A Folio Society limited edition
Folio presents an exquisite facsimile of the Pearl Manuscript: the sole source for the poems 'Pearl', 'Cleanness', 'Patience' and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and one of the most important texts in medieval English literature.
‘A beautiful thing to own and a brilliant thing to read. The two volumes illuminate and elucidate each other perfectly’
The unassuming appearance of the Pearl Manuscript belies its incalculable importance to our knowledge of English literature. Modest in format, written in a small but distinctive hand and decorated with a series of charming if unaccomplished full-page illustrations, the manuscript displays none of the gaudy grandeur of the great illuminated books in the celebrated royal and ducal collections. Instead, it exudes a quiet authority more suited to private study and reflection. In this respect it is, perhaps, curiously appropriate that these pages represent the sole extant source of four poems – two of them undisputed masterpieces of early English literature – which bear witness to a remarkable flowering of literary creativity in the late fourteenth century.
British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x survived near-destruction and long oblivion before undergoing a belated resurrection and rise to prominence. Like the equally famous manuscript of Beowulf, the Pearl Manuscript narrowly escaped the fire which in 1731 ravaged the library bequeathed to the nation by the antiquarian Robert Cotton (1571–1631) and resulted in the permanent loss of a huge quantity of medieval writing. Yet it remained largely unnoticed until 1839, when its most famous poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was edited and published alongside a number of other Gawain romances, followed a quarter of a century later by Pearl, Cleanness and Patience – which appeared as the first volume issued by the newly created Early English Text Society.
‘A precious artefact of major literary, artistic and historical importance’
The manuscript is informally named for the first work it contains: Pearl is a complex allegorical poem which recounts the vision of a bereaved father, who falls asleep in a garden and is spirited off to the Terrestrial Paradise; here he engages in dialogue with a beautiful maiden who answers his questions with Christian doctrine and ultimately reveals the New Jerusalem to him. The sophisticated rhyme scheme and system of alliteration deployed in the poem, and the multi-layered symbolism of its central image – the ‘pearl’ ostensibly stands for the narrator’s dead child, but in the course of the dialogue acquires spiritual and doctrinal significances which defy simplistic interpretation – confirm this as a literary work of the highest order.
Pearl is followed by two imaginative retellings of biblical stories. Cleanness is a didactic poem which focuses on three well-known episodes from the Old Testament – the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Belshazzar’s Feast – in an exploration of the notion of ‘cleanness’ as the state to which humankind must aspire for salvation. Though it shares an obvious affinity with the homily form, Cleanness possesses a narrative drive and poetical sophistication which elevate it far above a mere literary sermon. It is followed by Patience, which similarly concentrates on a central, abstract idea – ‘patience’ here denoting acceptance of misfortune and the exercise of self-restraint – in a staggeringly original reworking of the tale of Jonah and the Whale. The concision and simplicity of the biblical narrative give way to an expansive treatment which is by turns terrifying and comic, and includes an entertaining and wholly original sixty-line description of Jonah in the Whale’s belly.
Cotton Nero A.x concludes with its most famous work, one whose unchallenged status as an early English masterpiece makes the manuscript’s long obscurity seem unfathomable to readers today. The tale of Sir Gawain’s acceptance of the Green Knight’s challenge – to behead him, on condition that he submits to the same fate a year and a day later – and his subsequent journey, in which his adherence to the chivalric code is sternly tested, is familiar to readers across the world, through the celebrated editions and translations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage among others, as well as numerous adaptations for film, television and opera. The poem’s seamless combination of serious moral themes, national mythology and unforgettable characterisation – the Green Knight himself is at once terrifying and sympathetic, yet ultimately resistant to interpretation – have made Sir Gawain and the Green Knight one of the best known of all Arthurian romances.
An elusive author
The formal characteristics shared by the four poems contained in Cotton Nero A.x, such as versification and use of alliteration, and their deeper thematic qualities – most remarkably, the way in which they take a central, abstract idea or image and explore it with subtlety and intensity – have led to a broad consensus that these works were composed by a single, anonymous author, generally referred to as the ‘Pearl poet’ or ‘Gawain poet’. His identity has been the subject of extensive scholarly debate: the manuscript is written in a West Midlands dialect which may reveal as much about the scribe as it does the author, while competing theories locate him in London or Cheshire, and argue for English or Scottish origins. The engaging naivety of the twelve illustrations in the manuscript has led some scholars to suggest that the author is also the artist. All that can be stated with certainty is that he wrote in the last third of the fourteenth century, a period of intense poetic activity which coincided with the reign of Richard II (1377–99). The rest must remain, for the present at least, a tantalising mystery.
‘This author had a nobility to which Chaucer scarcely reached’
The definitive commentary
The edition of the Pearl Manuscript produced by pre-eminent medievalists Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron has remained the most authoritative companion to Cotton Nero A.x since it was first published in 1978. The Folio Society facsimile is accompanied by the fully revised and updated fifth edition published in 2007. This justly celebrated study contains a comprehensive introduction to the manuscript, its contents, provenance and history, followed by a complete parallel text of the original Middle English and a modern translation. For both the serious student and the interested reader it is an indispensable guide to this hugely significant document. Also included is a specially commissioned foreword by leading poet and medievalist Bernard O'Donoghue.
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Review by AliceF10 on 2nd Sep 2016
"I was delighted with my copy of this facsimile and am at a loss to understand why a previous reviewer found anything to criticise, just what did he expect from a facsimile? Beautifully bound and prese..." [read more]
Review by email@example.com on 14th Jan 2016
"This facsimile of ms Cotton Nero A.x is for the most part perfect, especially after working so long with EETS' unfortunate monochrome facsimile of 1923 (a product of the time, really). This volume acc..." [read more]
Review by firstname.lastname@example.org on 5th Dec 2015
"Just received my copy of the Pearl Manuscript. Beautiful edition, but small page size and contrast problems (due in part to the deep yellowness of the old manuscript) make the original text VERY diff..." [read more]