Medieval Romance: Archetypal Chivalry and Courtly Love of Arthurian Tradition
Knightly chivalry appears in many of the stories of Arthurian tradition, becoming almost mythic and archetypal because of its enduring popularity. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are associated with chivalry, the codes of honor that dictate how they relate to the country, church, and women.
Medieval romance genre
Starting in the 1100s, people began writing handbooks on chivalry. It influenced the medieval romance genre, which many Arthurian stories fall under. Before the twelfth century, in the early Welsh tradition, the Arthur stories were not so much concerned with the glorious issues of chivalry as they were with constant battle and death.
However, honor and loyalty to God and country appear even in some of these tales, as in The Spoils of Annwn, in which the speaker proclaims: “I do not deserve lowly men, slack their defense./They do not know what day…,/what hour of the midday God was born” (20). While warriors were greatly respected in these tales, those who failed in religious aspects were deemed lowly. Warriors were still expected to act honorably and bravely, exhibiting some of the basic aspects of chivalry before it was clearly defined.
The example of Lancelot
Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart, a medieval romance, concerns itself less with war and more with chivalry and fin amor (courtly love). A lighthearted work, it may or may not be mocking the classic elements of medieval romance, but the themes of chivalrous loyalty to king and queen are quite clear.
When King Arthur makes a rash promise to Sir Kay, he must keep his promise or be shamed. Honor is of paramount importance to the characters. Lancelot faces a dilemma when his honor and his devotion to a woman come in conflict: when he must choose whether to enter the shameful cart in order to save Queen Guinevere. His slight hesitation comes back to haunt him later in the story.
The story is episodic, following Lancelot on his quest to rescue the queen. Some of the characteristics of chivalry are exaggerated, such as when he rides his horse to death in his relentless pursuit. Lancelot’s devotion to the queen drives him on his quest, which sometimes requires him to pledge his service to other women who demand it.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another Arthurian tale that establishes the archetypal chivalry of knights. Like Lancelot, Gawain shows his loyalty to Arthur by volunteering for the perilous quest to find the Green Knight. In the English Sir Gawain, courtly love is not as magnified as it is in the French Lancelot, and the focus is more on nationalism—chivalrous duties to the king, country, and church. The pentangle on Gawain’s shield represents his virtues of charity, courtesy, and pity, and his religious piety (with the image of the Virgin Mary to give him strength, for example).
At Bercilak’s castle, Gawain keeps his promise to the lord of the house, resisting Lady Bercilak’s temptations, except when he sees his chance to save his life. Gawain faces a dilemma when he must choose whether to accept Lady Bercilak’s love or refuse it: “He was concerned with courtesy, not wanting to be callous,/And even more with sinning or misbehaving, with standing/As traitor to the man who controlled that territory” (446). He chooses to be gentle but honest.
Sir Gawain learns humility after his confrontation with the Green Knight; he wears the band around his neck as a reminder of his weakness. The story extols the virtues of integrity and honor over greed and pride. Sir Gawain exemplifies the mythic elements of chivalry: honor, devotion, piety, and humility.
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