The Anonymous Canon

The first in a series devoted to 'the Canon' looks at the special works created by unknown – and, sometimes, unmasked – creators.

Sir Gawain beheading the Green Knight.
Sir Gawain beheading the Green Knight. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Sitting at his writing desk in a secluded corner of the English Midlands, a fourteenth-century poet penned some of the greatest literature about honour, grief, lust, piety, and sex known to man. The Gawain-poet (so called for the name of his most famous work, the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) wrote in mesmerising alliterative verse, with rhymes that weave and repeat themselves across stanzas.

His subjects – from the death of a beloved daughter in Pearl, to a beheading game which raises questions of love and loyalty – blow apart any understanding of medieval writing as being limited to dull religious piety. His contribution to literature is immeasurable, but there’s one problem when recognising it: the Gawain-poet, as his ‘notname’ would suggest, is anonymous. More than six centuries after his life and death, we know little more about him than what he told us: he was educated, wrote with a Midlands dialect, and, at some point, suffered the loss of a child. Anything else – whether he was a member of a university, or just well read; whether he was acquainted with court-life, or a member of the landed gentry – is nothing more than academic guesswork; the preserve of the professors and writers who have dedicated their words to his elusive life.

But the Gawain-poet is far from being alone as a mysterious, unknowable part of the cultural firmament. If the ‘Canon’ is often criticised for placing the identities of certain writers on a pedestal, there’s a far murkier, anonymous alternative.

Some three centuries before the Gawain-poet put pen to paper, the Old English poem Beowulf  was copied down onto a parchment manuscript that now sits, with its edges charred from an eighteenth century fire, safe in the stacks of the British Library.

Even less is known about the author (or authors) of Beowulf than the Gawain-poet. Written in a late Saxon dialect of Old English – with two sets of handwriting, one of which suggests it could have been copied as early as  the year 1000 – the poem describes a pagan Scandinavian legend of a marauding monster, Grendel, and the man, Beowulf, who attempts to defeat him. The legend has been oddly Christianised to render the poem suspended between heaven, hell, and a code of warriors’ honour; as the earliest epic written in English, Beowulf revels in complexity and nuance which may seem surprising to readers expecting a ball-busting tale of irreproachable warriors versus a monster. By the end of the poem – after witnessing Beowulf’s rampages and the horror of Grendel’s mother when her son dies – it is hard to say who, really, is the ‘monster’.

Beowulf’s language is full of highly formulaic descriptions – the Danes are always ‘brave danes’; Grendel, the monster, is always a ‘sceadu-genga’, a shadow-walker – akin to Homer’s repeated references to the ‘wine-dark sea’. Was the Beowulf poet an author in the oral tradition, as these formulations would suggest? In recent years, scholars have refuted this theory, but, still, the identity of author of Beowulf – the most well-known text in Old English – is all but impossible to know.

It is no surprise that both these anonymous texts are from a far earlier period of literary history; a period when anonymity was not a veil to hide behind – like the authors of the modern anonymous exposés The Secret Barrister or Diary of a London Call Girl — but, instead, a part and parcel of literary production that did not depend on publishing contracts, press coverage, and printed ink.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, one of the most popular and accessible forms of theatre was ‘Mystery Plays’: cycles of pageants which took the ‘mysteries’ of the Bible as their subject matter. On an annual feast day, the town was turned into a huge theatre set, with each play set up on a wagon that could be moved around the city. In town squares and roads, normal time collapsed completely, as the story of humanity – from Adam and Eve to Christ’s crucifixion – played out over one twenty-four hour period. And far from being mere instruments of didactic instruction, these religious plays were often hilariously funny: in one play from the York cycle, Jesus is raised on an unwieldy cross (or, as the audience would have seen: a man who was known to them hoisted up on a rickety wagon) as his fellow actors make jokes about how tricky it is to get the mechanics of crucifixion just right. These cycles of plays, which mix religious narrative with medieval humour, are, of course, all anonymous.

The spectre of the anonymous author may well have faded in later years. But, Virginia Woolf was rather mistaken when she claimed, in an unpublished essay written just six months before she died, that, while the ‘voice that broke the silence of the forest was the voice of Anon’, it was the ‘printing press’ that finally silenced it.

It is true that in an age of printed pamphlets and books anonymous texts were rarer, but print culture did not change overnight. For a long time, print publication was synonymous with an undesirable form of public display and carried an ineradicable ‘stigma’. Instead, texts were either circulated in manuscript – sometimes anonymously, if the text was scurrilous or liable to get its author into trouble; and sometimes with the author’s name in ink. In recent years – with our modern insistence upon identities and scholarly edited texts – this means of literary exchange has caused havoc with trying to attribute poems to the likes of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and John Donne.

Even when texts were printed, they very often did not bear the name of their maker. For a pair of surprising entries into the anonymous canon, there’s the darkly sensual court masque Comus (1634), and the sweeping pastoral elegy Lycidas (written 1637, published 1638). Comus appeared fully anonymously, while Lycidas appeared only under the initials ‘J. M’: their author was John Milton, who would forgo his anonymity in later years.

But can Milton really have a place in the anonymous canon, if he revealed his identity within his lifetime? Perhaps that honour should be saved for those texts whose authors remained shrouded in mystery for a little longer.

Ever since Woolf’s feminist essay A Room of One’s Own, the line ‘anonymous was a woman’ has become something of a rallying cry for archive moles and library rats. And with the wealth of motherless literary texts the throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, it is easy to see why.

For modern readers, it’s hard to imagine that Jane Austen was ever anything other than the heroine of her own life, but her identity as the author of Sense and Sensibility (written ‘by A Lady’) and all her subsequent books only became widely known after her death in 1817. Her brother Henry published Persuasion and Northanger Abbey with a biographical note which unmasked her. But Austen was far from alone: from Mary Astell’s groundbreaking feminist call for an education (A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, 1694), which was published under the name ‘A Lover of her Sex’, to Mary Shelley’s anonymity when publishing Frankenstein (1818) and the Brontë sisters’ choice of pseudonyms, the history of a female ‘Anon.’ runs deep throughout the canon.

But, of course, it isn’t just books that can appear without the identifying hand of their maker. One of the most important works of medieval religious art is the Wilton Diptych: a small, portable work that folds down the middle and is painted on both sides. Made for Richard II – who is depicted kneeling in front of Christ and the Virgin Mary, despite the sheer display of wealth and proliferation of his emblem of a deer hinting at anything other than religious submission – the diptych is anonymous. Critics and historians cannot even agree on where the artist came from, with almost every possible country laying a claim.

But should historians continue to try to puzzle out the artist’s identity? Isn’t there something undeniably captivating about not knowing who the artist was? It’s a Romantic argument; one that makes the artist an impossible genius in touch with some unknowable creative spirit; someone unreal who exists untethered to real concerns and criticisms. Is it this which makes the Fayum portraits on Ancient Egyptian mummified bodies so captivating? With their recognisable features and disconcertingly modern gazes, these portraits are bound up in a ‘double’ anonymity of both subject and artist. In recent years, Egyptologists have even argued that the portraits are not of individuals at all but, instead, an idealised, deified form of the dead.

Perhaps it is this loss of individuality that makes anonymous art and literature so special. Instead of focusing on the product of one ‘genius’, historians and critics have to think in terms of context, materiality, and networks of knowledge and creativity. There are downsides here, of course: many of the women who wrote as ‘Anon.’ never get the recognition they deserve. But, in exploring works that have no sole author, or were written for whole towns, or were transcribed by multiple scribes and bear the hallmarks of an oral tradition, a new, more collective literary history emerges.

Anon.’s anonymous canon:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl (fourteenth century)

Beowulf (c. eighth century)

The York Mystery Cycle (mid-fourteenth century)

Sense and Sensibility (1818)

Wilton Diptych (fourteenth century)