Medieval concepts of time and their influence on structure and meaning in the works of the {\it Gawain}-poet

Date of Completion

January 1988


Literature, Medieval




This study investigates medieval philosophical concepts of time and their influence on the poems of the fourteenth century Middle English writer, the Gawain-poet. It demonstrates that medieval ideas about the shape and meaning of history influenced the shape and meaning of the three continuous narrative poems of the Gawain-poet: Patience, Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The structures of all three narratives parallel the medieval understanding of the shape of history and, at the same time, attempt to reflect God's view of that history.^ Medieval theologians were deeply concerned with the problem of time. Against classical and pagan views which saw time as eternal and cyclical, they wished to establish a new Christian view influenced by the Bible. A study of the works of St. Augustine, Joachim of Fiore, Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Siger of Brabant shows that medieval theologians saw time as linear, finite, centrally focused, and patterned. It also shows that the circle was regarded as an image of the eternal, of perfection, and of God's perspective on history.^ The three narratives of the Gawain-poet which I consider are structurally similar and mirror the medieval view of the shape of history in which a central redemptive event is surrounded by parallel patterning. Moreover, like the image of eternal perfection, each narrative is circular; its end returns to its beginning.^ The reflection of the medieval view of history in the structures of the poems leads to new paths of interpretation. The linear patterns suggest that the center of the narrative holds an event crucial to the meaning of the poem and redemptive for the hero. The importance of these events has been overlooked by past critics. I argue further that the circular structure reflects God's perspective and teaches the reader to develop a merciful understanding of the heroes who, in the linear time of the narratives, are all too fallible. Finally, a consideration of time and structure has led to a full study of the thematic importance of time in each poem. ^