The chivalrous ideal and courtly love in the English Medieval Period Sir Gawain and The Wife of Bath
Research paper by Alina Mais
Understanding the terms “chivalry” and “love” as portrayed in the English Medieval Period A quick search of the English dictionary serves us an explanation of “chivalry” as firstly used to simply indicate a body of knights or horsemen equipped for battle. Secondly, it is employed in the sense of knighthood in the abstract; knighthood as a class or order; the position and quality of a knight. Thirdly, “chivalry” is used in a broader sense to include the whole knightly system of the later Middle Ages, with its particular religious, moral social codes and traditions. Professor Hearnshaw of London University quotes, in his study on chivalry, two French historians which state that “chivalry was a system which modified and completed feudalism. It was not an institution, but an ethical and religious association, shedding a ray of ideal beauty through a society corrupted by anarchy.” (Bemont and Monod, Medieval Europe ) Whether or not this ideal was brought to real life is a matter that I will not insist upon in this particular study. It is suffice to say that even the Church itself was infected at the time with blatant immorality. My self- proposed quest, further in my research, is to demonstrate how much of this ideal can be uncovered in Sir Gawain. The matter of “true love” as we have grown to know nowadays is far from being valid in the Medieval Period, adultery being one of its main characteristics. To better understand such a concept I have turned to Andreas Capellanus’ “The Art of Courtly Love” in which he starts with the definition of love as being “a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.” The “precepts” include jealousy and adultery, love and marriage were sadly divorced.
The emergence of Gallantry
Gallantry, in the erotic sense of the term, that ultimately led to establish courtly love, was the last component that completed chivalry. At first the military monks were, much in theory, devoted to the Virgin Mary and to veneration of the holy women of the calendar. Their mission towards the ordinary woman was solely to protect from the violence and ferocity of outlaws of that time. Fast forwarding to less stressful times after the conflicts between feudalized Christendom and the hosts of its pagan invaders were settled, and we find that the fortress has become more of a home and a centre of social interaction. In this context, feminine graces had an opportunity to thrive. The position of women underwent a significant transformation due to the arrival of the well known romancers of those times – the troubadours, who altered the domestic life. They did so, not by influencing women to love and treasure their spouses but by encouraging them to love outside the sanctified contract. The troubadours considered marriage as an obstacle and could not have thought to break the bonds of feudal conventionality. Ladies were encouraged to seek and find the liberation of unlawful charm, and were benevolently initiated in the ways by which jealous husbands could be outsmarted and their predictable anger avoided. These so called rescuers of ladies provided, and openly recommended in ardent verse the paramour. Likewise, knights and squires were expected, as part of their chivalric obligation, to acquire the favour of a lady. Having won this favour they had to make it the primary priority of their lives. Chivalric gallantry , was therefore an enormous structure of bigamy, in which every lady was expected to have both a husband and a paramour; and every knight, besides the wife to whom for business reason he was bound, a ‘divine being’, whose demands he promptly acted upon. Although this behaviour was considered righteous,...
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