Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Uncovering the Origins
It is very common for ancient and medieval works to be passed down to modern readers without the identity of the original writer. Though the romance known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is anonymous, there are many clues that can help us understand who the writer might have been and where he might have lived.
When trying to learn about the circumstances in which a piece of medieval writing was produced, scholars first look to the manuscripts in which the text is preserved. We can learn a lot just from the way it was written and manufactured.
In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is preserved in only one manuscript-that is, the only reason that we know about this story at all is because somehow a single copy of the story survived from the Middle Ages all the way into the modern period. The fact that there is only one manuscript suggests that this story was probably not the equivalent of a medieval bestseller (compare with Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales survives in almost 90 full and partial manuscripts, and therefore qualifies as a major medieval English hit).
The single Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manuscript is a small book without many decorations (it has a few drawings that aren't very good), and it contains three other short poems written in the same verse form which are probably by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but which are about religious themes. By nature, books were very expensive to make-all the pages come from the thinly scraped hides of cows or sheep. But because the manuscript seems to have been made quite modestly, scholars assume that the book was made for someone of moderate means-a parish priest, or perhaps a courtier. The person who owned the manuscript was probably not the same person as the one who wrote the poems; scholars assume (though quite dangerously) that the owner of the manuscript may have been of similar status as the writer-someone who was not rich or powerful, writing a few stories for the amusement of other people who were probably neither rich nor powerful.
One final piece of evidence that we have from the manuscript is its dialect. From this we are able to deduce two more conclusions about the writer of the poem. First, we know the date when the poem was probably written. Middle English, the medieval ancestor of modern English, was a rapidly changing language...