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Was the Gawain Scribe also the Artist?

By Danièle Cybulskie

Making medieval manuscripts was a team activity, with different people taking on different roles in the production. Because of this, it’s not often that there’s evidence of a scribe also being the artist who penciled in the original drawings to accompany the text. In the case of the manuscript containing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x), however, Maidie Hilmo has found there’s a good chance that both the words and the underdrawings came from the pen of the same person.

Recent work with new technology has shown what many scholars have suspected for a long time: that the person who painted the miniatures in the Gawain manuscript was perfectly happy to colour outside the lines (intentionally or unintentionally). What we didn’t know before now, though, was just what was lost in this visual translation. As Hilmo demonstrates, the colourist obscures “some important interpretive features that serve to amplify the meaning of the poems and to connect some of them to each other.”

The colourist has painted over the pointing finger of the father in Pearl – British Library Cotton Nero A.x. fol.38r

For example, the colourist has painted over the pointing finger of the father in Pearl, faded out an ocean full of fish in Cleanness, and made the harpoon in Patience look more like a paddle than a weapon, obscuring the additional meanings the original artist had deliberately drawn in. In Gawain, the colourist strikes again, painting blonde hair over what would have been the Green Knight’s crown of leaves, and pulling him away from an association, as Hilmo rightly points out, with the Green Man who would have been so familiar to medieval audiences. That these details were drawn in the first place implies, Hilmo says, “a familiarity with the text and a desire to broaden its interpretive scope for an audience familiar with related narratives and iconographies.”

The blonde hair of the Green Knight – British Library Cotton Nero A.x. fol.90v
Harpoon or paddle? British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. f. 082/86 r

Besides having an intimate relationship with the text, what other evidence suggests the writer and artist might have been the same? Using multispectral imaging, X-ray fluorescence, and pigment analysis, Dr. Paul Garside of the British Library confirmed to Hilmo that the underdrawings were consistent with iron gall ink, something that, Mark Clarke asserts, was abnormal for English drawings – but not for English text. That is, a scribe in England (where this manuscript is believed to have been produced) would consistently use iron gall ink, but an artist would not. A scribe/artist, however, might easily have simply used his own familiar ink for both.

Finally, one of the important miniatures in the manuscript depicts Belshazzar’s Feast (found in Cleanness) and features the divine “Handwriting on the Wall”. Hilmo and Jane Roberts have observed that this handwriting bears a close resemblance to the scribe’s formal script found at various points throughout the manuscript. For the scribe to have placed the writing in the correct place for the miniature before it was sent off to a separate artist seems unlikely. It’s logical to conclude, then, that the writing in the picture was created with the drawing in the first place: by the scribe.

The Handwriting on the Wall at Belshazzar’s Feast. Cleanness, London, British
Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x, folio 56/60v.

That the scribe and artist of the Gawain manuscript may have been one and the same person raises some interesting questions about this unique and famous manuscript. For the answers to more, have a look at Maidie Hilmo’s full paper, “Did the Scribe Draw the Miniatures in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x (The Pearl-Gawain Manuscript)?” in the Journal of the Early Book Society.

You can learn more about the Gawain manuscript at the British Library or The Cotton Nero A.x. Project.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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