The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet: Beyond Phi

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"The first study to go beyond simple number symbolism and systematically embrace not only thematic elements but the construction of the entire manuscript in a fashion that credibly explains a number of puzzling elements ranging from the serial arrangement of the poems to the placement of decorated initials in the manuscript. . . . probably the most interesting, challenging , and provocative study of the Pearl poems written in the last two ...

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Overview

"The first study to go beyond simple number symbolism and systematically embrace not only thematic elements but the construction of the entire manuscript in a fashion that credibly explains a number of puzzling elements ranging from the serial arrangement of the poems to the placement of decorated initials in the manuscript. . . . probably the most interesting, challenging , and provocative study of the Pearl poems written in the last two decades."--Julian Wasserman, Loyola University of New Orleans
 
Edward Condren examines the manuscript of the Gawain-Pearl Poet in the light of a compositional method well recognized from the literature of ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance but largely overlooked by modern criticism. Arguing that the manuscript is a single integrated artifact and not merely a collection, he shows that it is held together, as is the universe, by mathematical equations called the Divine Proportion in the Middle Ages and phi by modern mathematicians. More than a critical study of four poems in a manuscript, Condren's detailed discussion of numeric theory reveals the medieval way of understanding the created universe in neo-Pythagorean and Platonic terms, and it underscores the importance of the quadrivium in the medieval view of an ordered universe.

Drawing on medieval theories of proportion and harmony, Condren shows that the manuscript is more intricately designed and presented than anyone has yet recognized and that the poet who created this work was better educated and more self-consciously brilliant than most have imagined. He argues that the order in which the poems appear--with the two poems set in the Middle Ages placed at the beginning and end of the manuscript and the two set in the Judaic era located at the manuscript's center--allows the literal narratives to exfoliate historically from the Old Testament world, through the era of the New Testament, and implicitly to the salvation that lies beyond. Working poem by poem, Condren details the mathematical forms governing the structure of the manuscript and guiding its progress, from the calculated use of decorated initials to sophisticated mathematics involving squares, primes, different counting systems, and geometrical schemes of the pentangle and ultimately the cross. Condren shows how the anonymous poet takes literally the scriptural statement that all things are disposed according to number, weight, and measure as a means to bridge the worlds of flesh and spirit. By fashioning a mathematically harmonious manuscript, suffusing it with the progressive development of theological belief, and placing its characters in the dilemmas of earthly living, Condren argues, the poet replicates the harmony of the universe and the difficulty human beings have in attempting to embrace it.

Edward I. Condren is professor of English at UCLA.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813025544
  • Publisher: University Press of Florida
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Edition description: First
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 Introduction 1
2 Cotton Nero A.x: A Numerical Construct 14
3 Pearl 49
4 Purity (Clannesse) 74
5 Patience 99
6 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 117
Afterword 147
App. 1 Geometric and Algebraic Construction of the Divine Proportion 149
App. 2 Construction of Three Phi-related Rectangles within a Dodecahedron 153
App. 3 The Poet's Successive Expansion of His Fundamental Design 157
Glossary of Mathematical Terms for the Nonmathematician 159
Notes 165
Works Cited 187
Index 199
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