oper noyse" of the intruder, and second, in
his egregious misreai of s both.visal and verbal.
In his description of theGreen Knight, the narrator emphasizes
that knight's lack of battle gear: "Wheper hade he no helme ne haw-
bergh nauper, / Ne no pysan ne no plate bat pented to armes, / Ne
no schafte ne no schelde to schwue ne to smyte .. ." (203-5). As if
to underscore that very point, the Green Knight prefaces his an-
nouncement of his "errand" by stating:

3e may be seker bi pis branch pat I bere here
Pat I passe as in pes and no ply3t seche,
For had I founded in fere in fe3tyng wyse,
-I haue a hauberghe at home, and a helme bole,

Language, Culture, and Building Blocks of History


A schelde and a scharp spere, schinande bry3t,
Ande oper wappenes to welde, I wene wel als;
Bot for I wolde no were, my wede3 ar softer.
Arthur's immediate response to these words, however, demon-
strates a linguistic inattentiveness more fitting a somnambulant
student than a king: "Sir cortays kny3t, / If Dou craue batayl bare, /
Here fayle3 kou not to fy3t" (276-78).
With the possible exceptions of the dreamer Geoffrey in the Book
of the Duchess and the obtuse clerks of Belshazzar's court, one is
hard-pressed to come up with a parallel to such verbal obtuseness.
And like the world-weary teacher that he probably is at this point,
the Green Knight begins his speech anew by repeating, "Nay, frayst
I no fy3t.. .." (279).31 Yet this teacher, like many an instructor whose
class is not really paying attention, resorts to an assay, a quiz. In
fact, as we shall see in chapter 4, the "game" or riddle that makes
up the Green Knight's challenge is seriously misread by Athur and
the court, who mistakenly understand te ax as the instrument for
the execution of their contract, rather than the "hondeselle" or gift
that it is.
If we recall the lines from the Rhythmus alter of Alanus de Insulis,
it appears as though Arthur has failed to read the picturea" or visual
clues of the Green Knight's visage, to understand the "liber" of the
Green Knight's words, or to recognize a reflectiQn_ ois own request
for a "wsoadgrin the Green Knight's appearance. Yet Arthur and his
court's inability to lecoTetHet reen Knight's message stems from
far more than the Green Knight's straungenesse, his verbal indirc-
tj ,,o his status as an outsider. Arthur's court is character-
ized by an unwillingness to speak, whether out of fear or arrogance
or inability. To be sure, the narrator emphasizes this aspect of the
Arthurian entourage, a group of men who are as mute as Belshazzar's
stone idols. There is, for instance, the narrator's delightfully obvi-
ous sarcasm in assuring us that
In a swoghe sylence kur3 pe sale riche,
As al were slypped vpon slepe, so slaked hor lote3
in hy3e,
I deme hit not al for doute,
Bot sum for cortaysye.

From Pearl to Gawain


The poet next has the Green Knight ask if "Dar any herinne o3t say"
(300) and then has him coughing mockingly at the silence. The
whole point of Gawain's unnecessarily lethal blow is to silence the
Green Kniht to cut off discourse, a motivetieeTah-tter acknowJledges
IinjSif when he says "If I spend no speche, penne spede3 pou pe
better" (410). Significantly enough, Arthur promotes the same no-
tion as he tells Gawain, "Kepe pe cosyn ... pat pou on kyrf sette, /
And if pou rede3 hym ry3t, redly I trowe / Pat pou schal byden be bur
pat he schal bede after" (372-74). The king's weak control as lin-
guistic head of his own community is evident inrhis own uncon-
scio r his lacofunderstanding of the true meaning of his
own words, "rede3 hym ry3t." And of course, given the linguistic
habits of the court, there is no chance that Gawain will "rede" this
or any other token in "ry3t" manner. Arthur's inability to act as the
linguistic center of his own society, in direct contrast to the name-
giving founders of Rome, Tuscany, Lombardy, and Britain, is as se-
rious and as obvious a breach as iis failure to remain in the Lror
place at the feast table, an unkingly act underscored subtlyby Mor-
gan's retention of the highest place at her own table.32 Significantly,
because Gawain cannot perceive the "auncian's" own place as high-
est on the dais at Bercilak's court, he also fails to realize that the cen-
trafigur he courts the crone, not the younger woman who is
the center of his courtly attentions. Of course, in failing to recognize
the importance of the crone's position at the banquet, Gawain is act-
ing as the perfect mirror of the values of his own court wltose ~ r
i absent from the p onoFr at.uca lapse then al-
lows the Green Knight to ask the scathing and double-edged ques-
tion, "Wher is... Pe gouemour of pis gyng" (224-25), for part of gov-
erning is presiding over the conventions of communication.
More serious than the failure to speak or to perceive the meaning
of one's own discourse is the deliberate abusp of pch occurring
within the court. According to Augustine, speech is a divine gift, the
purpose or correct use of which is disclosure.33 Using seechto hide
truth, howevertconstitutesan absg thatgift,'te mar In-
deed, as Gawain says, the green girdle should be employed as an out-
ward "token of vntrawpe pat I am tan inne" since none "may hyden
his harme bot vnhap ne may hit" (2509-11). Yet Arthur and his court
are noted for just such attempts to veil truths, to disguise their true
feelings. The chief business of Arthur and his courtiers att_.LC.tioft
of the poem is the maskifingof their fe the concealment of any

Language, Culture, and Building Blocks of History


trace of their true reactions to the events surrounding the Green
Knight, so that these chivalric representatives are, in a sense, nogss
disguised than the green intruder.At the poem's conclusion, their
universal adoption of the green baldric, whose meaning they clearly
do not understand, is merely an attempt to rob the "trwe token" of
its semanticity, to hide its meaning or the difference, in the Derrid-
ian sense, that it denotest awain. Mertainy the universal adop-
tion of the green baldric as a fashion robs gawn of his uniqueness
his difference. In essence, the court deals with the threat of Ga-
wain's newfound knowledge by co-opting its "sygne" and thereby
robbing it of its semanticit by destroyin its difference. Again in
Bakhtinian terms, permitting rather than repressing such a chal-
lenge to the status quo has as its goal-in poetry as well as in king-
ship-growth rather than chaos, renewal rather than annihilation.
tcRof suchverbal maskig, Gawain is once again a true ex-
emplar of the values of the Arthurianort. His first words, though
courtly, represent insincere hyperbole concerning his own lack of
worth, an opinion given the lie by almost every succeeding word and
deed. In fact, the basis of the knight's renown is his ability at
"derne" or secret "luf-talkyng" (927),34 a courtly skill whose hall-
marks are indirection, innuendo, and dmlhlp PIntendre Upon learn-
ing the name of their guest at Hautdesert, the courtiers thus link
Gawain with such double speech:
Now schal we semlych se sle3te3 of bewe3,
And be teccheles terms of talking noble,
Wich spede is in speche, vnspurd may we leme,
Syn we haf fonged pat fyne fader of nurture.
God hat3 geuen vus his grace godly forsobe,
Pat such a gest as Gawan graunte3 vus to haue,
When burne3 blype of his burpe schal sitte
and synge.
In menyng of manere3 mere
Pis bume now schal vus bryng.
I hope lat may hym here
Schal leme of luf-talkyng.
After overhearingsuch praise" pJhis .singular linguistic skills,
Gawain attearipp.iaithi,, aepgatjion, thereby allowing
himself to be seduced by the lady. Moreover, such acclaim is, at the

From Pearl to Gawain


least, of dubious distinction, for it echoes the use of the term
"sle3e"-used only twenty lines earlier-to describe the sauces
masking the penitential fare of fish in order to give it the appearance
of a feast.35 Much excellent work has already been done on the
wealth of decoration permeating the work, often as deceptive as the
Green Knight's disguise. Moreover, in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, words themselves form another sly means ofveiling or
masking rather than of disclosing. Such "sle3te3 of pewe3" thus look
forward to the green girdle with its peculiar lifesaving property-
"For he my3t not be slayn for sly3t vpon erpe" (1854). As if in re-
sponse to this claim, the narrator, entering into the mind of Gawain,
declares, "Pen kest pe kny3t, and hit come to his hert, / Hit were a
juel for be joparde lat hym jugged were, / When he acheued to be
chapel, his chek for to fech; / Niy3 he haf slypped to be vnslayn, be
sle3t were noble" (1855-58).
The green girdle is a "juel" for Gawain's "joparde," but it pos-
sesses this property because it is explicitly transformed from object
to signThat is, as a result o the very exchange of words between
Gawain and the grene gome, the girdle is endowed with semantic-
ity. This act of decoding and subsequent encoding is deftly svmbho-
ized by Gawain's untying and then retying the green baldric as he
unravels the game or riddle of the Green Knight and reintegrates his
ewperception into is own self-kwledge. No longer hidden or
privat-zed, or for that matter the product of "sle3te3"-the green
girdle is visibly displayed and is openly explained as Gawain asks to
"welde" the "token," explicitly juxtaposing its physical properties
with its nature as "sign": ". .. not for be wynne golde, / Ne be saynt,
ne be sylk, ne pe syde pendaundes, / For wele ne for worchyp, ne for
le wlonk werkke3, / Bot in syngne of my surfet" (2430-33), and as
if to emphasize the semantic function of the girdle, the narrator in-
forms us, "... .e blykkande belt he bere peraboute, / Abelef, as a
bauderyk, bounden bi his syde, / Loken vnder his lyfte arme, pe lace,
wyth a knot, / In tokenyng he wat3 tane in tech of a faute"
Finally, in recounting his adventures to the court, Gawain em-
phasizes the girdle as "token," publicly explaining its meaning: "Pis
is be bende of his blame I bere my nek; / Pis is he lape and be losse
bat I la3t haue / Of couardise and couetyse pat I haf ca3t pare. / Pis
is pe token of vntrawpe pat I am tan inne.. .." (2506-9).
In each case, the girdle is presented explicitly as "token" or

Language, Culture, and Building Blocks of History


"sign"-as a semanticized object whose linguistic transformation or
revaluation functions as a symbol of Gawain's new understanding.
Another model for such formulation of a new linguistic order has
been demonstrated by Allan A. Metcalf in his essay "Sir Gawain and
You."36 Metcalf underscores the poet's skillful use of the second per-
son so that Gawain evolves from the informal and slightly disre-
spectful "Thou" to the more formal "You" by the end of the poem.
The word You is no longer appropriate as a signifier for the signified.
New knowledge creates new forms and habits of discose. As per-
ception changes, so too does language, the undoing and revaluation
of which are signified by the ing and retying of the girdle, the
"trwe token" of "vntrawke" at the end of the poem.
While Gawain succeeds in linguistic integratio in the revalua-
tioLf arts of his own discourse .Ar. fails in his stewardship
the.w.od, thereby provi iMlgte answer to the question "whyjt
did Camelot fal" Arthur cannot articula tany meaningfl re-
spons Gwains.le e a fin' the knight's pub-
lic at tempt tde thmeni ha"trwe" token. Offering
moral noncommunication-empty consolation and very un-Bakh-
tinian laughter-Arthur, together with his court, experiences a type
of verbal obtuseness, a paralysis in which misunderstood signs-no-
tably the radically privatized green baldric as an emblem of the
Round Table's honorable reputation-are substituted uneasilor
true leadership and communication of Chisjt alues. Camelot, it
would seem, fell because it was no longer a society; it was no longer
a collection of people capable of communicating either by sending
or by receiving mutually understood messages. Camelot has become
a type of Babel with each member using his own unique language to
encode, to hide, rathe into disclose meaning. As a society in
which language has become dangerouslyprivatized, Camelot is no
longer able to absorb or reintegrate what Gawain has learned into its
own sign system, into its own body of knowledge. In effect, Arthur's
court is unable to retie the knot-for while the court adopts the sign
o" thev have converted a rweoen" into
ljI more thin fihip tatement.
The poem concludes not with the court but, rather, ends by com-
ing full circle, repeating its first stanza as its one-hundred-first. As a
result of this narrative "signature," the audience is again presented
with the image of a fallen Troy, this time revalorized by its reading

From Pearl to Gawain


of the intervening hundred stanzas. As the last stanza returns us to
the first, the repetition redirects us back into the poem, albeit a very
different one in which many of the ironies are laid bare, self-reflex-
ively glossed by our previous experience of the poem. In returning
us to lines for which we have already found meaning in an earlier
context, the poem demonstrates for its readers not only how signs
are made but how societies survive and in particular why this one
did not. Indeed, the narrator's deliberate avowal that he heard his
tale "in toun" points in two directions. His aside serves to remind
us of his contemporary present and, hence, to confirm the notion
that Camelot is a" of the vanished past. But if the refer-
ence to the contemporary town serves to define Camelot as fallen
city, th ycle fallen cities of which Camelot is a member
reaches outward to include the "toun" of the poet's present. In an
apocalyptic warning appropriate for Jonah preaching at Nineveh, the
poet seems to be saying that, without repentance, the "toun" of to-
day will share the fate of Camelot, which did not listen, rather than
that of Nineveh, which did heed the danger.
As its opening and closing stanzas make clear, Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight is a tale about history. As such, this romance becomes
a story about a momet in the life of an individual-a moment that,
in turn, illuminates the chronicle of a city which itself is but a chap-
ter in the unfolding course of the history of humankind, notably the
rises and falls of civilizations or cultures which are dependent on
communication, on the free and direct use of language. In this vision
of the past, the poet has not moved very far from the underlying pre-
sumptions of Augustine's Confessions, which, as we noted in the in-
troduction, moves deftly from the psonal history of its ajhuth tp
an ex lication ogf Gn heiant acquisition of language to
an understandingvfCreation throughthe speech actsote reactor.
In the end, however, we are left with two counterbalancing im-
ages. On the one hand, there is the city of Nineveh where, as a re-
sult of the king's decree, "alle crye"-the "burnes and bestes, burde3
and childer, / Vch prynce, vche prest, and prelates alle" (388-89).
Presumably beasts, children, prelates and the rest do not all speak
alike, and yet, despite such insurmountable heteroglossia, all say
the same thing as they implore God, "hym lat rawbe schal haue"
(396), to spare the city. In sharp contrast to the linguistic network of
Nineveh stands the splendor of Camelot. While the members of

Language, Culture, and Building Blocks of History


Arthur' ourt outwardly seem to snal the same tone, their
worse are so privatized that though the signs are the same the
meanings are different. Even the king, as in his advice to "rede3 ...
ry3t" (373), does not understand the meaning of his own counsel.
The historical moment, whether at Camelot or in Nineveh, is the
microcosm of the process by which cities are saved or lost. And as
we shall see in the succeeding chapter, the verbal contract, a ver
special form of linguistic endeavor, is the fundamental act or bind-
--- e I -. ____
ing tie in bth the history of the individuland the hist n
tin. The history of nations is the process whereby all that is im-
plicit or exists in potential within the words of Creation becomes
As we noted earlier, Gawain concludes with a return visit to the
fallen realms traced at the beginning of the poem. In this circular
movement, the poet forces us to turn our attention from the
Arthurian court to the all-embracing pageant of history, which
shapes and is shaped by the Camelot myth. Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight is thus a recursive work, a romance that constantly
rewrites itself, thereby providing new meaning for the audience
which savors and reflects uponrthe fallen cities of the poem's open-

From Pearl to Gawain




Perhaps the most frequent question asked by the first-
time undergraduate reader of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a
rather commonsense one, at least to modem sensibilities: Why does
Gawain seek out the Green Knight in order to keep an appointment
that, as far as everyone in the poem is concerned, can only lead to
his death? In fact, the same question arises in regard to the far less
sympathetic knight of the Wife of Bath's Tale, where the central
character is given a similar period of a year and a day to find the cor-
rect response to the riddle, "What is it that all women desire."' Fail-
ure to find the answer means death, and, yet, we are told: "Whan
that he saugh he myghte nat come thereby- / This is to seye, what
women love moost- / Withinne his brest ful sorweful was the
goost. / But hoom he gooth; he myghte nat sojoume; / The day was
come that homeward most he toure" (3.984-87; emphasis added).
"Hoom he gooth" and "homeward most he tourne"-here an al-
most unthinkable action, at least in modern terms, is reduced to two
remarkably brief clauses whose compactness is all the more pro-
nounced given the psychological depth that informs the prologue
and the tale's denouement. The knight simply "must" return as if
the logical force of the situation makes further explanation com-
pletely unnecessary WJ1th in ec son to seek out the
Green Knight, the modem reader asks why neither character con-
siders, in the one case, not going, and, in the other, not coming back.
The fact that such options are actively resisted by Gawain and more
remarkably, not even consiire y cmng ijht, who is
_ alrei~ayui of irape and surqudi7 attests to an assumption of a
principle not at work in our own ethos.
Asked how Gawain would respond if the tale's setting were a
modem corporate boardroom and if the "game" were converted into

a difficult but seemingly lucrative merger/takeover whose dangers
were not apparent until after the contract had been signed, modem
students invariably reply that they would simply break the contract,
usually with the aid of a lawyer, often suggesting that some sort of
deception makes the contract invalid. As to the divergence between
the "medieval" response and our own to such contractual bonds,
students tend to focus on what they perceive to be our sophistica-
tion as opposed to medieval naivete, especially in the medieval re-
gard for abstract honor and a owe 1atotemistic r~ he
pledge word, qualities that we can admire condescendingly from
afar. To be sure, there is a strong tradition of adhering to even the
rashest of promises in Arthurian literature. Arthur, for example, is
often victimized by his own rash vows, honoring them at his own
expense because a king may not be forsworn and remain a king. But
the force that holds Gawain and the wife's knight-two characters
of different temperaments and outlooks-to their appointed rounds
is far more specific than a general redilection for keeping one's
word. Rather, it is the power of cov&na owerof law.2
The power o aw is evident in t ie yir~ ion that per-
meates Sir Gawain. TheQoeem presetsaworlIhacterizdly in-
smgly complex webs of words and obligatin, a world in which
words are expressly l nyt" into "couenaunts," where riddles and
love talk are transformed into formalized legal contracts,3 History,
as we have seen in chapter 1, is inseparable from language. As such,
it is equally important to note that words are the matibre out of
which contracts are created, and that the history that underlies all
of this poet's works is an expressly covenantal one.
One of the most striking aspects of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight is the poet's careful delineation of the contracts or "cou-
enaunts" that occur throughout the poem-for, in the course of his
adventure, Gawain is bound toj e reen Knigh.tB ,g lajand
Bercilares of contractual agreements that mirror in
form and in content te juridica procedures out me i
common law.4 To be sure, Gawain's failure to fulfill his voluntary
pleges because of a self-created web of mutually contradictory
promises lies at the heart of most interpretations of the poem.5 Cen-
tral to this understanding, as in the historical/personal analysis of
Augustine, is the qop.cepta~i wil ("goud wylle"), which repre-
sents in med&eaL g~Ltheary and.pratice essential leen jn

From Pearl to Gawain


the shaping of binding contractual ageements.6 Through an exami-
nation of the legal role of "wylle" in the medieval contractual tra-
dition, then, we will illuminate the significance of this concept in
the creation of Gawain's contracts and to highlight the thematic and
structural employment of will in Gawain-the particular quality
that is weighed, tested, and repeatedly shaped throughout this ro-
In medieval legal practice, contracts are, first of all, divided con-
ventionally into two distinct parts. A set of stipulations, the quid
pro quo and terms of enforcement, constitutes the first part, whereas
a formally sworn oath represents the second.7 Significantly, this tra-
ditional legal distinction between the "couenaunt" (quid pro quo)
and the forwardd" (oath) is strictly maintained in each of the sworn
contracts within Gawain.s Furthermore, according to medieval con-
tractual practice, any breach of formal contract is defined as a breach
of oath-or forwardd" rather than as a failure to act or to deliver the
quid pro quo.9 While the oath constitutes the legally forcible ele-
ment of the contract, te validity of the oath springs from the oath
taker's "goud wylle," a quality including both conscious, free assent
to the declaration and the ability to make such a promise.10 For ex-
ample, one cannot swear with good will to sell as one's own posses-
sions the goods belonging to another individual. In a similar vein, a
married man's bigamous promise to wed someone else cannot be of-
fered with "goud wylle," for the promised action is unperformale
Like most elements of medieval culture, this legal concept of will
is rooted in matters secular and spiritual, with the practical lessons
of experience standing inseparable from the theoretical speculations
of "auctoritee." Curiously enough, the Roman legal code fails to in-
clude any provision for a proxy, a concept vital to modem jurispru-
dence.11 As multinational trade and banking became increasingly
complex and extensive, however, the formulation of the proxy con-
cept by medieval mercantile circles called for more lucid legal
definitions of what could and could not be promised legally by oath.
Along with this secular interest in the nature and limitations of
oaths, the centrality of will in the construction of oaths gradually
Played a in ant solving roe inmedievalreli thogt. By
the eleventh century, at least, numerous patristic writings focusing
upon the status and effectiveness of oaths for initiates into religious
orders had been amassed.12 Of particular significance to the devel-

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde


opment of thought on the proper employment of oaths was the on-
set of the Crusades along with the Christian knights' sacred vows to
recapture the Holy Land. Each of the Crusades generated both a
flurry of vows by potential defenders of the Christian faith and a cor-
responding spate of legal/ethical theorizing upon the efficacy of
those vows once, as was often the case, the object of the binding
obligations praved unattainable.13
Another important step in the refinement of medieval contractual
theory is the concept of the vow as a self-limiting action for a
promisor.14 Since vows in the Middle Ages reflect God's conduct as
covenantal partner in Old Testament agreements, a vow represents
a pledge whereby the will chooses to place limits upon its freedom
of agion. For example, an individual's vow to be ordained as a priest
creates a self-limiting prohibition against marriage. In contrast, for
a person whose activities are not circumscribed by the taking of holy
orders, the bonds of matrimony may still be knotted with "goud
wylle." The scriptural basis for both the civil and canon law princi-
ples of the self-limiting function of the will is illustrated by the
Gawain-Poet's portrayal of the covenants made between God and
Noah in Purity. That God's role in the covenantal/contractual
process hinges on "wylle" is traced clearly in the announcement of
his intention to destroy mankind:
Now God in nwy to Noe con speke.
Wylde wrakful worde3 in his wylle greued ...
I schal strenkle my distress, and strye al togeder,
Bope lede3 and londe and alle pat lyf habbe3.
Bot, make to Pe a mancioun, and pat is my wylle.
(301-2, 307-9)
Somewhat later, moreover, God pledges not to repeat at any future
time this annihilation of the world:15 "For quen pe swemande sor3e
so3t to his hert, / He knyt a couenaunde cortaysly wyth monkynde
pere, / In pe measure of his mode and mepe of his wylle, / Pat he
schulde neuer, for no syt, smyte al at one3" (563-66).
In shaping a covenant with Noah (and, hence, "monkynde"), God
thus limits divine omnipotence by freely promising never "to quelle
alle quyke3 for qued pat my3t falle, / Whyl of pe lenpe of pe londe
laste3 pe terme. / Pat ilke skyl, for no scape, escaped hym neuer"
(5 67-69). Likewise, in bargaining with Abraham concerning the de-

From Pearl to Gawain


struction of Sodom (Purity: 713-65), God enters into another formal
"covenant" whereby divine freedom of action is restricted through
the self-containment of will. In both of these contractual arrange-
ments, the presence of divine will triggers the theological dilemma
of limited actions for an omnipotent God; yet if limits are not placed
on God's will, man's covenants with God-both the salvation of
Noah (327-30) and of ten honorable men in Sodom (763-65)-are
transformed into specious gestures. In attempting to resolve this
knotty theological problem, then, late medieval nominalist thinkers
perceive God as a covenantal partner, a deity who voluntarily lim-
its his own will and actions. While God's omnipotence clearly in-
cludes the ability to abrogate any contract, God freely chooses to
curb his will in order to fulfill contractual obligations. In the flood
episode of Purity, for example, the active will seeking the destruc-
tion of the world (326) is thus limited by a voluntary covenant with
mankind (564-65). Since God freely pledges his faith, any deviation
from this formal agreement-any wholesale slaughter of human be-
ings-would represent an action outside the bounds of prescribed
contractual behavior.
Occasionally, however, individuals may implore God to prevent
the terms of a duly executed agreement. In the New Testament para-
ble of the vineyard (Matt. 20: 1-16), a story recounted in Pearl
(497-588), the lord (God) hires workmen for his vineyard at various
times of the day. Although those employed first by the lord "Into ac-
corde ... con declyne / For a pene on a day" (509-10), the penny of
eternal beatitude granted equally to the saved, such laborers com-
plain that they deserve more than the idle men engaged by their em-
ployer near sunset (549-5 6). After reminding the workers of the con-
tractual obligation of a penny, "Wat3 not a pene pe couenaunt bore?
/ Fyrre pen couenaunde is no3t to plete" (562-63), the lord asserts
his prerogative as employer to extend the penny of eternal life to all
laborers, both early and late, in the vineyard. Through the free gift
of divine grace and through heavenly "cortaysye," the manifestation
of divine charity, those who performed little work in the vineyard
may still receive everlasting bliss.16
As the parable of the vineyard illustrates clearly, God voluntarily
retricts his unlimited freedom-a action representing inteal
part ofivine "cortaysye"-in order to enter into covenants with hu-
manity (the laborers). At the same time, however, God may offer

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde


freely the contractual reward of heaven to "latecomers," for God is
the true fount of grace and love. If the limitation of will represents
the hallmark of God, then the undisciplined reign of the will is fre-
quently linked with Satan, who rebels against his lord and who
seeks to destroy natural order by establishing a throne in the North.
The inversion proposed by Satan in Purity (211-34) strikes at the
very heart of the lord/vassal relationship, the bond that knits to-
gether the fabric of heavenly and earthly courts.
Similarly, in Patience, the story of the recalcitrant Jonah begins
with the narrator's examination of true submission to the will of
one's lord:
... 3if my lege lorde lyst, on lyue, me to bidde
Oper to ryde over to renne to Rome in his ernde,
What grayped me be grychchyng, bot grame more seche
Much, 3if he me ne made, maugref my chekes,
And penne prat most I lole, and vnponk to mede,
Pe had bowed to his bode, bongre my hyure.
While Jonah's vassalage serves as a major theme in Patience, the
poet cogently suggests that the prophet's servitude cannot be per-
ceived as license for the lord's exercise of unrestricted will. Just as
Patience opens with a statement outlining the servant's obligations,
so the poem concludes with the voice from the whirlwind, wherein
God articulates the divine "duty" (495-527) to the innocent and un-
knowing servants in Nineveh, a town Jonah wishes to be destroyed.
Indeed, Jonah is angry because God will not live by the letter of the
What! Wote oper wyte may 3if be Wy3e lykes,
Pat is hende in be hy3t of his gentryse.
I wot his my3t is so much, ba3 he be myssepayed,
Pat in his mylde amesyng, he mercy may fynde;
And if we leuen be layk of oure layth synnes,
And style steppen in be sty3e he sty3tle3 hymseluen,
He wyl wende of his wodschip and his wrath leue,
And forgif vus is gult, 3if we hym God leuen.
"Gentryse" is such that "Da3 he be myssepayed;" it demands the
granting of mercy if amends are made. The covenantal relationship

From Pearl to Gawain


between vassal and lord is thus framed so that the obedience of the
servant implies a responsibility for the master. This custodial obli-
gation of a ruler to his subjects is illustrated, likewise, by the
Ninevite king's tearful response to Jonah's cries for repentance:
And he radly vp ros and ran fro his chayer.
His ryche robe he torof of his rigge naked,
And of a hep of askes he hitte in be mydde3.
He aske3 heterly a hayre and hasped hym vmbe,
Sewed a sekke perabof and syked ful colde.
Per he dased in pat duste, wyth droppande teres,
Wepande ful wonderly alle his range dedes.
After acting as a penitential role model for his people, he orders
them to fast and to abandon their sinful behavior (385-404), thereby
increasing the chances for God's forgiveness.
Finally; in order to comprehend the significance of will in me-
dieval contractual procedure, it may prove helpful to outline the
contract framed between a mortal and another "grene gome." In
Chaucer's Friar's Tale, a wily summoner agrees to exchange win-
nings with a fiend garbed in green. When an angry carter subse-
quently consigns his cart and horses to the devil and when the
greedy summoner questions the demon's failure to claim this wind-
fall, the fiend responds by noting the importance of "entente"
("gbud wylle") in the offering of gifts: "'Nay,' quod the devel, 'God
woot, never a deel! / It is nat his entente, trust me weel'" (3.1555-
56).7 That "entente" represents an important factor in determining
full comprehension of the nature of an action is illustrated, likewise,
in the concluding scene of the Friar's Tale. Once an elderly widow
consigns the summoner to the devil, the fiend inquires, "Now, Ma-
bely, myn owne mooder deere, / Is this you're wyl in ernest that ye
seye?" (III, 1626-27). Without that genuine exercise of "wyl," then,
the old woman's oath is as meaningless as that of the carter; yet the
-widow cannot willfully deliver the summoner's soul to the devil un-
less she gains the summoner's consent. However, after the sum-
moner places himself within her power during a volley of angry
words, all parties-the devil, the widow, and the summoner-freely
execute an agreement so that the fiend may carry off the spoils of
the hunt, the summoner, to hell.
Inasmuch as the summoner's exchange of purchase (II, 1530)

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde


with the yeoman-devil in the Friar's Tale constitutes a binding
transaction, an agreement resembling the exchange 9f "cheui-
saunce"18 in Gawain's covenants, the same question of "wylle"
plays a pivotal role in Gawain's contractual arrangements. Ironi-
cally, Gawain is the one who introduces the concept of will as the
standard for judging human actions where he attempts to parry Lady
Bercilak's hard-pressed suit for a kiss: "3e, be God ... good is your
speche, / Bot prete is vnpryuande in pede per I lende, / And vche gift
pat is geuen not wyth goud wylle" (1498-15oo).
Yet the good will to which Gain hUsstmorthaP-tk~mhe
proper way of offering ifts or hearts. As even the casual reader of
medieval literature may note, giftlging reprsentsan important so-
cian legal convention, for such an act creates an implicit con-
tractual bon between giver and recipient,19 as well as a debt liabil-
ity in a unilateral contract,20 the most common type of medieval
legal agreement. In short, if one party contracts with a second party
for the exchange of goods, the contract binds only when the first
party delivers the promised merchandise, thereby creating a unilat-
eral debt for the receiver. In a similar vein, then, t agreement for
the exchange of blows framed between Gawain and the Green
K t tes a contractual obligationol the ene
gome" offers hs necl to awain, resut in a eral debt or
Gawain. Such a contractual debt imposed upon Gawain may serve
to explain why he initially rejects the various gifts presented by Lady
Bercilak during the third temptation. Si C r
stable gifts in return, he wouldbe indeboted Bercilak's wife;
without a means ofsajt tS-ls debt, then, Gawain may not ac-
cept such gits wit proper good will. In fact, the legalities of oblig-
ation and the express indebtedness they create and then discharge
provide the very rationale for the rather peculiar exchange instituted
at Bercilak's court. To accept a gift is to accept indebtedness. To do
so without hope of being able to discharge that debt, as Gawain tells
Lady Bercilak, is a breach of the very high manners of which Gawain
is supposed to be the exemplar.
What holds true for the exchange of bedroom trifles is also true of
the hospitality of the household in general. Gawain, in accepting
Bercilak's hospitality, has placed himself within the host's debt, cre-
ating an obligation that he cannot repay, for the knight-errant has
nothing with which to quite the fare at Bercilak's table. Once the

From Pearl to Gawain


spoils of the hunt-the venison and the boar-are in Gawain's pos-
session, the knight is allowed technically to provide the night's
repast, to repay his host's hospitality and thereby cancel the oblia-
tion that the seemingly doomed Jknight cannot ffnrd. But for
Gawain to use the game in this fashion, the fare must be completely
his, thus triggering the elaborate exchange of Bercilak's winnings for
Gawain's winnings, an exchange contract that affords Gawain the
means of discharging debt for the sake of honor. Such elaborate and
circuitous exchanges make Gawain's breach of etiquette in proffer-
ing the three kisses before first receiving Bercilak's winnings all the
more glaring, since Gawain's action rates presumptory debt with-,
out p elation f their stated element.
Yet such a breach is already prefigured in the knight's previous ex-
change with Lady Bercilak. Although Gawain ultimately takes the
lady's alluring green and gold girdle, his promise of concealment/si-
lence (1863-65 and 1874-75) exchanged for the gift clearly violates
the conditions of his previous agreement with Bercilak, the "ex-
change of winnings" (11o6-7). Thus, from Gawain's acceptance of
the girdle to the sudden offer of three kisses to Bercilak, the absence
Of "Ond wylle" inv'lilates Cawain's promises and actions.
while Gawain, in the third temptation scene, lacks the good will
wit which valid contracts are constructed the Gawain who returns
chastened to Arthur's court is a strikingly different man fro the
proud knight who left Camelot in quest of the Green Chapel he
good will so deficient in Gawain's character at the beginning of the
narrative finally takes shape when Gawain promises to wear the gir-
dle, a memento of ."be faut and be fayntyse of be flesche crabbed"
(2435), with proper "goud wylle" (2430). In order to present this de-
velopment of will, an essential element in man's spiritual and social
transactions, the poet creates a direct contrast between the courts
Arthur and BerciaK A oug -alanced in many ways, the two
courts are set apart in their disparate portrayals of the facult.of
wilOZr From the very outset, moreover, Arthur's court is depicted as
spring from the restricted will of its ruler,22 for the narrator de-
scribes Arthur as "Kyng, hy3est mon of wylle" (57). Far from repre-
senting a sign of high spirits, such an arrogant use of uncurbed will
is a r under of what separates e sinner from God, as revealed in
the delineation of the fallen Satan in Purity: "And 3et wrathed not
be wy3, ne be wrech sa3tled, / Ne neuer wolde for wylnesful his

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde


worpy God knawe, / Ne pray hym for no pite, so proud wat3 his
wylle" (230-32).
While the noble company of Camelot knights and ladies may be
"in her first age" (54), the springtime of life, their youthful vigor may
suggest a type of childishness, for reason has not yet regulated their
immature desires. As the Green Knight seeks "raysoun," Arthur,
who is associated with "sourquydrye" (311), "wex[ez] as wroth as
wynde" (319). Furthermore, Arthur's unrestrained employment of
will is signalized both by his "boyish" behavior and by his rash pub-
lic oath not to eat until he witnesses or hears about a "meruayle"
(94), a wonder specifically associated with Fortune. Even Gawain al-
ludes to Camelot's lack o restraint- Arthur: "Whil
mony so bolde yow about vpon bench sytten, / Pat vnder heuen I
hope non ha3erer of wylle" (3 1-52).
Although Arthur's court is presented in terms of unrestricted will,
Bercilak's court at Castle Hautdesert is founded uonowill a
principle of limited volition or will harnessed by reason and moder-
ation.23 When Gawain is assured that a guide will be provided who
can point the way to the Green Chapel, Bercilak tells Gawain, "In
god faype ... wyth a goud wylle / Al bat euer I yow hy3t, halde schal
I rede" (1969-70). As we noted earlier, limitations placed upon the
will ("goud wylle") represent an integral part of contractual proce-
dure, including contracts framed between persons or between hu-
manity and God. Furthermore, this important concept of limitation
constitutes the foundation for the legal principle of prior claim,24 a
rule pointedly espoused throughout the poem. Thus Gawain at-
tempts to thwart Lady Bercilak's advances by reminding her that she
is bound to a better man through a prior commitment (1276). In a
similar vein, after the second exchange of winnings, Gawain begs
leave to depart from Hautdesert, for his prior covenant with the
Green Knight takes precedence over his agreement tostay at the cas-
tle.Onlyw he s satisfied that an tr
Conflict with his initial contractual duties, does Gawain consent to
remain an additional night at Hautdesert (1670-83). In each of these
instances, the self-regulation aspect of the will is invoked because
the strictures of a prior agreement invalidate any further contractual
That the power of will becomes the focus of the testing in Gawain
is elucidated, likewise, in the poem's structure. The construction


From Pearl to Gawain

and the execution of the covenant between Gawain and the Green
Knight are interrupted by the account of the events at Castle Haut-
desert. Similarly, the framing and the completion of the covenants
at Bercilak's castle are interrupted by the hunting tableaux, at the
very center of which appear the temptation episodes.25 Finally, at
the heart of the three indoor temptations lies the question of "goud
wylle" (1500). In each of these temptations, Lady Bercilak sets the
stage for the free exercise of Gawain's will by offering him those
things that may violate the stipulated terms of the "exchange of
winnings."26 Seeking Gawain's affection as if it re nt the a -
ment fadbt, the lay t en cla ms in legal fashion a kiss owed
through "cortaysy": "3et, I kende yow of kyssyng ... / Quereso
countenaunce is coupe quickly to clayme; / Pat bicumes vche a kny3t
pat cortaysy vses" (1489-91).
Constituting an important part of Lady Bercilak's argument,
"courtesy" is often viewed as a legal term denoting the right of pos-
sessions or inheritance.27 Furthermore, the lady repeatedly invokes
courtesy her .ryion of the contractual quid pro quo, as an obliga-
tion that entitles her to awains attend ons. The narrator of Ga-
wain quickly traceshe ilema the knight entangled by
conflicting obligations to both Lady Bercilak and her husband,
Gawain's host: "He cared for his cortaysye, lest crapayn he were, /
And more for his meschef 3if he schulde make synne, / And be tray-
tor to pat tolke pat pat telde a3t" (1773-75).
While the lady places such contractual demands upon Gawain,
she also attempts to entice him into assuming new contractual
obligations, particularly the acceptance of her green girdle and a
promise not to show the gift to Bercilak. According to medieval le-
gal theory and practice, however, Gawain's covenant with his
host-the "exchange of winnings"-takes precedence and nullifies
his subsequent promise to Lady Bercilak. In both her claim on
Gawain's courtesy and her demand for his concealment of the gir-
dle, the lady thus is urging him to overturn the legal process by hon-
oring an agreement that violates a prior covenant. Moreover, the
lady actually highlights the legal dilemma by inquiring whether a
previous pledge to another woman prevents Gawain from accepting
her love (1782-86). Gawain, however, misses the point underlying
the lady's question, for in his haste to deny the prior claims of an-
other woman, he fails to be reminded of his covenant with Blilk.

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde


Accompanying these attempts by the lady to ensnare Gawaiin-a-
legal noose is the consistent employment of the image of binding in
her speech: "... Bot true vus may schape, / I schal bynde yow in your
bedde, pat be 3e trayst" (121-11 ). Although "bynde" has many non-
legal referents, the concept represents a legal term appropriate to in-
dividuals participating in a contractual obligation. This theme of
binding is concretized, likewise, by the imagery of knots, emblems
of contracts, that permeate Gawain, especially since the poet refers
to covenants as objects to be "knyt."28 Juts Lady Bercilakclegarly
intends to bind Gawain, the knight's immediate response to her de-
sire suggests a cheerful acceptance or ..B^ge: GOoud moroun, gay'
... e scfia wore at your willMe, and pat me wel lyke3, / For I
3elde me 3ederly, and 3e3e after grace, / And pat is pe best, by my
dome, for me byhoue3 nede' (1213-16).
In yielding himself contentedly to the lady's will, Gawain creates
a network of conflicting obligations; while both he and Lady Bercilak
are bound as guest and as wife, respectively, to Bercilak, Gawain has
already pledged himself through a formal, publicly sworn ceremony
to the will of the host.
Shortly after arriving at Castle Hautdesert, for instance, Gawain
surrenders to his host's will at least three times in the space of forty-
two lines. Once he accepts Bercilak's hospitality, Gawain informs
his host,
'Grant merci, sir,'... 'in god fayth hit is yowre3,
Al pe honour is your awen. 3e he3e kyng yow 3elde!
And I am, wy3e, at your wylle, to worch you're hest,
As I am halden perto, in hy3e and in lo3e,
bi ri3t'
Gawain then claims that a prior obligation-his meeting with the
Green Knight at the Green Chapel-triggers his imminent departure
from Hautdesert. Inasmuch as Gawain has placed himself at the dis-
posal of his host's will, the knight requests Bercilak's permission to
take his leave: "Forpi, iwysse, bi 3owre wylle, wende me bihoues, /
Naf I now to busy bot bare pre daye3, / And me als fayn to falle feye
as fayly of myyn emde" (o165-67). Once he realizes that he may re-
main at Hautdesert and still fulfill his covenant with the Green
Knight, Gawain accedes to Bercilak's wishes: "Now I ponk yow

From Pearl to Gawain


pryuandely pur3 alle oper pynge, / Now acheued is my chance, I
schal, at your wylle / Dowelle, and elle3 do quat 3e demen" (io8o-
Thus having placed himself at Bercilak's disposal, Gawain may
not satisfy the contradictory impulses of the lady. Furthermore, the
covenant framed between Gawain and the knight at Camelot pre-
clues any promise to remain at Hautdesert until Gawain isassured
that his stay at Bercilak's castle will not violate his led,# ar-
ance at the Green Chapel. In general, then, the temptations at Haut-
deserTaresi itotst Gawain's mettle, especially the strength
of his self-limited will, for he is offered the opportunity there to
avoid prior contractual obligations by embracing more comfortable
bonds to earthly pleasure.
This battle of conflicting demands imposed upon Gawain, how-
ever, is not unexpected, especially since Castle Hautdesert is de-
picted initially as a testing ground for the self-limiting powers of
Gawain. Once Bercilak tells Gawain, "... al is yowre awen, to haue
at yowre wylle / And welde" (836-37), Gawain is invited to frolic in
a kind of opulent playground, wherenseemingly everything-
suiEPtuousji a co_ a.fnd offered
freely. Within this setting of worldly splendor, the will quickly be-
comes the hallmark of action as well as the boundary of appetite.
Thus, when Gawain and Bercilak meet for the first exchange of win-
nings, the reader is told that "per wat3 bot wele at wylle" (1371); fol-
lowing the second and third exchanges, the members of Bercilak's
court sport "in halle / As long as hor wylle hom last" (I664-65) and
celebrate "With mere and mynstralsye, wyth mete3 at hor wylle"
(1952), respectively.
Although the faculty of will represents an important element in
the festivities at Hautdesert, Gawai's actions-unlike those of the
other major participants in the hunting/wooing tableaux--a~sx.J
depicted as being performed with "good will." When Bercilak, for
example, provides Gawain with a guide to the Green Chapel, the
lord alludes specifically to the fulfillment of his promises "wyth a
goud wylle" (1969). Similarly, when Lady Bercilak offers her green
girdle to Gawain, the narrator notes that the luf-lace is presented
"with a goud wylle" (I861), especially since the temptation episodes
are designed to test Gawain's moral character.29 Ironically, however,
Gawain claims that gifts should be offered with good will (15oo) and

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde


then contends: "I am at your comaundement, to kysse quen yow
lyke3, / 3e may lach quen yow lyst, and leue quen yow Dynkke3, / in
space" (1501-3).
Although Gawain undercuts his own assertion about the neces-
sity of "goud wylle" in presenting gifts, good will is, likewise, a
significant, albeit dimly perceived, standard for judging his confes-
sion to the priest at Hautdesert. Since confession represents a con-
tractual exchange between unequafpart nrs, God and humanity,
theeffcac fis sacrament-ike all contractual arrangements-
stems from the "goud wylle" of its participants. As we have noted
already, the Gawain-Poet's portrayal of God as a covenantal partner
consistently emphasizes the function of divine will as a part of the
covenantal union of God and humankind. Reflexive of the covenan-
tal theology that underlies the other poems, the confessee, for his
part of the exchange, must likewise curb his will in order to assume
the role of a proper partner in such contracts. The importance of
curbing one's will, moreover, does represent a vital thematic con-
cern in Purity, for Satan's unbridled "wylfulnes" (231) prevents him
from seeking absolution.
Perhaps the Gawain-Poet's most explicit view of confession as a
contract may be found in his "Exhortation to Purity":

How schulde we se pen, may We say, pat Syre vpon throne?
3is, lat Mayster is mercyable, Da3 lou be man fenny
And al tomarred in myre, whyl pou on molde lyuyes;
Pou may schyne pur3 schryfte, la3 pou haf scheme serued,
And pure pe with penaunce tyl ou a perle wore ...
Bot war be wel, if kou be waschen wyth water of schryfte,
And polysed als playn as parchmen schauen,
Sulp no more penne in synne by saule lerafter,
For penne ou Dry3tyn dyspleses wyth dedes ful sore,
And entyses hyin to tene more trayply Ten euer,
And wel hatter to hate pen hade Dou not waschen.
For when a sawele is sa3tled and sakred to Dry3tyn,
He holly haldes hit his, and haue hit he wolde"
(1112-16, 1133-40)

In thispassage, as God's right of possession indicatenf n
includes a specific qui pro quo, w~eeT manIfls his contrac-

From Pearl to Gawain


Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde 41

tual obligations by offering true repentance in exchange for a
puri"edsoul. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, on the other
hand, Gawain's role in the sacramental exchange is not performed,
fore a enty inters both to receive confessional absolution
and to viate his covenant with Berciak by s suequently with-
hoigt- la- uf-lace- While an individual's f-ailure to observe
contractual obligations is construed by English courts as the break-
ing of a legally binding pledge, Gawain's formally sworn oath in the<
"exchange of winnings" invokes God (i i o), the surety or guarantor
of Gawain's fulfillmentofthe ti covenant with Bercilak.30 Thus
Gawain's concealment of the green girdle-the manifestation of vn-
trawpe-mav bewd a serious offense against God, not merely
a idem nror chivalric lapse. Enterg t coessionawith
the intention to commit spiritual fraud would, of course, invalidate
Gawain's petition for absolution.31 Because Gawain neglects to ren-
der his part of the quid pro quo, the contractual exchange in confes-
sion is not created, thereby necessitating his subsequent confession
to the knight at the Green Chapel.
Once Gawain leaves Castle Hautdesert hge lv learns how
to limit his wiSpringingfrom the humbling experience essential
to the forcement of Gawain's covenant with the Green Knight,
"goud wylle" initially takes shape when Gawain resists his guide's
advice to flee. Although the guide offers to swear a false oath, an act
of defective will, "bi God and alle his gode hal3e3" (2122), Gawain
finally resign s hias ell 'd ll: 'Bi Godde3 self'. / 'I wyl
nauler grete ne grone; / To Godde3 wylle I am ful bayn, / And to hym
I haf me tone' (2156-59). Thus deciding to fulfill his compact with
the Green Knight, Gawain presses on toward the Green Chapel, and
shortly after Gawain receives a nick from the third stroke of the
knight's ax, the next stage in the development of "goud wylle" is
traced. Employing the language of medieval mercantile exchange
contracts, the Green Knight initially taunts and then instructs
Gawain concerning the actions of a "Trwe mon" (2354) in the pay-
ment of debts. Behaving somewhat like the divine partner in Old
Testament contracts, the Green Knight thus quitclaims what is
owed him by the less important participant (Gawain) in their verti-
cal contract, thereby demonstrating the same type of covenantal
largesse as the owner of the vineyard in the biblical parable narrated
by the Pearl-Maiden (Pearl, SoI-72).32

Informed of his duplicity at Castle Hautdesert, Gawain admits his
'Now am I fawty and falce, and ferride haf ben euer
Of trecherye and vntrawpe: bope bityde sor3e
and care!
I biknowe yow, kny3t, here style,
Al fawty is my fare;
Lete3 me ouertake your wylle
And efte I schal be ware.'
Playing the role of a lay confessor, the Green Knight then recognizes
Gawain's contrition and offers absolution:
'I halde hit hardilyly hole, pe harme bat I hade.
Pou art confessed so clene, beknowen of py mysses,
And hat3 pe penaunce apert of pe poynt of myn egge,
I halde pe polysed of pat ply3t, and pured as clene
As pou hade3 neuer forfeted sypen pou wat3 fyrst borne.'
Through his penitential acknowledgment of his faults, particularly
his treacherous violation of the "exchange of winnings" covenant
with Bercilak, Gawain reshapes his will and receives the confes-
sional forgiveness he could not obtain at Castle Hautdesert. Havyng
gained self-awaree gand im elled his will to conform to the "goud
vle" o the Green Knight, Gawain accepts the night's offer
(2395-99 e:
(2395-99 0t green girdle:
'Bot, your gordel'... 'God yow for3elde!
Pat wyl I welde wyth guod wylle, not for pe wynne golde,
Ne pe saynt, ne pe sylk, ne pe syde pendaundes,
For wele ne for worchyp, ne for pe wlonk werkke3,
Bot in syngne of my surfet. I schal se hit ofte,
When I ride in renoun, remorde to myseluen
Pe faut and be fayntyse of he flesche crabbed,
How tender hit is to entyse teaches of fylpe;
And pus, quen pryde schal me pryk for prowes of armes,
Fe loke to pis luf-lace schal lepe my hert.'

From Pearl to Gawain


Finally, it is with Gawain's positive acceptance and attainment of
the quality of good will that the ethical and legal themes of the nar-
rative are entwined in the form of a knot (2487-88), a reminder of
Gawain's fault and an emblem of his new contractual obligation to
God. The carefully wrought covenant contracts that shape so much
of the poem's form and content thus not only reflect the poet's fa-
miliarity with contemporary forms of assumpsit but also represent
a continuation of the covenantal theology upon which are founded
the Old Testament stories of Purity and the New Testament para-
ble of the workers in the vineyard in Pearl. Just as the similarities of
covenants made in the courts of Arthur and Bercilak serve to join
t seemingly disparate beheading game and temptation scenes, so
the quality of "- thatunderlies those contracts serves as a m -
sure b which those courts may bejudged and in the end, con-
trasted. Appearing at every juncture within the poem, the voluntary
facuty of "wylle" becomes both the source of and the solution to
the contradictory web of contractual obligations that comprise the
ethical dilemma at the heart of the poem.

Covenantal History and the Fate of Monkynde




"And pus 3ime3 pe 3ere in 3isterdaye3 mony" (529)
says the poet as he concludes his famous description of the passing
of the year in the second fitt of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
And, indeed, few works seem as relentlessly self-conscious con-
cerning the process whereby the present "3irne3" or glides into the
past, a process that becomes a major theme within the pem. While
the unfolding course of history encompassed in the four Cotton
Nero poems provides the poet with the bulk of his subject matter,
the poet's ultimate focus rests in those moments in the process
when the ongoing development of civilization is altered-when the
historical narrative is seemingly interrupted and where the work-
ings of natural law appear to be suspended. To be sure, the poet be-
gins that same passage by observing "A 3ere 3emes ful 3erne, and
3elde3 neuer lyke; / Pe forme to De fynisment folde3 ful selden"
(498-99). And indeed the forme demonstrates a narrative focus that
the fynisment does not, for the narrative emphasis in these lines is
not so much on the process, the "3eming" or the universal passage
of time that makes one calendar cycle like the next, but on the dis-
continuities, the "neuer lyke" and the unexpected, the gap between
beginning and end.1 In short, the poet's narrative interest here as
well as in the rest of the canon lies in moments of miracles-those
multitudes of "ferlyes," "sellye3," "selcouths," "meruayles," and
"wonders" that pervade the poems.2 As we noted in the last chap-
ter, the poet's view of history is a covenantal one-a series of for-
mally structured agreements, "forwardes," and "couenauntes" that
humans make between themselves and with which they bind them-
selves to God. Yet the emphasis here is on those intant.P. when the
contract is broken, abrogated, or suspended, when the Green Knight
quitclaims what is owed or when God-through grace-insists not
(I----" -~ -

on the letter of the contract from human covenantal partners. As we
noted in chapter 2, Jonah's anger in Patience is a reaction to God's
merciful suspension of the strict "laws" of literal justice, "pa3 [God]
be myssepayed" (399), so long as there is true repentance on the part
of the sinner. As we shall see, within the Cotton Nero poems,
kynde-nature or the natural cycle, the unfolding of God's law such
as the process in which all years "3eme"3-becomes the covenant
or contract. What interests the poet are such moments where God,
the creator of "Kynde," and Christ, who is "kynig of nature," disrupt
the unfolding of the historical process, which has its first cause in
the Creator himself.
For the Gawain-Poet, such watersheds in the historical process
spring from two sources. Kynde is, in essence, the covenant of Cre-
ation along with its laws and parameters; when the laws of kynde or
nature are violated or suspended by God, the result is termed a
"meruayl" or miracle. Furthermore, when kynde is disrupted by
"monkynde," as in the case of the Sodomites in Purity, the result is
sin.4 History, as the poet presents it, thus represents a series of such
inte rm ons wrought, as we sa see in c apter 4, by the often
conflicting hans o d o d umani e survey the four po-
ems, ll the reader with an explanation
of kynde and divine process. Purity introduces the metaphor of the
earthly miracle as the workings of God's "honde." Patience serves
to define God's "hondewerk," and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
presents a tropologic argument on the use of hands and sin.
Inasmuch as Augustine-and Aquinas shape so much of medieval
theological and philosophical thought, these two writers provide the
starting point for almost every serious discussion of miracles in an
age devoted to the miraculous.6 Augustine, for instance, defines a
miracle as "Something difficult, which selom occurs ss--'
the faculty of nat so tar bnd our ho as t
our astonishr ent" (De utilitate credendi, 6.34).7 Aquinas, who cites
Augustine'sT efmition of the miraculous, argues, "Now a miracle is
so called as being full of wonder; as having a cause absolutely hid-
den from all: and this cause is God. Wherefore, those things which
God does outside those causes which we know, are called miracles"
(Summa theologicae, prima pars, Qu. o15, art 7).8 Generally speak-
ing, then, a miracle represents an incident, either praeter or supra
naturam, wherein the laws of nature and principles of reason are

From Pearl to Gawain


seemingly violated or held in suspension in order to generate won-
der; the breaking and eventual transcendence of reason are the
steps on the journey toaih.
Both Augustine and Aquinas, it should be noted, seem to divide
miracles into two parts. There is the direct intervention in the nor-
mal course of worldly affairs-Augustine's "something difficult" or
Aquinas's event "outside the causes which we know." Such events
find their source in God. A miracle, however, includes a second
component-the "astonishment" or "wonder" which the observa-
tion of that "something difficult" generates within those who ob-
serve it. Augustine, for whom miracles are primarily signs, goes so
far as to find that this wonder, rather than the altering of the laws of
nature, is the ultimate "purpose" behind a miracle:9
The miracles performed by our Lord Jesus Christ are indeed di-
vine works, and incite the human mind to the apprehension of
God from things that are seen.... He has, agreeably, to His
mercy reserved certain works, beyond the usual course and order
of nature, which He should perform on fit occasion, that they,
by whom His daily works are lightly esteemed, might be struck
with astonishment at beholding, not indeed greater, but uncom-
mon works ... [so] that we might admire the invisible God
through His visible works and being raised to faith and purged
by faith, we might desire to behold Him even invisibly, whom
invisible we come to know by things visible. (De utilitate cre-
dendi, xvi: 34)10
Such a sense of wonder or astonishment is precisely what is so
keenly felt in the Cotton Nero manuscript. When the contract of
kynde is broken, words, the substance of all such contracts, fail.
SMiracles reeatedl cause the cessation of human speech for Pearl's
place "per meruayle3 meuen" (64) is the realm 0ttf e ineffable.
Whether in the well-known Old Testament miracles of Purity and
Patience or in Arthur's demand for "sum mayn meruayle" (94) and
the subsequent appearance of the Green Knight, all four poems are
filled with the miraculous. Not surprisingly, however, the most os-
tensibly "personal" of the poems, Pearl, with its unique first-person
narration, is the work in which that wonder is most intensely felt.
Pearl is also the poem in which the ineffability topos comes most
into play."1 Few works, in fact, seem to capture that sense of won-

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


der as well as the dream vision of the self-styled Jeweler whose every
expectation is turned vp-so-doun in his encounter with his lost
"perle."12 The poem itself takes its shape from the poet's skilled use
of that overwhelming wonder. The dialogue in which the Dreamer's
expectations are inverted is framed by two "progressions" of "meru-
ayles" and "wonders." First, as the Dreamer awakens in the fantas-
tic landscape of the dreamworld, he tells us that his spirit has gone
"In auenture Der meruayle3 meuen" (64). When he describes the
dazzling landscape, "more meruayle con my dom adaunt" (157) af-
ter his attention is captured by the Pearl-Maiden, his lost daughter,
across the river. As his excitement reaches its apex, his attention is
drawn to the pendant, the "wonder perle wythouten wemme" (221)
which "A manner dom mo3t dry3ly demme / Er mynde mo3t malte
in hit measure" (223-24). Again "dom"-judgment or reason-is
overcome by wonder. Thus, on his spiritual journey,13 the Dreamer
moves from a type of superficial wonder at the beauty of the land-
scape to a more personal and more keenly felt astonishment at the
sight of his daughter, until his attention is ultimately captured by
the pearl, a symbol of the salvation and personal apotheosis of the
Pearl-Maiden. The progression from simple wonder to the more
complex emotions felt by the Dreamer is delineated by Augustine
who states that miracles
... are divided into two classes: there are certain ones that only
evoke wonder, and there are certain others which win great fa-
vor and good will.... For, if anyone should see a man flying, in
that act would yield no advantage to the spectator beyond the
sight itself, he would only marvel. But if anyone, afflicted by a
serious or hopeless disease, should, at a command, at once re-
gain his health, love for the one who healed him will transcend
his wonder at the cure. (De utilitate credendi, xvi: 34)14
The progressive intensity of the wonder felt by the poem's narra-
tor is reflected, moreover, in the increasing importance of the pearls
in the poem.15 As gravel trod underfoot (81-82), those pearls are sim-
ply a part of an overwhelming scene. Like the everyday wonders of
Creation to which, according to Augustine, people have(become in-
ured through constant exposure, the "perle3" simply go unnoticed,
having no more iconographical significance than the leaves of silver
or the gems of the riverbed. In the person of the narrator's lost daugh-
ter, the pearl is imbued with an emotional intensity previously lack-


From Pearl to Gawain

ing in its use as a mere descriptive detail. Finally, seen as the "pearl
of great price," the gem becomes the focus of the Dreamer's emo-
tional climax and serves as a token of salvation, the subject of the
theological debate that comprises the bulk of the poem.16 As that de-
bate ends, the poem concludes with a vision culminating in a sec-
ond tripartite progression of wonders. After viewing the Heavenly
Jerusalem, the Dreamer informs us that he felt "Anvnder mone so
great merwayle / No fleschly hert ne my3t endeure" (1o81-82). De-
spite his absortion in that marvel, his attention soon shifts o an
even greater wonder: "So sodan y on a won er wyse / I wat3 war of
a prosessyoun" (Io95-96). Finally, the progressive sharpening of the
Dreamer's narrative focus is demonstrated in the approach of the
Lamb of God: "Delit be Lombe for to deuise / Wyth much meruayle
in mynde went" (I129-30).
The parallels between these two series of wonders are readily ap-
parent. The landscape of the first series becomes the setting of the
city in the second. The Maiden of the first series becomes the pro-
cession, of which she is a member, in the second series. The pearl of
great price is transformed into the Lamb, who is described as the
Maiden's "pere.T rst sequence f wonders is a microcosm of
the second; as in The Confessions, the elements of personal history
and a private miracle are expanded until they encompass all of hu-
man history. In each of the two series, the narrative focus is on the
growth of wonder, on wonder and meruayl as psychological states
produced by Augustine's "difficult actions" rather than as isolated
phenomena or events.
Nevertheless, the violation of nature, the "difficult act," acts as
the proximate cause of that wonder. As the Dreamer says of the
"maskeles perle": "Py beauty com neuer of nature; / Pymalyon
paynted neuer py vys, / Ne Arystotel nawber by hys lettrure / Of
carpe pe kynde Dese property"" (749-52). Since miracles are beyond
both human art and understanding, the Pearl-Maiden is miraculous
because her propertyg" are praeter, if not supra naturam, or, in Au-
gustine's words, "surpassing the faculty of nature." Yet for Augus-
tine and Aquinas, even such a straightforward definition of the
miraculous posed serious problems. For example, how might the
laws of nature be suspended if, as the poet notes in Purity, Christ is
the "Kyng of nature" (1o87) and if all nature finds its first cause in
God? Can God act contra natural if all that God wills is, by defini-
tion, the natural order of things? Augustine raises just such per-

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


plexing questions in Contra Faustaum Manichaeum by first noting
that "God, the Author and Creator of all natures, does nothing con-
trary to nature; for whatever is done by Him who appoints all nat-
ural order and measure and proportion must be natural in every
case" (Contra Faustaum Manichaeum 26.3).17
Aquinas, again building upon Augustine, pushes the proposition
even further in the Summa by remarking, "Further, as the order of
justice is from God, so is the order of nature. But God cannot do any-
thing outside the order of justice; for then He would do something
unjust. Theref6re he cannot do anything outside the order of nature"
(Summa theologicae, prima pars, Qu. 105, art. 6).18 The inability of
God to act contra naturam is, it would seem, a corollary of the im-
mutability of the divinity.
Interestingly enough, the Gawain-Poet appears in similar fashion
to argue that the divinity is bound by his own nature or kynde. Par-
alleling Aquinas's argument concerning justice, the Pearl-Maiden
argues that God simply "may do nopynk bot ry3t" (Pearl, 496). The
same theme finds expression in Purity, first in the proem where God
is similarly circumscribed by his own nature: "And 3f he nere scoy-
mus and skyg and non scape louied, / Hit were a meruayl to much;
hit mo3t not falle" (21-22), and later, in the "Exhortation to Purity":

Bot sauyour, mon, in myself, pa3 pou a sotte lyuie,
Pa3 pou bere myself babel, bypenk the sumtyme
Wheper he pat stykked vche a stare in vche steppe y3e,
3if himself be bore blynde. Hit is a brod wonder.
And he pat fetly in face fettled alle eres,
If he hat3 losed be lysten, hit lyfte3 meruayle;
Trave pou neuer pat tale, vnntrwe pou hit fynde3,
Per is no dede so deme pat ditte3 his y3en.

As the poet says in a similar passage in Patience, "Hit may not be"
(124); such contradictions would be real wonders, the breaking of the
covenant of kynde in the truest or ultimate sense. God's grace, then,
constitutes a miracle, for that is a suspension of the contract. Jus-
tice, the keeping of the letter of the law, is not miraculous, though
paradoxically the mercy that is the wellspring of grace is the kynde
of God, as God informs Jonah.

From Pearl to Gawain


Nevertheless, the Pearl-Maiden does appear to transcend nature
through divine will, and miracles do seem to violate the laws of
kynde, so that Augustine observes:
There is, however, no impropriety in saying that God does a
thing contrary to nature, when it is contrary to what we know of
nature. For we give the name of nature to the usual common
course of nature; and whatever God does to the contrary to this,
we call a prodigy, or a miracle. But against the supreme law of
nature, which is beyond the knowledge both of the ungodly and
the weak believers, God never acts, any more than He acts
against Himself. (Contra Faustaum manichaeum 26.3, emphasis
Similarly, Augustine also argues that "When events happen, they do
not happen against nature except for us, who have a limited knowl-
edge of nature, but not for God, for whom nature is what He has
made" (De genesi ad litteram 6.13, emphasis added).20 For Augus-
tine, then, miracles produce only the appearance of the violationlof
natural law. What are suspended in miracles are not these im-
mutalelaws but rather the laws or the patterns deduced by human
reason, laws that are as limited in their scope as the faculty that pro-
duced them.
What emerges within Pearl is a similar sense of two distinct na-
tures-one relative and one absolute. The violation of the former is
the stuff of miracles, the "difficult acts" that seemingly violate
kynde. Significantly, the very first words uttered by the Pearl-
Maiden set forth this dichotomy:
For bat lou leste3 wat3 bot a rose
Pat flowred and fayled as kynde hyt gef.
Now Dur3 kynde of be kyste bat hyt con close
To a perle of prys hit is put in pref.
And lou hat3 called py wyrde a bef,
Pat o3t of no3t hat3 mad be cler.
Pou blame pe bote of by meschef;
Pou art no kynde jueler.
There are, then, two natures or kynde3-"the kynde of the rose" and
the "kynde of be kyste."21 If the Jeweler is not "kynde," it is because

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


he is not sufficiently aware of the "kynde of Kryst" (55)-the
"kyste" that he notes teaches "comfort" (55) and remains firmly an-
chored in the kynde of his worldly reason.
Of these two kynde3, one-represented by the waking world at
the beginning of the poem-is fettered in time. There the emphasis
is on the progression of the seasons, on the harvest. This is the
kynde of the passing of the year that "3ime3" so relentlessly in Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight where time is a function .easi
Teother kynde, however, is eternal and immutaii ble. The landscape
of this atemporal world lack~all traces of seasons or the passage of
time. Devoid of imet is also devoid of change. Here the laws of bi-
ological time, embodiedihe naturareationship between father
and child, are inverted through the Maiden's premature death and
subsequent glorification. In the transcendent world of the parable of
the workers in the vineyard, chronological expectations and con-
cepts, such as first and last, are repeatedly turned vp-so-doun.22
Viewed through the lens of worldly logic, the realm of the kynde of
the kyste must always appear to be a land in which "meruayles
meuen." Viewed in its own light, as it is through the eyes of the
Pearl-Maiden, it is a realm where everything is natural-that is,
everything flows directly from God, the source of nature.
uch seemingly temporal reversals o the atemporal kynde are
precisely what the Dreamer finds so confounding to his reason and,
hence, miraculous. To be sure, the limits of human knowledge fuel
the wonder generated by the miraculous. The ignorance of the fool
leads him to see wonders where there are none, as in the response of
the "lewed" man to the eclipse that his limited understanding per-
ceives as a violation of the natural law he knows through his obser-
vations. Such fools, according to Augustine, are the very ones for
whom wonders are created: "And I call a miracle anything which ap-
pears arduous or unusual, beyond the expectation or abilities of the
one who marvels at it, of which kind there is nothing better suited
for the people and in general for fools than what affects the senses"
(De utilitate credendi i6.34).23
Moreover, as Benedicta Ward points out in regard to the wonder
Augustine associated with miracles, "There were three levels of
wonder: wonder provoked by the acts of God visible daily and dis-
cerned by wise men as signs of God's goodness; wonder provoked in
the ignorant, who did not understand the workings of nature and

From Pearl to Gawain


therefore could be amazed by what to the wise man was not unusual;
and wonder provoked by genuine miracles.. ."24
Part of the poet's comic genius is his ability to employ this idea of
the mistaken marvel and its relationship to the fool or "babel," as
he is called in Purity (582); even though human beings cannot judge
marvels properly, their myopic vision is turned into a source of "so-
las" as well as of "sentence." Jonah, in Patience, comically finds his
call to preach to the Ninevites a "meruayl message" (81), not be-
cause it is a message from God but because the calling violates his
expectations of what is safe and, above all else, what is reasonable.
On the other hand, in a statement bordering on litotes, we are in-
formed that when Jonah is swallowed by the whale, "lyttel wonder
hit wat3, 3if he wo dre3ed" (256). Similarly, in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight, Lady Bercilak comically finds it a "wonder" (1481)
that her guest is Gawain because he "conne3 not of compaynye pe
coste3 vndertake" (1483). The entire poem is, moreover, dominated
by the ambiguous status of the Green Knight as divinely sent won-
der or as product of witchcraft.25 After noting Arthur's custom of not
eating until he has been told "Of sum auenturus pyng, an vncoupe
tale / Of sum mayn meruayle" (93-94) or witnessed a mortal com-
bat as Fortune dictates (96-99), the poet focuses upon the court's be-
wildered response to the Green Kniglhs physical appearance.
Awestruck by the knight's greenness 147-5o), Arthur and his
guests "had meruayle quat hit mene my3t... / ... such a hwe lach"
(233-34).26 Then, once the court scrutinizes the Knight more in-
tensely, "Wyth al be wonder of pe world ..., / For fele sellye3 had
pay sen, bot such neuer are" (238-39), the company dismisses the
knight's apparent physicality as "fantoum and fayry3e" (240). In the
same vein, we are amused in Purity by the foolish judgment of Bel-
shazzar that the writing of the hand on the wall is merely an exam-
ple of "wychecrafte" (1560) and by the failure of the "clerkes" that
"con dele wyth demerlayk and deuine lettres" (1561 ).27
In Purity, the apocalyptic judgment of God assumes linguistic
form in the mysterious writing on the wall, a divine "wamyng pat
wonder ... po3t" (1504) to Belshazzar and his retinue. Although
Belshazzar correctly identifies the fist's "purtrayed lettres" (1536) as
a "ferly" (1529, 1563, 1629), he fails to perceive that the miraculous
"speche pat spredes in pise lettres" (1565) springs from God. After
the court clerks who "con dele wyth demerlayk and deuine lettres"

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


(1561) are unable to decipher the message, the proud monarch en-
lists the aid of the prophet Daniel "Pat hat3 pe gostes of God pat gyes
alle sobes" (1598). Since Daniel represents a man of faith, "His sawle
is ful of syence, sa3es to schawe, / To open vch a hide pyng of aun-
teres vncowle" (1599-16oo). Once Belshazzar implores Daniel to
unveil "be wytte of pe wryt Fat on Fe wowe clyues" (1630), for "here
is a ferly byfallen" (1629), the foolish king still views a miracle in
terms of reason (1633-35). Even when Daniel carefully recounts for
Belshazzar events of Nebuchadnezzar's life, thereby illustrating
graphically the proper ordering between faith and understanding
(165I-6o and 1701-8), the prophet concludes that Belshazzar "Se3
pese syngnes wyth sy3t and set hem at lyttel" (171o). Because Bel-
shazzar lacks a firm belief in God, both the "syngnes" (miracles) of
divine power and the actual explication of the words on the wall are
meaningless to him. In this particular episode, then, linguistic fail-
ure-the inability to read signs-and moral failure are inextricably
linked as noted in chapter i. Words are not only the bonds that unite
members of society, as explained in the first chapter, but also the
means of linking human beings to God. Paradoxically, as in the case
of the clerks at Belshazzar's court, the benchmark of the fool is his
reliance on reason, not because reason is foolish, but because the
causes of miracles are "hidden" and therefore not accessible to rea-
son. But human art and logic are certainly not, as the fool thinks,
the boundaries of nature, which, as we are reminded in Patience, is
the "hondewerk" of God rather than of humanity. Throughout the
poem, human endeavor and, especially, artistry, are characterized by
incompleteness and finitude. The work of God is, simply put, be-
yond human language, art, and deed.
This failure of reason to unravel the miraculous is explored, like-
wise, in St. Erkenwald, a fourteenth-century work occasionally at-
tributed to the Gawain-Poet.28 In one key speech, the offshoot of vi-
sion and prayer rather than of logic or scholastic inquiry, Erkenwald
addresses this problem:
Hit is meruaile to men lat mountes to litelle
Toward pe prouidens of pe prince pat paradise weldes,
Quen Hym luste to vnlouke le leste of His My3tes.
Bot quen matyd is monnes my3t and his mynde passyde,
And al his reasons are to-rent and redeles he stondes,
Pen letters hit Hym ful litelle to louse wyt a fynger

From Pearl to Gawain


Pat alle hondes vnder heuen halde my3t neuer.
Pere-as creatures crafte of counselle oute swarues,
Pe comforthe of pe creator by house pe cure take.
And so do we now oure dede, deuyne we no fyrre;
To seche pe sothe at oure selfe 3ee se per no bote,
Bot glow we alle opon Godde and His grace aske
Pat careles is of counselle and comforthe to sende,
And pat in fastynge of 3our faithe and of fyne bileue.
I shal auay 3ow so verrayly of vertues His
Pat 3e may leue vpon long pat He is Lord my3ty.
And fayne 3our talent to fulfill if 3e him frende leues.
The saint thus responds directly to his people's ill-conceived no-
tion of what constitutes a mir I enwald, however, offers a neg-
ative solution o the problem of defining the miraculous, for al-
though he suggests that transrational signs exist, he claims that
human wit is too limited to distinguish between true and false
"meruayles." Furthermore, numerous ideas traced in Erkenwald's
speech serve to join what has happened (the actions of the people)
with what is about to be revealed (the disposition of the judge). Since
the "reason" that guides both the people and the judge is proven
worthless, reason cannot represent a suitable "fundement" for
"New Werke" just as good deeds based on natural reason cannot
trigger the salvation of the pagan judge.
At the heart of St. Erkenwald, then, lies the very problem with
which Augustine begins The Confessions, his own great act of mem-
ory and conversion: whether it is first necessary to pray in oer to
know God or to know od o r topray. The significant issue re-
mains, o course, the proper ordering between faith and understand-
ing, a relationship best reflected in the Augustinian maxim, "Credo
ut intelligam." Since religious belief represents the pathway to
knowledge of the divine, Erkenwald reacts to the wonder vexing the
reason of the "clerkes ... with crownes ful brode"(55) by going to
the church, not to the tomb. Furthermore, he prays for spiritual il-
lumination as he "beseche[3] his souerayn of his swete grace / To
vouche safe to reuele hym hit by a vision or elles" (120-21). Faith
thus leads to understanding as "so long he grette after grace pat he
graunte hade / An ansuare of pe Holy Goste and afterward hit
dawid" (126-27). Erkenwald's speech to the people then concludes

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


with his juxtaposition of faith and "counselle" and with a promise
that belief will spark true enlightenment (173-76).
As we have already noted, the limitation of reason and the di-
minishment of language are signs of the disruption of the contract
of kynde that constitutes miracles. Especially significant is the ap-
pearance of a particular figure of logic, "Arystotel"-whose method
produces logically deduced laws as a result of empirical observation,
laws that have their first causes in phenomena rather than in Pla-
tonic ideals.30 At the heart of Pearl, then, is the Dreamer's unswerv-
ing faith in his own reason anT is-abiity to rely on observations
of diyiheiiii tat1worldtifiore accurately, tojmHld iiii taat ipe-
SnQ rrities A ~Tlh tot empirical metho~ pro-
duces the principles, Augustine's "ordinary course of human expe-
rience" (Contra Faustum manichaeum 26.3),32 which the Maiden
and her account of the kynde of heaven seem to violate.
The limits of such a method are made clear as the Pearl-Maiden
tells the Jeweler:
I halde bat jueler lyttel to prayse
Pat loue3 wel pat he se3 wyth y3e,
And much to blame and vncortoyse
Pat leue3 oure Lorde wolde make a ly3e,
Pat lelly hy3te your lyf to rayse,
Pa3 fortune dyd your flesch to dy3e.
So firm is his belief in reason that, as the Maiden indicates, the
Dreamer goes so far as to believe that God would "make a ly3e" and
violate divine kynde rather than doubt his own rationally based
sense of temporal propriety (and, more importantly, Aristotelian
noncontradiction)34 concerning the Maiden's status as queen and
the location of the earthly Jerusalem. he Dreaer,
either is the Queen of Heaven or sheisnot. Similarly, Jerusalem is
eiffierin Judea or it is in heaven. Neither the Maiden nor the city
can, according to logical laws of noncontradiction, be both. The
Dreamer's logic is, of course, singular, that of the man who "sette
[the Pearl] sengeley in synglure" (8).35
In response to his question of the simultaneity of queenship in
heaven, the Maiden tells him that the kingdom of God has a logic
defying "property in hyt self" (446) whereby all are crowned but

From Pearl to Gawain


none are displaced. This reasoning, of course, is not one of the "prop-
erte3" of which Aristotle spoke (752), for empirical observation can
never fully describe the "kynde of kyste," but only "the kynde of the
rose," which can be mistaken for that of the kyste.36 Along the same
lines, Augstnein etply to Faustus during their debate over
miracles as a violation of natural law, says, "People in error, as you
are, are unfi to decide and what contrary to nature"
(Contra Faustum manichaeum XXVI.3).37 Such would also be the
case with the Dreamer in Pearl whose reliance on reason to articu-
late what is and is not "natural" leads inevitably to his confusion
concerning what is and is not a miracle of God.

If the atemporal "kynde of the kyste," emblematic of the New
Jerusalem, constitutes the focal point of Pearl, the "historical" po-
ems that follow have as their subject the unfolding of kynde in time
and space. This second nature, "the kynde of the rose," is symbol-
ized by the earthly Jerusalem that appears in Purity. Yet it would be
a mistake to view any of these three works as devoted to one kynde
to the exclusion of the other, for the poet's particular interest lies in
those moments of hierophany or miracles where the two kynde3 in-
tersect. Thus, in Purity the poet narrates a biblical history punctu-
ated by "wondere3" and "ferlyes" and "meschefes mony pat meru-
ayl to here" (1164). And, of course, the marvel-filled Sir Gawain and
the Green Knight, "Pat a selly in si3t summe men ... holden / And
an outrage awenture of Arthure3 wondere3" (28-29) takes place
during an age of werer, and wrake, and wonder" (16) when "Mo fer-
lyes on Pis folde han fallen here oft / Pen in any oper pat I wot, syn
pat ilk tyme" (23-24).
As Pearl so clearly demonstrates, to be taught the meaning of the
miraculous is to study the complex 4 i eg e thee-
ator, the first cause of nfitre/kynde; and his creation. In Purity's
"Exhortation to Parity;" thestrengtr-of thait ond is made clear in
the poet's depiction of the Nativity, especially in the instinctual
homage rendered to the infant Christ by the ox and the ass that
"knew hym by his clannes for Kyng of nature" (io87).38 An analo-
gous submission of nature to God is seen in the immediate response
of the whale and the elements in Patience, the poet's retelling of the
book of Jonah. In fact, the very subservience of the "doumbe beste3"
(516) who "cnawe [God] for Kyng, and [his] carpe leue" (519) is cited

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


by the voice from the whirlwind as a reason for the preservation of
the repentant city of Nineveh. As the tale of that reluctant prophet
demonstrates, history is portrayed largely as a series of violations of
kynde, as the failure of human beings to render the subservience of-
fered by other parts of Creation to the Creator. Hence Purity teaches
the value of "clannes" by describing the fates of the unclean; Pa-
tience teaches that virtue through the negative exemplum of the im-
patient Jonah.39
History, as depicted in Purity, begins with the rebellion of willful
Satan who, we are told, acted "vnkyndely" (208) toward God. Wylle
unchecked, as we saw in chapter 2, leads inevitably to the violation
of kynde, the natural order of things, as it does with Satan. The rest,
as they say, is history-a history repeated in Adam and in his de-
scendants for whom, the poet informs us, "Per wat3 no law... layd,
bot loke to kynde" (263) but who foolishly "controeued agayn kynde
contrary werke3" (266) and so "ferly fowled her flesch" (269). Within
Purity, one next finds the violation of kynde at Sodom where Lot of-
fers to "kenne" the Sodomites "by kynde a craft pat is better" (865)
by offering his daughters to the angry mob at his gates. It is of that
"craft" that God speaks to Abraham: "I compast hem a kynde crafte,
and kende hit hem deme, / And amed hit in myn ordenaunce odd-
ely dere ... / Wel ny3e pure paradys mo3t preue no better" (697-98,
True kynde is equated with paradise, the realm of the Pearl-
Maiden or, at least, the neo-Platonic reflection of the Edenic state.
Even in the destruction of Sodom, an image of Eden is evoked: "He
sende toward Sodomas pe sy3t of his y3en / Pat euer hade ben an erde
of eree De swettest, / As aparaunt to Paradis pat planted pe Dry3tyn;
/ Nov is hit plunged in a pit like of pich fylled" (1005-8).
Sodom, which was like paradise, has now become its unnatural
antithesis. As a result of Sodom's destruction, all that is left is a
landscape "ded in hit kynde" (ioi6) and "corsed of kynde" (1033)
where "alle le coste3 of kynde hit combre3, vch one" (1o24)-un-
equivocal signs, teachess and tokenes" (1049), which reflect the vio-
lence done to kynde by the Sodomites themselves: "For lay peron a
lump of led, and hit on loft flete3, / And folde peron a ly3t fyber, and
hit to founs synkke3, / And Der water may walter to wete any erpe,
/ Schal neuer grene peron growe, gresse ne wod nawyer" (o025-28).
Yet if the violation of kynde is the mark of the sinful, a return to na-

From Pearl to Gawain


ture provides a model whereby man might attain grace and shine
again through "penaunce taken, / Wel bry3ter pen he beryl oper
browden perles" (1131-32). Interestingly enough, the very figure of
spiritual renewal within the poem is Nebuchadnezzar, who must
live with the wild beasts of the field-among them the ass and the
ox, the same beasts whose natural submission to God was depicted
in the Nativity.40 As a result of that penance, Nebuchadnezzar
"loued pat Lorde, and leued in trawpe / Hit wat3 non oper pen he pat
hade al in honde" (1703-4).41
As we have already noted in our discussion of the convergence of
the sorrow-filled time of the Jeweler nd the. etmal timelesness of
the Pearl-Mdn's New Jerusalem, the poet is interested in the
places where divergent time schemes come together or, at least, are
parallel, and especially in the wonder that results when the phe-
nomena of one temporal perspective are viewed in the light of an-
other antithetical one. Such an alignment of time schemes may be
found, for example, in the introduction to the poet's description of
the passing of the seasons in Sir Gawain:
Gawan wat3 glad to begynne pose gomme3 in halle,
Bot pa3 pe ende be heuy, haf 3e no wonder;
For aa3 men ben mery in mynde quen pay han mayn drynk,
A 3ere 3erne3 ful 3eme, and 3elde3 neuer lyke;
Pe forme to pe fynisment folde3 ful selden.
Forpi pis 301 over3ede, and pe 3ere after,
And vche sesoun serlepes sued after oper.
T progression is so subt tobeoverookd. We move from the
dividual, Gawain, at a fixed point in time (the "begynn[yng]" of
his adventure) to an indeterminate end, to the way the species (men
as a whole) view and pass time, to the passing of time in the world
through the seasons of the year. Remarkably, within the brief space
of seven lines, all of these time frames-the individual, the cultural,
the natural-are brought into alignent, so thateach]itoi
gives g t er. The passing of the seasons, presented as
an impersonal constant, suddenly takes on new significance because
this cycle of seasons, theoretically no different from any other,
marks the rush toward a particular "fynisment." While the progres-
sion of the seasons serves as a reminder of the ongoing, impersonal

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


process of nature, it simultaneously suggests the temporal finitude
of the individual who will meet death, that most personal of experi-
ences, at the end of the year.
As the poet's treatment of these coincidental cycles might lead
one to suspect, there are within the poem two kynde3 in which
those times are passed-the kynde of nature and the kynde of man.42
The kynde of nature is, of course, evident in the passing of the sea-
sons. Arthur's court, however, represents the kynde of civilization,
containing as it does "Pe wy3test and pe worbyest of pe worldes
kynde" (261). Interestingly enough, Gawain's assessment of his sin
is that "For care of py knokke, cowardyse me ta3t / To acorde me
wyth couetyse, my kynde to forsake / Pat is large and lewte pat
longer to kny3te3" (2379-8 ).4 Human kynde is, then, equated with
the courtly code that dictates 'nightly behavior, and as with the
kynde3 of God and nature in the earlier poems, the violation of
kynde&jA wonder. Thus Lady Bercilak says, "Sir, 3if 3e be Wawen,
wonder me Dynkke3, / Wy3e at is so wel wrast always to god, / And
conne3 not of compaynye pe coste3 vndertake" (1481-83).
Of course, the knight beside her is Gawain "the light-of-love,"44
but there seems little wonder in that, except in her somewhat mock-
ing eyes. Moreover, the same comic, if not mocking, approach to the
defining of the marvelous is seen in the poet's treatment of the
marches, a middle ground between Camelot and Hautdesert that
has much in common with Pearl's land where "meruayle3 meuen."
For example, during Gawain's journey through this netherworld, we
are told of the great wonders encountered by the questing knight:
At vche warpe oper water per pe wy3e passed,
He fonde a foo hym before; bot, ferly hit were,
And pat so foule and so felle pat fe3t hym byhode.
So mony meruayl bi mount per pe mon fynde3,
Hit were to tore for to telle of pe tenpe dole.
Sumwhyle wyth worme3 he werre3, and wyth wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos pat woned in pe knarre3,
Bope wyth bulle3 and bere3, and bore3 operquyle,
And etayne3 pat hym anelede of pe he3e felle.
At every turn there is a foe, and the foes are all "meruayle3," the gi-
ants and the creatures who often populate the marches. But the poet


From Pearl to Gawain

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde 61

says, "He fonde a foo hym before; bot, ferly hit were," and presents
us with a conundrum: it would be aonder iund cfjnoe
(hence, marveljthgre, an dBviously self-contradictry statement. As
in God's final speech to Jonahiin Patience, the poet mirthfully plays
with the notion of wonder through litoteslike understatement by as-
suring us that while Gawain awaits the third stroke of the ax, "No
meruayle pa3 hym myslyke / Pat hoped of no rescowe" (2307-8).
And there is Gawain's comically self-serving assessment of his own
fault as he attempts to narrate his own tale: "Bot, hit is no ferly a3
a fole made / And pur3 wyles of wymmen be wonen to sor3e"
(2414-15). Once again, wonder is to be found in the eye of the be-
holder or, at least, in what that eye sees as natural.
Whom, then, are we to trust concerning wonder, especially in a
world where there is no Pearl-Maiden nor even a voice from a whirl-
wind to pronounce what is and is not ultimately a meruayl? Theam-
biguitg of wonder is manjife. fr the t. Although the poet re-
veals his intention to portray wonder, he does so in the most
equivocal of terms. The,audience is told that there are more "fer-
leyes" in Arthur's time than in any time since and that the tale is
one "Pat a selly in si3t summe men hit holden" (28). The line is a
masterstroke of noncommitment, for the event is a "selly" in the
sight of some unidentified readers. Presumably, it is not a "selly" in
the sight of others. To which group might we assign such characters
as the Dreamer of Pearl and the impatient prophet of Patience who
have such a difficult time sorting out such matters? Are the "summe
men" who deem this event a "selly" the same ones who at Arthur's
court speak openly of the event as a marvel and judge the green in-
truder who is "half etayn" (140) a "fantoum and fayryse" (240) or
wonder, like the presumably whole "etayne3" (723) of the marches?
For his part, the narrator states that, if he had to judge, he would say
that the half-giant is not an elf but a "mon" (14I). Is, then, the tale
that we are about to hear a "selly" at all?
Clearly, Gawain, like the rest of the court, believes that he is deal-
ing ith the forces of magic. The Virgin is, of course, his first refuge,
but the pentang e isis attempt to g the lily, in te person of the
Virgin. In essence, tbg petrangle is a sl 1to against
should the Virgin fail. Tk as a whole al
e atic ofGawain's inability or refusal todefine the wondias
hue of eh Green ighit aTfiEeWoi Yo f either God rQ nn. The

knight's further adaptation of the green girdle is borne of the same
imperfect faith and is perhaps no more than an attempt to gild the
already gilded lily. What one encounters here is an overwhelming
sense of "adubbement," a sense born of a fundamental distrust of the
adequacy of what lies beneath the adornment. This seemingly om-
nipresent decoration, as Robert Hanning has demonstrated, calls so
much of the poem into question and keeps the ambiguity, which is
the poem's theme, at the forefront of the reader's attention.45
Such concern with the proper classification of miracles becomes
an important recurring theme in much late medieval thinking. One
finds theologians and philosophers alike attempting to determine
what mi r .ri n from God and what miracles stem from the
devil or magicians, both of whom are credited with the ability to
fashion the appearance of "meruayles" or of an alteration of kynde.
So real was the problem that by the thirteenth century the occur-
rence of "miracles" no longer constituted sufficient evidence for ini-
tiating the canonization of saints, especially since both angels and
the devil were perceived as capable of apparent suspensions of the
laws of nature.46 A less scholarly, although more authoritatively
firsthand view of the "problem" is offered by the green-clad north-
ern demon of the Friar's Tale, who boasts,
"But whan us liketh we kan take us oon [a figure ... determinat]
Or elles make yow seme we been shape.
Somtyme lyk a man, or lyk an ape,
Or lyk an angel kan I ryde or go.
It is no wonder thyng though it be so;
A lowsy jogelour kan deceyve thee,
And pardee, yet kan I moore craft than he."
The rod of Aaron, the staves of the Pharaoh's magicians, or even
the tricks of a "lowsy jogelour": How can one know the difference
between the handiwork of God and the actions of the devil or magi-
cians? The very essence of this dilemma is outlined in Caesarius of
Heisterbach's Dialogue on Miracles, wherein a miracle is "anything
contrary to the course of nature at which we marvel." While mira-
cles spring ultimately from God, they are performed "proximately
through evil spirits as well as through saints" (emphasis added).47
Gawain's shield, with its dual emblems, Christian and magcal, sug-

From Pearl to Gawain


gets that its owner is as uncertain in his nw mind as the rja on-
flummoxed Pearl-Dreamer, transported to the realm where "meru-
ayle3 meuen."
Such ambivalence about the miraculous is implicit in the rash re-
quest that initiates the Arthurian wonder in the first place. As the
poet states, Arthur "... wolde neuer ete / Vpon such a dere day er
hym deuised were / Of sum auenturus pyng, an vncoupe tale, / Of
sum mayn meruayle, 1at he my3t trawe ..." (91-94).
The vow is, of course, foolish and is the product of the "brayn
wylde" of the "childgered" king not only for the reasons critics have
often noted but also for its self-contradictory nature. The king is re-
questing a "meruayle" that he might "trawe" or believe-a transra-
tional event that accords with human reason. What Arthur seeks,
then, is a wonder that will not, in the Green Knight's words, "wytte3
. reue" (2459)-an action that is the very purpose of the miracu-
lous. The ambivalence in Arthur's desire for a miracle is just as ap-
parent in Arthur's immediate reaction to the very "meruayle" he
has sought:
Pa3 Arler, pe hende kyng, at hert hade wonder,
He let no semblaunt be sene, bot sayde ful hy3e
To be comlych quene wyth cortays speche:
"Dere dame, today demay yow neuer;
Wel bycommes such craft vpon Cristmasse,
Laykyng of enterlude3, to la3e and to syng,
Among lise kynde caroles of kny3te3 and ladye3."
Although admitting that he has "sen a selly" (475), he compares the
event to interludes-events that, although remarkable, are not real
violations of kynde ut only anipulations eaa 48 By
terming the "selly" an "enterlude," Arthur robs the evengtof
significance as a sign and u the work of
human rather tan di&ine hands.
What is and is not a wonder? What is great and what is small? Such
questions of proportion become, for instance, the focus of Jonah's de-
bate with God at the climax of Patience. In a telling exchange, the
disembodied voice from the whirlwind chides the outraged prophet
by asking, "Why art lou so waymot, wy3e, for so lyttel?" (492), to
which Jonah replies, "Hit is not lyttel... bot lykker to ry3t" (493).

The Miracles of God and the Covenant of Kynde


The semantic battle thus becomes the essence of the debate. And be-
cause it is in reality but "lyttel," Jonah will be told to have "no won
der" (496). In the same fashion, such semantic bargaining over tlh
term "lyttel" plays a significant role in Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight when Lady Bercilak offers Gawain the green girdle as she
tells the knight, "Lo! so hit is littel, and lasse hit is worby" (1848)
before explaining its lifesaving magical properties. To the lady's
commentary the narrator then slyly adds, "Pen kest be kny3t, and
hit come to his hert / Hit were a juel for pe joparde pat hym jugged
were" (1855-56).
In an act of radical inflation, the girdle goes from being "little" to
being valued as a "jewel," only to be subsequently diminished and
semantically redefined in the final meeting with the Green Knight.
And, of course, Pearl contains the Maiden's lengthy and rather
pointed discourse about the proper judging of jewels and the paral-
lel perception of God's wonders. Clearly the world of the Gawain
poems is a world of wonder where one must know "kynde" and
place it in proper perspective. Wonders i-- ter tons of
the covenantaLaws-including those of order and proportion-mo-
ments when littlee" becomes great and violates the limits of our ex-
pectations. Such moments should serve, as they do throughout the
Gawain poems, to remind us of the laws of kynde-the bond be-
tween falcon and falconer, to return to Yeats-as well as the ambi-
guity of the language with which they are constructed. If the history
that the four poems encapsulate is, again, all that potentially exists
within the spoken words of Creation, then miracles, because they
are not contra naturam, demonstrate that the medium of creation
leaves room for providence and free will, for the "kynde of pe kyste"
as well as the "kynde of le rose" as "3ire3 pe 3ere in 3isterdaye3

From Pearl to Gawain




"Penne bypenk pe, mon, if be forlynk sore, / If I wolde
help my hondewerk, haf pou no wonder" (495-96): with these words
from the whirlwind, God reminds Jonah of the reason for the preser-
vation of Nineveh by suggesting to the intemperate prophet that the
city as well as its inhabitants are both parts of God's Creation.1 It is
the nature of God to preserve the city ("I may not be so malicious
and mylde be halden," 522). Not to do so-to violate God's kynde-
would be a wonder, but that is not the case here. The city, itself
"selly of brede" (353), is a wonder-although we may, in light of the
semantic play and logical gamesmanship discussed in chapter 3, ask
from whos4 perspective and in whose terms? And, in fact, the Cre-
ator continues his discourse on the relation of the craftsman to his
"hondewerk" by upbraiding the wrathful Jonah for his lack of per-
spective in regard to another piece of divine "hondewerk": "Pou art
waxen so wroth for py wodbynde, / And trauaylede3 neuer to tent hit
be tyme of an howre, / Bot at a wap hit here wax and away at anoper"
(497-99). The mocking "by wodbynde" along with five other uses of
the informal second person in the succeeding lines calls attention to
the gulf between Jonah and his Creator. To be sure, the spiritual
chasm between the prophet and God is brought into high relief by
the counterpuntal "my" that precedes "hondewerk" (496) as well as
by the prominence of the first person throughout God's speech. In
chapter 5, we shall examine the poet's careful manipulation of such
pronouns, but suffice it to say that at this point, the conflict between
God and Jonah over the woodbine is reflected in the tension and con-
junction of the personal pronouns as this question of ownership is
mirrored in the possessive pronouns, my and thy.2
In opposition to Jonah's lack of time in tending and, hence, di-
minished claim to the woodbine, God stresses his own patience in

the craft of making, contrasting his own "trauayl ... of terms so
long" (505) with the efforts of the prophet who "trauaylede3 neuer
... pe tyme of an howre":

"Fyrst I made hem myself of materes, myn one,
And sypen I looked hem ful long and hem on lode hade,
And if I my trauayl schulde tyne of terms so long,
And type doun wonder toun when hit turned were,
Pe sor of such a swete place burde synk to my hert,
So mony malicious mon as moume3 lerinne."
What occurs in this passage is a virtual inversion of the Pearl-
Maiden's parable of the workers in the vineyard, wherein the heav-
enly lord reverses the temporally based claims of the workers who
arrived earliest and labored longest. But the world of the Dreamer
is not the heavenly kingdom; it is an earthly, temporal one. In fact,
the error of the "first" workers in the parable was to apply tem-
poral standards to questions of heavenly justice. Arguably, the lit-
eral-minded Jonah commits the same error in his demand for the
destruction of the earthly city. As we have seen in chapter 2, the
possession (and quitclaiming) of earthly objects-whether "wod-
bynde,"3 axes, or green girdles-is a matter of contractual and legal
propriety for this poet. In essence, Jonah is informed that he has no
valid claim on the woodbine, for it is not his "hondewerk" despite
the prophet's earlier characterization of the blissful bower as his

"A, 1ou Maker of man, what mystery be iynke3
Pus by freke to forfare, forbi alle oper,
Wyth alle meschef lat lou may? Neuer lou me spare?
I keuered me a cumfort bat now is ca3t fro me,
My wodbynde so wlonk pat wered my heued;
Bot now I se pou art sette my solace to reue.
Why ne dystte3 pou me to di3e? I dure to longe"
Jonah may have "keuered" himself some comfort, but the woodbine
is part of the world that was earlier described as "ilk crafte [God] carf
wyth his hondes" (131). Such appropriation of God's "hondewerk"
as one's own is, likewise, the sin of Nebuchadnezzar in his boasts
about his creation of the city of Babylon (Purity, I663-68).4 History,


From Pearl to Gawain

as the poet presents it, is thus the "werk" of hands. The hand of God,
then, molds the order of Creation and often contravenes the natural
progress of "kynde" in order to create miracles in the temporal
world. Juxtaposed with the hand of God are the often ineffectual
hands of "monkynde," which at times go so far as to violate the laws
of "kynde." Yet when human hands alter the course of "kynde," the
result of such manipulation is sin, not miracles.
The contrast between the hand of God and the hand of humanity
in the realm of miracles is certainly not original with our poet, for
in the contemporary St. Erkenwald, already seen to parallel the
Gawain-Poet's emphasis on wonder and miracle, one finds a passage
that not only emphasizes the transrational nature of miracles at the
heart of Pearl but provides a direct contrast between the finger of
God that works miracles and the all-but-useless mortal hands:
Hit is meruaile to men lat mountes to litelle
Towarde le prouidens of le prince lat paradise weldes,
Quen Hym luste to vnlouke le leste of His my3tes.
Bot Quen matyd is monnes my3t and his mynde passyde,
And al his reasons are to-rent and redeles he stondes,
Pen letters hit Hym ful litelle to louse wyt a fynger
Pat alle hondes vnder heuen halde my3t neuer.
The helplessness of human hinds so strikingly portrayed here finds
a counterpart in the description of the sailors of Patience who,
caught in the storm directed at the reluctant Jonah, discover they
had "no3t in her honde lat hem help my3t" (222).
To be sure, the image of the hand of God-a favorite iconograph-
ical motif in fourteenth-century art and literature5-serves as an im-
portant unifying theme in the Gawain-Poet's depiction of the mirac-
ulous. The tradition has a long and varied history before the four-
teenth century, reaching back to early Semitic art and literature as
well as to the classical world.6 For example, Quintilian, whose
rhetorical arts are an integral part of the trivium, speaks grandilo-
quently about the semantic possibilities of hands as a part of human
rhetoric, so that in the absence of words, the pantomime of hands
becomes a vocabulary unto itself:
... the hands may almost be said to speak. Do we not use them
to demand, promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, ex-
press aversion or fear, question or deny? Do we not use them to

The Hand of God, The Hand of Man


indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation, confession, penitence, measure,
quantity, number and time? Have they not the power to excite
and prohibit, to express approval, wonder and shame? Do they
not take the place of adverbs and pronouns when we point at
places and things? In fact, though the peoples and nations of the
earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the
universal language of the hands.7
In patristic sources, likewise, the image of the dextra Domini, the
metonymic hand of God, is likewise well known. Hugh of St. Vic-
tor, for example, states that "The entire sense-perceptible world is
like a sort of book written by the finger of God,"8 whereas Bernard
Sylvestris portrays the hand of God as the very instrument for the
creation of history: "The events written down by the finger of the
Supreme Scribe can be read as the text of time, the fabled march of
events, the disposition of the ages."9 Moreover, in the visual arts,
the motif of the dextra Domini springs from a reluctance on the part
of early Christians to represent the form of God the Father.10 Span-
ning both the geographical and temporal boundaries of the Middle
Ages, the dextra Domini is evident in such widely divergent works
as the figure of the hand of God on the cover of the Codex Aureus of
St. Emmeram (figure i), the depiction of the tomb of St. Thomas the
Apostle in the early fifteenth-century English manuscript, On the
Passion of Our Lord (figure 2), and in the elegant miniatures of Old
Testament prophets in the eleventh-century illuminated prophet
book (Vatican gr II53). Spreading westward from its eastern Medi-
terranean origins, the dextra Domini had a firmly established insu-
lar tradition, illustrated, for instance, in the lavishly illuminated St.
Albans Psalter of the twelfth century." The Sacra Parallela (Paris-
inus Graecus 923) (figures 3-1o), a ninth-century Greek manuscript,
though far from the provenance of the Gawain-Poet, is of inter-
est because it conveniently brings together so many of the biblical
figures and events found in Purity.12 Several features of the Sacra
Parallela miniatures deserve special note. So pervasive is the tradi-
tion of the metonymous right hand of God the Father that in figure
4, The Curse of the Serpent, Eve and Adam, the divine presence is
represented simultaneously by two right hands. Especially impor-
tant is that while the dextra Domini appears as an emblem of divine
presence or even action-for instance, in the destruction of Sodom


From Pearl to Gawain

Figure i. "Hand of God," completed 870 A.D. Codex Aureus of St.
Emmeram, Clm 14000, fol. 97V. By permission of Bayerische
Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

70 From Pearl to Gawam

Figure 2. "The Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle at Maabar," c. 1400. MS.
Bodley 264, fol. 266v. By permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford

(figure 8)-the divine hand is alsd an iconograph not just for the
presence but for the voice of God as in figures 3-6 and 9.
As we have already seen in the debate between Jonah and the
whirlwind concerning "hondewerk," this tradition of the dextra
Domini is keenly felt in the Cotton Nero manuscript. Since the
world, as ongoing instrument of "kynde," is viewed specifically as
the "hondework" of God, frequent references to the creative power
of God are presented in conjunction with the image of the hand. For
example, in Purity, we are informed that Nebuchadnezzar, now a
humble penitent, "loued bat Lorde and leued in trawbe / Hit wat3
non oler pen he pat hade al in honde" (i703-4).13 As already noted
in Patience, when God calls upon the elements to bombard the ship
carrying the fleeing Jonah, the Creator of "kynde" then "calde on pat
ilk crafte he carf wyth his hondes" (i3i).14 In both instances, Cre-

From Pearl to Gawain


Figure 3. "Calling of Adam," early to mid-ninth-century. Sacra Parallela,
Parisinus Graecus 923, fol. 149r. By permission of the Bibliotheque
National, Paris.

Figure 4. "Curse of the serpent, Eve and Adam," early to mid-ninth-
century. Sacra Parallela, Parisinus Graecus 923, fol. 69r. By permission
of the Bibliothbque Nationale, Paris.

!J. .flffl,

at P.,

!'/J tAt v- .,.

Figure 5. "Covenant with Noah," early to mid-ninth-century. Sacra
Parallela, Parisinus Graecus 923, fol. 356r. By permission of the
Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.


Figure 6. "Abraham Arguing with the Lord," early to mid-
ninth-century. Sacra Parallela, Parisinus Graecus 923, fol.
336r. By permission of the Bibliothbque Nationale, Paris.

Figure 7. "Lot Arguing with the Sodomites," early to
mid-ninth-century. Sacra Parallela, Parisinus Graecus
923, fol. 307r. By permission of the Bibliothbque
National, Paris.

A. y : K

Figure 8. "Destruction
of Sodom," early to
Sacra Parallela,
, Parisinus Graecus
923, fol. 3o7v. By
permission of the
National, Paris.


V#. 4A,


. ,_ .,

S. .' .

Figure. "Nebuchadnezzar Hearing a Voice, early to mid-ninth-

century.Sacra Parailela, Parisinus Graecus 9.23, fol. 2 59r. By permission of
the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
~R i:.::. ,a
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.... .

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f9 t ....

.' ,,.. .
,, i

cenurySaca Pralel Paisnu Gracu 923 fol 2r yprmsino
the ~ ~ ~ ~ BilothueNtinle ars

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Ir Jr

...... .. .. .. .

Figreio "ebchdnzza Paiin te or." ary o idnith
!, .., e8a .,

cnuy ,, .2 5 B

of.the ,o-Ni a Pari
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of theE" Bilothu Natone Pads.

ation, itself the first miracle, 15is expressly presented as the product
of divine hands; moreover, the violation of the laws of Creation-
unnatural storms, the whale swallowing and disgorging a man, the
mysterious appearance of the woodbine-are, likewise, the products
of the same divine instrument. Thus, in Purity, when Sarah laughs
at the prediction that-contrary to nature-she will bear a son, God
almost jokingly asks, "Hope3 ho o3t may be harde my honde3 to
work?" (663). Abraham also recognizes divine power, for, in bar-
gaining with God concerning the destruction of Sodom, the patri-
arch first acknowledges the Creator who "al halde3 in by honde, De
heuen and De ere" (734) before eliciting a provisional promise from
the deity to "wythalde [His] honde for hortyng on lede" (740). Yet
the hand of God not only punishes but spares humanity. When
Jonah is cast into the sea in Patience, for instance, the power of
God's mercy is revealed: "For nade pe hy3e HeuenKyng, pur3 his
honde my3t, / Warded Dis wrech man in waflowes gutte3, / What
lede mo3t lyue, bi lawe of any kynde, / Pat any lyf my3t be lent so
long hym wythinne?" (257-60).
In some cases, however, the creative energy of God the Father is
manifested by inhabitants of heaven-angels and beatified souls-
who fulfill divine will. Through the protection of two angels in Pu-
rity, Lot is saved from a mob invading his home when the angels "by
le honde3 hym hent, and horyed hym wythinne / And steken pe
3ates ston-harde wyth stalworth barre3" (883-84). Then, just before
the destruction of Sodom, the angels lead Lot, his wife, and daugh-
ters "by hande out at le 3ate3" (941) of the city. Likewise, in Pearl,
the Maiden is adorned with pearls "At honde, at syde3, at ouerture"
(218), emblematic of heaven and the immaculate nature of the
beatified state. Finally, in Purity's recapitulation of the parable of
the wedding feast, the need for scenee schrowde of le best" (170)-
noble and pure actions-is emphasized in order for souls to gain vi-
sio pacis: "Pat Do be frely and fresh fonde in by lyue, / And fetyse
of a fayr forme, to fote and to honde, / And sypen alle lyn oper lyme3
lapped ful clene; / Penne may )ou se by Sauior and his sete ryche"
Yet if "monkynde" is made in the "forme"-both foot and hand-
of the Creator, again we are reminded of the gap between formee"
and "fynisment" by the juxtaposition of the "hondewerk" of God
and humanity.16

The Hand of God, The Hand of Man


As with the dextra Domini, there is a rich visual tradition of the
use of the human hand as both symbolic and "narrative" tool. An
excellent example of such narrative iconography may be seen, for ex-
ample, in the St. Albans Psalter where the often exaggerated, at
times distorted, fingers and hand positions create a pantomimic ac-
tion much in the tradition of the expressive hands described by
Quintilian. In countless illuminations as well as carvings, the dis-
position of one's hands is an important symbolic indicator of one's
disposition toward God and the words of his emissaries.17 For ex-
ample, the marginal sketch found in the eleventh-century manu-
script Bodley 718 (figure ii) presents the traditional dextra Domini
emerging from a nimbus/cloud, the two fingers extended in divine
blessing. The human figure has his hands open, palms slightly up-
ward in a gesture indicating a willingness to receive God's blessing.
The placement of the human hands in relation to the dextra Domini,
moreover, forms a visual circle that directs the viewer's eyes back
to God. Similarly, the foregrounded figure in the early tenth-century
depiction of Aldhelm presenting his book to the nuns at Barking
(figure 12) stands hands open, ready to receive the codex. The fingers
of her right hand, one might note, are slightly curled back, creating
a sense of movement which directs the reader's eye back toward the
recipients of the codex, thereby rendering the sense of "movement"
or transmission of the text. A combination of these motifs is found
in a mid-thirteenth-century illumination (figure 13) in which the
hand of God directs the viewer's eye to the figure of Bernard or, more
properly, the hands of Bernard. The saint's stylus, in turn, redirects
our attention to two monks, one of whom holds a book, his own
hands placed in a self-consciously "receptive" pose. The stylus then
directs our line of sight to the heads of the two monks whose body
lines, in turn, draw our eyes to the hands cradling the codex. The cu-
riously placed right hand of the monk, with fingers curled slightly
back, draws our eye upward, along the copying table, and back to the
dextra Domini, thus again creating the dialogic circle of discourse
with the divine. Yet despite their demonstrative function, the pose
of these hands indicates willing reception as they are clearly cradling
the text.18 In a fourteenth-century historiated initial D(ixit Incipi-
ens) (figure 14), one finds the hand of God directed at an unknown
figure whose hands form another familiar pattern in medieval
iconography. The right hand is raised toward the dextra Domini; the

From Pearl to Gawain


left is directed toward the intended audience, the fool. The hands of
the presumably wise man thus serve as a conduit, a type of spiritual
lightning rod that addresses or symbolically makes contact with the
divine while the phenomenalizing left hand channels or redirects
the divine to the world-the two fingers indicative of blessing being
translated into the single extended finger that constitutes the pan-
tomimic equivalent of human discourse. Yet the intended audience,
the fool or, perhaps, the "babel" of chapter 3, stands not with hands
open to receive but with the left hand raised, pointing away from the
dextra Domini, in interruptive contradiction to the hand of the
speaker.19 The fool's right hand is awkwardly pulled away as far as
possible from the instructive hand of the wise man, and is already
filled, closed tightly around his fool's staff. The visual focal point of
the illumination, then, is a triangle composed of the pair of human
hands, consisting of the wise man's right hand and the fool's left, and
completed by the dextra Domini.
A similar configuration of a costumed fool can be seen in another
Bodleian manuscript (figure 15), wherein the fool again raises his
hand, his index finger extended to a "superior," this time to a mon-
arch. The fool here is not, as in King Lear, a sage because he speaks
wisdom to his betters but, instead, is a fool precisely because he does
speak. Here the iconographic fool inverts the natural order by rais-
ing his hand and partially closing his fingers to speak when they
should be open to receive. In contrast to the fools of figures 14 and
15, the kneeling cleric in yet another historiated initial D (figure 16)
extends one hand with its palm open to receive the word of God
while the other hand, with finger extended not toward God in the
attitude of the fool, but toward his own mouth, thereby directs the
word of God to his own lips. This attitude on the part of this last
figure is clearly a variation of the same pantomimic gestures exhib-
ited by Moses as he speaks with the Lord in Sacra Parallela (figure
17), again demonstrating the transmission of the iconographic tra-
dition from the early Christian eastern Mediterranean to late me-
dieval western Europe. Even more significant for the study of Purity
are two figures of Nebuchadnezzar contained in the Sacra Parallela
(figures 9 and io). In the first, the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar hears a
voice but in his pride raises his hand, like the fool, as if to speak. In
the second illustration, however, the now chastened king praises
God with his own hands open in a posture of reception much like

The Hand of God, The Hand of Man


Figure II. Marginal figure, early eleventh century. MS. Bodley 718, fol.

28v. By permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

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84 From Pearl to Gawain

Figure 13. Saint Bernard, mid-thirteenth-century. MS. Laud Misc. 385, fol.
4Iv. By permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

that seen in figure ii. In the intercourse between men, such as Pu-
rity's Nebuchadnezzar, and the Word, it is clearly better to receive
than to offer, better to approach God with hands open than with a
lecturing finger extended, complaining and scolding like Jonah in
A late fourteenth-century depiction of Christ before Pilate (figure
I8) demonstrates not the hands of the fool, but the hands of those


From Pearl to Gawain

The Hand of God, The Hand of Man 85

Figure 14. Initial D (Dixit incipiens), early fourteenth century. MS.
Ashmole 1523, fol. 66. By permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford

who would in the Pearl-Maiden's words do "hondelynge3 harme"
(681). The illumination presents the judgment of a rather lifeless
Christ who, positioned slightly right of center, stands with hands
crossed in an almost passive, drooping manner. Indeed, the almost
receding figure of Christ is virtually framed by the violent interlace
of arms and accusatory hands that dominate the picture. In complete
counterpoint to Christ's inert hands is the virtual cacophony of-in
some cases-the grotesquely turned hands of his tormentors. Al-

86 From Pearl to Gawain

Figure 15. Initial D (Dixit incipiens), early fourteenth century. MS. Douce
b. 4, fol. 4a. By permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

though almost all of the hands are worth noting, special attention
might be paid to the tension in the spread fingers of the hand placed
on Christ's left arm, thereby creating a stark contrast to the passive
hands of Christ. Moreover, those peculiarly twisted fingers direct
the viewer to Christ's head which is virtually ringed by hands cast
in grasping or accusatory poses. Christ's eyes then direct our atten-

From Pearl to Gawain


The Hand of God, The Hand of Man 87

tion toward Pontius Pilate and yet another knot of hands in conflict-
ing and violent poses. The prominence of hands as a narrative, struc-
turing device here is hardly surprising. Indeed, hands are somuch a
part of the story of the Crucifixion-whether Pilate's, Judas's, or the
crucified hands of Christ-that they are frequently portrayed in the
common medieval iconograph of the arma Christi, the instruments
or elements of the Crucifixion (figure I9).20
That the rudiments of this pantomimic vocabulary of hands were
known within the provenance of the poet is, in fact, evident within
the Cotton Nero manuscript, although its illustrations clearly can-
not be counted as the work of the poet. While the ten illuminations
contained in the manuscript have consistently been described as
"crude," both advancing and departing from the text of the works
they illustrate, the majority of these pictures do demonstrate a con-
sistent knowledge of the iconographic principles noted in our previ-
ous figures.21 For example, the four illustrations taken from Pearl
employ a set of manual "gestures" in order to narrate pictorially the
Dreamer's psychological movement from receptiveness, to foolish
error, to repentance.
In the first of the illustrations (figure 20), the Dreamer lies asleep
ready to receive his vision, his hands open in a receptive manner
somewhat parallel to those of the open handed receptors of God's
word in figures 9, 12-14, and 18. In the second Cotton illustration
(figure 21), the Dreamer has awakened into the dreamworld and
stands in the iconographically familiar pose of the wise man or me-
diator as he extends his right hand with a finger pointing upward and
the counterbalancing left hand motioning toward the ground.22 In
the third (figure 22), the Dreamer has adopted the position of the ba-
bel or fool, with left index finger extended, presumably having his
"tale mysetente" (257). The Pearl-Maiden's hands are raised, palms
outward, in a clear gesture of rejection. In the poem's final illustra-
tion (figure 23), the Dreamer's hands are in the posture of the
orant/supplicant, a posture also displayed by one of Noah's sons
(figure 24)23and by the repentant Ninevites (figure 25). While the
Pearl-Dreamer's hands are in figure 23, likewise, extended in sup-
plication, the Maiden's hands are posed like those of the wise man,
who, as we have seen, extends his left hand to lecture while holding
his right hand heavenward toward the source of his wisdom. In this
case, the Maiden's left hand is directed toward the supplicant

88 From Pearl to Gawam

Figure i6. Initial D (Dixi custodium), late fourteenth century. MS. Rawl.
G. 185, fol. 32v. By permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

Dreamer while the right is placed over her heart. The placement of
her right hand is singularly apt because, as a bride of Christ and a
Queen of Heaven, she already resides in the celestial Jerusalem, dis-
pensing rather than receiving the Word, in effect serving as a mirror
image or reversal of the kneeling figure in figure 18. The Maiden's
pose is similar to those of both Jonah and Daniel (figure 26), captured
preaching arms extended, with outsized hands and extended fingers.
Jonah, the dominant and, hence, disproportionately large figure,
much like St. Bernard in figure 13, directs his hands toward those of
the female orant. In figure 26, Daniel, with even more outsized

From Pearl to Gawain


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