The Works of the Gawain Poet

Illustration from the original manuscript Gawain and the Green Knight

The works of the Gawain Poet are a series of poems about Sir Gawain, one of the knights of the Round Table and the eldest of the Orkney brothers.  The poems include: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness, Patience, Pearl, and St. Erkenwald.

The authorship is unknown.  Based on the prose, many scholars agree that all but St. Erkenwald were written by the same author.   However, as John M. Bowers notes, it is possible that the poems were written by different authors “sharing a dialect and common literary practices” (xiii).

There is quite a bit of dispute about the authorship of St. Erkenwald.  Some scholars believe it was written by the author of the rest of the Gawain poems and others maintain it was penned by someone else.

The exact date when the poems were written is also unknown.  The only surviving manuscript was dated at around 1400 “on the basis of handwriting and style of illuminations” (Bowers, xi).  This provides a rough date for the latest the poems could have been written, because had they been penned any later, the style would have been different.

Scholars have used evidence within the poems in an attempt to gauge the earliest date when the poems could have been written.  The poem Cleanness “draws upon the French version of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, released around 1357″ (Bowers, xi).  The castle architecture in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight suggests it was written closer to 1400 than 1357 (Bowers, xi).  However, the sequence of the poems is unknown and “entirely speculative”, and therefore it is possible that Cleanness was written just after 1357 and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written around 1400 (Bowers, xii).

Works Cited:

Bowers, John M. An Introduction to the Gawain Poet. Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 2012.

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