Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Uncovering the Origins
It is very common for ancient and medieval works to be passed down to modern readers without the identity of the original writer. Though the romance known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is anonymous, there are many clues that can help us understand who the writer might have been and where he might have lived.
When trying to learn about the circumstances in which a piece of medieval writing was produced, scholars first look to the manuscripts in which the text is preserved. We can learn a lot just from the way it was written and manufactured.
In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is preserved in only one manuscript-that is, the only reason that we know about this story at all is because somehow a single copy of the story survived from the Middle Ages all the way into the modern period. The fact that there is only one manuscript suggests that this story was probably not the equivalent of a medieval bestseller (compare with Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales survives in almost 90 full and partial manuscripts, and therefore qualifies as a major medieval English hit).
The single Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manuscript is a small book without many decorations (it has a few drawings that aren't very good), and it contains three other short poems written in the same verse form which are probably by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but which are about religious themes. By nature, books were very expensive to make-all the pages come from the thinly scraped hides of cows or sheep. But because the manuscript seems to have been made quite modestly, scholars assume that the book was made for so...
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...-poet, both of which are acceptable names for this author) is considered as important a writer today as is William Langland, author of the profoundly influential Piers Plowman, and Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the famous Canterbury Tales.
The period of time in which this poem was written is considered the late Middle Ages; at this time in England, the English language is emerging as the language of politics, government, popular religious writing and literature in England. Earlier in the Middle Ages, the fate of the English language in England was less certain; the Latin used by the church and the French used by the Norman invaders threatened to suppress English. By the fourteenth century, however, English speakers became educated English writers, and thus came to write and read in their native language (though they often still read and wrote in French and Latin too).
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