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The Gawain-poet and Toulouse.

Lines 76-80 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describe the canopy hanging above Queen Guinevere at table. It had fine silk curtains at each side, and its top was of quality 'Toulouse' and Tharsian silk tapestry, embroidered and set with jewels, the best money could buy:

Smal sendal bisides, a selure hir ouer Of tryed tolouse, of tars tapites innoghe, that were enbrawded and beten wyth the best gemmes that myght be preued of prys wyth penyes to bye, in daye.(1)

Tolouse here is a crux. Tolkien and Gordon follow OED in taking it as a unique spelling of ttdy 'an attribute of silk, tapestry, etc., of a rich red colour'. They believe tuly is probably from a place-name, but are uncertain if it is that of Toulouse, France. However, Andrew and Waldron confidently describe rolouse and tuly alike as meaning a rich, red fabric from Toulouse.(2)

Toulouse also figures at Cleanness 1108, on Christ's supposed miracle at Emmaus, when his hands broke the bread more perfectly than any blade could have divided it: thenne alle the toles of Tolowse moght tyght hit to kerue 'than all the tools of Toulouse might endearour to cut it'.(3) Here Anderson, Andrew, and Waldron follow Gollancz in seeing confusion with Toledo in Spain, on the grounds that Toulouse was (allegedly) not known for knife-making, whereas Toledo was.(4)

But Gollancz's reading 'Toledo' does not withstand scrutiny. He was unaware Toulouse really was a centre for knife production in the late fourteenth century, when the Gawain-poet was active. Toulouse was also famous for the sale of luxury fabrics. So there is good reason to take both these references to Toulouse at face value. Does investigation of these points cast light on the world of the Gawain-poet?

Toulouse's commercial life in the later middle ages is the subject of a classic study by Philippe Wolff. In this period the city depended for its prosperity on the international fabrics trade, in which it had close links with England. Toulouse imported cloth from southern and eastern England in exchange for exports of the woad cultivated locally. Wolff notes that English imports do not figure in documents of the Bonis brothers, cloth merchants active in the Toulouse region between 1347 and 1368. But in 1379, when our documentation becomes abundant, imports of English textiles are significant, and their importance grew year by year.(5) The sudden growth of trade links between England and Toulouse in the last decades of the fourteenth century thus coincides with a dating of towards the end of this century given on other grounds to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.(6)

Wolff observes that, although some trade between England and Toulouse went via Bordeaux, the more important route was a new one via Bayonne (in this period under English control), Pau, and Tarbes. Middlemen from Bearn (the district around Pau) played a vital part in the trade; and Wolff describes Bearnais merchants on the quays of Bayonne, buying bales of English cloth newly shipped from Bristol, Southampton, or London. In return the ships would take back casks of Toulouse woad, a dye vital until the growth of the indigo trade after 1498, when the Portuguese reached India.(7) Woad from Toulouse, or else from the other main centres of production in Picardy or Thuringia, was one of many commodities traded in by Gilbert Maghfeld, Chaucer's creditor.(8)

The existence of the cloth trade explains why the Gawain-poet might associate Toulouse with fabrics. But the material over Guinevere's head would not be of English origin. It is to be linked rather with Toulouse's role as entrepot for luxury fabrics brought from Geneva (via Lyon), Montpellier, Italy, and elsewhere. Available for export to England via Bordeaux or Bayonne, they would explain the name tolouse. A rare document of 1442 reveals what such goods might be. It lists the stock of the silk merchant Jean Lapeyre, who died that year, and whose executors prepared this inventory (with the aid of Jean's fellow-merchants Blaise Yssart and Guilhem del Cros) for his son Pierre. Amongst the etoffes de luxe which it mentions are crimson velvet from Geneva; blue-green silk velvet; red, black, and violet velvet; smooth satins in black, crimson, and red; damask, in various colours; and gold brocades on a red, violet, green, black, or white background, together with white brocades worked in green or red. Some of these last were from Florence. At the same price was baldachin, a brocade with woof of silk and warp of gold thread. There were also Montpellier silks in blue, black, red, green, and white; Florence taffetas; and many other fine materials, including tapestries from Reims with figures represented on them. Lapeyre's stock, a bric-a-brac of items from Flanders, Paris, Germany, Italy, Languedoc, Catalonia (Barcelona mirrors, with crowned lions on top), Aragon, Champagne, Burgundy, and the Massif central, had a contemporary value of 4,710 livres tournois. Wolff's comment on Lapeyre's goods 'il ne s'agit pas d'articles d'une extreme valeur; c'est un semi-luxe a la mesure de la clientele toulousaine' indicates the even more sumptuous items to be bought at Toulouse.(9) We thus need not doubt that the Gawain-poet's tryed tolouse refers to fabrics from Toulouse. It also seems reasonable to explain tuly 'an attribute of silk, tapestry, etc., of a rich red colour' as of the same origin, given the prominence in Lapeyre's shop of red and crimson velvets, satins, silks, and so on. He was merely one of the many dealers who made Toulouse an internationally famous mart of luxury fabrics, thereby apparently producing the Middle English adjective tuly.

As for the toles of Tolowse in Cleanness, Wolff comments that the metal industry in Toulouse was far from negligible. Ores were mined in the nearby Pyrenees (OED's entry for Catalan forge reminds us of this ancient industry), and we know the names of nearly 200 Toulouse smiths of the late fourteenth century (there must have been many more). They obtained iron ore from the region of Foix, some fifty miles south. They also imported tin from Cornwall, either via Bordeaux and La Reole on the Garonne, or via Bayonne, carrying on a tradition mentioned by the thirteenth-century Arab geographer Albufeda. Wolff comments that Toulousains sold much of their iron and steel products in Gascony, and that knife- and razor-making were amongst their specialities. We are especially well informed on the razor-makers, who needed quality steel, but could not always get it. Protests from buyers of inferior razors brought about statutes to control the trade, together with detailed regulations (recorded in a document of 1373) for the making of steel.(10) Toulouse's reputation thereafter for quality steel suggests that the toles of Tolowse in Cleanness may have been extra-sharp razors, rather than knives. In any case, the historical evidence rules out any need for Gollancz's emendation to 'Toledo' at Cleanness 1108.

If the above interpretations are accepted, they solve a textual problem, shed light on English commercial links with France, and provide some evidence for dating the Gawain -poet to the last quarter of the fourteenth century, rather than the third quarter. More importantly, they may help identify the Gawain-poet. He possessed a knowledge remarkably accurate for a poet in Staffordshire or Cheshire of what was being vended at Toulouse in the 1380s and 1390s. Yet such knowledge would be less surprising if he had actually lived in south-west France with the English community at Bordeaux or Bayonne, where (as Wolff makes clear) tryed tolouse and toles of Tolowse were items of trade. In a paper which I hope to publish shortly, I shall attempt to show that this and other evidence allow reasonable grounds for establishing the exact identity of the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience.

ANDREW BREEZE University of Navarre, Pamplona

1 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1967), 3.

2 The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, ed. M. R. Andrew and R. A. Waldron (London, 1978), 352.

3 Cleanness, ed. J. J. Anderson (Manchester, 1977), 41, 91.

4 Anderson, 91: Andrew and Waldron, 157.

5 Philippe Wolff, Commerces et marchands de Toulouse (vers 1350-vers 1450) (Paris, 1954), 120.

6 Tolkien and Gordon, xxv.

7 Wolff, 124-5, 681.

8 D. W. Robertson, Chaucer's' London (New York, 1968), 57.

9 Wolff, 232-4.

10 Wolff, 287-9.
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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