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The Sinful KnightsA Study of Middle English Penitential Romance$

Andrea Hopkins

Print publication date: 1990

Print ISBN-13: 9780198117629

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198117629.001.0001

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(p.223) Appendix C. The Two Manuscripts of Sir Gowther

(p.223) Appendix C. The Two Manuscripts of Sir Gowther

The Sinful Knights
Oxford University Press

The following is an account of the most important differences between the two MSS of Sir Gowther, to explain my preference of A over B in my interpretation of the poem.

MS A has 737 lines, B has 691 (not counting the Explicits); seventy-two lines are identical in both, a large number similar. A contains seventy-seven lines which do not appear even in a modified form in B, while B has thirty-six which do not appear in A. Careful comparison of the texts shows that A's omissions are for the most part due to loss or damage to the manuscript.1 A further six lines appear to have been lost through eye-slip on the part of the scribe.2

B's ‘missing’ lines are more difficult to account for. Apart from five single lines omitted through simple scribal error, all the lines which appear in A and not in B have disappeared in half-stanzas and whole stanzas, and result in no loss of sense. Did A expand the archetype, or did B abridge it? Where B has lost a half-stanza present in A it invariably fails to complete the standard rhyme scheme aabccbddbeeb, but instead rhymes aabccbddejfe. This occurs in stanzas 12, 21, 42, 61, and 62. It seems likely in these places that B has lost lines which were once part of the poem and were similar to those remaining in A. These losses, particularly those from stanza 12, result in important thematic developments not being made available to the audience. However, this is not always the case where A has more lines than B.3

(p.224) An interesting discrepancy occurs at line 378. In the middle of stanza 32, B has six extra lines which anticipate the growing love between Gowther and the Emperor's daughter. Here, while the twelve lines of the stanza in A conform to the rhyme sequence aabccbddbeeb, it is the extra, supposedly interpolated lines in B which complete the sequence, while the lines which in B correspond to the last half of A's stanza have a different rhyme for the short third lines.4

There is also the question of alliteration and metre, though it is less safe to identify textual corruption by failures in these since they may not have been perfectly regular in the original. However, an overall comparison shows that B alliterates less often and less confidently than A, and frequently spoils the metre of lines by having too many syllables in them.

In addition, it has frequently been acknowledged that the various different readings of A and B result in an important divergence in tone and style. Breul comments:

uberhaupt bietet B eine etwas feinere fassung, und fast hat es den anschein, als hatten wir es hier mit einer version zu tun, welche die urspriingliche, oft reichlich derbe romanze fur ein besseres publikum gelegentlich leise uberarbeitete … der ton in A ist frischer und volkstumlicher.5

This contrast between the robustness of A and the comparative refinement of B can be seen particularly in lines 55–60 and 187–9, where B's version has been visibly softened and A's reflects the tone and details of the source. During this refinement, it seems to me that B has tended to blur the importance of such motifs as Gowther's sword and the gradual revelation of the princess's love, of which A has a clearer grasp.

It is demonstrable in at least one place that losses to the text had occurred before B was written. Line 448 had disappeared from B's exemplar; there is an attempt to rationalize the resulting discontinuity in sense:

  • A t〉o mayden toke too gruhowndus fyn And waschyd hor mowJ)us cleyn with wyn
  • And putte a lofe in \〉o ton, And in J3o todur flesch full gud;
  • He raft boj)e owt with eyggur mode
  • (p.225) B. The lady toke twey greyhoundos fyn And wyssh here mouthes clene with wyne
  • And put a lofe in that one
  • He rawght it fro him with eger mode

Presumably the B scribe did not know about the flesh which Gowther took from the second greyhound, since he now snatches ‘it’ from ‘him’ instead of ‘both’ bread and meat. It is clear that line 448 was once there and has been lost.

B's line losses, some of which disrupt the rhyme scheme and 12-line stanza form which was clearly the form of the original composition, incline me to believe that it represents a corrupt and inferior manuscript tradition, and that the important themes which it weakens but which are given prominence in A are close to the intentions of Sir Gowther's author.


(1) Breul suggests {Sir Gowther, ed. K. Breul (Oppeln, 1886), p. 1) that a leaf containing a decoration, title, and the first 14 lines has been removed from A at some stage. LI. 34 and 35 have also been damaged and only the first 3 words of each remain.

(2) Stanzas 4 and 39 in A have each lost 3 lines from the middle. In both cases the nearest remaining rhyme word in A and the remaining one in B are almost identical and this, together with the fact that A, fo. 21 v begins at 1. 462, makes eye-slip the most likely explanation.

(3) Three stanzas, nos. 44, 50, and 52 of Breul's edition, have in my opinion been added to A. These stanzas contain descriptions of the second and third battles against the Saracens, much expanded from what we read in B. This fondness for lengthy accounts of combat seems to be a peculiarity of MS A. There is a version of Sir Ysumbras in A as well, which has had (by comparison with 5 other complete MSS) battle sequences expanded in a similar way.

It seems to me that all other lines occurring in A and not in B have been lost from B, but if stanzas 44, 50, and 52 must be discounted, it is no longer possible to agree with Breul that ‘mancher dieser kurzungen in B sind nicht unpassend und ungeschickt gemacht’ (Sir Gowther, ed. Breul, p. 5), and indeed the whole question of whether B's omissions were the result, as Breul claims, of deliberate editing must be re-examined.

(4) Breul discusses the possibility that B's extra lines are all that remains of a lost stanza, so that A has actually lost the last 6 lines of stanza 32 and the first 6 of 33, while B has only lost the latter (Sir Gowther, ed. Breul, p. 4). Breul rejects this theory in favour of there being a later addition and, since they throw the stanzas out of sequence, leaves them out of his text. It should be noted that B is marked in the margin for stanza division every 6 lines, but the variation aabccbddejfe occurs only 8 times, aabccbddbeeb being retained elsewhere throughout the poem.

(5) Breul, p. 5.