Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The properties of the diamond

Gawain's worst mistake in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - possibly his only mistake - is one of "cowarddyse". He accepts the beautiful green and gold girdle which the Lady offers, believing her promise that it will save his life in the upcoming encounter. One of the reasons this is usually read as a serious fall from perfection is that Gawain is symbolically placing his faith in the girdle instead of his pentangle emblem, which embodies all his interdependent knightly ideals. Turning his reliance from the pentangle to the girdle, from the protection of Mary to Bertilak's unnamed wife, Gawain unwittingly fails in the Eden-like perfection in which he rode out, innocent and strong and earnest, from Camelot.

Or does he?

Fewer critics have noticed that in the first arming scene, at Camelot, Gawain also carries superstitious charms against harm: his helmet is studded with "diamauntes a devys / That bothe were bryght and broun" (617-18). Early 20th century editions of the poem - Gollancz's and, I believe, Tolkien and Gordon's, though I don't have it by to confirm - gloss "broun" as "bright", but brown diamonds do exist and (to judge by the lapidaries) were well known at this time. It's a minor point in my thesis - just one footnote - but it still needs a proper citation, so I hunted down the EETS English Mediaeval Lapidaries (Evans and Serjeantson, 1933) in the library and photocopied the entries on diamond[1]. It afforded a pleasant afternoon's entertainment coming home on the train.

Most of the lapidaries (which either all have a common source or are blithely copying each other, hardly unusual in mediaeval texts) state that "that diamand that cometh owte of ynd [India] ben clepid [called] the mal, & they ben brewen [brown] of colour & of violet, & tho that comen owte of araby [Arabia] ben clepid femal, & they ben more whight, resonable to the colour of cristall". All the lapidaries which mention colour agree on that, with the possible exception of the North Midland Lapidary, which says that the Arabian diamonds are "mor blew" rather than white - though they could mean the same thing.

As to the properties of the diamond, it seems a paragon among stones. To follow the North Midland's spelling and phrasing, a diamond gives its bearer "strength & vertu; & he sal kep a man fro dremynge & of fantasy & of venom" - to which other lapidaries add, significantly for Gawain, temptation. It will keep his "lymes & ye bones hole", protect from falling off horses (good to know!), safeguard a man in battle, ward off "wreth & lychery", and increase a man's prosperity. Interestingly, though a diamond increases virtue and encourages chastity, most of the lapidaries emphasise that "hym behoues for to be of holy lyfe yt so vertus a ston wyll ber" ["he that would bear so virtuous a stone ought to lead a holy life"]. It's also implicitly equated with purity in other ways, such as the insistence that it is only fit to be set in "golde", and that it should be born in "clennesse" - usually synonymous with purity[2]. It seems the correlation between the virtue and possession or keeping of the stone is not quite clear - which causes the other? The same may be said for wealth - I doubt many poor men would be wearing a diamond to begin with!

So Gawain is wearing some rather potent charms in his helmet right from the start of the poem, though he doesn't seem to think this is inconsistent with his ideals. Are they any use to him? Well, technically he "kepeth the boones & the membres whoole"[3], and it may give him "strencthe & vertue" - he doesn't seem to be lacking in those - but how far the power of the diamonds "kepith hym fro grevouse metynge & temptacions" is certainly up for debate!

Other fun facts about diamonds (and other stones on the same pages that I photocopied):
- Diamonds ward off "the drede that commeth be nyght". Perhaps a diamond collar for your child's teddy bear, if they're prone to nightmares?
- The allectory or electoyr is a kind of precious stone that grows in the "wombe" (stomach, one hopes!) of a "capon" (castrated cockerel being fed up for the table) when he is between three and seven years old. Putting it in your mouth cures thirst, or makes a woman beloved of her lord. I don't know if I'm game to experiment with that one.
- Though a true diamond will not break if laid on an anvil and his with a "gret hamer of yrne", it will if you first wash it "in hot new blod of a gote boke [buck]". What a good thing Gawain doesn't encounter any of those!
- "Corneal is a derke stone" which "fordoth ire... and staunchith blode of all membres, & specially of a woman that hath the priue maladye". Now there's one I ought to try. "I'm sorry, I can't come to work today. I have the privy malady - and the cornelian I bought on ebay hasn't arrived yet!"

[1] aka diamaund(e), dyamaunde, adamant, adamantis, diamonde, diamand or athemaunde - don't you love non-standardised spelling systems? Apparently the one way to tell a true diamond is to lay it on an "Andefeld" of iron and try to smash it - presumably an anvil!
[2] Incidentally, the second poem of the four in the Gawain manuscript (probably by the same poet, in my opinion) is on the subject of "clannesse". None of the poems in the manuscript are titled, and editors are divided on whether to call this one Cleanness or Purity. Personally I prefer Purity, for the alliteration with Pearl and Patience!
[3] London Lapidary this time - comparing it with the equivalent quote in the last paragraph gives you an idea of just how close the textual relationship was between all these lapidaries.

All Gawain quotes are taken from J. J. Anderson's 1996 Everyman edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited together with the other three poems from the single manuscript in which the poem survives, Cotton Nero A.x - Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience.

1 comment:

Dywalgi said...

The testing the diamond with an anvil got me thinking metaphorically about Gawain -- if the only (?) way to tell the true properties of a diamond is to test it by striking at its most notorious property -- in this case, its hardness -- then perhaps the same might be true of the test Gawain's most notorious property (his hardness? Er. Virtue. We'll go with virtue) in the context of the poem.

Hmm. I lack the research at the moment to back the next up, and while it's based more on understanding and guesses about human nature and patterns, might also be relevant and looking into. I can't imagine that there _weren't_ scoundrels at the time of the poem going about trading false diamonds -- trying to pass off cheap goods for better is, after all, one of the founding principles of a society that has developed any sort of economy. Extending the metaphor a little further suggests (and is, I think, backed by the text? don't remember, and I don't have a copy at work) that this evaluation of Gawain's virtue and worth as a knight is really a test of Arthur, and the quality of moral currency his court trades in. Gawain is, after all, the highest valued, most sparkling gem of Arthur's knights -- diamond like in reputation and presumed purity, if we believe the poet at the beginning of SGGK. That he proves faulty, combined with the frivolity we see reflected in the poet's description of the court, whenever we're there, suggests that perhaps the moral fortitude and richness of the chivalric ideals Gawain represents is as fleeting and illusory as Hautdesert itself.