The Naked Philologist Brings You (Medieval) Bedroom Satisfaction

medieval,Why the hell not? Let’s talk about… Medieval Sex. Which is, as anyone will tell you, one of my very favourite topics, right after megalomaniac bishops.1

Last night, while reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues, a collection of texts largely in translation, by Elisabeth Brewer, 2 I discovered Le Chevalier a L’Epée. A section- in informally styled English prose translation- appears at the end of her chapter on Temptation episodes associated with Gawain.3

In this section, Gawain meets a knight in the forest, who invites him home for tea and scones. Along the way, some shepherds warn Gawain that no one invited to the castle for tea and scones ever returns. Gawain is rather put off by this, but cannot honourably back out. So he heads on up to the castle, where his host goes to every effort to set him up with his lovely daughter. Come evening, the host shuts Gawain and the girly into his own bedroom, ordering her to “shut the doors, my girl, and do what he tells you, for I know such knights have no need of a crowd.”4 The girl strips down and cuddles up with Gawain, whereupon she informs him that- unlike all the other men her father has brought home- she cares very much for him, and doesn’t want him to die. Accordingly, he mustn’t make any amorous moves upon her, or the big sword which hangs over her father’s bed will come down and cut him to pieces.
Gawain is perplexed, and “he suspected that she told him all this to protect herself, so that he could not satisfy his desire. On the other hand, it could not be concealed… that he had lain all night with her alone, both of them naked, in her bed, and that he had, on account of a single word, desisted from making love to her”.5 So he snuggles up closer, and lo and behold the sword drops down and clonks him one on the shoulder, whereupon Gawain ‘lost all desire’ and retreats to the far side of the bed.6 After a while, though, his pride- or possibly his libido- prods him into trying again.

He drew close to her very gently because he was not a peasant. He was playing a certain game when the sword jumped from its scabbard and made another attack on him… But the sword was deflected a little and turned to his right shoulder so that it cut three fingers’ breadths into the skin…7

He begs a ‘truce’ from the lady, who snarks back that if he’d given the truce when she asked it, he’d be a lot better off now. The pair of them lie awake all night until her father raps on the door. She opens it, and he is astounded to find Gawain still alive. Noticing the blood on the sheets, he demands to know what went on. On hearing that the sword deflected from Sir Gawain, he tells Gawain that the sword was to choose his daughter’s husband, because it would deflect from the best knight who came to her. There’s a big wedding feast, and then the host escorts them to bed, where he “married them with goodwill”8.

That night he had his desire, and no sword was unsheathed there. If he returned again to the attack upon the courteous damsel, it does not distress me, and she was not upset.9

Everything is fine and dandy for a month or so, before Gawain decides he ought to take his new wife back to Arthur’s court. Off they set, but at the bend she suddenly refuses to move unless he goes back to the castle and brings her beloved greyhounds. Gawain, being a nice enough bloke, does so, and when he returns to her, a knight bristling with arms careers up and plants himself between Gawain and the lady. Said knight takes her bridle and leads her away, and she goes with him, as quiet as you please. Gawain, who is only lightly armed, calls out and reproves the other knight for taking away his beloved. As Gawain is at a disadvantage, and his opponent will not allow him to return to the castle for more arms, Gawain proposes a fair contest: they set the lady between them, and her consent will decide which of them shall keep her. Gawain is convinced he will win this contest, but

the girl, who knew very well how Gawain could aquit himself in love, wanted next to know about the knight, and how bold and valiant he was. You all, both great and small, and those who laugh as well as those who groan, know that there is scarcely a woman in the world, if she is a sweetheart and a wife, with the best knight there can be from here to Greater India, who would ever love him enough to value him as much as a pinch of salt if he was not valiant in the castle- you all know to what prowess I refer.10

The lady then gets cold feet, and tells her new paramour that she will not go anywhere without her greyhounds. The knight returns to Gawain, and the same scene is played out, save that the dogs return straight to Gawain, who taunts his rival:

… if you hope to satisfy this girl, you will have little joy of her- I hope she can hear what I am saying- for I can assure you that when she was mine she got what she wanted, and now see how she has served me! It doesn’t happen like that with this does as it does with the woman, as you can see: he will never change his master who has reared him for a stranger. A woman completely throws over her master if he does not give her all she wants, and it is an astonishing thing about such an exchange that she will leave her own for a stranger.11

They have a nice manly joust over it; Gawain kills the stranger and keeps the dogs. The lady begs him to take her back, saying that she only feared for his life, as he was so lightly armed, and accordingly she had gone with the stranger to save Gawain. Gawain doesn’t believe a word of this, and leaves her in the dust, taking the greyhouds with him as his prize.

Now, needless to say, there are many objectionable gender stereotypes here. I’m jolly glad my father refrains from shutting me naked in a room with random young men, and also refrains from chopping up my suitors. Gawain isn’t really that nice a bloke- his reputation being more important than the lady’s wish to ‘protect’ herself from his desire.

But do you notice that all the way through this episode, a knight’s big tough manliness depends on his bedroom performance… and that depends on his ability to satisfy his lady friend’s desires? That a *nobleman* is distinguished in the bedroom by gentility and playing ‘games’ before intercourse? That lack of sexual satisfaction on the woman’s part is acknowledged- though not approved- as a common cause of relationship breakdown?

I found this quite interesting. I haven’t read far and wide in high medieval literature, either French or Middle English, and this was the first time I’d encountered such a strong focus on female pleasure in a sexual context. Is this more common than I’d thought? Is it a special for Le Chevalier a L’Epée?
These things I wonder.
Plus, it’s a rollicking good story.


1. I blame Awesome, who, in second year, noted that class attendance was dropping off halfway through semester, and rocked up to class with the announcement that “I can see we’re boring you a little. So I decided to scrap what’s in the program this week. Let’s talk about sex in Anglo-Saxon England”, and read us dirty riddles for an hour or so. This was a highly effective teaching strategy, because dirty riddles aren’t something you forget easily.1.1
2. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992). Previous edition From Cuchulainn to Gawain, 1973. I have grave reserves about this book as a scholarly text. Brewer includes no introductions to the sources- we don’t knowacademia,snark,history,metheir origins, dates, or even their original languages. Her citations are minimal and the bibliography non-existant.

Having said that, her introduction and nine chapters of ‘sources and analogues’ do provide a quick grounding in the genre of Arthurian romances in the time of the Gawain poet. Plus, some of them are fun to read. I’d recommend the book as a source for high school students or perhaps first years, or as light background reading for anyone else. If you’re wanting serious research into the sources and contemporaries of SGGK, don’t go here.
3. pp. 109-126.
4. pp. 115-116.
5. p. 117.
6. p. 117.
7. p. 118.
8. p. 120. I’m curious about this wedding, incidentally. Anyone know much about medieval French marriage law and customs?
9. p. 120.
10. p. 122-123.
11. p. 124.

1.1 Also, Sydney Uni is the place to be in 2009 for medieval sex. Awesome and a colleague are offering a course entitled ‘Sex and Sin’, or possibly ‘Sex and Sinners’. A whole semester of medieval sex! I almost wish I wasn’t graduating…


12 Responses to “The Naked Philologist Brings You (Medieval) Bedroom Satisfaction”

  1. B. Hawk Says:

    A rollicking story indeed!

    On top of your great observations, you quote this:
    “That night he had his desire, and no sword was unsheathed there. If he returned again to the attack upon the courteous damsel, it does not distress me, and she was not upset.”
    First, it is Gawain who has “his desire”–no mention of the girl or her pleasure (as you note, perhaps she doesn’t receive any!). Oddly enough, though, the text says that “she was not upset.” So we have a paradox: did she or did she not enjoy it?
    Also, I wanted to note the violence of the language here. Gawain’s “desire” is fulfilled in an “attack,” not an amorous gesture, but one carried through in a battle. So, perhaps all is fair in love and war–and for the author of this tale, sometimes they’re the same!

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    See, I’m under the definite impression that she DID enjoy it (but thought she might enjoy the stranger more). ‘She was not upset’ sounds like a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of understatement…

    And yes, all the attacking… Not to mention the sword/scabbard references, which are all carefully timed for maximum sniggering.

    What’s more…. first comment on The Naked Philologist! Your prize is… the promise of a manuscript description-like table!

  3. B. Hawk Says:

    You have no idea how happy this promise makes me. I eagerly look forward to it!

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    You know, you’ve now infected me with a manic desire to improve the state of manuscript descriptions. Everyone who’s seen me today has been blasted with blather about user-friendly description formats.


    On the other hand, all the boring data entry side of making the table is now infused with the holy glow of *USER FRIENDLY DESCRIPTION FORMAT*. So you can’t be all bad.

  5. bronislava Says:

    and rollickingly well told! 😀

  6. B. Hawk Says:

    I’m ok with taking the blame on this one. In fact, I’m glad to take it.

  7. highlyeccentric Says:

    Why then I shall continue to blame you!

  8. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I warn you now, from bitter experience, that you will look on this entry in years to come, after it has brought you a steady flow of search engine hits looking for porn, and wonder if perhaps this is why you haven’t got a job yet. Unless, of course, as is entirely possible, you land one anyway. But my basic point is: putting the phrase “medieval sex” in your blog somewhere does wonders for your search hits…

  9. highlyeccentric Says:

    I was hoping to get hits for medieval porn, but sadly… no. no medieval porn searchers. In fact, no searchers have come here on their quests yet.

  10. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Trust me, won’t be long. Google will index it in the next few days then you’ll get all the same people I get…

  11. highlyeccentric Says:

    I thought i’d made it! One unfortunate punter came here in search of ‘russion ladies’… but, sadly, this was not the start of a wave of medieval porn searches. Sigh. I won’t feel like a real blogger until I get dodgy searches.

    All I’m getting so far is the searches which go into making this spam blog. Why would you run a spam blog about philology?

  12. Its Only a Flesh Wound Says:

    Ummm. Not for the faint of heart and is fantasy genre but…

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