Sir Israel Gollancz and the Editorial History of the Pearl Manuscript

By Reichardt, Paul F. | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Sir Israel Gollancz and the Editorial History of the Pearl Manuscript


Reichardt, Paul F., Papers on Language & Literature


This paper will survey the relationship between one of the most important codices of Middle English poetry, the Pearl Manuscript (BL MS Cotton Nero A.x., Art. 3), and one of this manuscript's most eminent editors and scholars, Sir Israel Gollancz. The aim of this survey is to describe the evolution of Gollancz's views on the codex containing Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Gawain and the Green Knight and to explore the ways that his views have shaped modern critical perspectives on the Pearl texts and their unique surviving manuscript.

The Dictionary of National Biography reports that Gollancz was educated at the City of London School, at University College, London, and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he completed a degree in medieval and modern languages in 1887. The broad outlines of his subsequent career are easily summarized. After obtaining his degree from Cambridge, Gollancz lectured there until being named Quain English student and lecturer at University College, London, in 1892. In 1896, he was appointed as the first lecturer in English at Cambridge and then, in 1905, assumed the post of chair of English language and literature at King's College, London University; this post he held until his death in 1930. A doctorate in letters was conferred upon him by Cambridge in 1906 and he was knighted for his scholarly achievements in 1919. He served as an honorary director of the Early English Text Society, as president of the Philological Society, and was a founder of the British Academy.

Interestingly, the year of Gollancz's birth (1864) was also the date of publication for the second modern edition of the text of Gawain and for the first modern texts of the other three Pearl poems (in a volume titled Early English Alliterative Poems). The editor of these editions, Richard Morris, was the first scholar to publish texts of all four Pearl poems, though his Gawain was preceded by Sir Frederic Madden's Syr Gawayne: A Collection of Ancient Romance Poems ... (1839). The coincidence of history which links Gollancz's birth year with the publication of Morris's editions seems a portent of the nearly forty years which Gollancz was to spend in studying, editing, and reproducing the texts of MS Cotton Nero A.x., Art. 3.

Gollancz's long association with the manuscript begins with the publication of Pearl: An English Poem of the XIVth Century in 1891. The tone of this edition reflects the belletristic mood of its age and perhaps its author's own callowness. Gollancz's Preface states his purpose as "gaining [for Pearl] readers outside the limited circle of specialists" in medieval literature, and the editor adds the hope that the poem will "find kindly welcome in many an English home [emphasis mine]" (xiii). The interest in developing a wider public audience for Pearl and its sister poems is a motifwoven through Gollancz's editorial work with their manuscript. Some thirty years after his first edition of Pearl, Gollancz published a new edition of the same text, including with it the Latin text and an English translation of Boccaccio's poem Olympia. The Prefatory Note to this revised text states:

I am proud to know that my early enthusiasm for the poem, still maintained, has been effective in stimulating so much interest in `Pearl' far beyond the limited circle of students of Middle English, and has gained for it, through its intrinsic worth, a foremost place among the choicest treasures of medieval literature. (ix-x)

A feature of the 1891 text of Pearl worthy of note is Gollancz's notion of his scholarly progenitors. He mentions "Dr. Morris" in the Preface, praising him as one "whom all scholars justly regard as the father of the scientific study of English" and stating that Morris "would be the first to recognize that a new edition [of Pearl] has been sorely needed for some time now ..." (xii). The figure of Morris, who had passed from the scene by 1891 and was therefore unavailable to affirm or deny Gollancz's claim to his blessing, is actually a secondary presence in the Preface. …

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