Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sir Gawain and the Marvellous

The mediaeval romance, like any fantasy genre, is rich in the marvellous - the magical, the supernatural, the bemusing and the wonderously inexplicable. John Stevens[1] divides the marvellous into four types (pp 99-102):

1) The exotic - that which is marvellous because it is from some far-off land (the Orient, India, etc) but is not actually supernatural in any way, merely out of our reach.

2) The mysterious - that marvel which has no agent, "unmotivated, unexplained and inexplicable". Suddenly appearing castles or ships, talking animals or landscape features like a bridge made out of a sword belong to this category.

3) The magical - the marvellous controlled by man (including creatures like wizards or fairies). Morgan le Fay's vast array of send-away-for-the-magic-ointment/ring-of-your-choice artefacts all live here, as well as magic armour and swords.

4) The miraculous - the marvellous controlled by God. Miracles, divine aid or visions are the most common, and they usually occur in accounts of the Grail quest.

Like most general categorisations, as a theory it's neat and works well for most romances, particularly the ones written by poets who don't really rise above the ordinary and challenge the medium they're writing in. However, the attempt to apply it to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shows how gently that poem refuses categorisation, in this as in other things.

[1] Medieval Romance: Themes and Approaches. London: Hutchison, 1973.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cowardice and cortaysye

The Green Knight comes to Camelot, attracted by rumours of their twofold greatness:

"... thy burgh and thy burnes [men] best ar holden,
Stifest under stel-gere [in armour] on stedes to ryde,
The wyghtest [bravest] and the worthyest of the worldes kynde...
And here is kydde [renowned] cortaysye, as I haf herd carp,
And that has wayned [brought] me hider, iwyis, at this tyme." (259-264)

He portrays Camelot's renown as based on two things: their bravery and their courtesy. Benson (Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 1965) argues that both beheading scenes (and, this would imply, the rest of the poem) are in fact tests of both these qualities of Camelot, but that its representatives never wholly understand it.

In the first scene, Benson finds, "the frightened courtiers quickly disqualify themselves... they are courtiers rather than warriors" (214). They do not respond to the Green Knight's challenge - though the poet generously gives them an out by saying "I deme hit not al for doute [fear], Bot sum for cortaysye", giving us probably the first instance in the poem of bravery and courtesy being set at odds. But the Green Knight clearly interprets it as cowardice, and he turns to mockery:

"What, is this Arthures hous," quoth the hathel [man] thenne,
"That al the rous [talk] rennes of thurgh ryalmes [realms] so mony?
Where is now your sourquydrye [pride] and your conquestes,
Your gryndellayk [fierceness] and your greme [anger] and your grete wordes?" (309-312)

This time, he (discourteously!) emphasises bravery, and doesn't mention courtesy at all. And interestingly, Arthur's response to this is to abandon courtesy himself and reply with angry violence, grabbing the axe, declaring that no man here is afraid of the Green Knight and preparing to accept the challenge himself. Benson says that he "thus upholds Camelot’s reputation for bravery, but in doing so he deserts what now becomes the most important aspect of its fame. He forgets that he is “þe hendest”, and he becomes for the moment like the “methles” Green Knight" (215).

It is at this moment, of course, that Gawain speaks up, bowing to the king and saying "I beseche now ... this melly mot be myne" (341-2). Gawain, for now, has both the courtesy and the courage to undertake the task, showing himself (according to Benson's reckoning) superior to the other knights and to Arthur: "it is apparent that the king has failed, for to take up an adventure that one does not finish is “surquidré”, especially when one takes it up with so boastful an announcement of his intentions as Arthur makes. Yet it is also clear that Arthur has somehow failed the test even before Gawain’s interruption and that Gawain must step forward not only to show his loyalty to the king but also to save the integrity of the court" (Benson 214).

Benson then applies this logic to the second beheading scene, at the Green Chapel. The usual reading of this scene - the one the Green Knight himself gives - is that the three blows of the axe are analogous to the three days of testing at Hautdesert, and that since Gawain passed the first two days, the first two blows do not touch him, and since he failed only a little on the third day, he is only slightly nicked by the third blow. Benson offers an additional explanation, based on his division of the test into courage and courtesy. In brief, Gawain flinches from the first blow of the axe, thereby failing in courage. The Green Knight withholds that blow and mocks him, just as he mocked Arthur at Camelot - and with the same result! Though bearing the blow unflinchingly was not part of the original bargain, Gawain reinterprets it to be a test solely of courage, and responds rather snippily that he won't move again, though HE can't stick his head back on when it falls off, unlike SOME PEOPLE. The Green Knight raises the axe again - and this time, withholds the blow. This is generally considered the second "blow", Benson's test of courtesy, and Gawain fails it, bursting out in angry protest against the unfair suspense. Only after that does the axe fall, nicking Gawain's neck for the third blow and completion of the test.

It's a good theory. For one thing, it explains not just the fact of the first two blows (which is all that the Green Knight's version accounts for) but their nature. Gawain's flinching was presumably integral to the first blow because otherwise it would have nicked his neck and the test would have been over then. The second blow wasn't technically a blow, but Benson's theory explains how it was just as much a test as the first.

It falls down a little if we try to apply the failures of the first two tests to the first two days - alright, Gawain's hiding under the blanket and pretending to be asleep when the lady first enters could be seen as cowardice, but it's hard to argue that he fails in courtesy on the second day, and besides, the Green Knight does say that he didn't fail at all on those days. On the other hand, the animals Bertilak hunted on those days, which critics often argue are symbolically linked to the action in the bedroom one way or another, could be seen to relate to this theme. The first quarry is deer - specifically female deer - whose courage no one could extol. The second quarry is a wild boar, an animal often associated with bold, fierce knights, the epitome of courage, but without much association with the civilised aspects of the court.

So, if Gawain's pentangle symbolises trawthe, and the nick in his neck is (at least according to him) a token of untrawthe, and if we are to hypothetically allow that Benson's theory doesn't apply just to the two beheading scenes but can extend to describe the whole poem as a test... can we make an equation between trawthe and the combination of courage and courtesy?

Perhaps not quite in those terms. But a common thread running through my thesis is that everything in the world of Sir Gawain is made up of two opposite and more-or-less opposing halves - the axe can symbolise death or victory over death, for example - and that this is a large part of what makes it impossible to actually be perfect as a human in an imperfect world. And the poet does fairly clearly set up courtesy as an impediment to courage, and vice versa. Perhaps it would be more true to say that the trawthe to which Gawain aspires is composed of both worldly elements and spiritual ones which can never be entirely reconciled. One cannot avoid one's duties to society and fellow man (courtesy) to uphold a spiritual virtue (courage, broadly speaking - trust in a higher power?). In his A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Burrow clearly regards both of these elements in his idea of trawthe, when he says "the ideal of ‘truth’ does not require a knight to transcend these things [courtesy, fraunchyse]: it involves the perfection of a man before society as well as before God" (47).

- Benson, Larry D. Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965.
- Burrow, John Anthony. A reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Routledge, 1965.

- All Gawain quotes (but not the glosses) are taken from J. J. Anderson's 1996 Everyman edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited together with the other three poems from the single manuscript in which the poem survives, Cotton Nero A.x - Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Redefining masculinity: Pierre Abelard

To continue with the theme of men losing their bits!

I'm opening the discussion in our seminar today, which is on male bodies and defining masculinity, specifically the body of Pierre Abelard and his attempts to rewrite himself in his Historia Calamitatum after he was castrated by a rampaging mob of respectable uncles[1]. So here are my rough notes for the occasion!

For those who might not know, Abelard was a 12th century philosopher/scholar/theologian, one of the most brilliant men of the age. While attending university, he earned his keep by teaching Heloise, a young woman who was possibly more brilliant than he was. They had a passionate affair, until they were unfortunately found out, the uncle got rather annoyed and Abelard married her to placate him (though interestingly, Heloise didn't seem too pleased with that course of action). Unfortunately, it didn't work. After the spot of mob violence, he packed his wife off to a convent and (later) became a monk himself, while continuing his rather obnoxiously intellectual career and making many enemies. His Historia is actually a letter to a friend, written many years later, telling the story of his life to date in the vein of "stop whining, mate, see how much worse off I'VE got it".

The other two readings are "Separating the Men from the Beasts: Medieval Universities and Masculine Formation", by Ruth Mazo Karras in her From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002; and Martin Irvine's "Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity and Remasculinization" in Bonnie Wheeler and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, eds, Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

I shall work on the daring assumption that everyone has (mostly) read the readings and therefore not summarise them: instead, I'll explain and pose three questions which I at least think are interesting and hope might lead to discussion!

- Was marriage also a type of castration for Abelard?
Irvine talks of two 'castrations' in Abelard's life - the physical one, and the intellectual one later at his trial for heresy. But was there a third, before all this?
- Karras talks about the effect of young men being brought up in what she calls "the university model of masculinity", and the necessity to prove yourself within it. Abelard seems to have begun his formal schooling, if not his university life, very young, and explicitly says that he renounced the school of Mars - the traditional field of masculine proof and endeavour - for that of Minerva. He's undeniably a very competitive and proud man, and presumably not going to look well on anything which got in the way of his advancement as a man in the world of intellectuals. Marriage wasn't really compatible with a career in holy orders or the university - and Abelard tells us that eunuchs can't have a position in the church either.
- Karras discusses how women were considered to fit into university life - only as a vehicle for sexual release, not for marriage or emotional involvement. "Courtly ideas of love played little role" (Karras 227) - but much of Abelard's early poetry to Heloise uses courtly language. Was it perhaps easier for both of them to pretend it wasn't happening if she was characterised as a prostitute? Later in her first letter, Heloise says she'd prefer the name of whore to wife.
- But how much of this is Abelard reconstructing his past from a distance, with the instinctive Pavlovian response to getting castrated after marriage that says "God smote me for this, IT WAS BAD we must not think any good of it at all"?

- Why did Abelard's enemies take such savage advantage of his castration to deny him even grammatical masculinity?
- It's tempting to take Abelard's story as an exaggeration here and there, with his emphasis on his own cleverness and everyone's adulation of him, and also the degree of persecution from his enemies. But see Irvine's quoting of the letters of his enemies to him (92-93), containing jibes like Roscelin's "a noun of masculine gender, if it falls away from its own gender, would refuse to signify its usual thing... since the part that makes a man has been removed, you are to be called not "Petrus" [a masculine noun] but "imperfectus Petrus"".
- Consider the metaphors of fencing within the elaborate scholarly disputatio. Fencing or jousting is a traditional way of physically proving oneself against one's (masculine) opponents, but is usually meant to be in game rather than earnest. But of course, sometimes, people would cross the line, or take something too seriously, or just see red, and it would pass into anger and people really getting hurt. Is this sort of vicious professional rivalry a reflection of that? the need to seriously injure your opponent before he could come back at you with a stronger attack?
... or was he just that unpleasant a man to have to argue with that people really did hate him?

- Did the existence of comparable social roles, like "eunuch" and (to a lesser extent) "Jew" have an effect on how Abelard could define his masculinity?
- We'd tend to understand him today as a man who'd had an unfortunate accident, suffered a loss to his symbolic masculinity perhaps, but still a man. But they had a third social 'gender', which we don't have anymore: eunuchs. Not terribly prevalent, but here and there, usually outside society, with specific roles. Similarly, the partial eunuch, the circumcised Jew (see Irvine 100), very much a social pariah. "Truncating this member is the height of foulness" and "no woman would give her consent" to be had by such a man.
- Both historians mention eunuchs, in passing, but neither of them really discusses their possible effect on Abelard's understanding of his own social position. Abelard tells us that eunuchs can't take up a position in the Church, and is repulsed by the idea of St Origen's self-castration. The use of castration as a punishment can't have helped this negative view of eunuchs. (Admittedly, as a punishment it's usually as part of execution, see Hugh Despenser!)
- Perhaps the existence of these social groups who weren't properly a part of ordinary society increased the stigma or shame of being castrated?

[1] Alright, one respectable uncle. But he brought his friends along!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Essay on Edward II

Edit: This is now the second draft of my essay on Edward II, for the course The Mediaeval Body at Melbourne University. The inspiration came from a post by Alianore, and she was also kind enough to point me to a few very useful sources - thank you!

Still a little editing and proof-reading to do, of course, but it's much tidier than it was. And, of course, I need to double-check everything to make sure I'm not entirely misrepresenting what actually happened. Since I'm not used to writing history essays (I'm usually more of a literature person), this is all an exciting and unfamiliar process for me.

To that end, those of you who have spent a good deal more time than I have studying Edward, feel free to tell me where I've gone wrong, in large ways or small!


The rise of queer and gender criticism has led to a tendency to regard certain historical figures and events primarily from that point of view. Reinterpreting the reign of Edward II in the light of these critical views does help us to understand certain aspects of his life. However, it is possible to overstate this angle, to use suggestive phrases in the later chronicles to reconstruct the story of the barons’ objections to Gavaston and Despenser as a protest against transgressive sexual relations with the monarch. There are, in fact, very few hints that his relationships with Gavaston and Despenser were perceived as sexual in nature prior to 1326, or even the question was considered particularly important. It was not until Isabella and Mortimer invaded England that these accusations began to circulate. The propaganda used to involve the populace in deposition and the resulting popular perception of Edward used sodomy as an allegory for other kinds of transgressive behaviour. He had disrupted public order, the tiers of rank and the natural flow of the economy, largely to aid his favourites. In doing so, he had subverted the accepted social metaphor of the king as head of his country, the man as head of his wife. The graphic imagery of Edward’s body as subject and object of the realm’s disorders multiplied in the wake of his deposition to retrospectively narrate the country’s experience. His undeniable weakness as a monarch, together with depictions like Geoffrey le Baker’s chronicle and Marlowe’s play, encouraged later generations to characterise him as a sodomitical rex inutile – the perfect subject for enthusiastic re-examination by proponents of queer criticism. But whether Edward’s relationships with Gavaston and Despenser contained a sexual element is not, ultimately, historically important. What is beyond doubt is the strength of Edward’s emotional attachment to each of these men, and it is that, together with contemporary perceptions of these relationships, that had the greatest effect on events.

Piers Gavaston: hot-headed young Gascon knight, doubtless devilishly handsome, exiled by Edward I to keep him away from the future king, recalled three months later as soon as the old king died, far preferred by Edward II to his mere wife, recipient of lavish gifts by the king (including the earldom of Cornwall), denied nothing he asked for, with a habit of swaggering about the court and giving the other earls insulting nicknames, exiled twice more at the insistence of the earls, recalled each time by Edward, finally arrested and murdered on the orders of the most powerful earl in the country, leaving his corpse unburied for years as Edward swore revenge on his dear friend’s murderers – it has all the ingredients of the best star-crossed love stories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the earls were acting out of homophobia or righteous defence of a neglected queen. Despite elaborately public displays of affection, in defiance of his father and the opinion of his court, contemporary records have left us no whisper of sodomy. On returning to England with his new bride early in 1308, Edward’s first action on disembarking is said to have been an enthusiastic and demonstrative greeting of Gavaston, kissing and embracing him in front of the crowd, his young wife and her royal brothers and uncles1. The same man received the most prominent role in his coronation (dressed in royal purple and pearls, “non regis sed gloriam propriam quaerens”, according to the Annales Paulini (262)), Edward’s constant attention throughout the coronation feast, and all Edward’s wedding gifts – even those from his bride’s father, the king of France (AP 262)2. Not surprisingly, Isabella’s brothers are said to have stood up, shouted angrily at Edward and stormed out of the hall. Within four months the English barons had forced Gavaston back into exile. By anyone’s standards, this is a gross failure of tact and international diplomacy, and the reactions of the French representatives and English earls are understandable even if they read the relationship as remaining emotionally within the bounds of normal male-male friendship.

Most of the evidence from the earlier part of Edward II’s reign suggests the earls’ quarrel with Gavaston was on quite different grounds – not least the insulting nicknames. The official records of the Articles against Gavaston in 1308 and the Ordinances of 1311 agree with the Vita in their assessment of Gavaston. The Articles state that he “disinherits the crown... puts discord between the king and his people, and he draws to himself the allegiance of men by as stringent an oath as does the king, thereby making himself the peer of the king and so enfeebling the crown” (English Historical Documents 526). The twentieth Ordinance accuses him of “drawing to himself royal power and dignity”, and goes into more detail about specific acts of offence, such as “causing blank charters under the great seal of the king to be sealed to the deceit and disinheritance of the king and of his crown” (EHD 532). These documents are, by their nature, unlikely to contain more than veiled allusions to a suspected sexual relationship, but that isn’t really an issue. The extensive list of objections to Gavaston shows just how destructive his relationship with Edward was perceived to be in the public sphere. There was no need for the earls to turn to the private sphere to explain the necessity to be rid of Gavaston. In fact, the first sentence of the Articles explains the political advantage of dwelling on the public, judicial failures of the king:

Homage and the oath of allegiance are more in respect of the crown than in respect of the king’s person and are more closely related to the crown than to the king’s person; and this is evident because, before the crown has descended to the person, no allegiance is due to him. (EHD 525)

Having described the objections to Gavaston and the dilemma that results when the king, as head of the judicial system, is partial and “will not right a wrong”, the articles conclude that “he cannot be judged or attainted by an action brought according to law, and therefore... the people rate him as a man attainted and adjudged, and pray the king that... he will accept and execute the award of the people” (EHD 526). In this way, the disastrous effect of Gavaston’s influence over Edward was turned to advantage, allowing “the people” (a euphemism for the barons, at this stage) to concoct distinctions between the traditional ‘two bodies’ of the king, deny the authority of his mere physical manifestation and take matters into their own hands.
Chronicle and other evidence suggests that the public perception of the situation was a simplified version of the barons’ understanding. The Vita Edwardi Secundi - almost certainly written before 1326, and so not coloured by knowledge of those events - suggests that the reason Gavaston was universally hated was twofold: arrogance, and monopolising the king’s ear (Vita 27-29). Less analytical, the Annales Paulini gives a similar picture but attributes Gavaston’s unpopularity to events such as the Wallingford tournaments, rather than breaking these events down into ongoing frictions (AP 259). Even allowing for the unmentionable nature of sodomy, it seems that at this point the barons did not need that string in their bow, with the result that there were no widely known rumours about Edward’s sexuality.

When Piers Gavaston threw his weight about, it affected the nobility. When Hugh Despenser started to throw his about, it affected all of England. More ambitious than Gavaston, more ruthless, unquestionably more cruel, Despenser “wretchedly disinherited many, forced some into exile, extorted unjust ransoms from many, [and] collected a thousand pounds’ worth of land by means of threats” (Vita 195). He was canny at accumulating money, but neither he nor Edward had the knack of spending it well. The economic distress of the country, coupled with Edward’s extravagance in spending money on himself and his friends, eventually prompted the pope to write urging financial moderation and care (Saaler 89-90). During this period, all of Edward I’s advances into Scotland were lost to the determined leadership of Robert Bruce, who also took over much of Ireland. Powicke points out the emphasis on military failures in the reasons given for Edward’s deposition. The seriousness of this in mediaeval notions of kingship is suggested by warrior-saint allegories like Lydgate’s story of St Edmund, whose virginity – ie, the preservation of the integrity of his physical body – was closely linked with his military success, and therefore his ability to maintain the analogous integrity of England (Lewis). Law and order deteriorated, even as Edward and the Despensers tightened their hold on the upper levels of society in order to maintain their position. The beginning of famine can hardly have helped. In a society whose belief system included the image of the king as figurative head of the country, and a vengeful God not averse to punishing the whole body for the sins or inadequacies of that head, the universal human instinct to blame authority figures for crises must have manifested itself even more strongly than usual.

The rebellion and subsequent call for Edward’s deposition were handled with a keen eye to public support. Isabella’s mourning weeds, her care to keep her adulterous relationship with Mortimer out of sight and to identify her cause with that of Lancaster (Thomas of Lancaster, killed in 1322 for rising against Edward and Despenser, was now widely regarded as a saint), to visit shrines as she travelled “quasi peregrinando” (AP 314), to stay on the right side of the populace and to present herself as a rejected wife anxious to save the country and set her son on his rightful throne, formed masterful and effective propaganda. It was now, as it became necessary to engage the people in the momentous business of overthrowing and deposing an inadequate king, that the metaphor of sodomy became a useful shorthand for other forms of cultural transgression. Ormrod hints that it also worked to obscure Isabella’s own contraventions of marital and gender rules – usurping royal power with her lover – by laying similar charges against Edward (Ormrod 27). The idea of Despenser subverting the proper relationship between the king and his lawful wife, first invoked by Isabella when she refused to return from France on Edward’s command (Vita 243), was repeated in various speeches and proclamations. The judgement on Hugh Despenser, for example, is a long catalogue of abuses of power, containing several references to “notre treshonurable dame la Roigne”, and the “descord” Despenser had created between her and her husband as well as “entre notre seignour le Roie et entre les autres gentz du Roialme”, to the “grant deshonur de lui et de son people” (Holmes 265-7).

Even at this time, however, the focus of criticism was not any one action of Edward or Despenser, but their disruption of the proper order. The necessity to simplify events to provoke popular sentiment led to a telescoping of blame. Financial, military and judicial failings, offences against the church and social order, were simplified to the result of “evil counsellors”. The evil counsellors were represented in the person of Hugh Despenser (and, to a lesser extent, his father), while his influence over Edward was, ultimately, sodomy. For example, Isabella’s proclamation against Despenser claimed that he had “usurped royal power against law and justice and his true allegiance... And we... have long been kept far from the goodwill of our said lord the King through the false suggestions and evil dealings of the aforesaid Hugh”3. The rabble-rousing sermons of Orleton, Stratford and Reynolds4 picked up the themes of transgression and misuse and explicitly applied them to Edward’s body – and, by extension, the metaphorical body of England. Preaching on texts like “I will put enmity between thee and the woman” [?ERC], “Vae terrae, cujus rex puer est”, “Cuius caput infirmum, caetera membra dolent”, “Caput meum doleo” and “Rex insipiens perdet populum suum”5, they emphasised Edward’s weakness, puerility and inability to properly manage or care for his “body”. Orleton went further and called Edward a “tyrant and a sodomite” (Haines King Edward 42), claiming that Edward had threatened in his rage to kill his wife if he should see her again (Mortimer “Sermons” 51). This attractively scandalous and memorable simplified the issues at stake almost to the point of parable. Its contrast with the complex precision of the official articles of deposition suggests the political necessity at this point of engaging popular opinion.

Most chronicles stress the role of the crowd in the decision to depose Edward. Valente writes that “for most contemporaries, the decision of the magnates, though perhaps of greatest weight, did not fully constitute the deposition. The approval of the rest of the assembly was certainly of practical utility, since it spread the burden of guilt, but it may have been considered legally necessary as well” (“Deposition and Abdication”, 865). This would account for the eagerness of the post-invasion propaganda to emphasise Despenser’s crimes against the country, and the king as its representative, contrasting to the tone of the articles against Gaveston which complained of specific acts that irritated the barons and reduced the king’s honour. That the chronicler of the Annales Paulini6 relates that Despenser was accused of “multis criminibus et transgressionibus erga populum regni Angliae” (AP 318) suggests that this tactic was generally successful. No calling earls childish nicknames for Hugh Despenser – he was to be a proper villain on a national scale.

The death and popular afterlife of Edward and each Despenser also reflected the political needs of the moment. The judgements on the Despensers detail very precisely the relation of punishment to crime. The relentless repetition of “E pur ceo qe vous... e pur ceo qe... e pur ceo...” in the judgement of the elder Despenser is matched by “qe vostre teste seit mene a Wynchestre... qe vous seietz pendu en une cote quartile de vos armes, et seint les armes destruz pur touz jours” (AP 318). The younger Despenser’s sentence uses the same formula at much greater length, ending chillingly, “Et pur ceo que vous fustes tot tempts desloyaut ... si enserrez vous debouwelle, et puys ils serront ars” (Holmes 265-66). It’s worth noting that this official judgement does not include castration, though some later chroniclers (most notably Froissart) state this did occur before he was disembowelled7. Whether the detail was thought up by his executioners or rumour-mongers, it was probably regarded as an appropriate punishment for his perceived sexual transgressions. Though this care to explain the relation of punishment to the crime is in no way unusual in passing sentences at the time, the emphasis on the almost allegorical significance of each act is striking. It suggests a care to be seen to visit the results of each crime back on the body of the perpetrator, to enact on him the physical manifestation of the damage he had done to society. In addition to satisfying visibly and bloodily the public drive for vengeance, this meticulous turning-back of each act against social order suggests a visible re-establishment of that order – despite the dubious legality of the executions themselves. The same popular urge to see an appropriate punishment visited on the physical body of the tyrant may be present in the various ‘anal rape’ accounts of Edward’s death that started to circulate in the 1330s, and eventually gained such currency as to still be accepted by many people today. Ian Mortimer (“Sermons of Sodomy”) argues that these stories both strengthened and vindicated people’s perceptions that Edward had in fact been a sodomite, and that this was the reason for his poor leadership. By comparison with the physical purity of the virgin St Edmund, the image of Edward’s body being sexually violated by another man functions as a metaphor for the damage he brought to his country in many different spheres. By the time Froissart narrated the events, the view seems to have been sufficiently widespread for him to cautiously attribute the younger Despenser’s castration to his sexual relationship with Edward.

In a culture where the story-telling (and theological explanation of day-to-day life) is saturated with allegory, symbolism and parable, what counted was the symbol, to be shaped by the needs of the moment. This was not necessary in the first half of his reign, when Gavaston’s sins largely consisted of stepping on barons’ toes and there was no real question of deposition. In fact, there never seems to have been much use of stories of sodomy in the upper levels of political events, among people who actually knew him. The barons, being closer to the action, seem to have seen a more detailed and nuanced version of events, and (being personally affected or irritated by him) found the real reasons sufficient to move against Gavaston. When it came to narrating reasons for objection to the populace and engaging their support, these nuances and personal experiences became secondary to rabble-rousing. Invoking common ideas of the king’s body and its relationship with his country helped to simplify, vilify, and turn real life into a parable.

1 Foedera, Conventiones, Literae et cujuscumque generis Acta Publica, or Rymer’s Foedera, 1066-1383, ed. Rymer, Thomas, 1704-35; ed. Clarke et al, Records Commission, London, 1816-69, cited in Weir (29).
2 Chaplais does suggest that at this time Gavaston may have been acting more or less officially as Edward’s chamberlain, and that in this case it would be logical and respectful for Edward to give the gifts into his care (Chaplais ?).
3 Foedera, cited in Weir (30).
4 Respectively the Bishops of Hereford and Winchester, and Archbishop of Canterbury.
5 Lanercost Chronicles, Historia Roffensis, cited in Haines (169-71)
6 The Annales Paulini seem to rely largely on gossip and, being the annals of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, may be taken as more or less representative of popular opinion in London at the time.
7 Alison Weir states that “until 1326, the penalty for treason had not included castration”, and suggests that this detail was included on Isabella’s vengeful instructions (243). In fact, William Wallace had been castrated as part of the formal traitor’s execution in 1306, and Simon de Montfort was castrated posthumously as a traitor in 1265. Whether other traitors had received similar punishments since, it seems to have still been unusual enough for Froissart to comment on it, and to read it as symbolic judgement for his crimes of sodomy, “even, it was said, with the King, and this was why the King had driven away the Queen on his suggestion” (44).

Incomplete bibliography because I am too lazy to redo it for this version of the draft:

Ed. Trans. Childs, Wendy R. Vita Edwardi Secundi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.
Ed. Eckhardt, Caroline D. Castleford's Chronicle, or, The Boke of Brut. Oxford: EETS, 1996.
Froissart. Ed. Trans. Brereton, Geoffrey. Chronicles. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
Holmes, G. A. "Judgement on the Younger Despenser, 1326". The English Historical Review 70 (1955): 261-267. 1955
Ed. Maxwell, Sir Herbert. Scalacronica: The Reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray. Glasgow, 1907.
Ed. Stubbs, William. Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II. Rolls series 76, 1882-3.
Ed. Thompson, E. Maunde. The chronicle of Adam of Usk, A.D. 1377-1421. Felinfach: Llanerch Enterprises, 1990.

Ed. Betteridge, Tom. Sodomy in early modern Europe. New York: Manchester UP, 2002.
Chaplais, Pierre. Piers Gaveston, Edward II's Adoptive Brother. Oxford, 1994.
Ed. Cullum, P. H. and Lewis, Katherine J. Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
Cuttino, G. P. & Lyman, T. W. "Where is Edward II?" Speculum 53 (1978), 522-3. 1978.
Ed. Dodd, Gwilym & Musson, Anthony. The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives.
Dunham, William Huse & Wood, Charles T. "The Right to Rule in England: Depositions and the Kingdom's Authority, 1327-1485". The American Historical Review 81 (1976): 738-761. 1976.
Edwards, Kathleen. "The Political Importance of the English Bishops during the reign of Edward II". English Historical Review, 59 (1944): 311-47. 1944.
Haines, R. M. The Church and Politics in Fourteenth Century England: The Career of Adam Orleton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.
Johnstone, Hilda. "The Eccentricities of Edward II". English Historical Review, 48 (1933): 264-7. 1933.
Mortimer, Ian. The greatest traitor: the life of Sir Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, Ruler of England, 1327-1330. London: Johnathon Cape, 2003.
Mortimer, Ian. The Perfect King: the life of Edward III, father of the English nation. London: Jonathon Cape, 2006.
Mortimer, Ian. "A Note on the Deaths of Edward II". Ian Mortimer: http://www.ianmortimer.com/EdwardII/death.htm April 2008. Accessed August 2008.
Powicke, Sir Maurice. "The English Commons in Scotland in 1322 and the Deposition of Edward II". Speculum 35 (1960): 1-15. 1960.
Saaler, Mary. Edward II 1307-1327. London: The Rubicon Press, 1997.
Valente, Claire. "The Deposition and Abdication of Edward II". The English Historical Review 113 (1998): 852-881. 1998.
Valente, Claire. "The "Lament of Edward II": Religious Lyric, Political Propaganda". Speculum 77 (2002), 422-439. 2002.
Weir, Alison. Isabella: She-wolf of France. London: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The invisible norm

Sadly, my citations are being uncooperative, so there will be no Edward II essay tonight.

One of the slightly unfortunate sides of writing an essay on Edward II for a course called "The Mediaeval Body" is that it does, inevitably, involve reading a lot of queer and gender criticism. This is only slightly unfortunate because a lot of it is absolutely fascinating. It is slightly unfortunate because I find it very difficult to read a lot of it at once. Like any critical approach with a specific agenda to push, it can become very esoteric and self-absorbed, and often over-states itself. It's also prone to hyperactive political correctness and consequent over-definition of terms, or an abundance of terms that mean almost the same thing but not quite (my current favourite is "non-heternormative").

I picked up a collection of essays from the university library, in preparing for this essay, called Sodomy in Early Modern Europe[1]. It's after the time I'm looking at, of course, but one of the essays mentions Edward II retrospectively, and it was an interesting and generally well-written collection anyway. But one feature that particularly struck me was that the author of each chapter had to redefine the word 'sodomy', according to what it meant not only in the time and place he or she was studying, but how he or she intended to use it in this chapter. Mostly it was some form of sex between two men, sometimes other not-quite-normal sex acts that we wouldn't raise an eyebrow at nowadays, with occasional hints of child sexual abuse and one slightly bewildering chapter on bestiality in Scotland. I don't believe I've ever read a collection in which the key term of enquiry was redefined quite so extensively from one chapter to the next.

Of course, it makes a valid point. Sodomy was defined differently in different times and places throughout mediaeval and modern Europe, and even today there are places where it can mean anything that isn't heterosexual marital missionary-position vaginal sex for the purposes of procreation. Generally speaking, it was a term of appalled repulsion at the idea of transgressing sexual norms. But that raises the question, unaddressed in that book or any other that I've noticed yet, of just what those norms are. And that leaves a good deal not explored or fully understood about the nature of what is not normal, how a society defines it and deals with it, tries to incorporate it, exclude it, ignore it, overwrite it, anything. If we define black as "not white" that tells us very little about black until we've explored just what "white" means for us as well. And I think this is, in the end, a very likely pitfall for any of these specifically "issues"-based fields of criticism or enquiry.

I say all this, of course, from the privileged position of a not-entirely-straight woman who stands on the far side of the feminist and gay rights movements. I certainly don't mean to deny the value of these perspectives - it's important that we are able to look back and consider history and literature from all these points of view. I do think, though, that in the end we'll know the case is won when rather than saying "queers are evil!" or "celebrate being gay, it is wonderful!" we can honestly say "yes, that's part of this, but actually it doesn't matter all that much".

[1] Actually, SODOMY in Early Modern Europe. I did notice that as a feature of the queer studies shelves - an awful lot of books seemed to have a single, rather explicit word or phrase in very large eye-catching letters on the jacket, usually in very bright colours, followed by the rest of the title in self-effacing little letters. Call me odd, but I don't think a good book really needs to advertise itself like that - but maybe the editors don't agree.

Sodomy in Early Modern Europe is edited by Tom Betteridge (New York: Manchester UP, 2002).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The properties of the diamond

Gawain's worst mistake in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - possibly his only mistake - is one of "cowarddyse". He accepts the beautiful green and gold girdle which the Lady offers, believing her promise that it will save his life in the upcoming encounter. One of the reasons this is usually read as a serious fall from perfection is that Gawain is symbolically placing his faith in the girdle instead of his pentangle emblem, which embodies all his interdependent knightly ideals. Turning his reliance from the pentangle to the girdle, from the protection of Mary to Bertilak's unnamed wife, Gawain unwittingly fails in the Eden-like perfection in which he rode out, innocent and strong and earnest, from Camelot.

Or does he?

Fewer critics have noticed that in the first arming scene, at Camelot, Gawain also carries superstitious charms against harm: his helmet is studded with "diamauntes a devys / That bothe were bryght and broun" (617-18). Early 20th century editions of the poem - Gollancz's and, I believe, Tolkien and Gordon's, though I don't have it by to confirm - gloss "broun" as "bright", but brown diamonds do exist and (to judge by the lapidaries) were well known at this time. It's a minor point in my thesis - just one footnote - but it still needs a proper citation, so I hunted down the EETS English Mediaeval Lapidaries (Evans and Serjeantson, 1933) in the library and photocopied the entries on diamond[1]. It afforded a pleasant afternoon's entertainment coming home on the train.

Most of the lapidaries (which either all have a common source or are blithely copying each other, hardly unusual in mediaeval texts) state that "that diamand that cometh owte of ynd [India] ben clepid [called] the mal, & they ben brewen [brown] of colour & of violet, & tho that comen owte of araby [Arabia] ben clepid femal, & they ben more whight, resonable to the colour of cristall". All the lapidaries which mention colour agree on that, with the possible exception of the North Midland Lapidary, which says that the Arabian diamonds are "mor blew" rather than white - though they could mean the same thing.

As to the properties of the diamond, it seems a paragon among stones. To follow the North Midland's spelling and phrasing, a diamond gives its bearer "strength & vertu; & he sal kep a man fro dremynge & of fantasy & of venom" - to which other lapidaries add, significantly for Gawain, temptation. It will keep his "lymes & ye bones hole", protect from falling off horses (good to know!), safeguard a man in battle, ward off "wreth & lychery", and increase a man's prosperity. Interestingly, though a diamond increases virtue and encourages chastity, most of the lapidaries emphasise that "hym behoues for to be of holy lyfe yt so vertus a ston wyll ber" ["he that would bear so virtuous a stone ought to lead a holy life"]. It's also implicitly equated with purity in other ways, such as the insistence that it is only fit to be set in "golde", and that it should be born in "clennesse" - usually synonymous with purity[2]. It seems the correlation between the virtue and possession or keeping of the stone is not quite clear - which causes the other? The same may be said for wealth - I doubt many poor men would be wearing a diamond to begin with!

So Gawain is wearing some rather potent charms in his helmet right from the start of the poem, though he doesn't seem to think this is inconsistent with his ideals. Are they any use to him? Well, technically he "kepeth the boones & the membres whoole"[3], and it may give him "strencthe & vertue" - he doesn't seem to be lacking in those - but how far the power of the diamonds "kepith hym fro grevouse metynge & temptacions" is certainly up for debate!

Other fun facts about diamonds (and other stones on the same pages that I photocopied):
- Diamonds ward off "the drede that commeth be nyght". Perhaps a diamond collar for your child's teddy bear, if they're prone to nightmares?
- The allectory or electoyr is a kind of precious stone that grows in the "wombe" (stomach, one hopes!) of a "capon" (castrated cockerel being fed up for the table) when he is between three and seven years old. Putting it in your mouth cures thirst, or makes a woman beloved of her lord. I don't know if I'm game to experiment with that one.
- Though a true diamond will not break if laid on an anvil and his with a "gret hamer of yrne", it will if you first wash it "in hot new blod of a gote boke [buck]". What a good thing Gawain doesn't encounter any of those!
- "Corneal is a derke stone" which "fordoth ire... and staunchith blode of all membres, & specially of a woman that hath the priue maladye". Now there's one I ought to try. "I'm sorry, I can't come to work today. I have the privy malady - and the cornelian I bought on ebay hasn't arrived yet!"

[1] aka diamaund(e), dyamaunde, adamant, adamantis, diamonde, diamand or athemaunde - don't you love non-standardised spelling systems? Apparently the one way to tell a true diamond is to lay it on an "Andefeld" of iron and try to smash it - presumably an anvil!
[2] Incidentally, the second poem of the four in the Gawain manuscript (probably by the same poet, in my opinion) is on the subject of "clannesse". None of the poems in the manuscript are titled, and editors are divided on whether to call this one Cleanness or Purity. Personally I prefer Purity, for the alliteration with Pearl and Patience!
[3] London Lapidary this time - comparing it with the equivalent quote in the last paragraph gives you an idea of just how close the textual relationship was between all these lapidaries.

All Gawain quotes are taken from J. J. Anderson's 1996 Everyman edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited together with the other three poems from the single manuscript in which the poem survives, Cotton Nero A.x - Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sacred and profane dismemberment

At a seminar last Thursday, we were debating the mediaeval cult of saintly relics, which started me thinking about the prevalence of the theme of dismemberment in the Legenda aurea, a thirteenth-century best-seller that gives accounts of the legends attached to saints' lives. Many of the saints, of course, were martyred, and the descriptions tend to be lurid, and heavy on the dismemberment.

Just for example:

Sir Thomas Becket, of course, was set upon by four hot-headed young knights who thought to do Henry II a favour: "And then smote each at him, that they smote off a great piece of the skull of his head, that his brain fell on the pavement... And when he was dead they stirred his brain, and after went in to his chamber and took away his goods, and his horse out of his stable, and took away his bulls and writings."

St Winifred was one of those pious, holy virgins we hear so much of, who told her would-be rapist she'd rather die than betray her incorporeal spouse - "I will in no wise consent to thy foul and corrupt desire, for I am joined to my spouse Jesu Christ which preserveth and keepeth my virginity" - so he obligingly cut off her head. Interestingly, in this case, the head was fixed back on afterwards, bringing her back to life - "And ever, as long as she lived after, there appeared about her neck a redness round about, like to a red thread of silk, in sign and token of her martyrdom."

St Theodore had a particularly delightful scene. Refusing to recant his religion (and, incidentally, having burnt down the temple of Mars instead), "he was hanged on a tree by commandment of the emperor, and cruelly his body was rent and torn with hooks of iron, that his bare ribs appeared. Then the provost demanded of him: Theodore, wilt thou be with us or with thy God Christ? And Theodore answered: I have been with my Jesu Christ, and am, and shall be. Then the provost commanded that he should be burnt in a fire."

St James the Martyr found himself in a similar predicament, only longer. They cut up his body member by member, starting with the little finger, asking after each amputation whether he recanted. Instead, he made a parable out of Christian numerology about the number of fingers he had lost, or the significance of this or that part of the body: "Then the seventh finger was cut off, and he said: Lord, I have said to thee seven times in the day praisings.... Then the butchers having despite, cut off the great toe of the right foot, and S. James said: The foot of Jesu Christ was pierced and blood issued out." After some time of this, the Christian was obdurate, but the "butchers" swooned. "And after they came to themselves, and cut off the left leg unto the thigh, and then the blessed James cried and said: O good Lord, hear me half alive, thou Lord of living men and dead; Lord, I have no fingers to lift up to thee, ne hands that I may enhance to thee; my feet be cut off, and my knees so that I may not kneel to thee, and am like to a house fallen, of whom the pillars be taken away by which the house was borne up and sustained; hear me, Lord Jesu Christ, and take out my soul from this prison. And when he had said this, one of the butchers smote off his head."

And so on. There are many in there. But why the emphasis on tearing bodies apart? I suspect one answer is the simple delight in gory detail which we all know to an ineradicable element of human nature - I'm sure I don't need to quote all the horror films that capitalise on that. There is also, of course, the sympathy factor, getting the audience on side with the good Christians undergoing a type of Christ's death for our sake. Another answer may well be the fact that the stories of martyrs tend to have two distinct themes - the completely unattainable heights of disinterested spirituality, which it is very hard for ordinary humans to relate to, and the gruesome story of their death, acted out in great detail on the physical body in which every human has a share. The horror of the physical ordeal, which we can all at least imagine, is a good deal easier to relate to than the first theme, but the way they are usually interwoven (the torture or threats of it as a result of one's religion, and one's religion as a solace in the torture), perhaps help to draw them together, to make that unattainable perfection of soul a little less daunting to approach.

There is also a strong symbolic element to most of these accounts - James provides his own allegorical commentary, and the decapitation element of Winifred and Thomas' stories relates to the theme of authority. The struggle between Henry II (theoretically the head of the country) and Thomas as Archbishop (head of the church) over whether secular or religious power should hold sway both justifies the knights' attack on the head of Thomas' physical body, and simultaneously makes it pointless - the spiritual body is what counts. Winifred protests that she is "joined" to her spouse Jesus, and with the husband allegorically believed to be a woman's head, her attacker's choice to strike that off is more than just random pique. She is vindicated by being brought back to life and re-"joined" to that head.


Whatever the reasons for gruesome dismemberment in saints' stories, heightening the prestige of the saint, preparing for the relic cult, impressing with their endurance, anything - how does this relate to the mediaeval forms of torture and execution, particularly the hanging, drawing and quartering inflicted on that worst of social enemies, the traitor? As I'm in between the researching and drafting stages of my essay on Edward II at the moment, the images of execution and "let the punishment fit the crime" are rather clear in my head at the moment - particularly as regards Hugh Despencer.

There is, of course, a good deal of symbolism or allegory involved in the prescribed punishment. Lady Despenser detailed a lot of this in a blog post a month ago. The curious thing is that
the hanging, drawing and emasculation (possibly an innovation designed especially for Hugh, and allegedly at Isabella's insistence, though I don't place a lot of credence on that) can all be seen as paralleling the purification aspects of saintly dismemberment, by atoning for crime, burning out the sin, amending the soul. However, if the body is then quartered and the quarters separated, as Lady Despenser points out, the person will be unable to reassemble their body come the day of Judgement. In other words, the soul is denied immortality.

Inconsistent? Perhaps. The gruesomely public aspect of the execution does mean, I suppose, that for the vast majority of people it was essentially retribution and example. It's probably fair to say that the same is true of our justice system today. We do like to think that we focus a little more on the aspect of redemption (or rehabilitation, as we'd put it), that it is in fact an invention of our modern enlightened times; but is it, in fact, present in the symbolism of mediaeval acts of judicial violence, and their disturbing vicinity to the legends of injustices committed on the bodies of saints?

Or did people just like really violent things? Never discount the lowest common denominator!

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Love-making of Sir Gawain

Poor Gawain. Everyone imposes expectations on him - the Lady of Hautdesert, Bertilak, the Green Knight, the audience, even critics!

On his quest to seek out the Knight of the Green Chapel to receive the return blow of the axe, Sir Gawain finds himself alone in the wilderness on Christmas Eve. After a solemn prayer to the Virgin to let him find some place to celebrate Christmas as he ought, and crossing himself three times, a castle mysteriously appears between the trees. Entering in that castle, he is welcomed by a jovial, ruddy-cheeked, "bever-hwed" lord (845), his beautiful young wife, and a terribly ugly old matron.

He celebrates Christmas there duly, much to the delight of the castle's inhabitants when they find they have the great and courteous Gawain as a guest, then reluctantly insists that he must press on, to find the Green Chapel by New Year's Day. But - a stroke of luck! - the lord laughs, and tells him that he needn't worry himself for that. The Green Chapel "is not two myle henne" (1078), and Gawain may stay and laze about in bed until the morning of New Year, have a pleasant early-morning ride as far as the Chapel (and there, presumably, lose his head bloodily all over the snow).

So, Gawain sleeps in for three days, while the lord of the castle goes hunting. They make a compact - everything they win during those days, they will exchange at nightfall. Every day the lord goes out hunting, and hands over to Gawain at night the spoils of the hunt. And every morning, the lady of the castle creeps into Gawain's room, in increasingly provocative garments.

A challenge to any hot-blooded young male, one would imagine, and one to which a knight of Gawain's reputation would readily rise in more ways than one. In the large body of French Arthurian literature, with which the Gawain-poet's audience was familiar, Gawain was courteous and loverly to the point of a fault - highly susceptible to the ladies, and not above rape occasionally. So the audience is probably as surprised as the lady when Gawain pulls the blankets up to his chin, feigns sleep, then pretends a complete lack of understanding at her ever-more-explicit little invitations. Finally, she is driven to tease, "Bot that ye be Gawain, hit gos not in mynde" - it is hard to believe that you are Gawain, for the real Gawain would never be closeted alone so long with a lady "bot that he had craved a cosse [a kiss], bi his cortaysye, / bi sum towch of summe tryfle at sum tales ende" (1293-1301).

"By some touch of some trifle at some tale's end" - what an exquisitely, insufferably smooth lover! This Gawain, however, hastily refutes that by protesting that he will kiss at her commandment, invoking the proper mistress/servant relationship of courtly love - and more insistently later when the lady suggests he'd be perfectly in his right to force any woman who would be so "vilainous" as to refuse him his way with her (1495-97). He is devoted to women and exquisite in his courtesy, but for him, this is a public virtue. His courtesy does not allow of fornicating with his host's wife under his very roof.

And of course, there is the tiny detail that Gawain is under verbal contract to return everything he wins during the course of these three days to his host, Bertilak. So he does - almost. One kiss on the first day, two on the second, three on the third, bestowed "as comlyly as he couthe awyse" (1389) in the great hall, and Bertilak makes merry capital out of this. He speaks of the value of the kisses and other winnings in almost capitalistic (yet simultaneously bawdy!) terms. The queer and gender critics, of course, make a good deal more of it. These are the only moments in the poem that can be milked for homoerotic undertones, and they certainly have been milked. Gawain dodges the first implication by insisting on the firm letter of their contract and changing the subject, and effectively repudiates the second by being innocently oblivious to it. The poet leaves very little leeway for a queer reading of the poem. Our innocent young Gawain leaves absolutely none.

So, it's off to the Green Chapel for our hero, hiding the one thing he concealed from his host - the green girdle which the lady gave him on the third day, with the promise that it could save his life. He meets the Green Knight, who feints twice with the axe before delivering the blow - which only nicks his neck. The test is over, but Gawain's near-hysterical relief is short-lived. The Green Knight is revealed to be Bertilak himself in disguise, and the three blows are analogues of the three days in which Gawain did not even know he was being tested. The nick at his neck is due to the one minor (according to Bertilak) point in which Gawain failed - keeping back the girdle that he received from Bertilak's sexy accomplice.

At this point, Gawain completely flies in the face of our expectations. Stunned and ashamed, he flings the girdle at the feet of the still-green giant, and launches into a virulent tirade against the "wyles of wommen", through which so many good men have been "wonen to sorwe":

For so was Adam in erde with one begyled,
And Salamon with fele sur, and Samson eftsones -
Dalyda dalt hym hys wyrde - and Davyth therafter
Was blended with Barsabe, that much bale tholed...
And all thay were biwyled
With wymmen that they used.
Thagh I be now bigyled,
Me think me burde be excused [I ought to be excused].

This is hardly gallant, particularly not the reasoning of the final two lines. Critics have, of course, hastened to excuse or condemn Gawain for this speech, and there are many explanations as to his behaviour, and as many expressions of puzzlement over it. Reading it on a purely character-driven level, however, I don't think this is at all out of line with Gawain's previous views on women. For him, they are the other - to be protected, served, to play pretty love games with, but not true companions, never to be truly understood like men. Courtly love is, on one level, the positive expression of this foreignness, this sense of the mysterious distant female being. But is it any wonder if, at a moment of great stress, after he's been pulled to and fro in such violent emotions over the past ten minutes, he should burst out in a speech that expresses the other side of it, betraying his veneer of manners and all social expectations in his agitation?

All quotes are taken from J. J. Anderson's 1996 Everyman edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited together with the other three poems from the single manuscript in which the poem survives, Cotton Nero A.x - Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A career choice...

You know those conversations that abruptly change the way you see your whole future life?

I had one of those a week ago today. A good friend of mine said, "Hannah? Come to Ottawa for your PhD." And we joked about it, and chatted about it, and I wandered over to look at the Ottawa University website, and the Canadian immigration website, and... somehow in there the conversation turned serious and it became an option. Given I live in Melbourne, it's rather a drastic option.

It would be a four-year course. A study visa lasts the length of the course to which you've been accepted, and I believe can then be extended to permanent residency and potentially citizenship, if one is a good and productive member of society. Four years is a good deal of your life to devote to another country, but the employment prospects for a... mediaeval researcher? mediaevalist? obsessed person? ... are a good deal larger there than here, which is why it is, in effect, a career choice. I'd be approaching thirty by the time I finished my doctorate, would have put down roots both professionally and in my personal life, and have to accept now that it's likely I'd never really be moving back home.

So, this last week, while trying to concentrate on expanding the very rough draft of my Honours thesis (trawthe and ambiguity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and research for an essay on the criticism levelled against Edward II in his own time (which means reading as many contemporary sources as I can possibly lay my hands on, because the one I didn't find would be sure to disprove my line of argument), and while reading for and participating noisily in my two coursework seminars for this semester (this week, Malory's and the alliterative Morte in one and saints' bodies and relics in the other), and of course working at making other people's coffee in order to earn enough money to feed my beloved beagle (and, I suppose, myself)... my mind keeps wandering back to frantic details of freightage, Ottawan real estate, cost of living, scholarships, disposal of furniture and other "assets", which books to take, which clothes, what the flora and fauna are like over there and how it would relate to walking a beagle about (ticks? thorns in his ears? lynxes?).

Somehow in that time, it seems, the decision has already been made.

Providing, of course, that I can get a scholarship.