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Chivalrous Ideal and Courtly Love in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


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The Chivalrous Ideal and Courtly love in Medieval England

Dobrea Andrada-Cristina
Anul III

As contoured by the pages of time and history, each and every Era of our evolutionary process has offered the next one the privilege of witnessing a fascinating world, jewelled in magnificent ideals and a specific behaviour, beautiful even in its flaws. Among these, a haunting and mesmerizing Era captures the thought of literary critics – the Medieval Period. A period marked by powerful beliefs, conflict and self-knowledge, and inhabited by a spirit torn between Christianity and paganism, between virtue and sin, between light and utter darkness. An Era portraying a country trying to adapt to drastic changes brought on by the Norman Conquest of 1066, a country fighting to establish its own history in order to gain independence. A Period of knights and ladies, of valour and good faith, which gives life to some of the highest ideals mankind has ever known. It has introduced us to concepts such as chivalry and courtly love, pure expressions of spiritual essence. Of these ideals poets and authors wrote with lively passion, embroidering them in poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or The Wife of Bath. Although its poet remains unknown, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains instilled in our minds as one of the prime examples of chivalry, Gawain representing the chivalrous ideal of the period. His story begins at New Year, in a court filled with joy and happiness, during a banquet thrown by the legendary King Arthur. In the midst of the merriment, the King expresses his desire to behold a marvel, refusing to eat until he had done so. His desire is soon to be fulfilled, as a mysterious creature of the purest green strides in the castle atop his steed, which was also green. This creature exudes of beauty and power, inspiring admiration and fear at the same time. It is obvious that this knight is protected by powerful magic, for he is showing it through his words and demeanour, displaying a self-confidence so strong it may pass as mockery towards the others. And while he claims no harm, he demands to be indulged in a game that is impossible to win. In this ruthless game, the green knight will accept another’s strike, and will also lend him his axe with which to complete the deed, with the promise to return that exact blow a year and a day later. As no one dares rise to the challenge, the green knight names them cowards, claiming that Camelot’s knights are not at all as stories and legends portrays them. Insulted by his offence, Arthur himself desires to strike at the knight, but he is stopped by his nephew, Sir Gawain, who takes this game and its consequences upon himself. After acknowledging the conditions of the scheme, Sir Gawain severed the head of the green knight, but he could not kill him. The mysterious knight simply picked up his head and bid his retreat, a sparkle of hoofs left in his path. In the second part of this poem we are acquainted with Gawain’s journey to find the Green Chapel, we meet with the obstacles he faces and the beings he must fight against and triumphs over. In time of desperation he turns to the Holy Mother and he repents for his sins, asking for the strength needed to continue with his quest. He arrives at a beautiful castle of the brightest white, surrounded by a green park and a moat. The castle belongs to Lord Bertilak, a middle aged man with a sturdy appearance and a ferocious face, contrasting with his gentle and good natured speech. During his stay at the castle, Gawain learns that the sought after Green Chapel is very near, and that he will be directed there if he accepted to take part in yet another game of sorts. In this game, Sir Gawain is to rest in the castle by day, keeping Lady Bertilak company, while the Lord and his men went hunting. At night, they should exchange whatever they had received or gained during the day. As Gawain spent his time with Lady Bertilak, we can clearly observe that her role is that of the temptress, stealing a total of six kisses from him. In the last night, the lady offers Gawain a token of her love, a green girdle that is endowed with magic power and protection. In the final part of the poem, Gawain continues his journey, setting towards the Green Chapel to meet his fate. The Green Knight raises his axe at Gawain three times, and only the last time nicking his neck. He claims that the wound of Gawain’s neck was punishment for not exchanging the magical girdle he had received on the third day from Lady Bertilak. After confessing his sins, Gawain receives forgiveness and, as a reward, he is allowed to keep the green girdle for himself, an artefact he vows to wear as a symbol of his fault and defeat. Though Gawain fears he would be rejected by his beloved ones, he is received with open arm by Arthur and by Camelot, considered a hero for his will to live. As the events in the poem unfold before our eyes, we find more and more reason to say that Gawain is a true knight, his love for his king outshining all hardships. And eve when he fails, and selfishly thinks only about his life, we can clearly see his suffering and his angst. His journey tells us that he is a “knight […] chevalier: […] a man of aristocratic standing and probably of noble ancestry, who is capable, if called upon, of equipping himself with a war horse and the arms of a heavy cavalryman, and who was been through certain rituals that make him what he is”. And the hero of this tale is just that; nephew of Arthur the King, and a man who willingly sacrifices himself in order to save the king’s life, in a display of utter loyalty and love for his leader and guide. As he advances, he is seen to develop, to become a full character, of charming dynamism, he matures into a full-fledged knight. He also proves his loyalty to God, for he turns to the Holy Mother in his most desperate times, begging for her aid and teachings. He blesses the places that brought him well-being and security, and curses those tainted by pagan magic. And even when he is tricked into accepting a gift he should have not, he shows remorse and repentance for his sins, confessing in front of God and pleading for forgiveness. However, he does show us that he is indeed a man of blood and flesh, when fear causes him to love his faith ever so slightly and flinch and turn away as he is about to receive the first blow from the Green Knight. This proves that the hero of this tale is not at all a mythical or a supernatural being, but a man having to face this unknown and dark realm of magic and pagan beliefs, a man torn between loyalty and love towards God and towards his king, and love for his own life, which he instinctually tries to preserve. From the look of his shield, we may also state that, although his faith was strong, some elements of magic prevailed in him. On the inside of the shield he keeps the portrait of the Virgin Mary, cherishing it close to his body and close to his soul, yet on the outside, a pentacle is drawn. From this pentacle we can deduce that he either “put all his trust in the five wounds that Christ bore on the cross”, or that the pentacle is in fact “seen both as the cognizance of Gawain, the perfect knight, and as a magical symbol used to ward off evil.” Should we interpret the image on the shield as a magic reference, we could surely say that Sir Gawain is a representative of the entire English medieval society. A society which was raised deep within the practices of druids and witches, a society invaded by Christianism and struggling to adapt to the new times and patterns of thought imposed by the new lifestyle. Gawain proves not only his loyalty, but his courtesy as well, with finely chosen words and clever twists of phrases. As he stands up for his king and claims his place in battle, Gawain proves he is the strongest knight of Camelot, and the most virtuous of all, yet with his words he belittles himself, saying that „[...] the weakest I, the feeblest here of wit / The less loss of my life, if thou the soot would’st say!” Uttering these words, the hero unveils his humble character and proves that he is a true follower of the chivalrous code of honour. He proves his friendship by sparing his fellow knights of a terrible fate and his generosity by offering his own life to be sacrificed, taking the promise of impending death upon himself and no other. Yet it is his own courtesy that proves to be a flaw, for, manipulating his way of being, Lady Bertilack tricks Gawain into accepting her keepsake and hiding it from her husband, a fact which makes Gawain break his vow to Lord Bertilack. In this keepsake, a green silk girdle, Gawain projects his failure, branding it a memento of his weaknesses and a mark of his shame. As his weaknesses come to the surface, including his physical weakness when faced with the first blow from the Green Knight, Gawain is compelled to confront his fear of rejection from his fellow peers, he is terrified of their judgement on his unwillingness to die and on his strive to live. Nevertheless, he is received with open arms, with joy, and love, and praise, and he is named a true hero in the face of death. This stands testimony that the chivalrous ideal is impossible to fully attain, for only a perfect man could achieve such feats. It seems that even in those times men were fully aware that perfection did not exist, not even among knights, that the human being was flawed in one manner or another, and that it is because of flaws that we are so complex and so special and so beautiful. Another recurring motif in the literary universe of the medieval Era is the concept of courtly love, a concept which is sometimes viewed as being an integrant part of the chivalrous code of the knighthood, the art of expressing love and admiration. Courtly love or amour courtois is a highly controversial relationship between ladies and knights, this sort of relationship beginning with the songs of the French troubadours of Aquitaine or Provence. Considering the fact that most of the marriages of that age were loveless, simply a business convention of transferring power between families, courtly love comes in view as a pure, highly spiritual love affair that transcends the boundaries of the physical realm; it is a statement of pure feeling and the voicing of bliss. In literary romances, we can find this concept revealed in Chretien de Troyes’ works, the author introducing Lancelot and Guinevere as courtly lovers, at the request of Marie of Champagne. Others consider it to be immoral and adulterous; something close to a sin, for it pushed lovers away from faith, as they plunged in the depths of carnal pleasure. This view is adopted by many an author, including Thomas Mallory, who scorns upon Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair in Morte d’Arthur and ridicules the entire concept of amour courtois. In this frame, the knight saw himself as the messenger of the god of love, worshipping his lady as a saint. In such conditions, the lovers forget about their love for God, they are driven from belief and give into temptation, without feeling the need to repent and confess their sins. In English literature, the ideals of courtly love were immortalised is poems and in ballads by various authors, one of the most famous of them being Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales. Through the collection of the tales, presented as part of a story-telling contest organised by a group of pilgrims travelling together to the shrine of Thomas Becket, at the Canterbury Cathedral, Chaucer weaves and intertwines different aspects of life, from different perspectives, as homage to the diversity and diverse nature of humanity. He also uses the tales to manifest his criticism towards the English society of the period, and also to condemn the Christian church for its shameless practices, such as selling indulgencies. From the accounts of the pilgrims, one stands out as a lesson on courtly love, specifically the tale presented by The Wife of Bath. “Chaucer introduces her to us as an efficient, domineering bourgeois with a major interest in love affairs. Her autobiography and her story confirm this interest, and reveal her […] as an apparently unread person, but learned in different >>authorities<< […]”. To strengthen this assessment, we must emphasise that the character herself begins her prologue with identifying herself as an authority on marriage, owning to her vast personal experience with this social convention. She defends herself in the face of those who look down upon her for having had five husbands, counter-arguing those who use the Scripture by bringing forth the Old Testament, where personalities such as Jacob or Solomon have been said to have multiple wives. Unlike any other female character of those times, the wife of Bath prides herself in having total control on her husbands, in using her verbal and also sexual prowess to bring them into submission and have them fulfil her every need and wish. In her tale, she talks of a lustful knight who takes advantage of a young and beautiful maiden, and who must pay the price for his irresponsible actions. He escapes the death punishment that all the court wanted, thanks to Queen Guinevere’s kind heart, but, in exchange for forgiveness and to save his own life, he must embark on a very specific quest: to discover what women desire most in this world. Being given a year to complete his task, the knight sets out on his journey, wandering about the country and asking the same question over and over again, with every woman that crosses his path. To his apprehension, every answer he receives is a different one, be it money, or fame, or being considered secretive and deceptive, it seems that no unique conclusion can be drawn. As the knight heads home, as the one year period comes to a close, he meets and old and ugly woman who assures him she has the answer he is seeking, but, in order to receive it, he must pledge himself to her. Desperate to save his life, the knight agrees, and takes her to the castle. The answer the old lady gives him is that any woman most desires to control her husband and manipulate him into submission. Upon hearing it, the ladies of the court can do nothing but agree to it, thus saving the hero from decapitation. Nonetheless, he must fulfil his promise to the old lady, and marries her in a private ceremony. In bed, he confesses his shame at having such an ugly and poor and ill-bred wife, to which she responds by giving him a choice: either he accepts her as ugly but loyal and good, or beautiful but deceiving and unfaithful. At a loss, the knight leaves the choice to her, and, because he had bestowed that power upon the woman, she rewards him by morphing into a lady of exquisite beauty of the body and purity of the soul. From this tale we see that Allison, the Wife of Bath strongly opposes the anti-feminist perspective of society and of the church, proving that women hold much more power than they let to believe. We do not speak here of physical power, but rather of mental acuity and the ability to subtly, but greatly influence the thought patterns of men, moulding them into the desired shape with a gentle touch. The morale of the story is to sustain the fact that the entire concept of courtly love moves in accordance with chivalry and trueness to one’s word, while skilfully hinting that morality is linked with one’s spirit, and not inherited like nobility and wealth. Another aspect of amour courtoise that Chaucer brings forth is that of the control man has over women. While it is clear that men are the material pillar of the relationship is undeniable, it must be emphasised that women are the emotional backbone of every affair. In these lines, the author stresses a practical aspect of courtly love, that the woman must be the one dominating the passionate face of the partnership, setting its pace to her own liking and agreement. At the same time, he dismisses known superstitions linking physical beauty to moral integrity. Beauty does not necessarily entail virtue and purity, as “blue blood” does not entail civility, generosity or kindness. The facets of courtly love that Chaucer chooses to underline differentiate his work from hundreds of others. While other pieces of literature exist only to praise the perfect union between stunning fair ladies and knights of utter valour and honour, The Wife of Bath’s Tale exists to challenge some of the ludicrous suppositions that have been always taken for granted. “To complete the exposition of artistry of this story, this interpretation reveals Chaucer with his customary perception of the incongruities in life and in literary conventions, his ironic detachment in relation to these, and his >>unsolicitous observation<< of them.” Drawing a line and a conclusion, it is only safe to assume that, through the literary monument presented above, we have come to meet characters that are at the boundary of idealism and imperfection, we have come to surpass limits imposed by narrow minds, we have come to learn of sacrifice and of repentance, of regret and of compassion. Alongside these characters we grow, we develop, we take one step further and plunge deeper into the core of an ancient mentality, we uncover their fears and their joys, we suffer as one and we feel the relief they do when everything falls into place.

Bibliography: * Keen, Maurice, Chivalry, Yale University Press, 1984 * Sherman, Loomis, Laura, Hibbard-Loomis, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medieval Romances., 1957, Random House * Phillipa, Hardman, Gawain’s practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Medium Aevum. 68, 1999 * Speculum, vol. 20, Jan. 1945,page 48,Geroge R. Coffman , Chaucer and courtly love once more – The Wife of Bath’s Tale * * *

[ 1 ]. Keen, Maurice, Chivalry, Yale University Press, 1984, p. 1-2
[ 2 ]. Sherman, Loomis, Laura, Hibbard-Loomis, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Medieval Romances., 1957, Random House, p. 343
[ 3 ]. Phillipa, Hardman, Gawain’s practice of Piety in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Medium Aevum. 68, 1999, p. 248
[ 4 ]. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, PDF version,
[ 5 ]. Speculum, vol. 20, Jan. 1945,page 48,Geroge R. Coffman , Chaucer and courtly love once more – The Wife of Bath’s Tale, p. 43
[ 6 ]. Speculum, vol. 20, Jan. 1945,page 48,Geroge R. Coffman , Chaucer and courtly love once more – The Wife of Bath’s Tale, p. 49

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