Medieval Women Readers: Eve of Wilton and the Pearl-Maiden.


Cotton Nero A.x. Project:

Pearl. Cotton Nero A.X f38r (c1400). Cotton Nero A.x. Project:

The Middle-English alliterative dream poem, Pearl, that appears uniquely in British Library MS Cotton Nero A.X, is illustrated with four miniatures. In the first, the narrator falls asleep. The second shows him in his dream, walking through a garden. In the third, still dreaming, he encounters a figure, the Pearl-Maiden, who is on the other side of the river (this is the image at the top of this post). And in the fourth and final miniature, the Pearl-Maiden shows him the Heavenly Jerusalem. Maidie Hilmo, in a draft article forthcoming online at the Cotton Nero A.x. project, has argued that the drawing (although not the much cruder colouring) of these miniatures and the pictures that accompany the other poems in the manuscript demonstrate an ‘intelligent strategy’ of illustration by someone with a deep understanding of the literary works. That person, the ‘designing artist’, to use Hilmo’s term, may have been the scribe of this manuscript. Although there is no scholarly consensus about the identity of the author of Pearl, he is generally assumed to have been a man. Some scholars have argued that Pearl is an autobiographical poem, and identify the narrator-dreamer with the author and the Pearl-maiden as his deceased child.

Whether or not we see the poem as closely connected to a particular set of historical circumstances (the death of the author’s child is only the most popular such reading), there can be little doubt that the Pearl­­-maiden is central to the poem. She appears as the narrator-dreamer’s guide, and she speaks at considerable length, offering him consolation and instruction. She is also the subject of the poem: it is about her, and about what she comes to represent allegorically. In a sense the Pearl­­-maiden assumes the role of implied reader, responsible for mediating between the text and the actual readership, and leading that readership towards specific interpretations and meanings. The third miniature illustrating Pearl in Cotton Nero A.X might be seen as a metaphorical representation of the encounter between text and (implied) reader, where the pointing figure of the dreamer-narrator serves as a manicule, directing us to the maiden herself (see A Handy Guide to Manicules). In this miniature, the narrator-dreamer’s finger is pointing out to us that the key to understanding the poem is the Pearl­-maiden herself.

I began thinking about the Pearl-maiden’s role as implied reader when I was researching my article ‘Small Consolation’ in which I compare Pearl to the earlier Liber confortatorius. The Liber is an extended letter was written in the 11th century by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin for his former protégée, Eve of Wilton, after she left England to become a recluse in Angers. In the Liber, Eve is the inscribed reader: the book is written for her, and is represented as the continuation of an exchange of correspondence between author and recipient that predated Eve’s departure. It is also the continuation of their previous practices of shared reading  and book exchange, which Goscelin nostalgically recalls. Whether Eve ever actually read or even received Goscelin’s Liber we simply don’t know, but Goscelin certainly addresses her throughout the work, which is both intimate and revealing. Eve’s role as implied reader is less clear—she does not speak in the text, and therefore does not directly guide our interpretation of it. Like the Pearl-maiden, however, she is also the subject: the Liber is, quite literally, all about Eve.

What interests me, in thinking about these women as readers (and I think of the Pearl-maiden as a woman rather than a child, because that is how she appears in the poem, and in the illustrations) is how this connects to my current projects which are concerned with exploring medieval women’s literary culture more broadly. My article ‘Small Consolation’ appears in a Special Issue of The Chaucer Review [51.1 (2016)] on Women’s Literary Culture and Late Medieval Writing which I co-edited with Liz Herbert McAvoy. In the Middle Ages, women’s engagement with literary culture was complex. While some women could and did write original works, literacy was more limited for women than men, and those who could themselves write, or read, were often either aristocrats and/or nuns. Nevertheless, some women from the middle as well as upper classes had access to scribes and to readers, and many were part of wider networks of book ownership and exchange. The Special Issue introduces us to a range of women readers and writers of medieval works from nuns reading Chaucer to laywomen reading devotional literature, and from fictional readers such as Criseyde to historical readers and writers such as Virginia Woolf.

I was initially drawn to comparing Pearl to the Liber confortatorius by the similarities in the endings and their common use of imagery from the Apocalypse or Book of Revelation. The narrator-dreamer’s vision of the Pearl-maiden in the New Jerusalem depicted in the final manuscript illustration to Pearl in Cotton Nero A.X (below) mirrors Goscelin’s depiction of a posthumous Eve in a heavenly Wilton Abbey, where she joins her predecessor, St Edith of Wilton, and a host of other exalted women, including the Virgin Mary.


Pearl. Cotton Nero A.X f38v (c1400). Cotton Nero A.x. Project:

One remarkable similarity between the texts is that both male narrators find themselves excluded from their visions of heavenly bliss. At the end of Pearl, the narrator-dreamer finds himself unable to cross the river that divides him from the maiden and the New Jerusalem (despite the fact that in the miniature the maiden can be seen to reach out her hand to him across the water). At the end of the Liber confortatorius, Goscelin fails to imagine himself sharing Eve’s eternal Wilton. The import of these endings is similar. In both works, the female subject and implied or intended reader assumes an elevated spiritual status. Her understanding, in this exalted state, far outstrips that of the male narrator. The narrator has to acknowledge his own limited comprehension, leaving his book to his implied, inscribed (and actual) reader to make sense of as she will.