THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

23 February 2014

Gawain Revealed

One of the British Library's greatest literary treasures is the unique manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Last week we hosted a visit by Murray McGillivray (University of Calgary), who is director of a research project investigating this idiosyncratic manuscript's physical make-up and the poems contained within it.

Paul and Murray
Murray McGillivray (left) and Paul Garside (right), carrying out multi-spectral imaging of the Gawain-manuscript.

Many aspects of Gawain remain open to debate -- who wrote the poems? where and when they were written? who was responsible for the accompanying illustrations? -- and so we hope to provide new insight into some of these questions. Although critics have been overwhelmingly full of praise for the manuscript's poetic quality, many have been very scathing about its handwriting and drawings ("some paintings rudely executed" according to one early cataloguer), giving rise to the theory that this is a provincial or unprofessional production. Murray was particularly keen to discover more information about the pigments, underdrawings and binding structure of the manuscript (British Library Cotton MS Nero A X, ff. 41–130), the results of which will ultimately be published on his project website. Aided and abetted by Christina Duffy, our Imaging Scientist, Paul Garside, Conservation Scientist, and Ann Tomalak, one of our conservators, Murray was able to analyse parts of the Gawain-manuscript with stunning results.

Cotton Nero Ax f129v_PSC   Cotton Nero Ax f129v_011_F
Multi-spectral and infrared images of the Green Knight (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X, f. 129v).

We're not going to pre-empt the full findings here; but it is possible to make some tentative deductions about how the manuscript was made. The illuminated pages contain underdrawings, often heavily over-painted by the medieval artist, but now revealed using modern technology. Christina made images of the pages in question under different spectra, including infrared and ultraviolet light; and we discovered that the underdrawings are sometimes best visible using infrared. Likewise, Paul's analysis of the pigments used for the illustrations suggests, for example, that the blues are more likely to be made of indigo rather than azurite or lapis, and that the reds may be composed of vermilion.

Cotton Nero Ax f41r_PSC
Multispectral image of the Dreamer (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A X, f. 41r).

Cotton Nero Ax f41r_011_F
The same image under infrared light.

Christina and Paul continue to process their results, which will then be interpreted by Murray and his team. We wait on tenterhooks to discover what conclusions they will draw: was the scribe of the manuscript the same person who did the underdrawings? were the same pigments employed for the illuminations and the decorated letters in the text? were the illuminations painted at a later date? In the meantime, you can find out more about the Cotton Nero A X Project here, with full colour images of the manuscript; and you can find out more about the work of our British Library colleagues on their Collection Care Blog.

Julian Harrison

The Medieval Manuscripts Blog is delighted to be shortlisted for the National UK Blog Awards (Arts & Culture category). For more information about the nomination, see the Awards website.

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