Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Yuletide Tale – A study of Hautdesert, Wilderness and Purlieus

by Noel C. Brindley

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance, describing an adventure of Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table and nephew of King Arthur. The poem is considered a masterpiece of English Medieval literature. The priceless 14th century manuscript is now housed in the British Museum. The author of the poem is unknown and usually refererred to as the Gawain poet. In the poem, Sir Gawain accepts a challenge from a mysterious ‘Green Knight’ at Christmas time, who offers to allow anyone to strike him with his axe if the challenger will take a return blow in a year and a day. The Gawain poem as transcribed by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and E.V. Gordon can be viewed online here: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/Gawain?rgn=main;view=fulltext Sir Gawain on his journey to find the green chapel travels through many strange landscapes, some are vividly described. It is from these detailed descriptions that we can ascertain exactly the landscape Gawain travelled through.

The Green Knight (clene verdure)

Description:-

And all harnessed in green this man and his clothes: A straight coat full tight that clinged to his sides, a pleasing mantyle, lined within and skilfully trimmed with bright beautiful fur with hood of the same, that was pulled off his hair and laid on his shoulders; well fitting hose of the same green that stuck firmly to his calf, and clean spurs below of bright gold upon silk straps with ornamental bars; without footwear the man rides. And all his clothing was completely pure green (clene verdure). ……..

However he had no helm nor hauberk, neither pysan nor breast-plate, that pertained to arms, neither shaft nor shield, to thrust nor to smite. But in one hand he had a holly sprig, that is greenest when groves are bare, and in his other an axe, huge and uncomely, a grim axe, to describe in words, whosoever might. ………

There was looking on length the man to behold, for each man marvelled what it might mean that a man and a horse could have such a colour: As green as the grass grows and greener it seemed, glowing brighter than green enamel on gold.

What is clear is that the green knight is green because he represents the vert*, he is a man of the woods, the deciduous high wood/forest in particular, as the poet suggests that the holly is from a grove (a collection of timber trees only) a place that is bare of green leaves in winter, except for the evergreen Holly – Ilex aquifolium.

*Vert: all vegetation in a forest (from Latin viriditate ‘greenness’), protected by forest law; originally of two sorts: ‘haut boys’, ‘over vert’ (trees), or ‘great wood’, and ‘south boys’, ‘nether vert’, or ‘underwood’ 

The Holly and the axe – What must be clearly understood is that the Green Knight, despite his fearsome appearance, comes to Arthurs court with peaceful intentions. The Green Knights axe is called a weapon, yet we are told that the Green Knight wore nothing that pertained to arms? This is because the Green Knights ‘weppen’ is in its peacetime guise as a felling tool, it is the Danish axe used by the woodcutter to fell mature oak trees, and represents the end of life in the groves. The holly the green knight holds, also signifying peace, is a symbol of new life, as holly acts as a ‘nurse’ and protects young oak saplings from being eaten by the deer.

The Green Knight carries symbols of the land he is from, an area which contains huge hoar oaks, a hundred together, it is a ‘a forest ful dep’. These areas were known in the 14th century as Hautbois, Holts, Groves or High forest…..this is Hautdesert.

“Desert” referred to uncultivated land, so was declared to be “forestis”During medieval times in western Europe, the “desert” meant the forest (Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, John Crook (Ph.D.)). The use of desert, meaning forest, implies that the poet is familiar with the term, and would expect his medieval audience to be familiar with its use. Silva (Latin, forest) and desertum, desert, are synonymous.

Hautdesert

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – modern translation:  But one thing I would ask of you, do not be offended: since you are lord of the land yonder in which I have stayed with you with honour – may the Being who holds up the heavens and sits on high reward you for it – what is your true name? – and that is all.’ ‘That I shall tell you truly,’ said the other then: ‘I am called Bertilak de Hautdesert in this land’.

At the end of the Gawain poem it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak of Hautdesert, the lord of the castle and its surrounding land. It is assumed that Hautdesert was the name of the castle in ‘ȝonder londe’, where Bertilak was lord. It is more likely in the middle ages that Bertilak would take the name of the land he was originally from or then owned. It must be noted that the above line from the poem reads, ‘lord of the land yonder’, and ‘I am called Bertilak de Hautdesert in this land‘. The castle is his dwelling but the land it is upon has more status for Gawain and Bertilak. The castle therefore adopts the name of the land called Hautdesert.

•The Green man, stone carving originally from the ruins of Dieulacres abbey. The Green Knight has been likened to the pre-Christian Green man, yet he appears in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals. (photo kindly supplied by Clive Foden)

The Green man, stone carving originally from the ruins of Dieulacres abbey. The Green Knight has been likened to the pre-Christian Green man, yet he appears in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals. (photo kindly supplied by Clive Foden)

It would appear that Hautdesert is demesne land attached to a castle, but why is this land called ‘Hautdesert’? As Gawain enters Hautdesert the poet describes in detail the scene before him: Original version: Bi a mounte on þe morne meryly he rydes Into a forest ful dep, þat ferly watz wylde, Hiȝe hillez on vche a halue, and holtwodez vnder Of hore okez ful hoge a hundreth togeder; Þe hasel and þe haȝþorne were harled al samen, With roȝe raged mosse rayled aywhere, With mony bryddez vnblyþe vpon bare twyges, Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde. Modern English translation: By a hill in the morning merrily he rides into a deep forest, that was exceedingly wild, High hills on each side, and holt woods below of huge hoar oaks, a hundred together; The hazel and the hawthorn were all entwined together, With rough ragged moss spread everywhere, With many unhappy birds on bare twigs, that piteously there piped for pain of the cold. Gawain rides into an exceedingly wild, deep forest. In medieval times any area that was ‘wild’ and described as a ‘forest’ would be an area under Forest Law, ‘forestis’, this was how forest got its name. A forest then was not as we know it now, an area covered with trees. A forest could have grassland and shrubs, rivers, streams and hills, a part of it could be wooded but this may be less than half of the area called forest.

In their book, ‘From Scythia to Camelot’, by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, we are told ‘Lancelot’s best friend is Galahaut, who once appears under the name Galehaut de Haut Desert in Malory. The book goes on to explain that, ‘“Desert” in the Middle Ages referred to uncultivated land.’ Uncultivated land in the Middle Ages was declared to be ‘forestis’ a legal term, also known as ‘Forest Law’.

Forest Law – Forest law operated outside the common law, and served to protect game animals and their forest habitat from destruction i.e. venison – the “noble” animals of the chase, notably red and fallow deer the roe and the wild boar— and the vert – greenery that sustained them.

‘Wylde’, wild – The term wild referred to all animals and plants which existed without being cared for by man, and which had no clear owner. A ‘wild’ thing was anything which was not obtained by cultivation from seed and tending. For example this included wild oats, wild grass (‘Wildheu’) and wild animals. Because wild animals and wild plants did not have a clear owner, they were the property of the local lord and subject to Forest Law. To emphasize that these were areas where no one else had any rights, the words ‘eremus, ‘solitudo’ or ‘deserto’ were often added to the ‘forestis nostra’. There were trees in this particular forest as we are told there were Holt woods below the hills. What is a ‘holt wood’?

Holts – Woodlands were managed in four traditional ways: as ‘holts’, as ‘holly hags’, as ‘wood pastures’ and as ‘coppices’. Holts were what today would be called high forests. They are managed for their timber, for game preservation and for their contribution to estate landscapes. – from Ancient Woodlands: Their Archaeology and Ecology: a Coincidence of interest, Julien Parsons, Pauline Beswick, Ian D. Rotherham. Also, ‘single species wood’ (largest category of examples refers to tree species), not found north of Cheshire and West Yorkshire (Gelling and Cole, p. 233). The ‘single species wood’ in the Gawain poem is described as ‘hoar (grey) oak’. There are several reasons why the poet may have referred to the trees as ‘hore okez’/hoar oaks. Firstly, it was winter and the trees may have been covered in grey/white frost. Another reason could be that it was once a common name for this member of the Beech family, the English/Pedunculate oak when mature, is an ancient (over 400 years old), large tree with a grey, deeply fissured bark. Worth considering too is that ‘hoar’ was often used to describe an ancient boundary marker. Gawain appears to be crossing a boundary as he enters hautdesert and describes the scene in front of him of holtwoods, a high forest of huge hoar oaks. A holt wood is a high forest,  how was a high forest formed and what was it used for?

High forest – A method of growing timber without coppicing. The two native species in Britain are the Common or Pedunculate Oak and the Sessile Oak. The growth rate is very slow, with trees taking over 100 years to mature. They can continue to grow for over 400 years, and to heights of over 100 feet. In growing Oak ‘high forest’ the aim is to produce tall straight quality timber of good diameter which can command high prices. From Salterns Copse – Chichester Harbour Conservancy – http://www.conservancy.co.uk/learn/downloads/salterns_copse_booklet.pdf The following information tells us that mature timber trees that are evolved from managed coppicing, consists of only a few trees in a ‘compartment’ or 12 trees per acre, much less than in high forest where 66-100 trees per acre (90-140 per hectare) are common (‘a hundred together’). Why hautdesert was not a coppiced woodland, low forest: Coppice – A method of growing timber by which trees are cut to ground level so that the shoots grow, and which are harvested some years later. All the trees in a coppice will be cut to ground level with the exception of those stems selected to grow on as ‘standards’; these are young trees of good quality which will be left through successive coppice cuts to produce mature timber trees. There are only a few left in each compartment as they are grown at a density of about 12 per acre (17 per hectare), much less than in high forest where 66-100 trees per acre (90-140 per hectare) are common. So wild un-managed High forests are traditionally denser than managed forest, so could be described as ‘a hundred together’. ‘Coppiced with standards’, described above, is a coppice with large trees scattered throughout the wood. These need to be well spaced out (not together) so that they don’t shade the underwood. An example of a high forest is at Blean, Cantebury and Swale’s ancient woodland -‘Extensive areas of the forest are managed as coppice, the stems being cut down every 10-25 years, keeping the woodland in a permanently juvenile state. However, there are also large blocks which are managed far less intensively, if at all, where the trees (mainly oak, but also some beech, birch and hornbeam) are allowed to mature. These areas of older woodland are referred to by foresters as high forest, and are extremely important to a wide range of wildlife that cannot thrive in the more artificial coppice habitat.’ see http://www.theblean.co.uk/wildlife-heritage/woodland-management/high-forest/ ‘High hills on each side, and holt woods below Of huge hoar oaks, a hundred together; The hazel and the hawthorn were all entwined together, With rough ragged moss spread everywhere,’

Moss growing over a fallen tree - Moss grows well on the damp forest floor, it is a delicate plant and the poets description of moss spread everywhere, suggests not many have trodden this way.

Moss growing on a fallen tree – Moss grows well on the damp forest floor, it is a delicate plant and the poets description of moss spread everywhere, suggests that not many have trodden this way.

The following is from, ‘Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera’ and describes why a high forest of oak would be dependent on the Hazel and Hawthorn: Hazel and hawthorn were found in transitional areas between grassland and woodland, they survived on the edge of the mature wooded forest along with young oak. Lack of light in the partially closed or closed canopy eventually suppressed the hazel and thorn, they would not regenerate in poor light. The scrubland along with the oak would then advance into the grasslands. The hazel and the oak grew together on the edge of mature wooded forest as both trees had facilitators. The oak had the Jay which planted acorns on the fringes of the thorny scrub, competing species do not have a comparible facilitator. The analogy between the oak and hazel also seems to apply as regards their establishment. Like oak, hazel seems to have its own facilitator in Central and Western Europe in the form of the nuthatch. Given the ecology of the nuthatch, this also seems to explain why hazel becomes established mainly on the fringes, and much less at great distances in the open field. The Oak wood included an understorey of hazel, hawthorn and holly.

Holly – At King Arthur’s court, the Green Knight holds a Holly branch: ‘Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe, Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare,’ Greuez, Grove(s) – A collection of timber trees only – from Forests and chases of England and Wales: a glossary of terms and definitionsThe high forest’s deciduous oaks were grown for timber as well as for the protection of deer.

Holly - Ilex aquifolium: The Holly acts as a 'nurse' protecting the young trees from being eaten by horses, cows and deers. After about 40 years, the holly no longer grows up, but the trees continue to grow. Oak or other species of trees, which were first to become established on the periphery of the still young holly scrub, thus eventually grow up above the scrub in the centre. After 80-100 years, the trees in the holly scrub form a closed canopy. - from Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera. (Photo N C Brindley)

Holly – Ilex aquifolium: The Holly acts as a ‘nurse’ protecting the young trees from being eaten by horses, cows and deers. After about 40 years, the holly no longer grows up, but the trees continue to grow. Oak or other species of trees, which were first to become established on the periphery of the still young holly scrub, thus eventually grow up above the scrub in the centre. After 80-100 years, the trees in the holly scrub form a closed canopy. – from Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera. (Photo N C Brindley)

The trees of the forest would be bare of green leaves in winter, the evergreen holly growing at the oaks base would be more noticeable at this time of year. The poet is confirming that holly grew in an area specifically used for growing timber trees, a ‘grove’. At hautdesert this was part of the high forest as described by the poet and not coppiced woodland, the low forest. The poet is giving us an early clue as from where the Green knight had originated, in the line: but in his hand he (the green knight) had a bunch of holly, that is greenest when groves are bare’. The Green knight’s holly was from a grove, a high forest of timber trees. This association with the timber forest is further confirmed as the Green Knight has an axe, a felling tool/weapon, specifically a ‘denez ax’ (Danish axe), as he confronts Gawain at the green chapel. The Danish axe is described as: ‘a fine example of the use of peacetime agricultural tools as weapons in time of war. Equally at home felling trees or adversaries, the axe evokes a fearsome picture of the woodsman at war.’ It is clear now that ‘hautdesert’ is a high forest, also known as ‘haut bois’ or ‘High wood’, where deer and wild boar would congregate. Deer and wild boar were browsers of acorns and shrubs and not grazers of the open grassland. Why is hautdesert, a woodland, translated as ‘high desert’?

The desert forest of the Cistercians – For the Cistercians during the middle-ages, the biblical wilderness and desert of the bible, had become the uncultivated forests of western Europe. ‘Desert’ was a Cistercian/ecclesiastical term for ‘forest’ an area under forest law, specifically the uninhabited, untamed woodland where they had first settled and built their abbeys and given the rights to the land as lord. Jacques Le Goff notices that the role played by ‘desert’ in early monastiscism in the east was later adopted by woodland in medieval Europe, this being the ‘desert-forest’ of the Cistercians. Peter Szabo notices that ‘desertum’ was usually a reference to woods. – see Woodland and forests in medieval Hungary. The Cistercians cultivated the image of themselves as ‘desert monks’, and their regulations stated that their abbeys should be located ‘far from the dwellings of men’, or, in the words of Orderic Vitalis, ‘in lonely wooded places’ – From “Who were the Cistercians?” By Professor Janet Burton. To emphasize that forest was an area where no one else had any rights, the words ‘eremus, ‘solitudo’ or ‘deserto‘ were often added to the ‘forestis nostra’. For the medieval West, the “desert” meant the forest. The Cistercians made this their “Egyptian wilderness”. Here they could find the “solitary wastes” dear to contemplatives,…….From, Cistercian Abbeys: history and architecture – Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, John Crook (Ph.D.)

From, Archipelagoes: insular fictions from chivalric romance to the novel – By Simone Pinet: Saint Bernard (of Clairvaux) would write in 1172: “forests will teach you more than books. Trees and rocks will show you things that masters of science will not show you.” The force of the biblical transposition of meaning taken from the desert made the medieval forest, to some extent, a symbol of another world, one of spirituality and purity, opposed to the dubious image of the city.  The medieval forest thus inherited from the desert, due to their shared characterizations as “wild,” “savage,” “uncultivated” spaces, the ideas of exile, penance, prophecy, vision, and temptation. Pinet concludes: In the structure of romance, the site for adventure is the binome silva/desertum, which we have seen are synonymous. Bernard of Clairvaux, the leader of the reforming Cistercian order, refers to the forest using the Cistercian/ecclesiastical term ‘desert’. To a nun in Troyes, who was tempted by the hermitage (in the wild woods of the forest), he writes, ‘For anyone wishing to lead a bad life the desert supplies ample oppurtunity. The woods afford cover, and solitude assures silence.’ See, The Cambridge Companion to the Cistercian Order. The use of the word ‘desert’ here, is to describe the lonely wooded places. Bernard of Clairvaux was not warning the nun in Troyes that she could lead a bad life in the hermitage, but was warning her of the dangers within the solitary wastes of the forest. Solitary desert/wilderness existence, was gender specific to the Cistercians, nuns were discouraged not from hermitages, but from ‘desert’ and ‘wilderness’, the forest.

Wilderness

wilderness
n

(Physical Geography) a wild, uninhabited, and uncultivated region

[Old English wildeornes, from wildeor wild beast (from wild + deor beast, deer) + -ness; related to Middle Dutch wildernisse, German Wildernis]

COLLINS ENGLISH DICTIONARY – COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED, 12TH EDITION 2014 © HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014

wil•der•ness
n.

a wild, uncultivated, uninhabited region, as of forest or desert.

[1150-1200; Middle English; Old English *wil(d)deornes= either wil(d)deor wild beast

(see wild, deer) + -nes -ness, orwilddeoren wild, savage (wilddeor + -en -en2) + (-n)es -ness]

RANDOM HOUSE KERNERMAN WEBSTER’S COLLEGE DICTIONARY, © 2010 K DICTIONARIES LTD. COPYRIGHT 2005, 1997, 1991 BY RANDOM HOUSE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

In the Gawain poem the poet refers to the ‘Wyldrenesse of Wyrale’.   The following is from, Grazing Ecology and Forest History By F. W. M. Vera. See also in the same book, p.103, section 4.2. The Wilderness and the Concept of ‘Forestis’ –  The wilderness (‘forestis’, ‘Wald’) was used for obtaining firewood and timber, for the production of peat and metals, for grazing livestock, cutting foliage for fodder, collecting honey, and the pannage of the pigs. This use was covered by the ‘ius forestis’, also known as ‘forest law’ or ‘waldrecht’, laid down in all sorts of regulations. The origin of the term ‘forestis’ is a legal one. It served to determine the rights of the king. Terms related to the concept of the ‘forestis’ also acquired a legal meaning, because they also related to the wilderness, which had been declared by the king to be his ‘forestis’. Certain types of use of the wilderness were declared to be the king’s privilege because “the wilderness was the forestis”. The grazing of livestock and the exploitation of timber were believed to have resulted in more and more openings in the original forest so that the wilderness, the closed forest, eventually changed into a park-like wood-pasture and ultimately into grassland or heath. Vera suggests that the meaning of ‘wilderness’ was originally the closed forest. It appears that the rest of Western Europe used the same naming conventions for uncultivated forest: In the Dutch language, the terms ‘wildernisse’ and ‘Wyldnisse’ were used respectively in the Middle Ages and subsequently, for land that was not cultivated. A letter donating land dating from 1328 states: ‘…dat alinge broeck und alle die wildernisse, die wij voortmeer dit Niebroeck geheyten willen heben …’ (Blink, 1929, p. 27).   ‘Wilderness clearing’ meant the cutting back of ancient woodland to reveal arable land for cultivation. Wirral forest had an outlaw problem, disafforestation would abolish the protection which outlaws and marauders derived from sheltering themselves in a royal forest, this would allow local law officers to enter into the area and apprehend criminals hiding there. Description of Wirral disafforestation and original document, can be viewed here: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SearchUI/Details?uri=C9209548 “……..in the wilderness of Wirral. Dwelt there but little that either God or man with good heart loved.”  It has been suggested that the above was a reference to outlaws living in the wild country of Wirral.  B.M.C. Hussain in his book, ‘Cheshire under the Norman Earls’, says that the people of Wirral and the citizens of Chester complained that they suffered at the hands of robbers lurking in the forest. However, the commons of the Wirral did not mention this but stated that it was because of the destruction wrought by game in the forest of Wirral, that the late Prince of Wales disafforested it. The above ‘wilderness’ is probably a term used to describe the pre-disafforested “wild,” “savage,” “uncultivated”, “barren” desert-forest (silva/desertum). Wirral forest was a royal forest, a wild forest under forest law until 1376. According to the poet’s medieval imagination, such forests could be inhabited by mythical beasts such as, ‘wodwos’ wildmen of the woods, also bears, bulls, boars and wolves, a place therefore, where ‘Dwelt there but little that either God or man with good heart loved.’ It was likely thought, that perpetuating a traditional belief in such mythical beasts as ‘wodwos’, would help protect the royal forests from trespassers. Today, traditional beliefs still help protect forests around the world, as follows: June 19th 2012 – Research by Ashley Massey, Oxford University, speaking at the annual meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation in Bonito, Brazil, shows that cultural practices including beliefs in mythical beasts and animals that dance, have helped maintain forests in the West African country of the Gambia and Malaysian Borneo. Ashley Massey looked at the relationship between forest cover and the perceived existence of a dinosaur-like creature known as the “Ninki-nanka” in the Gambia and dancing animals known as “Kopizo” in the Malaysian state of Sabah. In both cases, locals believed that encountering mythological animals in the forest would result in death, leading them to avoid areas where they are believed to reside.  See: http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0619-atbc-cryptids-conservation.html#L6K0EdXcirH6Yleg.99 As we have seen, ‘wilderness’ was a term used for the King’s forestis, a wild uncultivated forest under forest law. In 1376 the Forest of Wirral was disafforested so became land suitable for cultivation, Wirral could no longer be termed a ‘Wilderness’. If the term ‘Wilderness’ was used in a technical sense by a woodsman/forester, it would date the Gawain poem to no later than 1376.

Desert, Wilderness, Forest – It can be concluded that these terms are synonymous. ‘Hautdesert’ is the mature high forest, also known as ‘hautbois‘, Old French, ‘high wood’, as the Gawain poets description, of hore oaks, full huge (fully grown) a hundred together. ‘Desertum‘ was usually a reference to woods (Peter Szabo). ‘Wilderness’ was the King’s forest/forestis so the wilderness of Wirral becomes the forest of Wirral. F. W. M. Vera, also suggests that the original meaning of ‘wilderness’ was the closed forest, an area that has greater than 40% tree cover, in other words, a high forest. It has been suggested that Hautdesert can be translated as ‘high wilderness’, (Helen Cooper, Kristina Pérez, Ralph Elliott, etc.) this is correct when you consider that ‘wilderness’ was actually a term used to describe ‘forest’.

………………………………….

Beeston castle, 'Castle de Rupe' or 'Castle of the Rock', Cheshire, was once on the edge of the Delamere forest and is thought by some scholars to be the castle at Hautdesert described by the poet. Gawain would have travelled past this landmark on his way to the Green Chapel from the Wirral forest. In the Gawain poem we have the line, 'By St Peter said the Porter', as Gawain asks for lodging at the castle. As well as being an obvious quote from a gatekeeper, is the 'St. Peter' quote a clue to the castle's real identity? Beeston Castle, was on lands once owned by the St. Pierre (St. Peter/Sancto Petro) family. These lands were still referred to as St. Pierre lands in the 14th century. Beeston was known as the 'Castle of the Rock', 'Castle de Rupe' or plain, 'de Rupe'. Peter is derived from the Latin, Petrus/Petra, meaning 'Rock'. (Photo - N C Brindley)

Beeston castle, ‘Castle de Rupe’ or ‘Castle of the Rock’, Cheshire, was once on the edge of the Delamere forest and is thought by some scholars to be the castle at Hautdesert described by the poet. Gawain would have travelled past this landmark on his way to the Green Chapel from the Wirral forest. In the Gawain poem we have the line, ‘By St Peter said the Porter’, as Gawain asks for lodging at the castle. As well as being an obvious quote from a gatekeeper, is the ‘St. Peter’ quote a clue to the castle’s real identity? Beeston Castle, was on lands once owned by the St. Pierre (St. Peter/Sancto Petro) family. These lands were still referred to as St. Pierre lands in the 14th century. Beeston was known as the ‘Castle of the Rock’, ‘Castle de Rupe’ or plain, ‘de Rupe’. Peter is derived from the Latin, Petrus/Petra, meaning ‘Rock’. (Photo – N C Brindley)

Bertilak, the Purlieu-man

Every aspect of the medieval forest was commodified, since forests were a major source of income for their owners. According to its use, the forest itself was divided into demesnes (owners’ residences), chases (open areas for hunting), parks (enclosed areas for hunting), agistments (land cleared for grazing), assarts (land cleared for farming), and, by the fourteenth century, purlieus (disafforested land on which hunting is still permitted under the supervision of rangers). Extract from – How Green was the Green Knight? Forest Ecology at Hautdesert – Michael W. Twomey

Bertilak appears to be a Purlieu-man. The following describes what a Purlieu is and how a hunt should be conducted in the woods within a Purlieu. The abbot of Dieulacres was entrusted with the supervision of his forest and was also a Purlieu-man, see  J. Sleigh – A History of the Ancient Parish of Leek. Purlewes/purlieu – areas added to a forest then later disafforested although still subject to some of the forest laws, especially regarding hunting. Also, Purlieus – “a certain territory of ground adjoining unto the forest [which] was once forest-land and afterwards disafforested by the perambulations made for the severing of the new forests from the old.” Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest (1598, 4th ed. 1717).   Bertilak as custodian of a medieval castle, would be entrusted with the supervision of nearby forests.   The laws concerning hunting by a Purlieu-man in his Purlieus, perfectly match Bertilak’s manner of hunting. From, Manwood’s Treatise of the Forest Laws: Purlieus   113. Therefore, that a Purlieu-Man may the better remember in what manner he may hunt in his Purlieu, he must observe,   1. That he begin the Chase in his own Purlieu.   2. That he do not forestall, &c. (prevent Deer re-entering the forest (royal forest) from which they came).   3. That before his Dogs enter the Forest, he call them back. (‘Rechate’ (Gawain) ‘Rechase’ (Manwood)).   4. That he do not follow his dogs into the Forest, except they fasten on the Deer first, and are then drawn into the Forest, and the Deer killed there.   5. That he do not hunt with any more in Company, than with his own servants.   6. That he do not kill a Deer out of season. When and how often a Purlieu-Man may hunt, &c.  114. But a Purlieu-Man must not hunt at all times and seasons, nor in what manner he will; for then the Purlieus would soon destroy the Forests; for which Reason the ancient Usage and Policy of the Forest-Laws have always prohibited these Men to hunt contrary to any of the following Rules.   115. 1. A Purlieu-Man must not hunt in his own Purlieu in the Night-time; this is prohibited by the 13th Article of Assisa de Woodstock; that is, He must not hunt there after the setting of the Sun, nor until the rising of the same; and the reason is, because the King’s Wild Beasts may not be disturbed in their feeding in the Forest;   2. He must not hunt on the Sunday, for that is a Day appointed for the Rest both of Man and Beast, and for the Service of God, and not for Sports; 3. He must not hunt in Fence-Month, because of disquieting the Deer which are then ready to fawn, or for fear of killing the young fawns which are not able to run.   4. He must not hunt oftener than three Days in a Week, lest, by often hunting, he disquiet the Beasts in the Forest, or fright them from their pasture or Places where they usually frequent; 5. He must not hunt in the Purlieu with any other Company but his own Servants, because his Interest in hunting is only a Conditional Licence of Profit, which goes strictly to him to whom ’tis given, and not to any other; may justify for himself and his Servants; but he who hath a Licence or Interest for Pleasure, cannot justify for his Servants, though he may for himself; but he who must justify for his Servants, cannot justify for any other Person. Besides, the Laws of the Forest do not allow a multitude of People to assemble themselves together to hunt in the Purlieus, because that is likewise Ad terrorem of the Beasts in the Forest.   6, 7, 8, 9, various other laws concerning forestalling, not hunting in a Purlieu within 40 days of the King’s hunt in an adjacent forest in case the King’s deer have taken to hiding within the Purlieu, Foresters serving a Warrant in the Forest, etc.   10. He may not hunt a Deer out of Season, though ’tis found in his own Purlieu, because they are not able then to run, and are worth nothing when caught; and therefore he must not hunt a Deer of Antler in the Winter, nor Does in the Summer. How far a Purlieu-Man may pursue his Chase in Hunting   50. But if the Owner of Lands beginneth the Hunting in his own Lands, where he hath a lawful Interest and Property in the Beasts so long as they are there; then by reason of that Property, he may pursue his Hunting through any Man’s Woods or Lands, so far as he doth not enter into any Forest, Chase, Park or Warren, which are Places priviliged by the Law, that no Man may enter but the Owner.   51. And if he kill the Beast in another Man’s Land, and out of such priviliged Place, he may take and carry away the same by reason of the first Property, in respect of the Soil where it was when he first began hunting. Bertilak’s Hunt compared to the Purlieu Hunt:   A Purlieu-Man must not hunt in his own Purlieu at Night-time.  Bertilak and his men were always up and dressed and ready for the hunt at, or just before, daybreak as though the rising of the sun was the signal to begin the chase. They always returned home to the castle before nightfall. Gawain Poem the Deer Hunt   By þat any daylyȝt lemed vpon erþe  He with his haþeles on hyȝe horsses weren.   translation – (Poems of the Pearl Manuscript) – By the time that any daylight shone upon the earth,  he and his men were on great horses. (Tolkein) – When daylight was opened yet dimly on earth,  he and his huntsmen were up on their high horses.   Such a sowme he þer slowe bi þat þe sunne heldet,  Of dos and of oþer dere, to deme were wonder.   translation: He had killed there such a quantity  of does and other deer by the time the sun went down, it would be wonderful to assess.

Fallow deer with a white buck on the edge of the wooded forest. Bertilak hunted hinds and does, females of the red and fallow deer. The Abbot of Dieulacres used the high forest for hunting

Fallow deer with a white buck on the edge of the wooded forest. Bertilak hunted hinds and does, females of the red and fallow deer. The Abbot of Dieulacres used the high forest for hunting “Hart, Hind, Buck and Doe”, just as in that forest of Hautdesert. (photo N C Brindley)

Gawain Poemthe Boar Hunt   Þe douthe dressed to þe wod, er any day sprenged, to chace;   translation:  The company went on their way to the wood, before any daylight dawned, to the chase; (Bertilak and his men wanted to be ready to hunt as soon as any daylight broke).   He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,  Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.   translation:  He sounded the recheat, and rode through thick bushes, pursuing this wild boar until the sun was setting. Gawain Poem – the Fox Hunt   In rede rudede vpon rak rises þe sunne,  And ful clere costez þe clowdes of þe welkyn.  Hunteres vnhardeled bi a holt syde,  Rocheres roungen bi rys for rurde of her hornes;   translation:  The sun rises red, its redness reflected upon a bank of cloud, and in its full  brightness drives the clouds from the sky. Huntsmen unleashed [their  hounds] by the side of a wood; rocky banks rang in the wood with the  noise of their horns. And þenne þay helden to home, for hit watz nieȝ nyȝt,  Strakande ful stoutly in hor store hornez.   translation:  Then they make for home, for it was nearly night, sounding loudly  on their powerful horns. That a Purlieu-Man do not hunt with any more in Company, than with his own servants Gawain Poem – The day of the first hunt   Ful erly bifore þe day þe folk vprysen,  Gestes þat go wolde hor gromez þay calden,  And þay busken vp bilyue blonkkez to sadel,   translation: Very early before the day dawned the people got up. Guests that would go called their servants, and they hasten up immediately to saddle horses,   The guests were leaving so would play no part in the hunt, only Gawain was asked to stay longer but was not invited to join Bertilak in the chase .   By þat any daylyȝt lemed vpon erþe   He with his haxþeles on hyȝe horsses weren.   translation: By the time that any daylight shone upon the earth,  he and his men were on great horses.   Bertilak is only hunting with his own men/servants. A Purlieu-Man must not hunt oftener than three Days in a Week, lest, by often hunting, he disquiet the Beasts in the Forest, or fright them from their pasture or Places where they usually frequent; In the Gawain poem there are only three days hunting, first day for Deer, second day for Wild Boar and the third day for the Fox. A Purlieu-Man must begin the Chase in his own Purlieu A Purlieu-Man could only initiate a hunt from his own land but was allowed to enter an adjacent frith (another man’s land) to follow his quarry. The poem suggests that the scent of the boar was picked up in Bertilak’s land, Hautdesert, but the animal was not tracked down until the chase had entered into an adjacent frith, at a carr side, where we are told, there was a ‘flosche/flash in that frith’. The term, ‘that frith’, implies that it was not Bertilak’s frith but that one belonging to someone else. A Purlieu-Man may not hunt a Deer out of Season, though ’tis found in his own Purlieu, because they are not able then to run, and are worth nothing when caught; and therefore he must not hunt a Deer of Antler in the Winter, nor Does in the Summer. (A Purlieu-Man’s interest in hunting is only a Conditional Licence of Profit). Gawain Poem – the Deer Hunt   Þay let þe herttez haf þe gate, with þe hyȝe hedes,  Þe breme bukkez also with hor brode paumez;  For þe fre lorde hade defende in fermysoun tyme  Þat þer schulde no mon meue to þe male dere.   translation: Then they allowed the stags (Red Deer) with the high heads to pass, also the wild bucks (Fallow Deer) with their broad antlers; for the  noble lord had forbidden that any man should rouse any male deer in the close-season. Hunting seasons for Bertilak’s quarry: Hind and Doe – Holy Rood day, Sept 14th to Candlemass, Feb 2nd. Boar – Christmas to Candlemass, Feb 2nd. Fox – Christmas day to Lady day, March 25th. For further information on the historical background of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, see: http://hautdesert.webnode.com/ and http://ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com/the-green-chapel/is-ludchurch-sir-gawains-green-chapel

Touching on armour detail

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The Knights Circle – details of contemporary armour found on a Cheshire captain during the latter half of the 14th century.
The tomb of the giant 7ft Cheshire knight, Hugo de Calveley, showing the unusually elaborate circle he wears on his high helmet, similar to that described in the Gawain poem (photo N C Brindley). Below is a description of the circle surrounding the upper part of Gawain’s helmet,
Þe cercle watz more o prys
Þat vmbeclypped hys croun,
Of diamauntez a deuys
Þat boþe were bryȝt and broun.
The circle was of greater value that surrounded his crown, of fine diamonds that were both bright and broun (shining).
Sir Hugh Calveley’s circle is made of five petalled flowers (rose) with a stud in the middle and on each petal, these may have been precious stones. The colours once used but now faded were: Basnet, grey; studs of band, white; rectangles and lozenges, alternately red, green and blue (perhaps representing precious and semi-precious stones); remainder of the band, gilt.
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3 thoughts on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Yuletide Tale – A study of Hautdesert, Wilderness and Purlieus

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your comment, I hope the following helps,
      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has 101 stanzas and a total of 2,530 lines. Dividing 2,530 by 101 gives 25 as the average length of the stanzas in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a remainder of 5. Fives and 25s thus emerge as the fundamental dimensions of the poem’s form. A parallel with Pearl strengthens the conviction that the 5s and 25s in the structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are no accident. Pearl too has 101 stanzas, and its 1212 lines apportion themselves exactly 12 per stanza. In Pearl, of course, it is this number 12 that emerges as explicitly symbolic….. from: Gawain’s Number by Allan Metcalf

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