Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sir Launfal and the ubiquitous Veiled Homosexual Reference

So, I have been quiet again, for real life is intruding - in a good way, this time! The arrival of my formal offer letter from Ottawa University has precipitating a little fluffy of Things To Do, which leave little time for creative thought. Fortunately, one can still manage the more mathematical work of grammatical study and translation - so in addition to Latin, I am now having a lot of fun (re)teaching myself modern French[1], and trying not to get distracted by Anglo-Norman spelling patterns.

But we were reading through Sir Launfal today (using this online edition) and one thing struck me particularly.

For background: Guenevere, in this poem, is the traditional Evil Predatory Scheming Evil Seductive Evil Emasculating Threatening-Homosocial-Bonds Evil Female. She has already managed to get Launfal sent away from Camelot in shame (severing him from his masculinity, or at least the ideal proof of it, as Evil Predatory Scheming Females are wont to do). Now he has returned in glory, she tries another trick in the traditional repertoire of the Evil Predatory Scheming Female. She tries to seduce him - and when he (being a noble and virtuous knight, and also in love with someone else) refuses her, she goes to Arthur and cries rape[2]. However, before stalking off in a huff, she resorts to insult:
Sche seyde, "Fy on the, thou coward!
Anhongeth worth thou hye and hard! [Thou art worthy to be hanged high and hard]
That thou ever were ybore!
That thou lyvest, hyt ys pyté! [Probably, both 'that thou's should be read as dependent on 'it is pity'.]
Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the -
Thou were worthy forlore [to be lost/damned]!" (485-490)

Obviously, if one cannot lust after the beautiful Guenevere, one cannot lust after any woman, or so her logic seems to run. Certainly, given the consequent beauty contest, physical attractiveness (presumably as a metaphor for other noble/virtuous qualities) is at issue here. Launfal's reply confirms this:
The knyght was sore aschamed tho;
To speke ne myghte he forgo
And seyde the Quene before,
"I have loved a fayryr woman
Than thou ever leydest thyn ey upon
Thys seven yer and more! (491-496)

What concerns me here is the terms of her accusation. Firstly, she calls him a coward - a sore insult for a knight, but her phrasing suggests it's merely a throw-away line, subsidiary to and dependent on what follows. The primary accusation - which she holds as strong enough to damn him - is that he loves no woman, and no woman loves him.

The editors of this edition read this, without a 'maybe', as a barely-veiled accusation of sodomy. The equivalent tale by Marie de France has, at this point, a much more open accusation: Launfal prefers boys to women. Yes, dramatic, shocking, scandalous, and most delectably convenient to modern sensibilities. But..?

That's not what she says. I don't deny that the accusation of homosexuality[3] is present, or the threat of theological damnation for the act (or preference) of sodomy. But I feel that her primary concern is with exactly what she says: Launfal is apparently opting out of the intricate social game of courtly love. Whether that be in the interest of celibacy or chasing pretty boys is beside the question. Guenevere is out to emasculate Launfal; and, in this poet's view, stepping out of that ultimate knightly game of courtship and stylised self-elevating self-degradation, the theoretically bloodless game with its rules as intricate as those of any tournament sport, is as damning in social terms as sodomy itself may be in theological ones. This accusation is, and should be, enough. If Launfal cannot prove his manhood in courtly love - not because he fails in it, but because he chooses to avoid it - then there is no man to be proven. The potency of the venom lies in the central accusation, which is exactly what she says: "Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the".

The occasional (or habitual) act of sodomy may be a corollary to this, but I think it is imposing modern sensibilities too far to say that this is the heart of Guenevere's accusation. Rather, she is accusing him of opting out of the primary activity[4] of the homosocial network that proves his knighthood (or masculinity, if you prefer), thereby revealing himself to be less than a man[5].

And Launfal, tellingly, responds to the accusation in kind. He protests not that "I love a woman, she is definitely female, so there", but "I love a woman more beautiful than you have seen in seven years" (or possibly "I have loved a woman for seven years who is more beautiful than any you have ever seen"). Like Guenevere, he ties the issue back to feminine beauty - which is, of course, one of the most potent points-scorers in the Courtly Love game (along with Difficulty Of Attaining Maiden, Brutishness Of Beast Threatening/Wooing Her, Length Of Years Spent Wandering In The Wilderness / Locked In A Dungeon Before Attaining Her and Mystical Virtue-Affirming Objects Attained In The Process). Is there any solemn tale of courtly love in which the beauty of the objet desire (object in every possible sense, of course) is not extolled above all others[6]? Launfal replies in the terms of the game, asserting that not only does he participate, but he excels - as, of course, the subsequent contest will prove. Women are scorepoints, the higher the better; and the player who doesn't bother moving his little character across the screen to chase the points won't end up on the high score table.

I've nothing against reading gay theory into literature, of course. It's certainly necessary, and we've an awful lot of re-writing to do over centuries of phobia and repression. But it does concern me that it becomes a fad and an obsession - that we see OMG GAY SEX and focus on that to the exclusion of what might actually have been meant. It's as if, at work, I were to see two women or two men walk in hand in hand, and be too busy jumping over the counter to say I AFFIRM YOUR RIGHT TO HAVE SEX WITH EACH OTHER, GO TO IT, HOORAY FOR NON-HETEROSEXUAL CHOICES to hear them say, "Um, hey, actually, I just wanted a latte".

[1] My modern French is weird and erratic. I can read an academic article with no trouble, needing little more concentration than I do to read Italian - but then, the thought pattern for reading that form of writing is familiar, and the English vocabulary for formal writing is largely French/Latin-derived anyway. I'm lost in a French chat forum, where you'd expect the language to be simpler. And I can read a letter to a neighbour in Anglo-Norman, eye an unfamiliar verb with an odd collection of vowels and say "that looks like an early form of the French equivalent of this verb, and that is either the subjunctive or the imperfect, third person plural", which makes it very easy to locate the right form in a verb table to cross-check. But ask me to form the subjunctive or imperfect of any given verb in any form of French and I'd be stumped. It's all intuitive leaps and no recitable verb tables. And of course, my accent is terrible and my ear is quite untrained in following a modern French speaker at normal conversational pace.

So: I have the vocabulary, and the instinct, and just need to cement my grammar and build my aural skills. Easily done - that is, after all, what online resources are for!

[2] Actually, what she says is 'he propositioned me, and ALSO HE INSULTED MY BEAUTY, HE MUST DIE'.

[3] Or homosexual preferences, or homosexual acts. Caveat lector, homosexuality being an anachronistic concept, etc, though I'd dispute the absolute generalisation that sexuality was completely defined by the act in the middle ages and that there was no concept of sexual preferences - witness this accusation, if nothing else. If one reads this passage as being primarily concerned with OMG GAY SEX, as the modern reader is conditioned to, Guenevere does appear to be referring to an established preference: a lifestyle choice, in modern terms. But I think that is only secondary to her main point.

[4] Well, yes, there's also fighting. But this is courtly romance we're talking about, and the hero is always good at fighting: it's the courtly-love half of the two primary strands of knighthood that causes the problems and requires most intricate and difficult proof.

[5] And earlier in this scene, she actually stepped between him and Gawain, thereby symbolically cutting him off from the epitome of English knighthood and manliness! The wiles of women know no end. He should just hand her a cleaver and be done with it. And then go and exchange sob stories with Erec and Yvain about losing his precious Gawain because of a woman.

[6] The Grail legends may, at this point in the argument, be read as a tale of courtly love, if you so desire, or the courtly love paradigm read as a metaphor for the Grail hunt. Either works. The Grail is shiny and pretty.

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