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Even the love of Guinevere for the young King Arthur begins, of course, as
she sees him ¬ghting splendidly. Merlin, ever helpful, arranges for her to kiss
the shy Arthur, but then reminds Arthur of that kiss in battle, in the midst of

Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 2396“401. Hanning, The Individual, 4, 54.
38 39

There are, of course, exceptions. Gawain is at one point said to be so courteous that it causes
40

˜many ladies to love him less for his chivalry than for his courtesy™: see Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part
IV, 108; Micha, ed., Lancelot, III, 409. He is also said to love poor people and to be kind and gen-
erous to them.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 221
˜a very great slaughter™, resounding with ˜the dreadful screams and wailing
when men were being killed or wounded™. Merlin now expects the kiss to be
paid for in enemy blood: ˜Arthur, now we™ll see what you can do here today.
See to it that the kiss that your lady gave you is dearly paid for, so that it will
be talked about all the days of your life.™ The ¬ghting goes on and on, and
Merlin returns to his theme:
Then he said to King Arthur that he must have forgotten the kiss his ladylove had given
him, for he had done poorly in the ¬rst ¬ghting. And when Arthur heard this, he
blushed all over from shame, and he hung his helmeted head and said not a word; but
he stood so hard on his stirrups that the iron bent. And King Ban began to smile within
his helmet and pointed him out to King Bors, his brother; then all the knights of the
Round Table looked at him, and they found him very worthy and held him in high
esteem because they saw his look of noble pride.41

Fuelled by the potent mixture of equal parts sensual excitement and aroused
pride, Arthur returns to the ¬ght and performs prodigies of prowess.42 He will
do similar feats on another battle¬eld later, while he is being watched by a
lover, the pagan maiden of Saxon Rock. ˜In fact,™ we learn, ˜he did . . . better
than ever before, and this was more for the maiden who was watching him
from the Rock than for himself.™43
If love inspires prowess, prowess inspires love. Guinevere has enjoyed a tryst
with Lancelot while Arthur dallied with his Saxon lady. This text, however,
will not accept sauce for the goose serving as sauce for the gander. She is later
denounced by the all-wise Master Elias as standing ˜accused of the basest
wrongdoing that a woman can be charged with . . . for she was so untrue as to
dishonour the most honourable man in the world™. No mention is made of
Arthur™s dishonouring of his queen.44
She defends herself later by saying that her love, stirred by Lancelot™s
prowess, was simply irresistible: ˜But the power of the love that led me to do
it was so great that I could not resist it; and besides, what was calling me was
the valour [la proesce] of the ¬nest of knights.™ Her self-defence is the same
when speaking later to Lancelot himself; she ends with a fascinating rhetorical
question, puzzling over the ragged border where the world of chevalerie
marches with that of clergie:

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 288, 292; Sommer, ed. Vulgate Version, II, 220, 227“8.
41

The same combination moves the young Erec; see Carroll, ed., tr., Erec, ll. 911“94.
42
43 Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 226; Elspeth Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, I, 542; Sommer,

Vulgate Version, III, 407.
44 Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 254; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 58. Arthur later collapses and

confesses to a hermit, in fear of death. He is told how evil he is for, among other sins, disloyally
deserting his lawful wife; but this woman is the False Guinevere. Carroll, Lancelot Part II, 276;
Sommer, Vulgate Version, IV, 76.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
222
. . . I have been hurt by the sin of going to bed with a man other than my husband.
. . . Still, there is no upstanding lady in the world who would not feel impelled to
sacri¬ce something to make an upstanding knight like you happy. Too bad Our Lord
pays no heed to our courtly ways, and a person whom the world sees as good is wicked
to God.45

They return to this troubling subject in the Lancelot, when Guinevere real-
izes that a vision of the future experienced by Gawain refers to Lancelot™s fail-
ure to achieve the Grail because of their illicit love:
I am very distressed that the ¬‚ames of passion have caused you to fail to achieve the
adventure for which all earthly knighthood must strive; you can rightly say that you
have paid dearly for my love, since on my account you have lost something you can
never recover. Understand that I am no less sad about this than you, and perhaps even
sadder, for it is a great sin in that God made you the best and most handsome and most
gracious of all knights. . . . It seems it would have been better for me never to have been
born.

The lament is powerful: God is the source of prowess and their adulterous love
has spoiled the fruits of Lancelot™s knighthood. But he will have none of it:
˜My lady,™ said Lancelot, ˜what you say is wrong. You must understand that without
you I would not have achieved as much glory as I have. . . . For I was well aware that if
my valor did not bring me through the adventures, then I would never be able to win
you, and I had to win you or die.™

This is not simply a classic statement of the link between love and prowess, for
Lancelot is countering the queen™s assertion that God is the source of his deeds
with the statement that she is herself that source. He could have noted that the
queen not only inspired prowess, but sometimes speci¬cally demanded it. As
she says to Lancelot before a great tournament at Camelot: ˜see to it that you
do so well on that day that there is not a knight who dares await your blow.
Pursue them until they ¬‚ee for their lives back to Camelot, and don™t be weak
or scared, for if I thought that my love sapped your strength, then I would
never love you again.™46
Other texts simply state outright that the knight™s prowess is the great spur
to a woman™s love; the link seems obvious and independent of any moral
qualms. In a classic statement, a lady tells Hector that though she has not seen
Lancelot since he was two months old, she has ˜loved him more than anyone


Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 267, 275; Micha, ed., Lancelot, I, 118, 152; Sommer,
45

ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 28, 53“4.
Kibler, tr., Lancelot Part V, 207, 202; Sommer, Vulgate Version, V, 193; Micha, Lancelot, IV,
46

380.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 223
in the world, because of the great prowess they™ve described to me™.47 Beatrice,
in the continuation of Raoul de Cambrai known as Raoul II, explains her sud-
den love for Bernier in an even more revealing monologue:
Then she whispered so no one could hear: ˜Lucky the lady whom this man were to
choose, for he has a tremendous reputation for knighthood [molt a los de grant cheva-
lerie]; anyone who could hold him naked beneath her bed hangings would ¬nd him
worth more than any living thing.™48

She tells Bernier frankly about her feelings, and is even more explicit about the
causative force his prowess represents:
˜My lord Bernier,™ said the wise lady, ˜if I love you, I ought not to be blamed for it, for
your reputation stood so high that when my father was in his ¬‚agged hall, everyone
used to say within his trusted household that whoever you struck with your smooth
lance could not remain in his gilded saddle. I was ¬lled with desire for you; I would
rather be burned or cut limb from limb than be married to anyone else.™49

Claudas, one of the major and most fascinating characters in the early chap-
ters of the Lancelot do Lac and the Lancelot, will have none of this linking of men
and women, prowess and love in his own life. Yet his very denial speaks to the
force of the bond. He has, we learn, been in love only once and ended it delib-
erately. When asked why, ˜he would answer that his desire was to have a long
life™. As he saw matters:
a knight who has true love in his heart can desire only one thing: to surpass everyone
else; but no man, however valiant, has a body that can survive all the trials his heart is
rash enough to undertake . . . for there is no great achievement at arms without true
love behind it.

We are assured that Claudas spoke truthfully, ˜for when in love he had shown
remarkable prowess and in many a land had gained great renown for his
knightly valor™.50 Though Claudas is not a devotee of love, even his reasons for
avoiding it speak to its power and to its link with prowess.
Sometimes the admiration for prowess simply overwhelms ideas of love
altogether. Morholt, in the Merlin Continuation, is a notorious hater of ladies.
On their adventures Yvain and Gawain even come upon a group of ladies exe-
cuting a dance in which the key manoeuvre is spitting on Morholt™s shield.
Gawain quickly distances himself from a knight who ˜hates the maidens of this

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 399“400: ˜por la grant proesce qe l™en
47

m™avoit dite de lui™.
Kay, ed., tr., Raoul de Cambrai, 332“3. Ibid., 340“1.
48 49

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 15; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 26“7; Elspeth Kennedy,
50

ed., Lancelot do Lac, 30“1.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
224
country so mortally that he does them all the dishonour and insult he can.™ He
adds: ˜I couldn™t love Morholt for anything, because he hates young ladies
with all his heart.™ Yet Gawain™s evaluation changes signi¬cantly as he sees
Morholt™s vast prowess demonstrated against Yvain, and then as he experi-
ences it himself in classic combat. With the triumph over Yvain achieved
before his eyes, Gawain exudes these fulsome words of praise: ˜Oh, God! what
greatness there is in a valiant man! God, how powerful this man is; how effec-
tive he is, and how much he can do!™ After he has fought with him personally,
Gawain is happy to exchange kisses, pledges of mutual friendship, agreements
never to be parted except by death.51
More often and more famously, ideas about ladies and about prowess work
in harness. The lesson is taught over and over in chivalric literature: knights
must use their prowess in the defence of gentle ladies. In the start of his
knightly career, narrated in the Merlin Continuation, for example, Gawain
himself must absorb the painful lesson by carrying to court, slung over his
horse, the body of a lady he has slain, there to have his penance adjudged by
the ladies of the court. They announce that he must swear on relics that, sav-
ing his death or dishonour, he will never harm maidens but will always protect
them when they request his help. Gawain becomes ever after the loyal Knight
of Maidens. The entire process at court, we might note, is carried out under
the aegis of Arthur™s authority, regal and male.52
Of course, in one work after another Lancelot™s entire career provides the
classic tribute to the power of love realized in prowess. In the terrible test of
Escalon the Dark, in the Lancelot (to note one case out of scores) he piously
calls upon God and the Virgin, but then, ˜looking as directly toward London
as he could and mindful of the woman whom he loved more than himself, he
said, “My lady, I entrust myself to you; and whatever peril I face, may I always
bear you in mind!” ™53 No reader can be surprised that he triumphs where
others have failed. The source for his successes has been made especially clear,
as Elspeth Kennedy has noted, by the messenger sent to him by his patroness,
the Lady of the Lake, at the time his magni¬cent career is only just getting
under way. The message is:
[Y]ou should give your heart to a love that will turn you not into an idle knight but a
¬ner one, for a heart that becomes idle through love loses its daring and therefore can-



Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 270“4; Roussineau, ed., Merlin, II, 370“85.
51

Asher, Merlin Continuation, 230“3; Roussineau, Merlin, I, 225“38. This portion of this text is
52

much concerned with founding incidents in the history of chivalry; at this same time Gawain
learns that it is courteous not to kill a knight who has yielded.
Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part III, 302; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, IV, 110“11.
53
Knights, Ladies, and Love 225
not attain high things. But he who always strives to better himself and dares to be chal-
lenged can attain all high things.54

The pattern shown time and again in chivalric literature”love stirring a
knight on to deeds of arms”need not entail as elevated a view as this. In The
Story of Merlin, Gaheriet reminds his brother Agravain of his hot desire for the
daughters of the Forester of Northumberland (the maidens who had sparked
their debate noted above). As they go into battle, he says: ˜Keep in mind those
maidens you knew so well what to do with this morning and see to it that you
are as good a knight with your arms when you ¬ght against those Saxons!™55
The mental”perhaps the glandular”link of sex and violence is here writ
large.56


Sexual Violence
The prevalence of prescriptive as well as descriptive statements and an empha-
sis on prowess help to connect chivalry as a focus of gender relations to
chivalry in its other dimensions. What, then, of the concern about violence
which we have found so inescapable a feature of these other dimensions of
chivalry? Does this concern likewise appear when medieval writers use chivalry
to talk of love and relationships between men and women?
As a number of scholars”Kathryn Gravdal in particular”have argued, the
sexual violence of rape was a serious issue in medieval society, particularly
from the twelfth century. The topic was regularly discussed by medieval jurists
and canonists and by authors of the entire range of literary works that involved
knights as characters (that is, saints™ lives and pastorals as well as more tradi-
tional chivalric forms).57 Sexual violence, in other words, ¬ts into a broader
pattern of concern over societal peace.
That women themselves should be concerned about forced sex seems to
require little discussion. Yet Gravdal argues that the issue was in fact discussed

Rosenberg, tr., Lancelot Part I, 84; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, III, 160“61; Elspeth
54

Kennedy, ed., Lancelot do Lac, 205“6.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 362; Sommer, Vulgate Version, II, 352.
55
56 Any reader will encounter many examples. In the Song of Aspremont, for example, the young

Roland calls out to the companions he leads onto the battle¬eld:
˜Let your aggression loose henceforth, my barons!
Let each lay claim to knighthood by his valor!™
...
He cries ˜Mountjoy! Lay on, lusty companions,
And Charles will give each man a girl to marry!™
Newth, tr., Song of Aspremont; Brandin, ed., Chanson d™Aspremont, ll. 5558“9, 5572“3.
Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens; Robertson, ˜Comprehending Rape™; Hawkes, ˜Bibliography of
57

Legal Records™. I am grateful to Roberta Krueger for providing these sources.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
226
in medieval literature and law from the point of view of males, that sexual vio-
lence was a problem in this society because they saw it as a problem. We might,
building on her argument, suggest that the issues involving rape which so
engaged male attention were closely linked with the prowess and honour so
much at the heart of chivalry. Even when idealized or adored, women seem to
have been considered property in much chivalric literature, prizes to be won
by knightly prowess or to be defended against the prowess of others.58 The
chronicle of Richard the Lion-Heart says plainly that in the attack on Messina
˜there were women taken, fair / And excellent and debonair™. When some of
the king™s ships have wrecked on the coast of Cyprus and Richard™s sister is
endangered he, of course, rushes to the defence.59
Honour is the real prize, as Agravain, quoted at the opening of this chapter,
understood. Geoffroi de Charny also understood, even though he strongly
disagreed; he complained, in effect, that many followed Agravain™s view:
And there are many who say that they would not want to love Queen Guinevere if they
did not declare it openly or if it were not known. Such men would prefer it to be said
by everyone that they were the accepted lovers of ladies, even if this were not true, than
to love and meet with a favourable response, were this to be kept secret.60

This game of males winning renown by ¬ghting over prized ladies is surely as
old as the story of the Iliad, and as widespread as the furthest reaches of
anthropological ¬eld study.
The game is played endlessly in chivalric literature, reinforcing on each
round the reformist ideal that it is the duty and right of knights to protect
ladies. In theory, in the world of Arthurian romance, every maiden or lady is
protected within Arthur™s realm. In The Story of Merlin, Gawain, seeing two
knights preparing to rape a young lady, shouts at them, ˜that they were already
dead, because they were assaulting a lady in King Arthur™s land. “For you
know very well,” he went on, “that ladies are guaranteed their safety.” ™61 In the
practice presented in literature, every maiden or lady might be considered at
risk in this forested Hobbesian world. Sometimes the threat comes from rob-
bers or assorted ruf¬ans who would not make the social register; more often
the threat comes (as it does in this case) in armour, from unreformed knights.

Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 103; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 4581“6, casually
58

mentions that a maiden whom Lancelot has saved from rape is pregnant with her deliverer™s child
after he stayed in her household for a week.
Hubert and La Monte, tr., Crusade of Richard Lion-Heart and Paris, ed., L™Histoire de la
59

guerre sainte, ll. 819“20, 1435 ff.
Kaeuper and Kennedy, Book of Chivalry, 119.
60

Gawain has been reduced to the physical size of a dwarf because of his discourtesy to a lady.
61

His prowess is undiminished, of course, and his rescue in this case restores him. Pickens, tr., Story
of Merlin, 422“3; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 462.
Knights, Ladies, and Love 227
In this same text, Hector must defeat Marigart the Red, a knight of great
prowess, who rapes a virgin a month.62 Perceval and his sister, setting off to
visit their mother™s grave, in the ¬rst continuation of Chr©tien™s Perceval, ¬nd
that ˜even though they were in their own land, they were not, it seems, free and
clear of war. Perceval glanced to one side and saw an armed knight come rid-
ing.™ The challenging knight wants Perceval™s sister and can be dissuaded only
by being beaten in combat. When Perceval and his sister set off together to
continue his grail quest, later in this romance, the same sort of attack recurs,
for the same motive.63
The threat of knights is so often portrayed as a speci¬cally sexual threat. In
Chr©tien™s Erec and Enide, the heroine must, as a test, ride through the forest
ahead of her lord, fetchingly attired, to attract the knights who want to ˜win™
her by defeating Erec. When the Lord of the Fens learns (in The Story of
Merlin) that his young daughter cannot marry his powerful neighbour
Leriador because she is already pregnant by King Ban, he is confronted by an
irate Leriador, who
swore that, since he could not have the lady by love, he would take her by force; and
after him, all others who wanted her could have her. So this is how he left, and he went
into his country and called his men together until there were a good eight hundred
knights.64
In the Lancelot, a maiden who wants to accompany Hector on a quest is told
she is foolish, ˜ “for if it happened,” said the queen, “that another knight
defeated Hector, he would take you and do with you as he wished.” ™ 65 In
Chr©tien™s Lancelot, this possibility is even formulated as a custom:
The custom and policy at that time were as follows: any knight meeting a damsel who
is alone should slit his own throat rather than fail to treat her honourably, if he cares
about his reputation. For if he takes her by force, he will be shamed forever in all the
courts of all lands. But if she is led by another, and if some knight desires her, is willing
to take up his weapons and ¬ght for her in battle, and conquers her, he can without
shame or blame do with her as he will.66
In some corners of the world of Arthurian literature even the ¬rst part of this
custom is not observed. Sagremore rapes a beautiful and noble maiden who

Krueger, tr., Lancelot Part IV, 103“4; Micha, ed., Lancelot, II, 393“5.
62

Bryant, tr., Perceval, 151, 214; Roach, ed., Continuations, IV, ll. 23770“809. Perceval™s lance
63

skewers the man, two feet of it protruding on the other side of his body.
Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 413; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 446.
64

Carroll, tr., Lancelot Part II, 169; Sommer, Vulgate Version, III, 307.
65

Quoting Gravdal™s translation, Ravishing Maidens, 66. The Lancelot Part IV likewise states
66

that an unaccompanied lady could travel unmolested, but if she had an escorting knight, ˜and
another knight can win her in battle, the winner can take the lady or maiden in any way he desires
without incurring shame or blame™: Krueger, Lancelot Part IV, 10; Micha, Lancelot, II, 24.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
228
fails to greet him courteously in The Marvels of Rigomer; he leaves her the bag
of coins he carries for charitable gifts; he also leaves her pregnant.67 Of course
women of no status are simply targets outside the debate. King Pellinor
fathered Tor on ˜a shepherdess, whom the king found in a ¬eld watching her
beasts, but her beauty was so great that the king took a fancy to her, and lay by
her and fathered Tor™.68
Even ladies of position might be troubled. Guinevere™s father, King
Leodagan, seeing his chance to have his seneschal™s wife, crawls into bed with
the fearful lady:
and he told her to keep quiet; if she shouted a single word, he would kill her with his
sharp sword, or if she thrashed about in the least. The lady defended herself with words
as much as she could, but she did not dare speak out loud, so her arguments availed her
very little.69

Round Table knights swore to do no rape. Malory™s Morte Darthur gives the
famous oath knights of the Round Table must swear each year; it includes a
clause never to ˜enforce™ any ˜ladyes, damesels, and jantilwomen and
wydowes™.70 The sentiment is as noble as the evident need for its regular swear-
ing is instructive. Even Round Table knights appear in chivalric literature in
the very role they formally renounce. In the Merlin Continuation, for example,
Perceval must stop the combat of Sagremore and the Ugly Hero, ¬ghting over
who shall have a desirable maiden. Freed and offered Perceval™s protection, the
maiden declines: ˜I™ve no need of an escort, for I won™t meet anyone in these
parts who will make any demands on me, since I™m safe from these two.™71
Even King Arthur is a rapist in the Post-Vulgate Quest for the Holy Grail.
Lost while hunting, he comes upon a beautiful maiden and ˜was so pleased
with her that he lay with her by force. She was a young girl and still knew noth-
ing of such matters, and she began to cry out while he was lying with her, but

Vesce, tr., Marvels of Rigomer, 169“73; Foerster, ed., Mervelles de Rigomer, ll. 7759“982.
67

Though the author terms the rape ˜grant folie™, (noting that the son engendered will take
vengeance on Sagremore), he pauses to admire the beauty of Sagremore™s body and arms as he
rides away, and pictures the lady thinking so handsome a man must surely be of high status; none
of the locals is as handsome as he. Casual sex is the reward of the heroes of this text; see, e.g.,
Vesce, ibid., 25, 103; Foerster, ibid., ll. 1056“68, 4581“6.
Asher, tr., Merlin Continuation, 238; Paris and Ulrich, eds., Merlin, II, 114“15.
68

Pickens, tr., Story of Merlin, 248; Sommer, ed., Vulgate Version, II, 148“9. A little later, this
69

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