The Pearl Poet

We do not know who he is, but this author was one of the greatest English writers of the Middle Ages. But we know he exists only because of a single manuscript, containing four poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Patience, and Purity. They appear to have been written by a single author; and of these, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is considered to be one of the classics of English literature.

About all we know about him is what can be gleaned from the poems. The dialect is that of the north west Midlands of England. The content reveals someone who was familiar with aristocratic life, who took both Christianity and chivalry seriously, though not without a wry sense of humor and a well-honed sense of the ridiculous. This is an author who could go against medieval prudishness and present God praising sexual love (within marriage) in his poem Purity and who could flout all the romantic conventions of courtly love, presenting Gawain as a knight both chivalrous and chaste (but oh, all too human.)

He represents a very different kind of Englishman than we see in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And though we do not know who he was, he has enriched English literature immensely.

Copyright © 1999 Paul Deane