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The Pearl Poet

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Subject: Medieval poetry, Percy Folio, Bibliography of King Arthur, Confessio Amantis
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The Pearl Poet

The "Pearl Poet", or the "Gawain Poet", is the name given to the author of Pearl, an alliterative poem written in 14th-century Middle English. Its author appears also to have written the poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness; some scholars suggest the author may also have composed Saint Erkenwald. Save for the latter (found in BL-MS Harley 2250), all these works are known from a single surviving manuscript, the British Library holding Cotton Nero A.x. This body of work includes some of the greatest poetry written in Middle English.

The Pearl Poet remains unidentified. Some scholarship has argued to assign the poem to one John Massey, a member of the landed gentry from Cheshire. This attribution of the poems of Cotton Nero A.x is not widely accepted, however, reflected in the ongoing use of the labels "Pearl Poet" or "Gawain Poet."

Conjectured biography

The language of the poems shows that the poet was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and William Langland, who are sometimes (following the suggestion of academic John Burrow) collectively called the Ricardian Poets in reference to the reign of Richard II of England.[1] All four poems of the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript are in the same Middle English dialect, localised to the area of north-western Staffordshire and south-eastern Cheshire, in the English midlands. This may merely indicate the dialect of the scribe responsible for copying the poems, but there is good evidence that the dialect of poet and scribe were very similar.[2] It is, therefore, thought most likely that the poet was a native of east Cheshire or west Staffordshire and was writing in the latter part of the 14th century, and internal evidence indicates that all four works were probably written by the same author.

Any other information must be deduced from the poems' themes, as there is neither a definite authorial attribution within them nor any 'tradition' as to the author's identitity (as with Langland and Piers Plowman). The poet would seem to be exceptionally conversant with learning, shows a deep knowledge of technical vocabulary about hunting and the court, vividly describes the landscape of the region, and has an interest in poverty as a Christian virtue. However, the writer of the Cotton Nero A.x poems never refers to contemporary scholarship as Chaucer, for example, does; the poems show much more of a tendency to refer to materials from the past (the Arthurian legends, stories from the Bible) than any new learning, so it is perhaps less possible to associate him or her with the universities, monasteries, or the court in London. Despite this, the Pearl Poet must have been educated and probably of a certain social standing, perhaps a member of a family of landed gentry. J. R. R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, after reviewing the allusions, style, and themes of Gawain and the Green Knight, concluded in 1925:

He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.[4]

Theories as to possible identity

John Prat, John Donne

A number of scholars have proposed that Pearl was written to commemorate the daughter of John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, and two of his clerks, John Prat and Sir John Donne, have been advanced as possible candidates for authorship.[5]


Main article: Huchoun

A theory current in the early part of the 20th century held that a man called Huchoun ("little Hugh") may have authored the poems, having been credited with several works, including at least one known to be in the alliterative form, in the Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun. As Cotton Nero A.x contains the words "Hugo de" added in a later hand, its contents were identified with some of the works mentioned by Wyntoun.

This argument, made in greatest detail by a Scottish antiquarian, George Neilson (who claimed that Hugh was a Scottish knight, Hugh of Eglington) is nowadays disregarded, mainly because the poems attributed to Hugh seem to have been composed in widely varying dialects.

John (or Hugh) Massey

The surname of Massey, that of a prominent Cheshire family, is associated with St Erkenwald, a poem occasionally claimed to be another of the Pearl poet's works; the names of Thomas Massey and Elizabeth Booth (a member of the Booth family of Dunham Massey) are written in St Erkenwald's manuscript.

In 1956 Ormerod Greenwood, working on a translation of Gawain, made the suggestion that the author of Pearl and Gawain was one of the Masseys of Sale. He suggested Hugh Massey, based on a number of puns he found incorporated in Pearl (in addition to the "Hugo de" inscription in Cotton Nero A.x)[6] Given the obvious link through the name "Hugh", Hugh Massey has been conflated with Huchoun by some academics.

A later suggestion is John Massey of Cotton (a village mentioned in Gawain); this was first put forward by Nolan and Farley-Hills in 1971.[7] John Massey's authorship is further supported, according to Nolan, by one of Thomas Hoccleve's poems, in which the Hoccleve mentions "my maister Massy", indicating him to be a fearsome critic of poetic metre. The attribution to John Massey is not, however, widely supported by modern critics of the poem.[8]


Further reading

  • Bowers, John M. 2012. An Introduction to the Gawain Poet. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. ISBN 978-0-8130-4015-8

External links

  • William Graham Stanton - contains original text, literal translation, and poetic translation.
  • Scholarly Introduction to Pearl, Sarah Stanbury
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