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entreaties. Even another single combat fails to generate wrath in Lancelot.
Asked why he did not, once again, kill Gawain, as was within his power, he
responds tellingly, ˜I could not do it because my heart, which directs me,
would not allow it for anything.™

On the nature of the term preudome, so often applied to Lancelot in this text, see Chênerie,
25

˜Preudome™. For the view this text takes of tournaments as diversions from the highest knightly
activity, see Lachet, ˜Les tournois d™antan™.
As Boutet suggests, only Lancelot retains mesure; Gawain, and even Arthur, show demesure
26

and think along the lines of vengeance and private war; the great men of the court, with latent jeal-
ousy of Lancelot working in them, want to show their prowess in battle against him: see ˜Arthur
et son mythe™, 50“6.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
264
Invasion by Roman enemies and treason by Mordred at home complete the
downfall of Arthur™s world playing contrapuntally to the spiritual rise of
Lancelot. Gawain is mortally wounded and comes ¬nally to a new vision of the
good, asking Lancelot for forgiveness. Lancelot comes to offer help to Arthur,
but is too late. On the site of the climactic battle between Arthur and Mordred
he ¬nds the principal combatants already slain; he can only ¬nish off
Mordred™s supporters and, with justice, kill the traitor™s two sons.
This work done, Lancelot rides off in a kind of fog, almost aimlessly, it
seems. But the transformation that has been working in Lancelot leads him to
the logical conclusion of his spiritual odyessey. In a chapel attached to a poor
hermitage he ¬nds the Archbishop of Canterbury and his cousin Bleobleeris,
robed as hermit-priests before the altar. Lancelot joins them in the fullest
sense, becomes an ascetic hermit and priest, lives out a new form of heroism
on a diet of bread, water, and roots. After his death, the archbishop dreams of
angels carrying off his soul to bliss.
This theme of Lancelot™s spiritual journey is, for good reasons, stressed in
analyses of the text. But the author continually drives home the superiority of
Lancelot™s transformed chivalry in another way important for analysis: he
shows the problems caused by the accustomed practices and attitudes of most
of his knightly contemporaries. Indeed, the tale opens with Arthur angrily
establishing the precise scorecard of Gawain™s victims while on the Grail quest.
Gawain™s answer delivers the author™s message on this topic explicitly:
I can tell you in truth that I killed eighteen by my own hand, not because I was a bet-
ter knight than any of the others, but since misfortune affected me more than any of my
companions. Indeed, it did not come about through my chivalry, but through my sin.
You have made me reveal my shame.27

Shortly after that, in the tournament at which the king proclaims to keep up
knightly spirit in an age of declining adventures (˜because he did not want his
companions to cease wearing arms™), Arthur has thought it necessary to pro-
hibit Gawain and Gaheriet from participating; Lancelot will be present and
Arthur fears bad feeling and combat which goes beyond even rough sport.
In fact, the danger of the great war that will ¬nally doom the Round Table
swirls like a malignant mist throughout even the early action of the poem.
Knightly vengeance and the setting of kin against kin is, of course, a theme of
the entire text. The author works the theme in miniature as well. When
Arthur™s knights besiege Lancelot in the Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot cannot bring
himself to spring the pincer movement he has skilfully prepared. As a result,

An interesting rede¬nition of chivalry seems to be intended here; victory through ¬ne
27

prowess is simply sin if it brings about the death of other knights, a result hard to avoid.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 265
˜Arthur™s men felt more con¬dent than before, and said among themselves that
if Lancelot had had large forces, nothing would have stopped him from com-
ing out to attack them and the whole army, because no true knight would will-
ingly suffer injury from his enemy.™ Lancelot™s love for his enemies is
inconceivable to them.
The nobility of pure prowess is hymned time and again by one character
after another. Chivalry is repeatedly equated with deeds done with weapons,
with feats of arms (chevaleries); prowess is equated with nobility, great blows
being noted speci¬cally as proof of nobility. Little wonder that Lancelot™s men
rejoice when they learn that he will lead them out of the city of Gaunes against
King Arthur™s army the next morning: ˜most of them were pleased and happy
about this, because they preferred war to peace™. Little wonder that some more
thoughtful characters in the romance repeatedly speak their fears”as Bors
does when he foresees the collapse of the Round Table”of the ˜war that will
never end in our lifetimes™.
The author, in other words, not only shows an ideal spiritual path for the
regeneration of knighthood, he shows the dangers that quickly accumulate if
that path is not taken. To think only in terms of victory on the tourney
grounds and the battle¬eld, to equate chivalry simply with prowess, to give in
to sensual love whatever the consequences, to open the gates for vengeance
forti¬ed with kin loyalties, is to slide toward endless, destructive war.28


Robert the Devil/Sir Gowther
The numerous romances which sprouted from the story of Robert the Devil
doubly recommend themselves as the ¬nal case study for this chapter. In the
¬rst place, these romances show nearly fathomless depths of knightly evil fol-
lowed by repentance that elevates the reformed sinner to the skies, with the
problem of violence a central issue in the double process. Second, the basic
story proved to be genuinely popular and spoke its messages repeatedly in one
European language after another through the centuries that concern us”and
In the latter half of the fourteenth century this gripping story was rewritten in a north
28

Midlands dialect of Middle English as a work only about a ¬fth as long as the French original.
Benson, ed., Morte Arthur. The narrative frame is retained and the focus is once again on Lancelot
and on all of the dif¬cult issues raised by his role in Arthur™s court and his love for Arthur™s queen.
But, as in the Mort Artu he is not condemned; rather, he appears as an admired hero who gains in
self-knowledge and the grace of God, who transcends not only merely earthly chivalry based on
war, but merely earthly love as well. He thus stands in marked contrast to Gawain, who falls from
his previous reputation as peacemaker into sterile, unrelenting vengeance. As Barron notes, the
poet ˜does not preach™, but conveys his messages more subtly, always showing the impossibility of
perfection and the looming danger resulting from merely human forms, even when they are prac-
tised in the hope of perfection, even when they are such valued qualities as the prowess of Lancelot
or his mutual love with Guinevere. See the discussion in Barron, English Medieval Romance, 142“7.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
266
well beyond.29 There are many texts; to keep our case study manageable, the
analysis will draw on three that seem especially useful: Robert le Diable, written
in Old French in the late twelfth century; Sir Gowther, the Middle English
rewriting from the latter part of the fourteenth century; and the printed
English text of Robert™s story produced by Wynkyn de Worde shortly after
1500.30
Exactly why Robert/Gowther is so lost in evil at the beginning of his career
depends upon the text. In the Old French romance and in Wynkyn de Worde™s
text, he has been conceived after an anguished appeal to the Devil by the wife
of the duke of Normandy, desperate to save her long-childless marriage (ll.
25“73).31 In Sir Gowther (set in Estryke, rather than Normandy), a ˜shaggy
¬end™ who has taken the duke™s form is actually the father of the child, impreg-
nating the duke™s wife beneath a Chestnut tree in a classic scene familiar to
folkloric tradition (ll. 52“81).
The child grows abnormally in every sense”at seven times the rate of phys-
ical growth of ordinary children, for example. The Middle English text gives
him an inordinate appetite that leads him to suck nine wet-nurses to death (ll.
109“20) and to bite off his own mother™s nipple with his premature teeth (ll.
127“32). Yet at fourteen he is a perfect specimen of a young man: ˜none is as
beautiful as Robert™, the French romance says (nien est si biaus comme
Roibers™; l. 123).
With appropriate precociousness he is early entering that dangerous age of
turbulence and disruptive violence which medieval writers called ˜youth™ and
which Georges Duby studied in a famous article.32 Physically, if not emotion-
ally, mature, these young men often formed into bands, and wandered, gam-
bled, philandered, and fought in tournaments and in wars. Duby thinks that
they ˜formed the primary audience for all the literature that is called chivalric™.33

Breul, ed., Sir Gowther, 45“134, traces the widespread telling of this story.
29

Quotations in this section, unless otherwise stated, are from Löseth, ed., Robert le Diable;
30

Laskaya and Salisbury, eds., Breton Lays; Wynkyn de Worde™s printed text, from Cambridge
University Library, 1502?: ˜here beginneth the lyf of the moste myschevoust Robert the deuyll
whiche was afterwarde called the servaunt of god™, published in modern print in Thoms, ed., Early
English Prose Romances, 169“206. Warm thanks to Anne McKinley whose ¬ne seminar paper stud-
ied these texts when I had all but forgotten their existence. Interesting discussions of Gowther in
relation to the other texts appear in Hopkins, Sinful Knights, 144“78; Novelli, ˜Sir Gowther™; and
Breul, Sir Gowther. Vanderlinde, ˜Sir Gowther™, argues for enough difference between the two sur-
viving manuscripts of Sir Gowther to consider them essentially separate poems, sharing the same
source. These differences (which will interest many) do not seem suf¬ciently great for the issues in-
vestigated here to require separate analyses of the two texts. These texts are printed in Mills, ed., Six
Middle English Romances, 148“68; Rumble, ed., Breton Lays, 178“204; and Novelli, Sir Gowther, 83“157.
Wynkyn de Worde text in Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 171“2.
31

Duby, ˜Dans la France du Nord-Ouest™. Trempler has even used the story of Robert as a case
32

study of adolescent destructive narcissism: see ˜Robert der Teufel™. The author is interested in the
origins of delinquency and destructive hate.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 267
Gowther seems a parodic exemplar of these turbulent, wandering, violent
youths. Having from an alloy of iron and steel fashioned a great falchion (a
heavy sword with a single curved cutting edge) that he alone can swing,
Gowther sets enthusiastically to work.34 Robert™s band of like-minded fellows
(in the French romance) is composed of robbers in the woods near Rouen.
Behind him now are the youthful pranks of smashing beautiful church win-
dows or throwing ashes into the mouths of yawning knights (ll. 132“3, 157“9).
If he had long ˜set by no correccyon™, as Wynkyn de Worde says, going on to
tell us Robert had eviscerated his ˜scole mayster™ with a bodkin, he was now
˜able to bere armes™”the real weapons of warriors.35 If neighbouring children
have for years feared him as ˜Roberte the Deuyll™, giving him his name, he now
sets about troubling a much wider neighbourhood. The French romance says
plaintes (legal complaints against his actions), come daily to his father, the
duke (ll. 165“6). By the age of twenty, he has been excommunicated by the
pope and banished by his father, to no avail. He regularly kills merchants and
pilgrims; he has burned twenty abbeys to the ground (ll. 196“7, 199“204,
221“2). Gowther continues his devilish campaign by raping wives and virgins,
hanging priests on hooks, and forcing friars to jump off cliffs. In the Middle
English romance he has already been knighted, that ceremony changing him
not a whit (ll. 189“204).
The Old French romance makes much more of the effort to reform Robert
by enrolling him in the ranks of chivalry. When his father swears he will settle
all by drowning the lad (ll. 229“34), the mother suggests knighting him
instead: ˜Make your son a knight. You™ll see him give up his wickedness, cru-
elty and evil deeds when he has been made a knight. Robert has done evil
deeds in his youth [bachelerie]. He™ll do good deeds as soon as he becomes a
knight.™36 It is a classic statement of ideal knightly reform. The intent is highly
interesting: so is the failure. Even though the quid pro quo is carefully
explained and Robert enthusiastically agrees, dismissing his band of robbers in
apparent enthusiasm for a new life (ll. 254“64), he cannot stem the power of
evil within. At the inevitable tournament held to celebrate his new state, he
begins his ˜bad chivalry [ses chevaleries males]™ (l. 281). Following a wild night
of partying”no vigil in a church”Robert ¬ghts as if the tourney were war to

Duby, ˜Dans la France du Nord-Ouest™, tr., Cheyette, 205.
33

Illustrations of falchions from the Douce Apocalypse and a picture of a surviving example
34

appear in Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 28, 30. The illustrations show the Devil™s cavalry, riding
lion-headed horses, as noted on the dust jacket of John Maddicott™s Simon de Montfort.
Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 173, 174. Young heroes of romance tradition did
35

not rip out their teacher™s entrails, but more than one did beat them severely. See Chapter 7.
Combining Löseth, ed., Robert ll. 239“44 from ms. A, with several lines from ms B, given in
36

a note, Ibid., 16.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
268
the death; he wants to decapitate all those whom he has unhorsed. His feroc-
ity disrupts this tournament and his subsequent tour of the tournament circuit
across France spreads terror; back in Normandy, he renews his assaults on cler-
ics (ll. 275“322).37
The action comes to a climax as he attacks a nunnery. If Robert plays Raoul
here, re-enacting the infamous scene at Origny from Raoul de Cambrai, he
descends even deeper into the pit of sin by personally thrusting his sword into
the breasts of the nuns, killing ¬fty of the sixty religious with his own hands,
before setting the torch to the structures (ll. 341“52).38
At this point, the blood-red tide begins slowly to turn.39 Robert ¬nds him-
self alone before the scene of desolation. The loud neighing of his warhorse
reverberates. None of his men will answer his call, even when summoned by
name. Falling into unaccustomed introspection, he wonders about the course
of his life and its relationship to his birth; with the aid of the Holy Spirit, he
dimly realizes he could yet be God™s friend, and goes, soaked in blood, to see
his fearful mother; with threats, he ¬nally extracts the painful truth from her
(ll. 353“468). In Sir Gowther, recognition that he has been formed in evil by his
¬endish father comes from a wise old duke whose observations send Gowther
to his mother, from whom he gets the truth, told with the dreaded falchion
poised over her heart (ll. 205“33).
Weeping with sorrow and shame, Robert/Gowther experiences conversion.
He will rid himself of devilish in¬‚uence; he will go to Rome to seek absolution
from the pope himself. In the French romance he symbolically throws away
his sword and cuts his hair before setting off for Rome (ll. 465“8).40 Yet his sins
are so great, he learns in a hard-won papal audience, that even the pontiff can-
not set penance, nor yet can that archetypical ¬gure of chivalric romance, the
holy hermit, to whom the pope sends him.41 It takes a hand from heaven, bear-
ing a little script, to establish what Robert must do: until released from the
penance, he must play the fool, provoking violence and derision in the streets;
he must play the mute, speaking not a word; he must eat only what he can


Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 175“7.
37

The early sixteenth-century text has Robert violate the sacred bond between knight and her-
38

mit: Robert slays seven holy hermits and goes to see his mother, covered in their blood: l. 180.
Ms. B of Robert le Diable emphasizes the bloodiness of the slaughter: Löseth, ed., Robert le
39

Diable, 26. In Wynkyn de Worde™s version, Robert shows his change of life by killing all his com-
pany of robbers before setting off for Rome. He deposits the keys to his forest robber™s nest, his
horse, and his sword with the head of an abbey he had ˜many tymes robbed™: Thoms, Early English
Prose Romances, 184“6.
In Sir Gowther he retains the falchion, as discussed below.
40

In the Wynkyn de Worde text the pope tells Robert (whose evil reputation he knows) that
41

he will ˜assoyle™ him, but wants a promise ˜that ye do no man harme™. Robert promises, ˜I will
neuer hurte Crysten creature™: Thoms, Early English Prose Romances, 187.
Quest and Questioning in Romance 269
wrest from a dog™s mouth (ll. 490“885).42 This heaven-sent burden bears a
clear message: Robert must willingly suffer at least a few sparks of the raging
¬‚ames of violence he had in¬‚icted on others and experience the slow burn of
shame; he must resolutely dethrone his heedless pride.43 The several texts elab-
orately detail how thoroughly Robert/Gowther embraces and then for years
ful¬ls this penance, in full public view, in the streets of Rome and in the
emperor™s hall.
Then the Turks invade and all is thrown into confusion. Upon each of three
threats to Rome by the Sultan™s army, Robert/Gowther receives horse and
arms from heaven (either in response to his silent prayer, as in the French and
Middle English romances, or by direct divine command, according to
Wynkyn de Worde). Only the emperor™s mute daughter from her chamber
window witnesses the transformation of the fool into the saviour/knight.
Dressed in white armour and mounted on a white charger, the hero performs
wonders of prowess against the enemy in the ¬eld, saving Rome three times in
a row by emptying saddles, shearing off arms and legs, and spilling brains.44
Each time he then returns, divests himself of knightly horse and arms, and
becomes again the humble and unknown penitent.45 All imperial efforts to
detain and identify the white knight fail; the effort after the third battle even
results in Robert being wounded by Roman knights who would take him to
their chief (ll. 3414“500).
Resolution follows swiftly. The emperor™s mute daughter miraculously
begins to speak and is at last enabled plainly to say the truth about the fool in
the hall who is actually the White Knight. She produces as material proof the
lance-head which had wounded the knight, and which she had watched him
hide after he had painfully removed it. When the holy hermit releases Robert
from his penance, he joyfully tells his story openly (ll. 4490“866). In Sir
Gowther, the princess, who has steadily loved Gowther throughout his stay at
court, is given the privilege of pronouncing God™s forgiveness on him.
Gowther happily marries her and, upon the death of the emperor, takes the
crown himself, instituting a reign of peace and justice:

Sir Gowther pictures the pope himself absolving Gowther and setting his penance, which is
42

condensed to two elements: silence and eating only what he can take from dogs. The Wynkyn de
Worde text is closer to the French romance, but the penance comes to the hermit in a dream.
Wynkyn de Worde draws the moral explicitly: ˜Now haue this in your myndes, ye proude
43

hertes and synners, thynke on Roberts grete penaunce and wylfull pouerte and how he so grete a
gentylman borne . . . hathe all forsaken for the saluacyon of his soule™: Thoms, ed., Early English
Prose Romances, 191.
Gowther even rescues the emperor himself and decapitates the Sultan: ll. 625“31.
44

The Middle English text gives him, on successive days of battle, black, red, and white
45

armour. Some scholars have suggested a progressive process of purging. See Marchalonis, ˜Sir
Gowther™, 20“3.
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
270
What mon so bydus hym for Godys loffe doo
He was ey redy bown theretoo,
And stod pore folke in styd,
And ryche men in hor ryght,
And halpe holy kyrke in all is myght (ll. 715“19).

(He was always ready for love of God to do what people asked, and supported both the
poor, and the rights of the powerful).46

The text printed by Wynkyn de Worde similarly ends with worldly as well
as spiritual happiness. Robert is even commanded by God to marry the
princess. He brings her to Normandy where he secures the peace, hanging a
troublesome knight who had bothered his mother after the death of his father.
A message from Rome hurries Robert there with an armed force to save the
emperor from his wicked seneschal. Though he cannot arrive in time”the
seneschal has already slain the emperor in battle”Robert does split the wicked
traitor™s head down to the teeth with one of his great sword blows and so saves
Rome yet again. He rules well over rich and poor alike. As a ¬nal boon, Robert
and his wife give Christendom a champion in their son who joins
Charlemagne in the endless ¬ght against pagan forces.47
The French romance ends more starkly. Robert announces he has left the
world and will for nothing endanger his soul by re-entering it for even a day.
He rejects the appeal of four knights who have come from Normandy to tell
him of strife after the death of his parents there; he sets aside the Roman
princess and the claim to the imperial crown; and he goes to live with the holy
hermit outside Rome. He follows in that saintly man™s steps upon the hermit™s
death. For the rest of his life Robert serves God, who does many miracles for
him. At his death the Romans bury him with reverence in the church of St
John Lateran. Years later, a Frenchman, who has come to a council held to
make peace in many wars, takes Robert™s bones to a site near Le Puy and builds
an abbey over the new tomb. It is called the Abbey of St Robert (ll.
4490“5078).
For all their variance in detail, all three texts speak forcefully to a fear that
knightly prowess and pride, especially when spurred by the heedless energies
of youth, will turn to disruptive and destructive violence. The very devil is in
it. The best hope, the authors agree, lies in the shaping and restraining force of
religious ideals.


In the early sixteenth-century text the hermit releases Robert from his penance (as in the
46

French romance) and allows him to marry the princess (as in the Middle English romance): see
Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 199“203.
Ibid., 202“6.
47
Quest and Questioning in Romance 271
Yet, as we have regularly seen in other texts, the authors take a view of
knightly prowess which has its twists and turns. Violence in the right causes is
enthusiastically endorsed. Wynkyn de Worde™s Robert ends his life as a model
hero from epic or romance, putting a rope round the neck of a Norman trou-
blemaker, putting his sword into the skull of a Roman traitor, and then ruling
well, even engendering a warrior son. The text of Sir Gowther valorizes a
rough-hewn chivalric atmosphere from the beginning by noting that at the
tournament to celebrate his wedding the duke who will be Gowther™s sup-
posed father is an expert tourneyer; the text proclaims that he unhorsed ten
men in the joust and cracked skulls generally in the mêl©e (ll. 40“8). Gowther
himself does not throw away his sword, as Robert does, upon going on pil-
grimage to Rome. Speci¬cally told to discard his beloved falchion by the pope,
he refuses; it is again in his expert hands on the battle¬eld against the Turks.
Though the text condemns Gowther in his wild days for slaying his mother™s
retainers with this great sword, cutting through both rider and horse with
powerful blows, when, later, he cuts through the Sultan™s men and mounts,
the action is, of course, praised in the manner of any great sword stroke in
romance. The falchion seems almost to function as a symbol of the force of his
knighthood, which can be turned to good or ill use.48
If in the French romance Robert has horribly stained his sword with the
blood of nuns early in the text, he then gloriously stains the sword lent from
heaven with the blood of the Sultan™s men.49 This text lingers admiringly over
Robert™s arming and his stunning appearance in the white armour as he pre-
pares to go into action (ll. 1840“58); it can equate chivalry with prowess, not-
ing that the emperor ˜saw the beautiful chivalry that Robert did in his presence™
on the battle¬eld (˜la chevalerie bele / Que Robers devant lui a faite™; ll. 1935“7,
my emphasis); in standard romance fashion it can likewise praise the hall full
of the emperor™s ˜good knights who never were without war™ (ll. 2770“3; they
are called ˜Li ¬‚ors de la chevalerie™ at l. 2205); and it notes that the ¬nal victory
feast seated not only seasoned knights but even the ˜bachelors with the most
prowess™ (l. 3602).50
Complexities of attitude regarding prowess thus put in their appearance,
as always. All three texts, however, begin with a knight whose prowess is

Swordblows against mother™s retainers, (see n. 30) ll. 166“7; against Turks, 592“4. For com-
48

ments on symbolism of the falchion, see Hopkins, Sinful Knights, 158.
Killing of nuns: see especially B text, p. 26 n. Killing of Turks: ll. 1955“60. In each case he is
49

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