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The Violence of Courtly Exegesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

  • Monica Brzezinski Potkay
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

Must romances create the threat of rape? Perhaps not; yet even a cursory survey of the genre will show that a surprising number of medieval romances feature instances of raptus—defined in the medieval sense as either sexual violence or the forced abduction of a woman. Kathryn Gravdal, in her provocative study, persuades that the representation of rape is intrinsic to the aesthetics and chivalric ideology of the works of Chrétien de Troyes, the most influential and imitated of romancers.1 Dietmar Rieger details the frequency with which medieval French romances and other courtly genres depict rape.2 And just a glance at my office bookshelf reveals that a startling number of English romances and Breton lais feature ravishment. In the Auchinleck manuscript alone, among other instances of raptus, the King of the Fairies abducts Sir Orfeo’s Heurodis, and a princess lost in the woods conceives Sir Degaré when violated by a knight who then blithely bids her “Hav god dai!”3 Rape may not be necessary to romance, but it does seem a well-established topos of the genre. If rape is a generic commonplace, it is hardly surprising that that crown jewel of medieval English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, should be concerned with rape. The Lady who attempts to seduce the title character from fidelity to his knightly code casually—almost comically—brings up the threat of rape twice.

Keywords

Sexual Violence Captive Woman Forced Abduction Green Girdle Male Desire 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Kathryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 42–71.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Dietmar Rieger, “Le motif du viol dans la littérature de la France médiévale entre norme courtoise et réalité courtoise,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 31 (1988): 241–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sir Degaré, line 132, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, in The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995), which also includes Sir Orfeo.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 2–25. On the exegetical tradition, see Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, vol. 1, trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 211–24. I am indebted to Dinshaw for the captive woman, but do not agree that Jerome wishes to deprive the text of “its stylistic… blandishments” (p. 24). Jerome seeks to preserve pagan wisdom and eloquence even while stripping off erotic carnality. My understanding of exegetical carnal and spiritual readings of gendered violence is informed by Shari Horner, “The Violence of Exegesis: Reading the Bodies of Ælfric’s Female Saints,” in Violence against Women in Medieval Texts, ed. Anna Roberts (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), pp. 22–43.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    At least two critics have argued that the poem and/or its critics repress female desire. Sheila Fisher, “Taken Men and Token Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism, ed. Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), pp. 71–105; and “Leaving Morgan Aside: Women, History, and Revisionism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition, ed. Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe (New York: Garland, 1988), pp. 129–51. Geraldine Heng, “Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPMLA 106 (1991): 500–514.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    All quotations are from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon. 2nd ed. rev. Norman Davis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967). Bracketed translations are my own, informed by this edition’s glossary and the studies cited below.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 243, n. to 11. 943–69.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), especially pp. 113–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 12.
    E.Jane Burns and Roberta L. Krueger, eds., Courtly Ideology and Woman’s Place in Medieval French Literature, Romance Notes 25 (1985); Joan Ferrante, Woman as Image in Medieval Literature from the Twelfth Century to Dante (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    David Mills, “An Analysis of the Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 67 (1968): 612–30; and Ad Putter, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.117–39.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Joseph E. Gallagher, “‘Trawϸe’ and ‘Luf-Talking’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 78 (1977): 365.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, “A Kiss is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Diacritics 24 (1994): 210–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 16.
    J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 91. Gravdal provides a survey of texts dealing with the rape of peasants in Ravishing Maidens, pp. 104–21.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love 1.11, trans. John Jay Parry (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), p. 150. Latin text De Amore, ed. Graziano Ruffini (Milan: Guanda, 1980).Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Geoffrey Chaucer, Legend of Good Women, line 2324; Wife of Bath’s Tale, line 888; ed. John H. Fisher, The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977).Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    La Chevalerie d’Ogier de Danemarche, ed. Mario Eusebi (Milan: Varese, 1963), line 11198; Chrétien deTroyes, Der Percevalroman, ed. Alfons Hilka (Halle, 1932), line 3875. Both quoted by Rieger, “Le motif du viol,” pages 250, 255.Google Scholar
  17. 29.
    Ralph Hanna III, “Unlocking What’s Locked: Gawain’s Green Girdle,” Viator 14 (1983): 289–302, rejects the pentangle as an icon for the poem’s textuality because its meaning is “clear and exemplary (if not locked to the point of rigidity)”; p. 290. But the pentangle, as any survey of the criticism shows, is indeed a slippery sign.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 32.
    Lawrence Besserman, “The Idea of the Green Knight,” English Literary History 53 (1986): 219–39; John M. Ganim, “Disorientation, Style, and Consciousness in SGGK,” PMLA 91 (1976): 376–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 33.
    Mother Angela Carson, “Morgain la Fee as the Principle of Unity in GGK,” Modern Language Quarterly 23 (1962): 3–16, first argued the joint identity of the ladies as aspects of Morgan. For a list of other discussions of the characters’ doubling, see Heng, “Feminine Knots,” p. 503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 37.
    Robert Holcot, Commentary on the Book of Wisdom, quoted by D. W Robertson, Jr., Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 99.Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    In her “Getting Medieval: Pulp Fiction, Gawain, Foucault,” in The Book and the Body, ed. Dolores Warwick Frese and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), p. 152, Carolyn Dinshaw suggests that the poem contains a “deeply buried plot, profound and hidden, in which Gawain is a pawn—between women.” Dinshaw’s idea of why the women manipulate Gawain differs from mine, though we agree on the violence of what they do to Gawain. Her idea of buried plots of same-sex desire certainly complicates the question of who is raping whom in the poem—as does the inclusion of the Green Knight/Bertilak in the women’s plot as either author or collaborator. I owe this last perception to Brad Sisk.Google Scholar
  22. 39.
    For Myra Stokes, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Fitt III as Debate,” Nottingham Studies 25 (1981): 36, language specifically has the power to “debase and trivialize the values [Gawain] stands for.”Google Scholar
  23. 43.
    Boccaccio, Genealogy of the Pagan Gods 15.9, trans. Charles Osgood as Boccaccio on Poetry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 125.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Monica Brzezinski Potkay

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