Sir Gawain Vs. the Courtly Love Tradition

“But it is no marvel if a fool goes astray in his wits, and through the wiles of women comes to sorrow…How better it would be if we could love them well, but never believe them, if only a man could do it.”:”(“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, in Medieval Romances, ed. Roger Sherman Lewis and Laura Hibbard Lewis [New York: The Modern Library, 1957], pg. 386)”:

These bitter words, spoken by Sir Gawain upon his being confronted with his only failing as a knight—being convinced by the promises of a woman (with whom he had thusfar resisted all compromise) that her girdle would magically protect his life in battle—may be seen as part of a more orthodox Christian response to the developing excesses of the courtly love tradition. Being myself scarcely familiar with the courtly love tradition, its complex refraction through the even more complex Arthurian legends, and obviously hindered by the fact that the author of Sir Gawain is unknown and so it is impossible to place his story in the larger framework of his life, I do not advance this hypothesis with great confidence. Nevertheless, I think there is something here worth considering in more detail, even if I fail to do so adequately.

Considering that such influential courtly love writers as Andreas Capellanus (late 12th century) argued that (1) because love had to be freely given but marriage was a type of social straitjacket upon individual freedom only adulterous love could be real love and (2) that all the deceptions and intrigues characteristic of couples engaged in courtly love behavior was actually a demonstration of their virtuousness and of the woman’s intrinsic moral / spiritual superiority over the man, one might read Sir Gawain’s lament as a more realistically Christian commentary upon the fallenness of all humans, including women, in Adam. For in the same paragraph Arthur’s knight rehearses a list of prominent biblical figures who “were brought down by the wiles of women”: Adam, Solomon, Samson, and David.

Against Andreas Capellanus,:”(Number 26 of “The Rules of Love”, found at The Art of Courtly Love.)”: who proposed the thesis that “Love can deny nothing to love” , Sir Gawain follows certain conventions of the courtly love tradition by allowing secret meetings—and stolen kisses—between himself and the Green Knight’s wife to take place, but yet also in the face of her most piteous yet attempt to woo him with “fond loving words”, plainly says “By St. John I have no lover, nor will have one now.”:”(Both quotes on pg. 370 of Medieval Romances.)”: Whereas Capellanus teaches that love (which he seems to identify with sexual activity) is “derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty 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,”:”(As quoted here.)”: Sir Gawain is able to lie passively in bed with his love clad in provocative attire:”(“Her sweet face was unveiled, and her throat was bare, for the robe was cut low both back and front.”, Medieval Romances, pg. 369)”: and leaning over him and kissing him, herself “set in her heart on making love to him” but himself able to “put aside all the fond loving words that sprang to her lips.”:”(Ibid., pg. 370.)”:

On the one hand it might be argued that this incredible stoicism on Gawain’s part reflects a sort of “Platonized” ideal about a chivalrous man’s ability to resist temptation (the biblical model has the man fleeing the adulteress, not sitting around pretending he can “go this far and no further”—Gen. 39:7-12; 1 Cor. 6:18), but on the other hand, the author of the story wishes us to understand that Gawain’s single fault was the essentially natural love of his own physical life:”(Ibid., pp. 372, 376, 384.)”: —a love which caused him to rationalize taking the lady’s girdle so as to simultaneously appear to her to be satisfying at least some of the expectations of courtly love while yet in his own heart having quite a different purpose in mind. Thus, even if there is some “Platonic” distortion in the account of Gawain’s ability to resist sexual temptation, at the same time there is another element at work—the element of the Christian man being so focused upon his higher duty to God and neighbor that he will not violate either for the sake of the promise that “stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant” (Prov. 9:17). This certainly runs contrary to the main emphasis of the courtly love tradition (as exemplified by Andreas Capellanus above), and so is the genesis of my suggestion that Sir Gawain’s story may be an attempt by an unknown Christian author to correct some of the excesses of the prevalent courtly love tradition.

[Originally written November 2003 for Peter Leithart's Literature Colloquium at New St. Andrews College.]

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