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ALONGSIDE prowess, piety, and status, a fourth major element constituting

the great fusion of chivalry comes from its role as a framework for

love and the relationship between the sexes. Thoughtful men and women

pondered much about love in all of its manifestations in high medieval

Europe, but we are concerned here with romantic love, eros rather than agape

or caritas. Many modern scholars have focused on romantic love since it is this

wonderfully complex and compelling human emotion, seen here in something

like the springtime of its life in Western culture, which interests and attracts


The result has been enthusiastic and even heated scholarly debate. Since the

nineteenth century scholars have argued in particular over ‘courtly love’, disputing

whether it is simply a modern scholarly construct, or whether it had an

existence outside of literary texts; more recent scholarship has argued over

whether it brought an advance or a regression in the status of women, and

whether the question has meaning in such sweepingly general terms.1

The discussions have produced much interesting work, but we need not

enter the prickly thickets of controversy in order to register the power invested

in chivalry by its connections with ideas about love and, in a broader sense,

about relations between the sexes. It will serve the purposes of this book to

attempt simpler goals in this chapter: first, to show through all the evidence

presented in the sections that follow that in one of its essential dimensions

chivalry formed the frame for the important issue of gender relations; second,

to document the variety of medieval views on this subject, in the process showing

that chivalric literature is—in this area as in so many—a literature of criticism

and reform as much as a mirror to society; third, to establish the close link

1 See the extensive bibliography in Burns and Krueger, eds, Courtly Ideology, 375–90, which lists

earlier bibliographies as well as selected works. A general discussion on knights, ladies, and love,

published just after the foregoing bibliography, appears in Chênerie, Le Chevalier errant, 411–501.

On the opening page of this section, she notes that warrior societies are usually characterized by

‘l’attitude de gynopnobie’. Cf. Krueger, Women Readers.

between love and gender relations on the one hand, and the key chivalric virtue

of prowess on the other; and, finally, to discover in a new form the continuing

concern over the problem of violence as it relates to chivalry.

The Variety of Voices

Near the end of the thirteenth-century prose romance The Story of Merlin,

Agravain, Gaheriet, and Guerrehet—three brothers, all prominent Arthurian

knights—ride through a deep forest, enjoying a respite from their bloody battles

with the invading Saxons. Since the weather is fine and birds are singing

sweetly ‘in their language’, first Gaheriet and then all three brothers begin to

sing, ‘and the woodlands resounded with it’. The talk soon turns to the two

daughters of Minoras the Forester of Northumberland with whom they have

just stayed. Guerrehet asks his brothers to tell him ‘if you had one of our host’s

two daughters with you now, what would you do with her?’

The answer of Agravain, the eldest, is straightforward: ‘God help me . . . if

I felt like it, I would make love to her right now.’ By the same oath, Gaheriet

says, ‘I wouldn’t do that, but I’d take her to safety.’ Guerrehet answers his own

question more carefully: ‘I would . . . make her my lady love, if she liked, and

I would not do anything to her by force. For the game of love would not be

sweet unless it pleased her as much as me.’2

Since their father, King Lot, and their eldest brother, Gawain, have joined

them in time to hear the question and their answers, the three brothers ask for

a judgment. Who has spoken best? When his father assigns him the task,

Gawain evaluates the answers without hesitation, recognizing Guerrehet’s

position as ideal, but endorsing Gaheriet’s view as that of his own choosing:

Gaheriet spoke best and Agravain worst. For if Agravain saw anyone hurting the

women, he ought to help them, protect and defend them with all his strength. It seems

to me that there need be no one other than he! Guerrehet spoke better still, for he said

that he would not have wanted to do anything to them by force, and that can have come

to him only from love and courtliness. But Gaheriet spoke like a worthy gentleman,

and I would do what he said if it were up to me.

Despite the smiles and laughter with which the debate has proceeded, the serious

undertone soon emerges. King Lot registers his disappointed surprise by

asking Agravain, ‘Would you shame your host’s daughter to satisfy your mad

cravings?’ His son’s response is revealing: ‘Sir . . . the daughters would lose neither

life nor limb.’ To his father’s reply that the daughters would lose their

honour, Agravain counters that to deny himself sexual pleasure, given the

2 For a general discussion of this idea in medieval thought, see McCash, ‘Mutual Love’.

opportunity, would be an intolerable loss to his own honour. Such a man

‘would just be the butt of jokes, and people would esteem him less because of

it’. When his father continues to denounce such views as vile, Agravain ends

his side of the argument: ‘Then there is no other way out . . . than for my

brother and me to become monks in a place where we do not see women.’3

The range of views on knightly relationships with women could scarcely be

made clearer: the scale begins with rape, with a determination to have sex

whatever the woman’s wishes, and moves on through protection, to mutual

affection. The element of reform likewise appears prominently. Willingness to

use force is denounced by two of the three debating knights and by both judging

knights. Just after the passages quoted the author even alerts his readers to

Agravain’s deserved suffering for his attitudes to women, to be detailed later

in the story. Yet we should also note that the reform position is carefully tempered;

the high ideal of mutuality in love is acknowledged as best in theory,

but the goal of simple protection and maintenance of the knight’s own honour—

by avoiding giving shame either to the woman or perhaps especially to

another male protector—is stressed in Gawain’s judgement and in King Lot’s

subsequent angry conversation with Agravain. In later romances, even

Guerrehet’s record is far from a perfect match with his announced standards.

When a lady he has rescued resists his pleas for sex, he respects her wishes.

Shortly after this he climbs into bed with a sleeping lady in a tent and enjoys

sex with her, she sleepily thinking he is her husband. When this man appears,

Guerrehet kills him, forces the lady to ride off with him, kills a knight who tries

to stop him, and defeats the lady’s four brothers. When they stop in a nunnery,

she joins the order to escape him.4

Chivalric literature, then, does not establish a single ideological position,

some uniform and elaborated code, but, rather, shows intense concern with

the issue of relations between males and females. It seems impossible to press

all of these views into a single ideology and attach a label such as ‘courtly love’

or even fin’amors in confidence that we have captured the essence of ‘the

medieval view’. The texts show us not a single view, but a running debate.5

Idealization of women in many chivalric texts, of course, stands as one of

their significant features, generally noted and examined in great detail by

scholars. Scenes of Lancelot trembling and barely able to speak or to look up

when he is first in Queen Guinevere’s presence, of Lancelot genuflecting at the

Knights, Ladies, and Love 211

3 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 361–2; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 350–1.

4 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 120–7; Micha, ed., Lancelot, IV, 30–52.

5 Interesting arguments in support of this view appear in Leclercq, ‘L’amour et le mariage’;

Gold, The Lady and the Virgin; Calin, ‘Contre la fin’amor?’; Krueger, ‘Misogyny, Manipulation’;

idem, Women Readers; Keen, Nobles, Knights, 20–42.

foot of Queen Guinevere’s bed as if it were an altar, before joining her in it for

a night of bliss, provide unforgettable emblems of this worship.6 Even

Geoffroi de Charny, that scarred and experienced knight of the very real

world, urged his readers to ‘indeed honour, serve and truly love these noble

ladies . . . who inspire men to great achievement, and it is thanks to such ladies

that men become good knights and men-at-arms’.7

This point of view was not entirely theoretical. An English knight died outside

Douglas Castle in Scotland, trying to live up to such a belief. His enemies

found he carried a letter from his lady saying he must hold the castle a year to

win her love.8 Sir Thomas Gray tells the better-known story from this part of

the world. A page whose lady-love gave him a helmet with a gilt crest, telling

him to make it famous in the most dangerous part of Britain, charged headlong

into the besieging Scots outside Norham Castle. After they ‘struck him

down, wounded him in the face, and dragged him out of the saddle to the

ground’, the garrison, on foot, rescued him as they had pledged to do.9

If love exercises great power in this literature and in this society, some writers

place women on a pedestal; others spit sour misogyny. Negative views of

women can be found most readily in texts with particularly strong monastic

influence, The History of the Holy Grail, or The Quest of the Holy Grail, for example.

10 But the chansons de geste can provide an abundant supply of evidence and

even the romances of Chrétien have similar passages. If women are protected,

idealized, sometimes even worshipped, they may also be denounced as wily,

unstable, controlled by appetite, the very impediments to real male concerns

in the most timeless manner of anti-feminist diatribes. The classic case appears

early in Raoul de Cambrai. Raoul scornfully denounces the advice of his

mother when he decides on a course of action that will unleash feud between

powerful families for generations:

Devil take the nobleman—what a coward he must be—who runs to a woman for advice

when he ought to go off fighting! Go and loll about in bedrooms and drink drinks to

fatten your belly, and think about eating and drinking, for you’re not fit to meddle with

anything else.11

6 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 65; Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot do Lac, I, 157–8; Kibler, ed., tr.,

Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, ll. 4583–684.

7 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 95. We might note, of course, how much his view is

characteristically focused on women as the inspiration for the great virtue, prowess.

8 McDiarmid and Stevenson, eds., Barbour’s Bruce, bk. VIII, ll. 490–9.

9 Maxwell, tr., Scalacronica, 61–2.

10 See the ‘Legend of the Tree of Life’ section of The Quest of the Holy Grail, for example.

11 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisse LIV. As Gold notes, Raoul is showing the demesure

that will cause so much trouble in this story. The Lady and the Virgin, 12–18.

Chrétien de Troyes would never give his characters such crude language, yet

he can tell us that changeable women have a hundred hearts, and says of the

lady Laudine:

but she had in her the same folly

that other women have:

nearly all of them are obstinate

and refuse to accept what they really want.12

The constant goal across the entire spectrum of views is to establish for

males the right way to understand and to relate to these creatures who seem so

different from themselves, standing outside the code of practising prowess in

the quest for honour. Pero Niño’s biographer, praising his hero’s temperance,

quickly slides into characterizing male/female differences: ‘he said that sharp

words should be left to women, whose vice and custom they were, and that

men would do better to come to blows, which are their virtue and calling; but

no man ever cared about coming to blows with him.’13

The honour involved is usually focused on the male. In the ‘Tale of Balain’,

when Balain suddenly decapitates the lady who has come to ask a favour of the

king, Arthur’s response is directed to his own honour: his complaint is that

Balain’s act has shamed him, tarnished his honour, violated the protection

offered by his court.14 In the Perlesvaus Lancelot enforces a marriage promise

on a knight who is trying to renege on his agreement; Lancelot threatens the

man with death, but specifically states that he acts,

not so much for the maiden’s sake as to overcome the wickedness in you, lest it be an

object of reproach to other knights; for knights must keep a vow made to a lady or a

maiden and you claim to be a knight; and no knight should knowingly act wickedly.

And this is a greater wickedness than most, and whatever the maiden may say I will not

permit it; if you do not do as you promised, I will kill you lest it bring reproach upon


Modern scholars reading such evidence can observe not only the reform ideal

of knights keeping their word to ladies, but also the clear and exclusive focus

of concern on knighthood itself.

Perceval later encounters the unhappy couple, sees this knight reviling his

lady, and is told he can have lodging with them if he makes no criticisms. He

responds that ‘since she is yours you may do as you please with her, but in all

Knights, Ladies, and Love 213

12 Kibler, ed., tr., Yvain, ll. 1644–8. 13 Evans, tr., The Unconquered Knight, 203.

14 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, chs 8, 10–13, 16–23; Paris and Uhlric, eds, Merlin, I, 212–25,

233–61, 276–80; II, 1–60 tell the story of Balain. Campbell has also translated these passages: see

Tale of Balain. Of course, honour is focused on the leading male even when another male is killed

in his presence, as Balain is when the invisible knight slays those under his protection.

15 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 113; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 172–3.

things one should keep one’s honour.’ This knight, who now forces his wife to

eat with the squires, away from high table, has become a leper. In a tournament

Perceval wins the gold cup that is coveted by this knight and sends it to

the patient, long-suffering wife, whose views on knighthood we do not


In Raoul II, Bernier, who has been presumed dead, returns to find that his

wife Beatrice has—with the aid of a wondrous herb—prevented Erchambaut,

the new husband forced upon her, from consummating the marriage. ‘I have

managed him like this for a whole year’, Beatrice informs Bernier proudly.

‘When Bernier hears this he gives a heartfelt sigh and says in a whisper so that

no one can hear, “All honour to you Father of glory, that my wife has not

brought shame on me.” ’17

Geoffroi de Charny asks rhetorically:

Which one of two ladies should have the greater joy in her lover when they are both at

a feast in a great company and they are aware of each other’s situation? . . . Is it the one

who loves the good knight and she sees her lover come into the hall where all are at

table and she sees him honoured, saluted and celebrated by all manner of people and

brought to favourable attention before ladies and damsels, knights and squires, and she

observes the great renown and the glory attributed to him by everyone?

The second lady has nothing, Charny thinks, because her lover lacks the essential

deeds of arms:

Ah God! what small comfort and solace is there for those ladies who see their lovers

held in such little honour, with no excuse except lack of will! How do such people dare

to love when they do not know nor do they want to know about the worthy deeds that

they should know about and ought to perform. . . .18

Sometimes, readers of chivalric literature will even encounter the view,

implicitly or explicitly, that knights are the only humans who truly count,

worth much more than any women. The Lord of the Fens says just this to

Hector in the Lancelot, as Hector is about to fight on behalf of the man’s niece:

‘ “She is my niece,” said the lord of the Fens, “but don’t do it for that reason,

for God help me if I did not prefer her death to yours; more is lost in the death

of one worthy knight than in the death of all the maidens in a land.” ’19

Better known, but stating the same view, is King Arthur’s assessment of the

loss of Guinevere compared with the loss of the Round Table fellowship of

16 Bryant, tr., Perlesvaus, 258–62; Nitze and Jenkins, eds, Perlesvaus, 398–404.

17 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisse 304.

18 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 121.

19 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 215; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 517; Sommer,

ed., Vulgate Version, III, 389.

knights near the end of the Morte Darthur: ‘And much more I am soryar for

my good knyghtes losse than for the losse of my fayre quene; for quenys I

myght have inow, but such a felyship of good knyghtes shall never be togydirs

in no company.’20 A maiden whom Eric meets in the Merlin Continuation

makes a similar assessment; she is carrying a badly wounded knight over

whom she utters grieving words: ‘Oh, noble knight, how much better it

would have been if I, who am worth nothing and can do nothing, had been

killed in this misadventure, rather than you, who were so worthy and valiant

and true [preux et vaillans et loyaux].’21 Only a few pages earlier in this same text

Gaheriet, who has found his mother in bed with Lamorat, commits matricide,

but spares the adulterous knight, ‘because he seemed too handsome and

valiant, and he was disarmed, and if he laid a hand on an unarmed knight,

people would think him the worst and most cowardly knight’.22

Even clearer is the statement of the Grail companions (Galahad, Perceval,

and Bors) who find the tombs of at least sixty maidens who died giving the

basin of blood required by harsh custom to save the lady of a castle. Especially

upset to find stones marking tombs of twelve daughters of kings, ‘they said

that the people of this castle had upheld an evil custom and that the people of

the land had done great evil by enduring it so long, for many good men could

have sprung from these maidens’.23

Many texts thus try to convince knights that women really do count, that a

good knight will not abuse them and will keep his word sworn to them. Le Bel

Inconnu, for example, recognizes that many make a habit of deceiving women

and say this is no sin. The author assures his audience it is a great sin and more

than once warns that those who ill-use ladies will suffer for it.24

Male Bonding

Some scholars have even argued that the attraction between males in important

chivalric romances is more powerful than that between knight and lady.25

Those interested in psychological analyses might well think that some form of

special bond is created between knights by the common element of violence in

Knights, Ladies, and Love 215

20 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 685.

21 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end.), 61; Bogdanow, ed., ‘Folie Lancelot’, 25.

22 Asher, ibid., 53; Bogdanow, ibid., 3. Though condemned by many others, Gaheriet’s weighing

of the merits of his action remains of interest. Arthur and many worthy men soon decide that

they do not want Gaheriet to die for his deed since he is ‘a good and worthy knight [bon chevalier

et preux]’. Asher, ibid., 54; Bogdanow, ibid., 6.

23 Asher, tr., ‘Quest’, 239; Piel, ed., Demando, 306–7.

24 Fresco, ed., and Donagher, tr., Renaut de Bâgé, ll. 1243–64, 4927–8, 4848–50.

25 Frappier, ‘La mort Galehot’; Marcello-Nizia, ‘Amour courtois’. Duby makes the same case

for the biography of William Marshal: Guillaume le Maréchal, 52–4.

their lives, perhaps especially by their violence against each other.26 In Marie

de France’s ‘Milun’, a father unhorsed by his son (neither recognizing his

opponent) declares:

I never once fell from my war-horse

because of a blow from another knight.

You knocked me down in a joust—

I could love you a great deal.27

Certainly the pattern of truly savage fighting, respect, reconciliation, and great

affection between two knights is repeated often enough at least to raise questions

about a process of bonding that would be a powerful element in understanding

the primacy of prowess in chivalry.

Chrétien provides an excellent case in point in the combat between Guivret

the Short and Erec in his Erec et Enide.28 When from his tower Guivret sees any

passing knight he rushes into armour and into combat; to him Erec represented

someone ‘with whom he wished to exhaust himself in combat, / or the other

would wear himself out / and declare himself defeated’. He rides full tilt at Erec,

his horse’s hoofs grinding pebbles like a mill working wheat and shooting so

many sparks the four feet seem to be on fire. Enide’s last-minute warning heard,

Erec meets his challenger in a classic encounter: broken shields, hauberks

ripped, spears lodged in entrails, horses and riders on the ground. Then the

sword play keeps them active from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, blades biting

through chain armour to vulnerable flesh. One would have killed the other,

Chrétien tells us, but for an accident; Guivret’s sword snaps on the rim of Erec’s

shield and he flings away the useless remnant in disgust. He calls for mercy, but

hesitates to say he is defeated and must be threatened into the admission. As

soon as they exchange names, however, Guivret is delighted to learn how noble

Erec is, and ‘[e]ach of them kissed and embraced the other’:

Never from such a fierce battle

was there such a sweet parting,

for, moved by love and generosity,

each of them cut long, broad bands

from the tail of his shirt,

and they bound up each other’s wounds.

26 Lorenz writes of ‘the ingenious feat of transforming, by the comparatively simple means of

redirection and ritualization, a behavior pattern which not only in its prototype but even in its present

form is partly motivated by aggression, into a means of appeasement and further into a love

ceremony which forms a strong tie between those that participate in it. This means neither more

nor less than converting the mutually repelling effect of aggression into its opposite’: On

Aggression, 167. I owe this reference to Michelle Dowd.

27 Hanning and Ferrante, trs., Marie de France, 174; Rychner, ed., Marie de France, 140.

28 The following quotations all come from Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 3629–889.

Since the shirt-tail could carry phallic meaning in medieval literature, a determined

Freudian might read this scene as a symbolic end of the phallic aggression

so evident in the previous several hundred lines of verse, and note its

conversion into mutual respect and love. The latter phenomenon is striking,

even if one hesitates over the former.

Other cases could make a similar point. The bond between Lancelot and

Galehot in the Lancelot do Lac, again based on prowess, represents an unusually

high peak in the mountain ranges of knightly friendships. Indeed, in this

romance the tension emerges not out of the competing claims of prowess and

love, but rather, as Corin Corley writes, ‘between friendship with a companion

in arms and love of a man for a woman’.29 Gretchen Mieszkowski has even

made an argument that, at least from Galehot’s perspective, this is a homoerotic


Having seen Lancelot, in disguise, perform on the battlefield, Galehot,

Arthur, Guinevere, and Gawain discuss what each would give up ‘to have his

companionship forever’.31 Arthur would offer half his possessions. Gawain, in

turn, declares, ‘If God gives me the health I desire, I should wish there and

then to be the most beautiful damsel in the world, fit and well, on condition

that he loved me more than anything, as much as I loved him.’ ‘ “Indeed,” said

Galehot, “you have offered a good deal.” ’ The queen skilfully sidesteps the

issue, observing, ‘By the Lord, Sir Gawain has made every offer that a lady can

make, and no lady can offer more.’ Following a round of polite laughter,

Gawain tells Galehot that he must answer his own question. He swears, ‘As

God is my witness, I should change my great honour to shame, provided that

I could always be as sure of him as I should wish him to be of me.’ Gawain

praises this answer—stunning in the context of an honour society—as the

most generous, but he later warns Arthur that Galehot will take Lancelot

away, ‘for he is more jealous of him than a knight who has a beautiful young

lady’. When Arthur wants to keep Lancelot as his companion, Galehot issues

a passionate objection: ‘Ah! my lord . . . I came in your hour of need with all

my might, for I could not do more. And may God never be my witness, if I

could live without him: how could you take away my life?’ In order to be with

Lancelot, Galehot, a king who could have conquered Arthur, offers his own

services to Arthur as a simple retainer, ‘for I would rather be poor and content’,

he states, ‘than rich and unhappy’. He begs Arthur to accept his offer: ‘And

Knights, Ladies, and Love 217

29 Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, xii.

30 Mieszkowski, ‘Lancelot’s Galehot, Malory’s Lavain’; I am indebted to Professor Mieszkowski

for a copy of this article.

31 What follows comes from Corley, tr., Lancelot of the Lake, 303–4; Elspeth Kennedy, ed.,

Lancelot do Lac, I, 333–4.

you certainly ought to do so, both for his sake and for mine, for you should

know that all the love I have for you, I have because of him.’ Arthur takes him

into his entourage as companion, not as retainer, but at the end of the romance

Galehot sickens, fearing Lancelot will be taken away by love for Guinevere,

and dies of grief, upon hearing a false report of Lancelot’s death. We learn in

the Post-Vulgate Death of Arthur that Lancelot is finally buried, by his own

instructions, in the same tomb with Galehot.32

The case is extreme, but the sentiment is scarcely unique. After a strenuous

fight that seems to last most of the day, Gawain and Morholt (in the Merlin

Continuation) engage in a classic act of bonding: ‘[T]hey went to kiss each

other at once and swore to each other that from that time on they would be

friends and loyal companions and that there would be no rancour between

them for anything that might have been.’33 A few days later Morholt says to

Gawain, as he is about to depart, healed of his wounds: ‘I never met a young

man I admired as much as I do you. Don’t think I say this idly. Because I love

you with such great love, I want to be a knight errant from now on, so that I

may better have your company and see you more often.’ When their adventures

part them, another scene of tears and declarations of love follows:

Morholt said to Sir Gawain, ‘Sir Gawain, remember the spring at the end of a year. so

that you come there on the day, for certainly I’ll be very impatient to see that day and

to be able to be in your company again. For know that I have never loved or admired

a knight as much as I do you.34

Though a romance of far lower aesthetic merit, the Chevalier du Papegau

once again supplements ideas found in greater works.35 Arthur, the Knight of

the Parrot, is attacked by a huge baron, the Knight-Giant; they fight until

exhaustion and darkness force a halt (the bright, illuminating jewel on the

baron’s helmet having been cut away). The warriors try to get some rest leaning

against each other in the dark, but each is wary and they continually give

each other blows throughout the night. Daylight allows the full fighting to

resume and to continue well into the day. Arthur finally lands the decisive

blow which cuts off his opponent’s leg.

The sequel is fascinating. The Knight-Giant calls out, ‘My good lord, for

God’s sake, mercy! For you are surely one of the best knights in the world. For

32 Asher, tr., Death of Arthur, 310; Magne, ed., Demanda, II, 484.

33 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 96, gives the same scene: ‘And therewith they toke of her helmys

and eyther kyssed other and there they swore togedyrs eythir to love other as brethirne. And sir

Marhaus prayde sir Gawayne to lodge with hym that nyght.’

34 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 273–5; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, I, 378–85.

35 For what follows, see Vesce, tr., Knight of the Parrot, 46–53; Heuckenkamp, ed., Chevalier du

Papegau, 44–50.

this reason, I pray you to please take the hauberk I am wearing.’ The hauberk,

unusually fine, possibly even magical, must go to the man who had shown

such prowess. Near death, he gives Arthur a second gift, his store of wisdom

embodied in three unexceptional maxims his father had taught him. Finally,

he asks a willing Arthur to hear his confession, which he makes ‘and died right

there on the spot’. Once again, we are shown ferocious fighting followed by

rapid reconciliation and the creation of a bond (however foreshortened in this

case) by the giving of the most precious gifts.

The Link with Prowess

However one reacts to issues of male bonding, so strong is the focus on

knighthood and knightly prowess that in some chivalric writing women can

only be defined as those who are not knights, who do not win honour through

prowess. A striking case in point comes in Raoul de Cambrai, as Raoul is about

to burn the town of Origny. A procession of nuns comes out to dissuade him,

each one with her psalter in her hand, their leader, Marsent, carrying ‘an

ancient book held in reverence since the days of Solomon’. Clearly, we have

here a confrontation of clergie with chevalerie. Yet it is also a male and female

confrontation, for it is the female embodiment of clergie that we see. The selfcharacterization

attributed to these women is fascinating: ‘My lord Raoul,

would prayer persuade you to withdraw a little? We are nuns, by the saints of

Bavaria, and will never hold lance or standard, or cause anyone ever be laid to

rest through force of ours.’36 Though Marsent says they are nuns, would not

the description work equally well if she said simply that they were women?

The point is reinforced by repetition. Marsent speaks again to Raoul: ‘ “Sir

Raoul,” said Bernier’s mother, “we are not able to handle weapons. You can

easily slaughter and destroy us. I tell you truly, you will not see us wield lance

or shield in our defence.” ’37 The defining fact about these women is that they

are non-knights. In a world in which knighthood was so significant, in a literature

obsessed with knighthood, women must somehow be fitted into the

general scheme of things.

Given the importance of prowess in the defence of honour, prowess the

demi-god is likely to play a major role in most formulations of the ideal relationship

between the sexes. Could the relationship be other than troublesome?

Would not considerable tension strain lives caught between the demands of

prowess and the demands of love? Many scholarly analyses have explored these

tensions, noting how hard it is for major figures like Lancelot or Tristram to

Knights, Ladies, and Love 219

36 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, laisses 63, 65. 37 Ibid., laisses 65–6.

find a viable balance, how readily such tensions lead to tragic endings in


If tension arises when the desired woman is already married to one’s feudal

lord (as in the case of Lancelot), it even arises after the desired woman has been

won and the characteristic knightly freedom to wander and fight, to play the

tournament circuit, is suddenly curtailed by the needed stability of married

life. Could a life of prowess be continued by the knight who settled into married

life? Chrétien wrestles with the problem in more than one of his

romances. In Erec and Enide he states the problem concisely. After his marriage

to Enide,

Erec was so in love with her

that he cared no more for arms,

nor did he go to tournaments.

He no longer cared for tourneying;

he wanted to enjoy his wife’s company,

and he made her his lady and his mistress.38

Here Chrétien answers the question enthusiastically and in positive terms.

Erec amply demonstrates his prowess, with Enide’s active support. Yvain, in

Chrétien’s slightly later romance by that name, likewise proves his prowess

after marriage, against Gawain’s expressed doubts, and finally against Gawain

in person. Married love must be saved from denigration, since it can be so

important a medium for love. The significance of prowess to love, of course,

remains fully evident in Chrétien’s works.

Yet for many heroes of chivalry no marriage, no feudal complication

intrudes; the link between love and prowess is not presented as a wrenching

problem. As R. W. Hanning has concisely observed, a cycle is at work:

prowess inspires love and love inspires prowess.39 This cycle rolls through

nearly all of the chivalric literature traditionally classed as romance, and

appears in many chansons as well.40 Scholars have understandably found the

subject of romantic love more fascinating than prowess and have filled substantial

library shelves with books and articles in intricate witness. But we must

not forget the prowess; a two-cycle engine does not run on one cylinder.

Even the love of Guinevere for the young King Arthur begins, of course, as

she sees him fighting splendidly. Merlin, ever helpful, arranges for her to kiss

the shy Arthur, but then reminds Arthur of that kiss in battle, in the midst of

38 Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 2396–401. 39 Hanning, The Individual, 4, 54.

40 There are, of course, exceptions. Gawain is at one point said to be so courteous that it causes

‘many ladies to love him less for his chivalry than for his courtesy’: see Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part

IV, 108; Micha, ed., Lancelot, III, 409. He is also said to love poor people and to be kind and generous

to them.

‘a very great slaughter’, resounding with ‘the dreadful screams and wailing

when men were being killed or wounded’. Merlin now expects the kiss to be

paid for in enemy blood: ‘Arthur, now we’ll see what you can do here today.

See to it that the kiss that your lady gave you is dearly paid for, so that it will

be talked about all the days of your life.’ The fighting goes on and on, and

Merlin returns to his theme:

Then he said to King Arthur that he must have forgotten the kiss his ladylove had given

him, for he had done poorly in the first fighting. And when Arthur heard this, he

blushed all over from shame, and he hung his helmeted head and said not a word; but

he stood so hard on his stirrups that the iron bent. And King Ban began to smile within

his helmet and pointed him out to King Bors, his brother; then all the knights of the

Round Table looked at him, and they found him very worthy and held him in high

esteem because they saw his look of noble pride.41

Fuelled by the potent mixture of equal parts sensual excitement and aroused

pride, Arthur returns to the fight and performs prodigies of prowess.42 He will

do similar feats on another battlefield later, while he is being watched by a

lover, the pagan maiden of Saxon Rock. ‘In fact,’ we learn, ‘he did . . . better

than ever before, and this was more for the maiden who was watching him

from the Rock than for himself.’43

If love inspires prowess, prowess inspires love. Guinevere has enjoyed a tryst

with Lancelot while Arthur dallied with his Saxon lady. This text, however,

will not accept sauce for the goose serving as sauce for the gander. She is later

denounced by the all-wise Master Elias as standing ‘accused of the basest

wrongdoing that a woman can be charged with . . . for she was so untrue as to

dishonour the most honourable man in the world’. No mention is made of

Arthur’s dishonouring of his queen.44

She defends herself later by saying that her love, stirred by Lancelot’s

prowess, was simply irresistible: ‘But the power of the love that led me to do

it was so great that I could not resist it; and besides, what was calling me was

the valour [la proesce] of the finest of knights.’ Her self-defence is the same

when speaking later to Lancelot himself; she ends with a fascinating rhetorical

question, puzzling over the ragged border where the world of chevalerie

marches with that of clergie:

Knights, Ladies, and Love 221

41 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 288, 292; Sommer, ed. Vulgate Version, II, 220, 227–8.

42 The same combination moves the young Erec; see Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 911–94.

43 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 226; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 542; Sommer,

Vulgate Version, III, 407.

44 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 254; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 58. Arthur later collapses and

confesses to a hermit, in fear of death. He is told how evil he is for, among other sins, disloyally

deserting his lawful wife; but this woman is the False Guinevere. Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 276;

Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 76.

. . . I have been hurt by the sin of going to bed with a man other than my husband.

. . . Still, there is no upstanding lady in the world who would not feel impelled to

sacrifice something to make an upstanding knight like you happy. Too bad Our Lord

pays no heed to our courtly ways, and a person whom the world sees as good is wicked

to God.45

They return to this troubling subject in the Lancelot, when Guinevere realizes

that a vision of the future experienced by Gawain refers to Lancelot’s failure

to achieve the Grail because of their illicit love:

I am very distressed that the flames of passion have caused you to fail to achieve the

adventure for which all earthly knighthood must strive; you can rightly say that you

have paid dearly for my love, since on my account you have lost something you can

never recover. Understand that I am no less sad about this than you, and perhaps even

sadder, for it is a great sin in that God made you the best and most handsome and most

gracious of all knights. . . . It seems it would have been better for me never to have been


The lament is powerful: God is the source of prowess and their adulterous love

has spoiled the fruits of Lancelot’s knighthood. But he will have none of it:

‘My lady,’ said Lancelot, ‘what you say is wrong. You must understand that without

you I would not have achieved as much glory as I have. . . . For I was well aware that if

my valor did not bring me through the adventures, then I would never be able to win

you, and I had to win you or die.’

This is not simply a classic statement of the link between love and prowess, for

Lancelot is countering the queen’s assertion that God is the source of his deeds

with the statement that she is herself that source. He could have noted that the

queen not only inspired prowess, but sometimes specifically demanded it. As

she says to Lancelot before a great tournament at Camelot: ‘see to it that you

do so well on that day that there is not a knight who dares await your blow.

Pursue them until they flee for their lives back to Camelot, and don’t be weak

or scared, for if I thought that my love sapped your strength, then I would

never love you again.’46

Other texts simply state outright that the knight’s prowess is the great spur

to a woman’s love; the link seems obvious and independent of any moral

qualms. In a classic statement, a lady tells Hector that though she has not seen

Lancelot since he was two months old, she has ‘loved him more than anyone

45 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 267, 275; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 118, 152; Sommer,

ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 28, 53–4.

46 Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 207, 202; Sommer, Vulgate Version, V, 193; Micha, Lancelot, IV,


in the world, because of the great prowess they’ve described to me’.47 Beatrice,

in the continuation of Raoul de Cambrai known as Raoul II, explains her sudden

love for Bernier in an even more revealing monologue:

Then she whispered so no one could hear: ‘Lucky the lady whom this man were to

choose, for he has a tremendous reputation for knighthood [molt a los de grant chevalerie];

anyone who could hold him naked beneath her bed hangings would find him

worth more than any living thing.’48

She tells Bernier frankly about her feelings, and is even more explicit about the

causative force his prowess represents:

‘My lord Bernier,’ said the wise lady, ‘if I love you, I ought not to be blamed for it, for

your reputation stood so high that when my father was in his flagged hall, everyone

used to say within his trusted household that whoever you struck with your smooth

lance could not remain in his gilded saddle. I was filled with desire for you; I would

rather be burned or cut limb from limb than be married to anyone else.’49

Claudas, one of the major and most fascinating characters in the early chapters

of the Lancelot do Lac and the Lancelot, will have none of this linking of men

and women, prowess and love in his own life. Yet his very denial speaks to the

force of the bond. He has, we learn, been in love only once and ended it deliberately.

When asked why, ‘he would answer that his desire was to have a long

life’. As he saw matters:

a knight who has true love in his heart can desire only one thing: to surpass everyone

else; but no man, however valiant, has a body that can survive all the trials his heart is

rash enough to undertake . . . for there is no great achievement at arms without true

love behind it.

We are assured that Claudas spoke truthfully, ‘for when in love he had shown

remarkable prowess and in many a land had gained great renown for his

knightly valor’.50 Though Claudas is not a devotee of love, even his reasons for

avoiding it speak to its power and to its link with prowess.

Sometimes the admiration for prowess simply overwhelms ideas of love

altogether. Morholt, in the Merlin Continuation, is a notorious hater of ladies.

On their adventures Yvain and Gawain even come upon a group of ladies executing

a dance in which the key manoeuvre is spitting on Morholt’s shield.

Gawain quickly distances himself from a knight who ‘hates the maidens of this

Knights, Ladies, and Love 223

47 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 399–400: ‘por la grant proesce qe l’en

m’avoit dite de lui’.

48 Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, 332–3. 49 Ibid., 340–1.

50 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 15; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 26–7; Elspeth Kennedy,

ed., Lancelot do Lac, 30–1.

country so mortally that he does them all the dishonour and insult he can.’ He

adds: ‘I couldn’t love Morholt for anything, because he hates young ladies

with all his heart.’ Yet Gawain’s evaluation changes significantly as he sees

Morholt’s vast prowess demonstrated against Yvain, and then as he experiences

it himself in classic combat. With the triumph over Yvain achieved

before his eyes, Gawain exudes these fulsome words of praise: ‘Oh, God! what

greatness there is in a valiant man! God, how powerful this man is; how effective

he is, and how much he can do!’ After he has fought with him personally,

Gawain is happy to exchange kisses, pledges of mutual friendship, agreements

never to be parted except by death.51

More often and more famously, ideas about ladies and about prowess work

in harness. The lesson is taught over and over in chivalric literature: knights

must use their prowess in the defence of gentle ladies. In the start of his

knightly career, narrated in the Merlin Continuation, for example, Gawain

himself must absorb the painful lesson by carrying to court, slung over his

horse, the body of a lady he has slain, there to have his penance adjudged by

the ladies of the court. They announce that he must swear on relics that, saving

his death or dishonour, he will never harm maidens but will always protect

them when they request his help. Gawain becomes ever after the loyal Knight

of Maidens. The entire process at court, we might note, is carried out under

the aegis of Arthur’s authority, regal and male.52

Of course, in one work after another Lancelot’s entire career provides the

classic tribute to the power of love realized in prowess. In the terrible test of

Escalon the Dark, in the Lancelot (to note one case out of scores) he piously

calls upon God and the Virgin, but then, ‘looking as directly toward London

as he could and mindful of the woman whom he loved more than himself, he

said, “My lady, I entrust myself to you; and whatever peril I face, may I always

bear you in mind!” ’53 No reader can be surprised that he triumphs where

others have failed. The source for his successes has been made especially clear,

as Elspeth Kennedy has noted, by the messenger sent to him by his patroness,

the Lady of the Lake, at the time his magnificent career is only just getting

under way. The message is:

[Y]ou should give your heart to a love that will turn you not into an idle knight but a

finer one, for a heart that becomes idle through love loses its daring and therefore can-

51 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 270–4; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 370–85.

52 Asher, Merlin Continuation, 230–3; Roussineau, Merlin, I, 225–38. This portion of this text is

much concerned with founding incidents in the history of chivalry; at this same time Gawain

learns that it is courteous not to kill a knight who has yielded.

53 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 302; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 110–11.

not attain high things. But he who always strives to better himself and dares to be challenged

can attain all high things.54

The pattern shown time and again in chivalric literature—love stirring a

knight on to deeds of arms—need not entail as elevated a view as this. In The

Story of Merlin, Gaheriet reminds his brother Agravain of his hot desire for the

daughters of the Forester of Northumberland (the maidens who had sparked

their debate noted above). As they go into battle, he says: ‘Keep in mind those

maidens you knew so well what to do with this morning and see to it that you

are as good a knight with your arms when you fight against those Saxons!’55

The mental—perhaps the glandular—link of sex and violence is here writ


Sexual Violence

The prevalence of prescriptive as well as descriptive statements and an emphasis

on prowess help to connect chivalry as a focus of gender relations to

chivalry in its other dimensions. What, then, of the concern about violence

which we have found so inescapable a feature of these other dimensions of

chivalry? Does this concern likewise appear when medieval writers use chivalry

to talk of love and relationships between men and women?

As a number of scholars—Kathryn Gravdal in particular—have argued, the

sexual violence of rape was a serious issue in medieval society, particularly

from the twelfth century. The topic was regularly discussed by medieval jurists

and canonists and by authors of the entire range of literary works that involved

knights as characters (that is, saints’ lives and pastorals as well as more traditional

chivalric forms).57 Sexual violence, in other words, fits into a broader

pattern of concern over societal peace.

That women themselves should be concerned about forced sex seems to

require little discussion. Yet Gravdal argues that the issue was in fact discussed

Knights, Ladies, and Love 225

54 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 84; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 160–61; Elspeth

Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 205–6.

55 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 362; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 352.

56 Any reader will encounter many examples. In the Song of Aspremont, for example, the young

Roland calls out to the companions he leads onto the battlefield:

‘Let your aggression loose henceforth, my barons!

Let each lay claim to knighthood by his valor!’

. . .

He cries ‘Mountjoy! Lay on, lusty companions,

And Charles will give each man a girl to marry!’

Newth, tr., Song of Aspremont; Brandin, ed., Chanson d’Aspremont, ll. 5558–9, 5572–3.

57 Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens; Robertson, ‘Comprehending Rape’; Hawkes, ‘Bibliography of

Legal Records’. I am grateful to Roberta Krueger for providing these sources.

in medieval literature and law from the point of view of males, that sexual violence

was a problem in this society because they saw it as a problem. We might,

building on her argument, suggest that the issues involving rape which so

engaged male attention were closely linked with the prowess and honour so

much at the heart of chivalry. Even when idealized or adored, women seem to

have been considered property in much chivalric literature, prizes to be won

by knightly prowess or to be defended against the prowess of others.58 The

chronicle of Richard the Lion-Heart says plainly that in the attack on Messina

‘there were women taken, fair / And excellent and debonair’. When some of

the king’s ships have wrecked on the coast of Cyprus and Richard’s sister is

endangered he, of course, rushes to the defence.59

Honour is the real prize, as Agravain, quoted at the opening of this chapter,

understood. Geoffroi de Charny also understood, even though he strongly

disagreed; he complained, in effect, that many followed Agravain’s view:

And there are many who say that they would not want to love Queen Guinevere if they

did not declare it openly or if it were not known. Such men would prefer it to be said

by everyone that they were the accepted lovers of ladies, even if this were not true, than

to love and meet with a favourable response, were this to be kept secret.60

This game of males winning renown by fighting over prized ladies is surely as

old as the story of the Iliad, and as widespread as the furthest reaches of

anthropological field study.

The game is played endlessly in chivalric literature, reinforcing on each

round the reformist ideal that it is the duty and right of knights to protect

ladies. In theory, in the world of Arthurian romance, every maiden or lady is

protected within Arthur’s realm. In The Story of Merlin, Gawain, seeing two

knights preparing to rape a young lady, shouts at them, ‘that they were already

dead, because they were assaulting a lady in King Arthur’s land. “For you

know very well,” he went on, “that ladies are guaranteed their safety.” ’61 In the

practice presented in literature, every maiden or lady might be considered at

risk in this forested Hobbesian world. Sometimes the threat comes from robbers

or assorted ruffians who would not make the social register; more often

the threat comes (as it does in this case) in armour, from unreformed knights.

58 Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 103; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 4581–6, casually

mentions that a maiden whom Lancelot has saved from rape is pregnant with her deliverer’s child

after he stayed in her household for a week.

59 Hubert and La Monte, tr., Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart and Paris, ed., L’Histoire de la

guerre sainte, ll. 819–20, 1435 ff.

60 Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 119.

61 Gawain has been reduced to the physical size of a dwarf because of his discourtesy to a lady.

His prowess is undiminished, of course, and his rescue in this case restores him. Pickens, tr., Story

of Merlin, 422–3; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 462.

In this same text, Hector must defeat Marigart the Red, a knight of great

prowess, who rapes a virgin a month.62 Perceval and his sister, setting off to

visit their mother’s grave, in the first continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval, find

that ‘even though they were in their own land, they were not, it seems, free and

clear of war. Perceval glanced to one side and saw an armed knight come riding.’

The challenging knight wants Perceval’s sister and can be dissuaded only

by being beaten in combat. When Perceval and his sister set off together to

continue his grail quest, later in this romance, the same sort of attack recurs,

for the same motive.63

The threat of knights is so often portrayed as a specifically sexual threat. In

Chrétien’s Erec and Enide, the heroine must, as a test, ride through the forest

ahead of her lord, fetchingly attired, to attract the knights who want to ‘win’

her by defeating Erec. When the Lord of the Fens learns (in The Story of

Merlin) that his young daughter cannot marry his powerful neighbour

Leriador because she is already pregnant by King Ban, he is confronted by an

irate Leriador, who

swore that, since he could not have the lady by love, he would take her by force; and

after him, all others who wanted her could have her. So this is how he left, and he went

into his country and called his men together until there were a good eight hundred


In the Lancelot, a maiden who wants to accompany Hector on a quest is told

she is foolish, ‘ “for if it happened,” said the queen, “that another knight

defeated Hector, he would take you and do with you as he wished.” ’65 In

Chrétien’s Lancelot, this possibility is even formulated as a custom:

The custom and policy at that time were as follows: any knight meeting a damsel who

is alone should slit his own throat rather than fail to treat her honourably, if he cares

about his reputation. For if he takes her by force, he will be shamed forever in all the

courts of all lands. But if she is led by another, and if some knight desires her, is willing

to take up his weapons and fight for her in battle, and conquers her, he can without

shame or blame do with her as he will.66

In some corners of the world of Arthurian literature even the first part of this

custom is not observed. Sagremore rapes a beautiful and noble maiden who

Knights, Ladies, and Love 227

62 Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 103–4; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 393–5.

63 Bryant, tr., Perceval, 151, 214; Roach, ed., Continuations, IV, ll. 23770–809. Perceval’s lance

skewers the man, two feet of it protruding on the other side of his body.

64 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 413; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 446.

65 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 169; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 307.

66 Quoting Gravdal’s translation, Ravishing Maidens, 66. The Lancelot Part IV likewise states

that an unaccompanied lady could travel unmolested, but if she had an escorting knight, ‘and

another knight can win her in battle, the winner can take the lady or maiden in any way he desires

without incurring shame or blame’: Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 10; Micha, Lancelot, II, 24.

fails to greet him courteously in The Marvels of Rigomer; he leaves her the bag

of coins he carries for charitable gifts; he also leaves her pregnant.67 Of course

women of no status are simply targets outside the debate. King Pellinor

fathered Tor on ‘a shepherdess, whom the king found in a field watching her

beasts, but her beauty was so great that the king took a fancy to her, and lay by

her and fathered Tor’.68

Even ladies of position might be troubled. Guinevere’s father, King

Leodagan, seeing his chance to have his seneschal’s wife, crawls into bed with

the fearful lady:

and he told her to keep quiet; if she shouted a single word, he would kill her with his

sharp sword, or if she thrashed about in the least. The lady defended herself with words

as much as she could, but she did not dare speak out loud, so her arguments availed her

very little.69

Round Table knights swore to do no rape. Malory’s Morte Darthur gives the

famous oath knights of the Round Table must swear each year; it includes a

clause never to ‘enforce’ any ‘ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and

wydowes’.70 The sentiment is as noble as the evident need for its regular swearing

is instructive. Even Round Table knights appear in chivalric literature in

the very role they formally renounce. In the Merlin Continuation, for example,

Perceval must stop the combat of Sagremore and the Ugly Hero, fighting over

who shall have a desirable maiden. Freed and offered Perceval’s protection, the

maiden declines: ‘I’ve no need of an escort, for I won’t meet anyone in these

parts who will make any demands on me, since I’m safe from these two.’71

Even King Arthur is a rapist in the Post-Vulgate Quest for the Holy Grail.

Lost while hunting, he comes upon a beautiful maiden and ‘was so pleased

with her that he lay with her by force. She was a young girl and still knew nothing

of such matters, and she began to cry out while he was lying with her, but

67 Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 169–73; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 7759–982.

Though the author terms the rape ‘grant folie’, (noting that the son engendered will take

vengeance on Sagremore), he pauses to admire the beauty of Sagremore’s body and arms as he

rides away, and pictures the lady thinking so handsome a man must surely be of high status; none

of the locals is as handsome as he. Casual sex is the reward of the heroes of this text; see, e.g.,

Vesce, ibid., 25, 103; Foerster, ibid., ll. 1056–68, 4581–6.

68 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 238; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, II, 114–15.

69 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 248; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 148–9. A little later, this

same text (Pickens, ibid., 257; Sommer, ibid., 165) presents Yvain the Bastard, son of King Urien

who kept his seneschal’s wife in his castle, by force, for five years.

70 Vinaver, ed., Malory. Works, 75. Cf. Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 208; Micha, ed., Lancelot,

V, 7.

71 Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation (end), 108–9; Bogdanow, ed., ‘Folie Lancelot’, 150–511:

Perceval tellingly lectures the other Round Table knights on the ideal: ‘A knight who is courteous

should never think of taking a maiden away by force, for truly it’s the most ignoble thing a valiant

man can do, to lay a hand on a maiden against her will.’

it did her no good, for the king did what he wanted anyway.’72 Under threat

of decapitation by her father, the weeping maid tells all. Her wrathful father

charges Arthur with dishonouring him; yet he well knows he cannot take standard

revenge against his sovereign so he merely rejects the king’s offer of a rich

marriage and keeps his daughter under watch, to see if she has been impregnated

by Arthur. Yet the knight’s show of outrage is quickly compromised, for

he soon rapes his own daughter-in-law, kills his son, and kills his daughter as

well, when she protests his actions.73

Sometimes the ladies are only too happy to give their bodies to the

knights.74 Not a few times a desirable lady offers herself as the prize to be

awarded the winner of a much-advertised tournament or some pas d’armes. But

the general attitude seems to be that valiant knights should not be denied,

whatever the lady’s personal inclinations. Watching Sagremore fight in a

rough tournament, the ladies in the window of the great hall state this creed:

‘he is a handsome knight in body and limb, he is yet a better knight in spirit.

And she who has him can well boast that she has one of the best knights in the

court; likewise, she would be uncourtly and unwise who refused the love of

such a knight.’75 For the truly reluctant women in chivalric literature, unless

Merlin is conveniently at hand to cast a spell dissolving resistance,76 the threat

of sexual violence looms large. It seems more than symbolic that the verb

esforcer is used in this literature, even within the same literary work, both in the

military sense of ‘to strive, to make a great effort’, and in the sense of ‘to rape’.77

This is no argument, obviously, that most knights were rapists.78 Yet is it

not likewise unlikely that knights simply protected ladies who were endlessly

grateful? to imagine that this medieval world was (unlike all other worlds of

which we have any knowledge) blissfully happy and without conflict in the

arena of relations between the sexes? Surely we might guess that in life as in lit-

Knights, Ladies, and Love 229

72 Asher, tr., Quest, 215; Bogdanow, ed., Version Post-Vulgate, 473. For Mordred’s desire to rape

a passing maid, and the disastrous consequences, see Asher, ibid., 192–4; Bogdanow, ibid., 370–6.

73 Arthur the Less has already been born from Arthur’s sexual union with this maid.

74 E.g. the lady who yields to the urgings of Girflet, or the daughter of the King of North

Wales, who says, when Gawain finally manages to get into her bed, ‘now I have what I have always

desired’: Carroll, tr., Lancelot, 202, 212; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 365–6; Elspeth

Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 485, 509.

75 Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 347; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 324.

76 As he was, famously, in the sexual union of Uther Pendragon and Ygraine, which produces

Arthur (Pickens, Story of Merlin, 204; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 67–8) and, less famously, in

the union of Arthur and Lisanor, which produces Loholt (Pickens, ibid., 235; Sommer, ibid.,


77 Tobler and Lommatzsch, Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch, 3: ll. 1045–6.

78 It would even be difficult to establish any exact sense of the incidence of rape in society generally,

let alone that committed by knights, even in England, with its miles of surviving court rolls.

As Hanawalt asks rhetorically, ‘Who can say how many masters raped servants or lords raped peasant

women?’ Crime and Conflict, 106.

erature knights played more complex and more ambiguous roles, that troubling

problems cried out for solutions as a warrior aristocracy fitted itself into

a framework of social and public order; if this order was largely acceptable and

somewhat of their own making, sometimes it crimped a bit. Their literature

stands in clear witness to such problems and to the ideal solutions that were

eagerly put forward for the knights’ education and edification.79

We can, in short, recognize in such ideals new attempts to fit the relationships

between males and females—at least those who ranked within the privileged,

lay, social strata—into the knightly frame of life based especially on

prowess and honour. The point of view was congenial to most males in this

privileged group, though they must have been aware of an undercurrent of

reform ideas aimed at modifying aspects of their behaviour.

Thus we can recognize that this literature not only heaped upon chivalry a

great measure of idealized responsibility for the protection of women and for

the elimination of the most coarse and brutal forms of subjection; it also

endowed knights with an even greater valorization of their powerful place in

society in general, and especially with regard to women. These works offered

the knights a more refined form of male dominance as one powerful element

of their chivalry. Knighthood was here, as always, both challenged and buttressed

by reform ideas.

79 Examples are plentiful in Middle English literature, no less than in the Old French texts

largely cited above. See Gist, Love and War, 75–84, 111.