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)


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.


Sexual Violence Captive Woman Forced Abduction Green Girdle Male Desire 
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  1. 1.
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    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
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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Monica Brzezinski Potkay

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