The tale was written at the end of the 14th century by an unknown author who became known as the ‘Pearl Poet’ or ‘Gawain Poet’ (the original Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript is kept in the British Library, part of the remarkable Robert Cotton Collection –– the notations refer to the placement of the works in Cotton’s original library). Gawain was a particular favorite of J.R.R. Tolkien who worked on the manuscript and put out his own edition in the 1920’s (he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon after all at Oxford).
King Arthur at his round table,14th c
The story commences at Christmastime in Camelot where the court is giving gifts and awaiting the feast that is to come (we discover the Christmas party lasts for 15 days from Christmas Eve through mid-January). We already know of the round table that was created to keep the knights on equal footing with the king so there were no cheap seats, but what might Camelot have looked like at the time of Arthur, or the time of the author of Gawain for that matter.
Portchester CastleBuildings of 400-500 AD are few and far between in Great Britain (one story says the search for the Grail had to begin 453 years after the resurrection of Jesus so that puts Arthur right around the end of the 5th century). Many buildings just crumbled into dust or were cannibalized – serving as quarries for newer structures. Most remain as ruins that have been absorbed by newer construction. Burgh Castle and Portchester Castle have 12th century additions on Roman walls but retain a lot of the character of the earlier buildings.
Arthur tapestry,14th c
One can imagine that Arthur’s castle must have resembled these structures with the round towers and Roman stonework although they could have had wooden structures within stone walls at that point. Since Arthurian legend was not developed until 500 years or more after Arthur was long in his tomb, I imagine the descriptions of the French Vulgate Cycle romances most likely resemble the author's own contemporary structures as they tell Arthur’s story –– many Medieval and Renaissance works of art depicting ancient times have the characters wearing contemporary dress in contemporary surroundings. As described, Camelot's towers, bridges and gates, a main courtyard, bedrooms and feasting chambers would have been familiar to 14th century readers.
When I think of real Medieval English castles, I always think of the 12th century's Dover Castle. A great English block of a building – made to withstand centuries of assaults, it was built on an earlier Roman fort (an 80’ tall Roman lighthouse still stands on the property). This feels like a good set for my Gawain.
Dover Castle Huebner photo
Dover Castle Huebner photo
Þis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of þe best,
Rekenly of þe Rounde Table alle þo rich breþer,
With rych reuel oryȝt and rechles merþes.
Þer tournayed tulkes by tymez ful mony,
Justed ful jolilé þise gentyle kniȝtes,
Syþen kayred to þe court caroles to make.
For þer þe fest watz ilyche ful fiften dayes,
With alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse;
Such glaum ande gle glorious to here,
Dere dyn vpon day, daunsyng on nyȝtes,
Al watz hap vpon heȝe in hallez and chambrez
With lordez and ladies, as leuest him þoȝt.
With all þe wele of þe worlde þay woned þer samen,
Þe most kyd knyȝtez vnder Krystes seluen,
And þe louelokkest ladies þat euer lif haden,
And he þe comlokest kyng þat þe court haldes;
For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age,
Þe hapnest vnder heuen,
Kyng hyȝest mon of wylle;
Hit were now gret nye to neuen
So hardy a here on hille. (Original text Cotton manuscript)
This king lay at Camelot nigh on Christmas
with many lovely lords, of leaders the best,
reckoning of the Round Table all the rich brethren,
with right ripe revel and reckless mirth.
There tourneyed tykes by times full many,
jousted full jollily these gentle knights,
then carried to court, their carols to make.
For there the feast was alike full fifteen days,
with all the meat and mirth men could devise:
such clamour and glee glorious to hear,
dear din in the daylight, dancing of nights;
all was happiness high in halls and chambers
with lords and ladies, as liked them all best.
With all that’s well in the world were they together,
the knights best known under the Christ Himself,
and the loveliest ladies that ever life honoured,
and he the comeliest king that the court rules.
For all were fair folk and in their first age
the happiest under heaven,
king noblest in his will;
that it were hard to reckon
so hardy a host on hill." (A.S. Kline translation)
In the midst of a Christmas party, a green knight appears and challenges the knights:
“…there hales in at the hall door a dreadful man,
the most in the world’s mould of measure high,
from the nape to the waist so swart and so thick,
and his loins and his limbs so long and so great
half giant on earth I think now that he was;
but the most of man anyway I mean him to be,
and that the finest in his greatness that might ride,
for of back and breast though his body was strong,
both his belly and waist were worthily small,
and his features all followed his form made
Wonder at his hue men displayed,
set in his semblance seen;
he fared as a giant were made,
and over all deepest green.”
He is beautifully dressed yet with no armor, carrying a giant ax and a holly bough and is leading a “green as the grass and greener” horse. He comes to the party requesting a Christmas gift. He will not fight the assembly because they are all too young and not a match for his prowess and strength but instead proposes someone use his ax to strike him and then be ready to accept the same fate 1 year later. Gawain accepts and cuts the knight’s head off in one blow-- but the knight does not die!!
The headless knight from original manuscript
Gawaine from original manuscript
When a year has past, Gawain dutifully begins his journey to the chapel to fulfill his promise to the Green Knight. After many adventures along the way, he stops at a castle of Lord Bertilak and his wife and an elderly lady who live close to the chapel. He convinces Gawain to stay for a few days. Bertilak says that he will go out hunting and whatever he gets he will give to Gawain in exchange for whatever Gawain has received that day in his house. It is an odd bargain but Gawain agrees – and it gets curiouser and curiouser.
Gawain and Lady Bertilak from the original manuscript
Bertilak’s wife tries to seduce him for three nights, and each time he politely refuses, allowing only one kiss the first night, then two the second which Gawain dutifully gives Sir Bertilak upon his return to the house. On the 3rd day however, the lady gives 3 kisses and a belt that she says will protect Gawain from harm. Gawain gives Bertilak the kisses but keeps the belt.
Dover Castle bedchamber,Huebner photo
Gawain goes to the chapel with the magic belt and the green knight feints his ax blow twice to test Gawain who flinches the first time but then steels himself. The green knight then strikes Gawain but only slightly wounds him.
The Green Knight from the original manuscript
It is then he reveals he is really Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert and the old lady was in fact Arthur’s magical sister, Morgan le Fay. It is she who has enchanted Bertilak, devising the adventure to frighten Guinevere. Both men part cordially and Gawain keeps the belt to remind him to be honest and not to cheat on a promise to save his neck. It’s a good lesson for an honorable knight and a fitting ending to a chivalric quest tale.
Now that the tale is told, you may ask, how did they eat??? Gawain’s meal at Bertilak’s castle is sumptuous:
“And he sat on that settle seemly and rich,
and chafed himself closely, and then his cheer mended.
Straightway a table on trestles was set up full fair,
clad with a clean cloth that clear white showed,
the salt-cellars, napkins and silvered spoons.
The knight washed at his will, and went to his meat.
Servants him served seemly enough
with several soups, seasoned of the best,
double bowlfuls, as fitting, and all kinds of fish,
some baked in bread, some browned on the coals,
some seethed, some in stews savoured with spices,
and sauces ever so subtle that the knight liked.”
Sadly, I have discovered that there is a dearth of knowledge about dining in England before the Norman Conquest. What we know of European recipes of the time isn’t much better but thanks to the Apician collection of recipes and a bit from Anthimus (a Byzantine in the court of Theodoric in the 6th century), we know that the Roman traditions lived on past the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe. We can imagine the Roman recipes lived on in England as well, up to a point. When we once again find real recipes in collections like the late 14th century Forme of Cury, we can have a pretty splendid idea how the author of Gawain and the Green Knight might have eaten if he had a bit of gold in his purse.
I was recently given a charming book on Medieval food called Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. It’s a fun read and covers the pomp and ceremony of Medieval dining as well as its food. It is also scrupulously researched with 12 pages of readings covering enormous ground (everything from records of food legislation to coroner’s rolls). The author lists original manuscripts as well as scholarly publications but notes they are a fraction of the total that she poured over (she said she looked at 800 recipes just for one chapter). It’s a lovely book but I do wish she gave the originals or at least the original source (she lists the manuscripts at the end but the recipes aren’t connected). I would like to see if there are any exotic ingredients that were left out (the book is 18 years old and resources have improved dramatically). As it is, salt and pepper aren’t mentioned and I put them in. I also increased the amount of liquid… it wasn’t enough for the sauce which was too thick as written – even if it was very good.
Dover Castle Kitchen gives you an idea of a medieval kitchen – you can imagine the feast being prepared here.
Dover Castle Privy Kitchen, Huebner photo
Dover castle’s guest hall is set up to much like the description in the poem (although I wonder that a table would be set directly in front of a fire in winter – they would have been well done at the end of the meal).
Dover Castle Guest hall Photo by Michael Garlick
How and with what was the table set? Cosman describes the traditional table quite precisely in her book:
“Upon the table a white cloth, covered with and overcloth called a sanap, was background for few table adornments and less cutlery. A salt, an open embellished container, stood before the seat of the most honored – thus the others sat “below the salt”.
“One type of saltcellar more popular on the continent than in England was the boat-shaped nef whose often elaborate rigging and jewel encrusted boat made it more ornament than utensil.”
French Nefs (salt cellars) 1400
1320 table fountain (only about 12” high, it would have had a large basin beneath it).
“Goblets or tankards made of glass or metal, or double cups called hanaps – in which the cup’s cover itself was another cup –– were used for drinking. So too was transparent crystal stemware. Mazers were bowls, sometime footed, used as drinking vessels. Wooden, porcelain, glass or metal, the mazers often had elaborate rim embellishments. Both open and covered pitchers and flagons with decorated finials and handles were used to pour wine, ale, and mulled ciders…. “
13th c cup
1225 standing cup, Belgian
500-1000 golden mazer
Medieval wooden Mazer
15c belt and pouch
14th c silver spoon
“Individual plates at place settings were only rarely used. Food conveyed from kitchen to table on serving platters called chargers –– such as the 12 silver dishes set before Sir Gawain – were selected by guests and then placed before them upon large slices of bread, round in shape or, more usually, square, called trenchers. Often colored and spices green with parsley, or yellow with saffron, or pink with saunders, trenchers serve as edible platters.”
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Janvier, 1412-16
Canelyne Beef Pie
1 pound lean beef cut in small cubes (anything from beef tenderloin to stew meat – but marbled is best because it doesn’t have a long cooking time)**
2 T oil
2/3 c boiling water (I think 1 cup is better for enough sauce)
1 T cinnamon
½ t nutmeg
¼ t thyme
¼ t sage
9’ pastry shell and lid
1 c raw bogberries (a close relative to cranberries which is what I used)
2 T honey
2/3 c currants
(although the recipe did not mention salt or pepper, I added a both to taste)
“Cinnamon sugar” (1 t sugar to ½ t cinnamon)
½ c ground almonds
½ c dry white wine (again, you might want a bit more – the almonds really soak up the liquid)
Sauté meat in the oil till somewhat browned.
Dissolve cinnamon nutmeg, thyme and sage in boiling water. Add to meat and simmer slowly for 15 minutes. Remove meat and reserve liquid.
Preheat oven to 425º
Line the pastry shell with cranberries and drizzle honey over them and sprinkle with currants. Put meat pieces over the top and add 7 T of the reserved cooking liquid (I think a bit more is good).
Cover with the lid and pierce top. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and bake at 375º for 35-40 minutes
Add almonds and white wine to remaining cinnamon meat broth and simmer very gently 7 minutes – you may want to add a bit more water or wine as the sauce thickens considerably to a paste. Serve with pie.
*** If you are using leftover beef, I recommend saving the trimmings and sautéing them for color and simmering them for flavor for the sauce, then removing them -- quickly tossing cubed leftover beef in the liquid and proceeding with the recipe.