buddleia

Scot manuscript Gowther

paper, 356 pages

A medieval medly, heavily weighted in favour of Breton lais.

Scot Manuscript Gowther measures nineteen centimetres by twenty-seven centimetres and, like its similarly sized sister volume Scot MS Ragnelle, is bound in a nondescript dark brown cover which is not original. Although larger in height than the Yellow Book of Calbourne and its siblings, Scot MS Gowther contains a similar number of pages to the Yellow Book, considerably more than the Blue Book but a lot fewer than the White Book, and contains a medly of romance, legend, dream vision and Breton lais. The first story is a dream vision, The Floure and the Leafe, and the first tale that Hannah chose to copy, probably as a teenager. It is placed into a single column of forty lines to the page, perhaps as an excercise. Her work retains this single-column format until the beginning of Ipomadon, where Hannah, perhaps seeing that she was going to use up most of the rest of her manuscript with this one romance, chose to divide her page thereafter into two columns. However, the legend of Saint Brendan reverts to a single column, perhaps necessitated by the length of its lines. The final item, that of Guigemar, is the only known early English translation of Marie de France's lai and is written in Hannah's distinctive mature hand, suggesting that it was not a part of the original manuscript and was bound with it at a later date, making Chaucer's elegy The Former Age the final item in Hannah's original manuscript.

A theme running through the Middle English Breton lais also constitutes the major element of the largest work in this volume, the romance Ipomadon, which is a copy of a fourteenth century Middle English retelling of a twelfth century Anglo-Norman romance. In addition to these, there is a dream vision involving Roman goddesses, a story from the South English Legendary describing a voyage across the sea taken by Saint Brendan and his monks, another dream vision from the pen of Geoffrey Chaucer describing a celestial goddess and the later addition, which is a retelling of a twelfth century Breton lai recorded by Marie de France that describes the release from captivity of a lady with the power of healing who has been incarcerated and silenced by male authority, in a very similar way to the climax of the Arthurian tale of The Fair Unknown.

So what is this theme that connects the Middle English Breton lais with the romance of Ipomadon? At first sight it could be argued that it must be the theme already mentioned, which runs through many other stories in this volume as well. Just as a goddess stands with her feet on the Earth and her head in the heavens in Chaucer's The House of Fame, so the young Ipomadon fixes his allegiance to a lady who has acquired the nickname 'The Proud', and he spends the entire romance trying to elevate himself high enough to feel that he has earned her love; in the same way that Lancelot spends the entire pre-cyclic Lancelot in a similar quest to earn the love of Queen Guinevere. The maiden Emaré has the courage to face certain death rather than let her father defile her, and through her suffering and endurance she brings about a happy conclusion to her story. Sir Degaré's mother provides a magical way of rediscovering her lost child. Both Guigemar and the Fair Unknown release an enchanted woman from unjust captivity and bring her back into the world again.

The exception to this is the Middle English Breton lai Sir Gowther, which exposes no goddess or heroine but clearly shows a theme which links all of these Middle English Breton lais with the romance Ipomadon. Sir Gowther is the offspring of a fiend and when at last he seeks redemption from the Pope for all the dreadful things that he has done, he embarks upon a strange series of disguises which involve him sitting beneath an emperor's dining table with the dogs and fighting incogneto as a black knight, a red knight and then a white knight, before his true identity is revealed to the emperor. Sir Degare has his true identity concealed throughout much of his tale and even finds himself in danger of marrying his own mother before a similar trick to that used in Guigemar saves the day. And if the lai of Sir Degare carries hints of the Ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, then Sir Orfeo is clearly Sir Orpheus, and when he returns from the Otherworld with his wife Heurodis, nobody recognises him. Just as the maiden Emaré is sent across the sea in a rudderless boat and takes on a new identity when she arrives on a distant shore, and as Constance returns to Rome after many years and takes lodgings with her own aunt as a stranger, completely unrecognised by her.

It has been proposed that the order of Sir Gowther's divinely acquired armour, from black to red to white, designates a transition to goodness from evil. But the same method of disguise is used in Ipomadon, a twelfth century story, and the order here is from white to red to black. Ipomadon fights at a tournament as a white knight, then, like Lancelot, he changes his armour and fights as an invincible red knight, and finally as an unconquererable black knight. Later in the romance he assumes the identity of a foolish knight, again like Lancelot, and finally he assumes the identity of his greatest rival, whom he has just defeated in battle. 

ff. 1–8r. The Floure and the Leafe was written by an unknown author sometime in the mid- to late-fifteenth century and erroneously incorporated into an Elizabethan edition of the collected works of Geoffrey Chaucer. It describes a fairy drama enacted before a lady peering from the seclusion of a wooded grove, a drama involving, as we later learn, the Roman goddesses Flora and Diana. At the very end, the work appears to reveal the author to be a woman.

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flowering currant

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ff. 9–22v. Sir Degaré survives in a number of other manuscripts, including two in the British Library, one at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and in the famous Auchinleck MS now lying in the National Library of Scotland. Some have suggested that this tale of Sir Degaré may be based upon a lost Breton lay, the Lai d'Esgaré. Others see parallels in Irish mythology. Certainly there is an enchanted castle that seems to exude an aura of timelessness, a fight with a dragon, and a pair of gloves which, like Cindarella's slipper, will identify their former owner without fail. Like Marie de France's Guigemar, Sir Degare needs this magical device in order for two separated souls to recognise one another again.

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Easter cactus

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ff. 23–32r. Sir Gowther is a Middle English work whose anonymous author claims: 'I sought high and low for a Breton lay and have brought out of this marvellous region the following strange tale...'. The story exists elsewhere in two other manuscripts of the late-fifteenth century: British Library Royal MS 17.B.43 and National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. It owes more than a little to the twelfth century romance Ipomadon by Hue de Rotelande, whose hero also disguises himself as a red knight, a black knight and a white knight whom nobody knows the true identity of; but unlike Ipomadon, Sir Gother is also forced to sit with the emperor's dogs under the dining table, and only to swallow food that has first been in the mouth of a dog.

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amirilis

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ff. 33–60r. The Fair Unknown is found in a number of other manuscripts, including one of the mid-fifteenth century known as Cotton Caligula A ii. lying in the British Library, a volume that was rescued from a fire in the library of Robert Bruce Cotton in 1731. Composed in around 1380 by a poet named Thomas Chestre, it uses a number of pre-existing Arthurian story elements fashioned around a journey taken by a maiden and her dwarf found in Hue de Rotelande's tale of Ipomadon, but recast uniquely in a way that finds resonance at last with the Breton tale of Guigemar, when a lady is released from imprisonment within the stone walls of a castle by the hero's love.

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purple pelargonium

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ff. 61–73v. The tale of Emaré is also found in MS Cotton Caligula A.ii lying in the British Library. This story occurs all across Europe in the late Middle Ages and a Latin version can be traced as far back as the twelfth century. It may not be insignificant that Emaré changes her name to Egaré halfway through the story, after a mysterious voyage in a rudderless boat. The maiden Egaré later marries a king in Wales, but is despicably slandered by the king's mother and sent off in another rudderless boat without sail or oar, along with her new-born son. They land back in Rome, which is where Emaré was first abandoned to the sea, but now this emperor's daughter finds refuge in the house of a merchant.

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pear blossom

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ff. 74–81r. Sir Orfeo is a Middle English Breton lai, in the form of a version of the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus set in Medieval England. It is found also in the Auchinleck Manuscript, written in about 1330-1340, a volume some believe may once have been owned by Geoffrey Chaucer. Sir Orfeo's wife is abducted from an orchard by the king of the Otherworld. As a result, Sir Orfeo leaves his kingdom in the hands of his steward and goes off to live as a derelict in the forest, where he sees his wife as a ghostly spectre riding in a hunt. Following her into the side of a cliff, he travels through the rock into an Otherworld that seems to him like Paradise, and when he is let into its castle, he sees a heap of people lying there who were thought to be dead, but who are not.

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apple blossom

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ff. 82–137v. The tale of Ipomadon in Middle English verse survives complete only here and amongst the works contained in a substantial, late-fifteenth century manuscript known as Chetham 8009, lying in Chetham's Library, Manchester. Composed sometime in the late-fourteenth or very-early-fifteenth century, this English version of Ipomadon is a retelling of a late-twelfth century work by Hue de Rotelande, an Anglo-Norman poet who composed his tale perhaps only a few years after Marie de France had set down the Breton lai Guigemar and at a time when Chrétien de Troyes was writing his Arthurian romances. The hero of this romance, whose name is Ipomadon, takes on so many disguises that some might be forgiven for thinking him to be an incarnation of the Irish god Manannan.

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red and white rose

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ff. 138–144r. The Man of Law's Tale is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales – a collection of short stories each recounted from the mouth of a pilgrim on the way to Saint Thomas Becket's shrine in Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffrey wrote this tale towards the end of the fourteenth century, but like much of medieval storytelling it is based upon earlier traditions, in this case a version of a tale from which the story of Emaré may also be derived. Geoffrey chose to incorporate near the end of his tale, in Hannah's view, a perplexing time displacement, or so it seems, one that mirrors a similar jolt near the end of the tale of Sir Degaré. By pointing it out, Hannah betrays her belief in Chaucer's own clear understanding of the material he was working with.

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clematis montana

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ff. 145–158r. The House of Fame was written by Geoffrey Chaucer sometime around 1380, when the bulk of his work on the Canterbury Tales still lay before him. In this poem he dreams that he is carried by an eagle into the realms of the crystal spheres where he finds a palace made from a single crystal of beryl in which resides a goddess who knows everything that happens on Earth. Her feet are on Earth but her head is in heaven. Geoffrey then makes an equally courageous journey down to a revolving house that he has seen from this high vantage point. It makes a sound like a stone cannonball flying through the air; but for all its orbiting and revolving it gives no impression of movement when Geoffrey finally enters into its confines with the help of his eagle. At this point the story breaks off. Perhaps it would have been dangerous for Geoffrey to continue, at a time when the child King Richard II was on the throne of England and there was no guarantee of immunity from prosecution for heresy.

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buddleia

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f. 159. The Former Age is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's short poems, in the form of a lament for a lost age. It bears similarities to a passage in Jean de Meun's continuation of Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la rose, as well as Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and the works of the Roman poet Ovid, and describes a time when life was simpler and more pleasureable, a time often referred to as the Golden Age.

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purple clematis

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ff. 160–169r. The legend of the Voyage of Saint Brendan is found in a collection of stories of the lives of Christian saints that was copied and added to throughout the fourteenth century and known as The South English Legendary. The voyage of Saint Brendan repeats the formula of an enchanted ocean found in many old pagan Irish tales such as the Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Maeldun. In a search overseas for the land of Paradise, Saint Brendan and his fellow monks find shelter on an Isle of Birds, an Isle of Sheep, the back of a great whale, and are guided by a Christ-like figure who also bears remarkable similarities to the Irish god Mannanan.

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wild flower

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ff. 170–178r. The Breton tale of Guigemar is included amongst a collection of Breton lais preserved from oral minstrel tradition and written down in Old French in the twelfth century by a 'Marie' whom we now know as Marie de France, possibly at the court of King Henry II of England. It describes a fantastic journey taken by a wounded knight in a boat that has parallels with the one that came to take King Arthur to Avalon. But most curious of all, this boat has no crew and contains on its deck only a bed upon which a wounded man can lie. At its prow is a candelabra of lighted candles, recalling the shrine near the prow of a number of boats depicted on Minoan funerary rings.

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fuschia

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