Tonight: Storytime with Highly!

In the course of my evening’s procrastination1 I started fishing through the backlog in my RSS feed, and discovered that Jon Jarrett carried through on his promise to tell a story about a woman not named Adelaide. Riquilda is a pretty spiffy name, and also it’s not Adelaide. Not that I have anything against women named Adelaide (never met any) or cities by that name (nice place. Inexplicable statues of pigs rooting in fake garbage bins).

I have not promised to tell anyone any stories, but I feel like doing so anyway. Let me tell you the story of


AKA: My favourite part of that obnoxious book, the Conte du Graal, and probably not one I’ll get to talk about very much in the course of my thesis.

(With no pictures, because photobucket and WordPress both hate me)

SO! Sir Gawain is hanging about in the town of Tintagel, where there’s a tournament going on. Sir Meliant de Liz has the hots for the eldest daughter of Sir Tiebaut of Tintagel, and since she has declared that she won’t love him unless he defeats her father in combat, Sir Meliant de Liz (who hasn’t figured out that this is not the way to ingratiate oneself with one’s prospective in-laws) has brought all his friends and challenged Sir Tiebaut to a melée.

Gawain, who is staying with Sir Tiebaut, is nominally on Sir Tiebaut’s side here: but since he’s only passing through Tintagel on his way to face trial-by combat for a murder he may or may not have committed,2 he’s lurking around at the edge of the tourney field, trying to look inconspicuous. Sir Gawain is not very good at inconspicuous: he’s got several horses with him, and two shields, and there he is at the edge of the field, looking like a baggage train unto himself.

Up on the top of the tower, Meliant de Liz’s girlfriend has gathered with her ladies to watch the proceedings. With them is her sister, Sir Tiebaut’s younger daughter, known as the Maiden with the Small Sleeves.  All the ladies are quite excited by the tourney, although rather disappointed to find that all Gawain’s armour belongs to only one knight – they’d hoped for twice the eye-candy. Sensible women. Not the Elder Sister, though – she doesn’t give two hoots about Sir Gawain, at this point. As far as she’s concerned, Meliant de Liz is the best thing before sliced bread, and this is a perfect opportunity for everyone else to observe the magnificence of her boyfriend.

‘Look, girls,’ she says, ‘isn’t he the hottest thing ever to don armour?’

Yes indeed, all the ladies agree. Meliant de Liz is pretty damn spectacular. And they all settle down for a good perving session.

But wait! There’s dissent in the ranks. ‘There’s a knight more attractive than Meliant de Liz,’ declares the Maiden with the Small Sleeves. Elder Sister takes this pronouncement about as well as you’d expect a teenage girl to take dissent from her little sister: she up and slaps the Maiden with the Small Sleeves, and all the other ladies have to physically restrain her from further violence.

Just when everyone’s settled back down to check out Meliant de Liz again, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves pipes up again: ‘I can see a more handsome and better knight,’ she insists.

Elder Sister rounds on her sister again: ‘How dare you insult someone whom I have praised!’ (Anyone who’s had a sibling can tell you that the fact that Elder Sister has praised him is the best reason for insulting anyone, but clearly Elder Sister hasn’t figured that out yet.) And she slaps the Maiden with the Small Sleeves again, and the ladies have to pull her away.

Perhaps the ladies are getting sick of the sisters’ quarrel, because they move on to safer topics: Sir Gawain. Who is he? What’s he doing down there, and why isn’t he joining in the tourney? Various answers are proposed: he’s a coward. He’s sworn not to participate. He’s a merchant or a money-changer in disguise.

‘How can you say such things?’ cries the maiden with small sleeves. ‘He seems more like a champion than a money-changer: he’s a knight, and he looks the part.’

The ladies, who are all older and wiser, roll their eyes. ‘Don’t be silly,’ they say. ‘He’s disguised as a knight, and trying to avoid taxes and customs duties. He’ll be arrested for his deception, just wait!’

Come evening, Gawain retires to his lodgings. Meanwhile, at Tiebaut’s court, the talk is of the unknown knight who refused to enter the tourney. The Maiden with the Small Sleeves continues to insist that he is a true knight, and, indeed, a better knight than Sir Meliant de Liz. Her older sister decides that she’s had enough of this, and goes to her father.

‘Daddy dear,’ she says, ‘did you know there’s a merchant in the town, posing as a knight? He’s taken lodgings with one of your retainers. If you go there now, you can arrest him at once.’ So Sir Tiebaut orders his horse to be readied, and announces that he’s off to arrest this merchant.

The Maiden with the Small Sleeves is not going to stand for this, oh no! She sneaks off through a back door and hurries to the house where Gawain is staying: Gawain’s host, Sir Garin, has two young daughters, with whom she is friends. Her friends let her into the house; meanwhile, her father has arrived in the main hall. He tells Sir Garin that he is here to arrest Sir Garin’s guest. Sir Garin, as a good host should, vouches for Gawain’s honour, and invites Tiebaut in to meet him. Tiebaut accosts Gawain and demands to know if he is a true knight, and why he won’t enter the tourney.

Gawain agrees that his behavior is shameful: but, he explains, he has no choice. He’s due to face trial-by-combat, and if he should be injured or delayed in Tintagel, even greater shame would fall upon his family.

This is fair enough, Sir Tiebaut agrees, and refrains from arresting Sir Gawain. He offers him an escort and provisions for the road, but Gawain declines: he has plenty of money to buy provisions and lodgings. Just as Sir Tiebaut is turning to leave, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves runs into the hall.

‘Good my lord,’ she cries, running up to Gawain and wrapping her arms around his leg. ‘Grant me a favour! I come to you to lay claim against my sister: uphold my rights, please!’

Gawain, who is more used to being propositioned by grown women than small girls, is a little startled. And, knowing nothing of the girl, he’s not sure what to say here: so he pats her on the head and hopes for the best. The Maiden with the Small Sleeves grabs his hand and says to him: ‘I lay claim before you against my sister, who bears me no love or affection, because today she has caused me great shame on your account’.

Gawain is slightly charmed. ‘What can I do for you?’ he asks. At this point, Sir Tiebaut cuts in: ‘Don’t listen to my daughter – she is a silly, foolish child.’ And he looks like he’s going to hustle his daughter away.

‘Indeed,’ says Gawain. ‘Then it would be dishonourable of me not to do as she wishes. Tell me at once, my sweet and noble child, what I can do for you?’

‘Can you bear arms in the tourney tomorrow, for love of me?’ she asks him. Gawain looks down at her, and asks if she’s ever asked such a thing of a knight before.

‘No, my lord.’

‘Don’t listen to her,’ Tiebaut tells him, again. ‘Don’t worry about her foolishness.’

‘On the contrary,’ Gawain tells him, ‘she has spoken well for such a little girl: I will be her knight tomorrow.’ And the Maiden with the Small Sleeves is delighted, and bows low at his feet.

Sir Tiebaut scoops up his daughter, and rides with her back to the castle. Along the way, he asks her what the cause of all this is, and she explains the situation. Sir Tiebaut is perhaps exasperated when he hears that Elder Sister won’t shut up about Meliant de Liz (after all, the fellow’s busily defeating Sir Tiebaut in combat); or maybe he sighs a big sigh of “oh dear, here comes the inevitable”; regardless, he gives his youngest daughter permission to send Sir Gawain a favour tomorrow.

‘Oh, no,’ cries the Maiden with Small Sleeves. ‘My sleeves are too small – no knight would want my sleeves as a favour.’ And so, when they get home, he does two things: first of all he gives Elder Sister a sound telling-off for hitting the Maiden with Small Sleeves; and secondly, he goes upstairs and finds a big piece of red samite, and orders a new sleeve to me made from it, so that the Maiden with Small Sleeves will have a favour to give to Sir Gawain.

The next day, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves runs out to Sir Gawain before the tourney, and presents him with the red sleeve to wear ‘as a token of my love’. And Gawain accepts it and thanks her very solemnly; then he heads out onto the field and proceeds to bash other knights left right and centre.  The first thing he does is go after Sir Meliant de Liz, and tip him out of the saddle and into the mud. He captures Meliant’s horse, and sends it to the Maiden with the Small Sleeves as a gift.

The Maiden with the Small Sleeves cannot resist rubbing it in: ‘Look, sister – look at your fabulous boyfriend lying there in the mud! Now everyone can see that there’s a better knight; I’m right, I’m right, NYAH NYAH NYAH NYAH.’ And her sister slaps her again, and the ladies have to pull them apart again.

At the end of the day, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves goes out to meet Sir Gawain outside her father’s castle.  She takes hold of the stirrup of his horse, and then perhaps she’s overcome with shyness, because all she can think of to say is “a thousand thanks, good sir”.

But Gawain knows exactly what she means, and he promises that he will never fail in her service, not until he’s old and grey: and if she is ever in need, then she can send for him and nothing will prevent him coming to her aid.

Sir Tiebaut appears and (finally) asks Gawain for his name: Gawain gives it, but he cannot be convinced to stay. Just as he’s about to ride off, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves takes hold of his stirrup again and kisses his foot. Gawain thinks this is a bit odd (but kind of adorable) and asks her why she did that. She answers that she did so because she wanted him to remember her.

And Sir Gawain promises that he will never forget her, and takes his leave of the court.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes the tale of Sir Gawain and the Adorable Small Girl. (Incidentally, I’ve filched and paraphrased from the Penguin translation, not the OF original, because today I am lazy.) It’s fascinating to me for a couple of reasons: one, because it’s a rare depiction of childhood/adolescence in medieval lit – it’s clear that the Maiden with the Small Sleeves is young, but just old enough to start emulating adults in court society. Two, because it’s a hilarious depiction of sibling rivalry (much more entertaining than the feuding sisters in Yvain, who are older and more serious), one of those little slice-of-life stories which remind you that people just don’t change. Particularly not when the people in question are teen(ish) sisters.

And three, because I’m fascinated by the clear delineation between heterosocial and heteroromantic relationships here: there’s absolutely no question that Gawain’s interest in the Maiden is non-sexual, but their relationship conforms to the general pattern which we expect of courtly romantic relationships. Indeed, their friendship deliberately parralels that of Elder Sister and Meliant, and the difference is not in the form (each knight represents and honours his lady; each lady’s standing rests on her knight’s performance) but in the intent (one romantic, one friendly) and the consequences: Elder Sister’s romantic relationship causes conflict and divison in her family; the Maiden’s social relationship with Gawain brings father and daughter closer and upholds her father’s honour.


1. Seriously, folks, conjugating the verb rapio in the passive in all its tenses and moods is… disconcerting, if you’ve been reading a whole lot of books and articles on rape and abduction and so on. Incidentally, Katherine Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens is a fascinating read, if you feel like wading through a whole book about rape.
2. We don’t know, because Chrétien never finished the story. Some people think he died before he got to finishing it. Personally, I think he got bored, or perhaps just gave up in despair. I for one have no idea where this narrative is going and I have a feeling Chrétien didn’t either.


11 Responses to “Tonight: Storytime with Highly!”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Hurray for stories, they are how people make the past interesting for normal audiences. This is a good one, too. Having naturally been dazzled by your closing analysis, the thing that is left to strike me is the elder daughter being so keen on unseating her father. She is presumably the heiress, given that no brothers appear? If Meliant had succeeded in felling Sir Tiebaut, what would elder sister have actually won?

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      The funny thing is, Meliant is also Sir Tiebaut’s overlord. So I’m not sure that he has much to gain from this, aside from a girlfriend – he could presumably consolidate his hold over Sir Tiebaut’s lands, but it’s explicitly set out that Sir Tiebaut is a good and loyal retainer and also Sir Meliant’s foster-father. So I’m not sure what he has to gain from this – logically, he could’ve *asked* Sir Tiebaut for her hand, and would probably have got it. It’s pretty clear that he’s only engaging in this stupidity because Elder Sister demands it.

      I think what’s going on here is part of the Conte du Graal’s underlying mistrust of women’s motives. In this case, I think we have another parody of the practice of raptus, somewhat like the Lovesome Damsel episode in the Knight of the Cart. In the earlier three romances, Chrétien is pretty clearly *opposed* to the practice of raptus, and sets out a whole bunch of ways in which it’s bad, nasty and traumatic for the ladyfolk – although the presentation gets more equivocal as he goes along, and the Knight of the Cart is certainly all about the erotics of raptus, all the primary pairings are consensual in some way or another.

      But then by the time he gets to the Graal, it’s like he’s changed his mind or given up entirely – by this point WE DON’T LIKE WOMEN and they’re VERY SCARY CREATURES WHO ARE NOT TO BE TRUSTED. There are more and more examples of women manipulating romance tropes to get one over various menfolk (Perceval’s girlfriend, for example – completely understandable and she’s not condemned for it, but she seduces and manipulates him into defending her rather than simply appealing to him as a matter of honour).

      In this case, the message seems to be Sexually Attractive Women Really Want To Be Ravished, Even When It’s Not Good For Society At Large Or The Individual Men In Their LIfes (handy hint: this is not true). I really shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of thing, but Chrétien’s earlier work had lulled me into a false sense of security. It’s also… odd, because the Graal has no heroine. All we get are a a scattering of manipulative bit-part female characters, so it’s hard to get a handle on what’s supposed to be going on here.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        I have a contact who has some odd ideas about the Conte de Graal (we probably all have such a contact) but one of his odd ideas may help with this, and is unusually substantiable for anything anywhere near the Grail, to wit that the Conte has the shape it does, and contains many of its events, because it’s actually using the Gesta Comitum Barcinonensium as source. It doesn’t quite fly here, because Count Guifré the Hairy abducted his bride-to-be in the Gesta rather than raped her, and Perceval’s poor girl in the tent, well, she doesn’t really get that much of an offer, but it does help explain why there’s a raptus there at all. The paper isn’t published (and with its current luck may not be) but I could pass it to you as a draft if you like. If so, mail me: I will not remember without a demand in my INBOX…

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      they are how people make the past interesting for normal audiences

      Dear Jon, what makes you think that medieval blog-readers are normal in any sense of the word? 😉

  2. magistra Says:

    One of the things I like in this story is the reminder of how old many of the dafter conventions of modern TV shows etc are. Gawain has good reasons for not fighting, but as soon as the combat is framed in a different way, he just ignores these practical reasons, even though they haven’t gone away. And of course, because this story isn’t ‘realistic’, once he’s fighting for a good reason, he can’t get hurt.

    Of course, I do wonder whether the young girls listening to this story in the Middle Ages were thinking: ‘I wish I could be that girl with the small sleeves’, or, like me reading Malory, thinking: ‘I wish I could be Gawain/Gareth etc’, but that’s a different discussion.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Yes, I really do wonder who a hypothetical female audience would identify with here. It might not just be a choice between the Maiden with the Small Sleeves and Gawain – the Maiden is a giant brat, so you might identify with the older sister; or perhaps with the unfortunate ladies-in-waiting who keep having to break up their fights. Bearing in mind that a lot of the women listening *wouldn’t* have been in the same sort of very high privileged position as the Maiden and her sister, I think empathising with the ladies-in-waiting is not at all unlikely (consider Lunette, Badass Handmaiden Extraordinary).

      The Maiden with Small Sleeves is also interesting because she’s a (small) counter-narrative of childhood/adolescence, a complement to that of Perceval in the same text. We get the same themes running through – the right and wrong ways to enter adulthood and wield your new adult powers; recognition as an adult being based on both *clothing* and social recognition. And male mentors. Female same-sex friendship and mentoring just doesn’t have the same power in this text as in, say, Erec et Enide, or Cliges.

      I wonder if a hypothetical young girl audience might identify with *Perceval*? (It’s certainly not out of the question for girls to identify with adolescent boy characters; exhibit A: Harry Potter fandom.) Young Perceval, a complete noob in the world of knightdom, is in some ways closer to the adolescent female audience than male, because he (unlike other aspiring knights) hasn’t been raised with male mentors and taught the codes of masculine performance.

  3. An entire day of medieval jokes! « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] title “Tournaments and Tweens”, which is my idea of a snappy way of talking about Sir Gawain and the adorable small girl. My colleagues from USyd are set to talk about humorous vegetables, seriously merry men, and jokes […]

  4. IAS update #2 – Gawain and Guinevere, my two favourite Arthurian peeps « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] I have a feeling the Maiden With Small Sleeves shares my feelings on Gawain, too. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted in […]

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