Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them

Below is a shortened version of the paper I delivered at MEMS Summer Festival on Saturday 18th June 2016. In Part 1 I consider literary evidence to argue for the female audience for The Awntyrs off Arthure, the fifteenth-century Arthurian romance that forms the core of my doctoral research. Part 2 focuses on how this text could have come to exist in female textual communities .

I want to argue that The Awntyrs off Arthure would have been read by women. The text’s reception amongst female audiences has not been previously considered beyond an acknowledgement that household miscellanies were often read within a domestic context – where women also lived. As one of the many ‘Gawain romances’ the text has been conceptualised as having a predominantly male audience; the great deeds of Sir Gawain acting as an example of chivalric behaviour to the knights and gentleman reading the texts. The text was copied by men, and certainly the only names to appear in the books before the late sixteenth century are the names of men: Thomas Patsall, John Patsall, Richard Thornton, William Thornton, Thomas Yrlonde. But these men, of course, did not exist separately from women.

 I believe that this text also could have appealed to a female audience, and that they may have in fact been the primary imagined audience for the poem. More than half of its lines are taken up by the conversation of two women; mother and daughter, queen and corpse, in a longer and more complex presentation of female character than any other surviving Middle English Arthurian romance of the same period – quite a bold claim, but one I’m going to stick to.

The Awntyrs off Arthure (hereafter Awntyrs) is a poem of 728 lines, in rhyming 13-line alliterative stanzas, presenting two episodes, or ‘adventures’. The first begins with a hunt, where Queen Guinevere, accompanied by Sir Gawain, is separated from the rest of the royal hunting party in Inglewood forest.

With the changing of the weather, the eclipse of the sun, hail and rain, there appears a figure out of a lake:

There come a lowe one the loughe in londe is not to layne

In the lyknes of Lucyfere laytheste in Helle

And glides to Sir Gawayn the gates to gayne

Yauland and yomerand with many loude yelle

Hit yaules hit yameres with waymynges wete

And seid with siking sare

“I ban the body me bare

Alas! Now kindeles my care

I gloppen and I grete”

Awntyrs ll. 83-91

(There comes a lowly one out of the lake – the earth does not lie/In the likeness of Lucifer, most hideous in Hell/And glides to Sir Gawain who blocks the path/It howls and wails with many a loud yell/And says with a soul-sickening sigh/“I curse the body that bore me/Alas! Now my child is my grief/I despair and I weep”)*

This figure is the animated corpse of Guinevere’s mother. The description of her takes place over seven stanzas (just over 90 lines) and begins first with the wailing of the ghost. The ghost, not yet identified in the narrative as Guinevere’s mother, is described using particularly gendered vocabulary: it “yaules” (howls) it “yameres” (wails), with “waymynges wete” (weeping tears). There are also numerous references to motherhood as the ghost curses her mother; “I ban the body me bare”, and despairs for her own child; “now kindeles my care” (now my child is my grief), “I gloppen and I grete” (I despair and I weep).  The despair of the ghost is then, through the verbal linking of the poem, connected to and mirrored by the character of Guinevere, who also despairs and weeps, the opening line of the next stanza reading “Then gloppenet and grete Gaynour the gay” (l. 92). The womens’ weeping is thus woven into the poetic structure of the text.

The description of the “grisly goost” (l. 111) continues, with more wailing, weeping, and mad murmuring, described in the following lines (perhaps the best lines of any alliterative poem ever):

Bare was the body and blak to the bone

Al biclagged in clay uncomly cladde

Hit waried hit wayment as a woman

But on hide ne on huwe no heling hit hadde

Hit stemered hit stonayde hit stode as a stone

Hit marred hit memered hit mused for madde


On the chef of the cholle

A pade pikes on the polle

With eighen holked ful holle

That gloed as the gledes

ll. 105-110, 114-117

(Bare was the body and black to the bone/All clotted with clods, un-comely clothed/It cursed, it bewailed, like a woman/But no skin, no form, no covering it had./It stammered, it stood stunned as a stone,/It muttered, it mumbled, it murmured for madness.[…]On the top of the neck/A toad bites into the skull/With eyes sunken and hollow/That glow as the coals.)

'A disputacion betwyx þe body and wormes’ British Library, MS Additional 37049, c.1460-1500, folio 32v

‘A disputacion betwyx þe body and wormes’
British Library, MS Additional 37049, c.1460-1500, folio 32v

The ghost then continues to be characterised by language specifically related to motherhood. Not only does she make comparison of herself in life to the rose and to the lily, the flowers typically associated with the Virgin Mary, but she also evokes the grief of a mother who has, through death, lost her child:

Now am I caught oute of kide to cares so colde

Into care am I caught and couched in clay

Lo sir curtays kniyght

How delfulle deth has me dight

Lete me onys have a sight

Of Gaynour the gay

ll. 151-156

(Now am I trapped in grief of death for my child, so cruelly/Into grief am I trapped and covered in clay./Oh, Sir, courteous knight,/How dreadful death has injured me!/Let me only have a sight/Of Guinevere the gay.)

In this passage the ghost implores Sir Gawain, who is blocking her path from the Queen, to only have a sight of her beautiful daughter “Gaynour the gay”. The narrative thus creates a depiction of the ghost which is both frightening and pitiful, the sorrow of her suffering in death, separated from her child, is amplified by the grotesque blackened corpse plagued by toads and serpents. Guinevere is as beautiful and young as her mother is rotting and dead. The text is participating in the pervasive memento mori tradition of the late-medieval period, the dead queen acting as a mirror for the young beautiful one. In this, it has links to the legend of The Three Living and the Three Dead, the poetic version of which shares Awntyrs’ unusual verse form. But Awntyrs is doing much more than this; the function of the ghost goes beyond the warnings of Guinevere’s mortal fate. Both Guinevere and her mother have been developed into multifaceted female characters.

Awntyrs is principally derived from two texts, the first, The Trental of St Gregory, has the ghost of St Gregory the Great’s mother visiting her son to ask for prayers to ease her suffering, as a reminder to remember the dead. The author of Awntyrs adapts this parent-child relationship, presenting a more intimate mother-daughter relationship, emphasised further by the ghost’s first uttered words, cursing her own mother and despairing for her child, linking the three generations of women together, living and dead.

The ghost’s function is not, however, simply to remind her daughter to pray for her, but is also to impart advice. The ghost offers spiritual and practical guidance to the Queen, teaching her meekness, mercy, pity for the poor, charity, chasteness, and the worth of these values, not just to Queen Guinevere, but to the salvation of all King Arthur’s kingdom. As Paul Lee states in his study of Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society; ‘Women had an important role in the sanctification of the domestic sphere, in noble and gentry households, where they were responsible for the religious education of the children and the servants’ (Lee, 2001, p.141). The text extends this into the Arthurian world, the Queen being responsible for her royal household, as well as for all of her subjects, acting as an example to all. This example is being set for the reader too, the words of the ghost giving them advice on how they can also lead a good spiritual life. Through this presentation of the two female characters, the poem is acting as an exemplum text, surviving as it does in household manuscripts and subscribing to the same conventions of both devotional and conduct literature known to have been read by women, such as ‘How a Good Wife Taught her Daughter’, which also appears in several gentry household manuscripts.

The author also expands upon the poem’s other principal source text, the alliterative Morte Arthure, in which Guinevere is just a minor character, only mentioned for her adulterous relationship with the usurper Mordred which takes place while the King is on campaign in France. The poet of Awntyrs likely expected his audience to be familiar with the earlier poem, and sets the Awntyrs at the beginning of Arthurs’s reign, before his conquests in Europe, rather than at the end. As a kind of ‘prequel’ to the alliterative Morte, the Awntyrs also focuses on female sexual behaviour, and develops this theme further, it is Guinevere’s mother who is the adulteress, warning her to “be war of my wo” (l.195) for she did “brake a solemn vow” (l.205), that is the marriage vow, her sins being “love paramour, listes and delites” (l.213). Functioning as a mirror for Queen Guinevere, her mother represents both her past and her future to come, the future that has been prophesied – the future that the readers have already read. The ghost’s role is also developed further as it is she who delivers the prophecy of King Arthur’s death and the downfall of the entire Arthurian court to Queen Guinevere, whereas this prophecy in the alliterative Morte is shown to King Arthur in a dream by Lady Fortune. The ghost in Awntyrs reveals the usurper to be just a child in the King’s court, “The barne playes at the balle/That outray shalle you alle” (The child that plays with the ball shall be the one to destroy you all; ll. 310-11). By representing the usurper as just a child, the role of mother is once again being evoked, as is the implication that Guinevere has agency to alter events by following a more spiritual life.

These women thus serve as examples to their readers, those who would benefit most from this example being women. They are also given agency: Guinevere is given equal role in governing Arthur’s court, enacted in the second half of the poem, when Guinevere asks mercy of the King to save the lives of the two fighting knights. The poem then ends with Guinevere writing into the west “wisely” (l. 703), that is with learning and spiritual insight, having remembered her mother’s lessons, she requests songs and prayers and “a mylion masses” (l. 706) for the Arthurian court.

The poem thus dedicates over half of its length to the ghostly interaction of Guinevere and her mother, as Gawain, the supposed main character, stands silently in the background. As soon as the ghost appears, the episode is no longer an adventure of Gawain, but of Guinevere. In the second episode too, although it is a fight between Gawain and an unknown knight, neither is the champion (unconventional for ‘Gawain romances’ where Gawain usually comes out on top). The knights are equally matched and in the midst of killing one another when Guinevere steps in, leading to them both according and forgiving each other’s wrongdoings. She is the unspoken heroine of this poem and as such, it makes sense to me that this text would have been written for an intentional female audience, and it is likely too that it was read by women, for its devotional instruction as much as for its entertainment. However, as no material evidence survives for the female readers of Awntyrs they become just ghosts to researchers, and they certainly haunt me.

*All translations are my own and are far from perfect. I’m no Simon Armitage.
Read Part 2 of Missing Manuscripts and the Ghosts of the Women Who Read Them