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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Unattainable Chivalric Code
Some Thoughts on Chivalry
The chivalric code is a paradigm that is both poorly understood and was even more poorly applied, not because the code was not clearly written down and able to be transferred among the people who it applied to but because of its very confusing historical development and even more confusing codification. The Chivalric code grew out of the desire by many to codify a new role in society, that of the knight. The knight though he had existed before did not previously have a role in society and therefore had only limited means of social control. In an attempt to respond to the lawlessness and brutality that arose from the development of this whole new class the, Christian mercenary soldier made up of individual men taught to fight mercilessly against his enemies and in consummate loyalty to their benefactor the chivalric code was developed and then codified. The code is described most effectively as a manner in which to control the poor behavior of fighting men socially, politically, and economically. It grew of the desire for security and safety, especially in travel and then continued to grow into a complicated and often contrary codified ideal. The knight was expected to be loyal to his Christian God, his Christian King & Queen (divinely approved to lead and conquer) and even his Lover in a certain order and with precise often contradictory application. In the work Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda Taylor discusses the importance of chivalry to the whole fiber of masculine identity during the period, discussed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This writer contends that Sir Gawain is an ideal Knight within a contradictory system. A virtuous Knight is always struggling to maintain a balance of the Chivalric code an array of rules that contradict each other.
'Religion', 'war', and 'chivalry' are three words without which the late medieval mind cannot be understood. After religion, chivalry was perhaps, in the words of the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, 'the strongest of all the ethical conceptions which dominated the mind and the heart' of late medieval man. From the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, the chivalric 'code' determined the way in which western nobles fought and behaved in battle. It was an ideal, a concept to which men should aspire -- although whether they could actually live up to the concept was another matter. Nevertheless, the code created a mental framework for the military profession, a mentality which not only served to determine battlefield behaviour but also to justify the new-found social, political, and economic position of the knights in the medieval order of things. In the service of kings, knights were an invaluable instrument of power. Especially after Pope Gregory VII (1073-85), whose Gregorian Reform signalled the way for religious approval of warfare, the knights found that in some circumstances they could also conduct their brutal business with God's blessing (Taylor 67)
The issue of chivalry began to mean a great deal more than a code of military honor which if applied correctly could make or break a man, economically and politically as it was translated into the work of poets. The poetic expression of the so called troubadour (traveling poets and purveyors of news) interwove the ideas of knightly duty with those of love and other issues of intrigue that bring individuals and patrons the kind of interest that results in a livelihood. In other words the intermingling of chivalric military duty with the ideals of love was and will likely remain a product of propaganda in the true sense of the word. Yet, it was also an extremely effective means of communicating the social moors of the day, which translated even into the non-verbal gestures associated with social interaction. (Burrow)
The Troubadours and Balladry
The troubadour poets, sometimes the best if not only source of information between locations developed works that intermingled truths with fantastic ideals to build a reputation and continue to travel. Somehow these ideals in the common audience and the audience of the elite became so intertwined that fictions became truths and ideals became real codified standards. A passage from Gawain and the Green Knight expresses this idea with clear and concise order;
"And as courteous and knightly as you are known to be -- And in all of chivalry the thing that is most praised, Along with the art of arms, is the true sport of love, For the tales of how true knights have engaged in this venture Are the testimony and text of their achievements, Telling how some, for their true love, have risked their lives, Enduring terrible trials because of them…" (Merwin 103)
The codification of chivalry to reflect issues that were far more than those associated with the political, military and economic constraints that were first envisioned as the most important issues of virtuous behavior for the knight became much more. They became codified contradictions regarding the rules of behavior in everything a man did.
During times of peace, and periods of travel from one engagement to the next, of which there were many in the knightly world it became particularly important to define and apply the social rules of knightly behavior. These social rules dictated how a knight was to behave in love, in deference to his Christian God, in deference to his King and/or Lord, between his comrades, love for the women who were attached to these men above him and even towards his own legitimate lover(s).
Alienor -- or, as she is most often called now, Eleanor -- of Aquitaine, whose life spanned most of the twelfth century, & #8230; established a cultural tradition that included much that we think of as chivalry: an imaginative spirit and attitude toward existence that maintained the elaborate codes and manners of courtly love and the criteria for knightly prowess and magnanimity. The ideals and their spirit found expression in the poetry of the troubadours, and for most of her life Alienor was a preeminent patron and close friend of troubadours. Some of the poetic conventions that had come from the assumptions of chivalry and of courtly love survived not only savage treatment from Alienor's estranged husband Henry (who destroyed her first Court of Love in Poitiers, in 1174) but their own early forms in the medieval world. & #8230; The tales of knightly adventures and amorous encounters came to be called romances. The distant beloved, the loved one scarcely known and yet loved for a lifetime, perhaps the object of all the poems written by a poet, and the hopeless longing for an unattainable beloved, recurred with variations. (Merwin xiv)
Alienor, then an unlikely herald of the codification of a system of order first associated with military honor adds to a tradition of communication, with both her patronage and her own writings. The issue of gender in the context of the 13th century will be discussed later in this work as it applies to Gawain and the Green Night. Caruthers demonstrates in his literary criticism the nature of the work as a clear example of balladry; "At all events, the story ends at this point with the adoption of the baldric, and to remind us that it is indeed a story whose primary object is to entertain, the author recalls that it is recorded in 'pe best boke of romaunce' (line 2521)." (Caruthers 66) Though the author continues to be an unknown figure in the literary cannon the expression of his craft is felt throughout the Arthurian legends and beyond.
Balladry, then, is best understood and classified according to the cultural functions it performs and the world view and opinions it expresses, rather than its formal attributes. It represents, during the English Middle Ages, the division not only of class but of culture in British society, and consequently of the concerns of that culture, ranging from everyday behavior to general world view. Within what has been defined as a single genre, we find the divisions that merit, in mainstream literature, critical consideration as separate genres, but that in balladry merely become subclasses -- domestic ballads, romantic ballads, comic ballads, political ballads, ballads of chivalry and of the yeomanry, and so forth. (Lambdin 56)
Lambdin demonstrates in this piece of literary criticism the importance of balladry to the social order and also makes clear that many pieces of balladry have been considered on the merit of their classification. The classification of Sir Gawain and the Green Night is one that is reflective of the romantic ballads, yet it has much to say about nearly every other aspect of the genre, and most specifically how an individual man might fare in the application of an imperfect system of social, political and economic order, such as chivalry.
Gender and Chivalry in Sir Gawain and the Green Night
It has been previously touched upon in this work that the issue of gender was one of…[continue]
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