Gawain and the Printing Press

Gawain and the Green Knight, Medieval Romance, and the World of Adventures and Wonders.

Since the siege and the assault was ceased at Troy . . .

More marvels have happened in this merry land

Than in any other I know, since that olden time,

But of those that here built, of British kings,

King Arthur was counted the most courteous of all,

Wherefore an adventure I aim to unfold,

That a marvel of might some men might think it,

And one unmatched among Arthur’s wonders.

l. 1 and ll. 23-28


But Arthur would not eat till all were served;

So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish;

His life he liked lively—the less he cared

To be lying for long, or long to sit,

So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.

And also a point of pride pricked him in heart,

For nobly he had willed, he would never eat

On so high a holiday, till he had heard first

Of some fair feat or fray some far-borne tale,

Of some marvel of might, that he might trust,

By champions of chivalry achieved in arms,

Or some suppliant came seeking some single knight

To join with him in jousting, in jeopardy each

To lay life for life, and leave it to fortune

To afford him on field fair hap or other.

l. 85ff


Response to the challenge and beheading and departure of the green knight:

The king and Gawain gay

Make game of the Green Knight there,

Yet all who saw it say

‘Twas a wonder beyond compare.


Gawain riding out on his quest: he

Comes over at Holy Head, and enters next

The Wilderness of Wirral—few were within

That had great good will toward God or man.

And earnestly he asked of each mortal he met

If he had heard aught of a knight all green,

Or of a Green Chapel, on ground thereabouts,

And all said the same, and solemnly swore

They had seen no such knight all solely green in hue.

Over country wild and strange

The knight sets off anew;

Often his course must change

Ere the Chapel comes in view.

Many a cliff must he climb in country wild;

Far off from all his friends, forlorn must he ride;

At each strand or stream where the stalwart one passed

‘Twere a marvel if he met not some monstrous foe,

And that so fierce and forbidding that fight he must.

So many were the wonders he wandered among

That to tell but the tenth part would tax my wits.

Now with serpents he wars, now with savage wolves,

Now with wild men of the woods, that watched from the rocks,

Both with bulls and with bears, and with boars besides,

And giants that came gibbering from the jagged steeps.

l. 700ff


Medieval Scribal Maps vs. Renaissance Printed, Compass-Plotted Maps


Charta Cosmographica, 1544,

(Go to for a brief historical survey of maps)

Elizabeth Eisenstein, op. cit., p. 227

Whether or not the medieval mentality was peculiarly childlike or credulous is in my view an unedifying question. I would prefer instead to stress the common acceptance on the part of otherwise hard-headed, intelligent and literate adults  . . . of what has been described elsewhere as fantastic history and imaginary geography. An inability to discriminate between Paradise and Atlantis on the one hand, Cathay and Jerusalem on the other, between unicorns and rhinoceroses, the fabulous and the factual, does seem to separate earlier mentalities from our own in a way that requires explanation. . . . When considering how veils were lifted, the publication programs of map makers should not be ignored.

Thus, the two different “programs”:

Scribal Maps:

Lloyd Brown quoted in Eisenstein, p. 479:

More than 600 maps and sketches made between 300 and 1300 have survived the ravages of time . . . regardless of size and the quality of workmanship, it is impossible to trace in them a developmental process, a progression of thought . . . . It is also impossible to grade them in terms of accuracy and utility.

In the scribal era moreover (p. 482):

The best maps, indeed, were often carefully hidden from view”—both due to the secretiveness of early scribal libraries (which, if they catalogued their libraries at all, did so in secret fashion) and due to the fact that every time a precious manuscript (especially one so delicately rendered as a map) was used, it deteriorated.

Only when multiple copies of a map were made by print would its data be preserved and disseminated. Even more, the early capitalists who ran print shops sold maps to eager buyers, and this competition put enormous pressure on them to continually improve their maps by making them more accurate. Thus one found printers like “Blaeu and his rivals jostling each other at the docks of Amsterdam while waiting for the return of an expedition, and plotting to secure the ship’s log or its pilot or captain in order to place new data on their maps and globes. We are thus provided with a glimpse how the process of ‘feedback’ [a process only possible once print had stabilized, standardized, and disseminated information publicly] . . . had begun to accelerate in the early seventeenth century.” (p. 481

A last quote here from Eisenstein, p. 481:

Even then it took many centuries and cost many lives to achieve the absolute confidence a modern atlas provides. The story of the prolonged impossible quest for a northwest passage indicates how difficult it was to achieve a final closure of geographic space and how important was the role played by communications in the process.

The printing press, in short, put the space fully on the map, crystallized it, stabilized it, standardized it, and made it widely public.


If the printing press was a major means to change people’s perceptions of space, it also changed their perceptions of time and their ways of thought.

1. If space was stabilized, standardized, and made publicly known, so was time. Key to that process was the fact that print stabilized memory—fixed peoples’ records of the past. Exact determination of what came when “must have been impossible before printing. Given drifting [scribal] texts, localized chronologies, multiform maps, there could be no systematic forward movement, no accumulation of stepping stones enabling a new generation to begin where a previous one left off” (Eisenstein, 124, my emphasis).

Indeed, medieval scrolls were jumbled together in libraries, often uncatalogued; individual scrolls often held several different texts (ones often wildly different in type and period from each other); tables of contents did not exist, and even paragraphing and punctuation were only slowly developed. Only by the end of the middle ages did scholars have the “idea of systematically reconstructing a past civilization” as well as “adequate equipment for such an undertaking . . . . It took at least a century of printing before the multiform maps and tangled chronologies inherited from scribal records were sorted out, data reworked, and more uniform system for arranging materials were developed. Before then, there was no fixed spatio-temporal reference frame which men of learning shared.” (187)

The medieval temporal context was “an amorphous spatio-temporal context that was . . . fundamentally different from the modern one. Within this context some portions of the past might appear to be very close at hand, even while others might be placed at a great distance.” (187)

In fact, one could argue that the printing press was a major factor in crystallizing a dramatically new sense of space and of time for the modern world. Space and time were both stabilized, standardized, and made into grids that provided the essential (and rational framework) for art, thought, and the development of science. Geography as we know it began; history as we know it also began. Early scientists, indeed, conceived of themselves as trying to “read” “book of nature” which Galileo described as “the grand book of the universe which stands continually open to our gaze . . . written in the language of mathematics.”  (Eisenstein, 458).


Further world-altering effects of print:

1. The development of silent reading and internalization of what was silently read. Coupled with the reformation and the rise of Protestantism, this changed psyches.

2. The creation of national cultures and nationalism as communities in which the vernacular language (which varied greatly from region to region, locality to locality) was stabilized by print into a national tongue and print provided people a common body of material to read (separately, silently) together, thus creating a common culture by changing local identities and cultures into national ones. This changed societies.


Space and time in a medieval visual text:

From the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours:

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