How to insult a man who turns you down (in the late 12th century)*

* Insult only applicable if you are not yourself a man.

A medieval painting - woman throwing snowballsThis morning I had the great delight of translating a chunk of Marie de France’s Lanval. I present, for your edification, the insulting of Sir Lanval, by Guinevere, whose advances he has rejected:

Lanval, fet elle, bien le quit,
Vus n’ames gueres cel deduit.
Asez le m’ad hum dit sovent
Que des femmes n’aves talent!
Vallez avez bient afeitiez,
Ensemble od eus vus deduiez.
(ll. 277-82 – Lanval, she said, well do I believe it: you do not love this pleasure much. Very often men [lit. a man; generic] have said it to me, that you do not have a desire for women! You have much preferred young men, with whom you take your pleasure.)

Apparently I have picked a side in the Great Gay Debate of pre-modern history, vis, it does not seem sensible to argue that there can be no concept of same-sex-preference as an identity prior to the invention of the handy terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. We see enough of this trope, women accusing men of preferring young men to women, in vernacular literature that evidently it made sense to authors an audiences: one reason a man might not be into you is that he’s into young men. Which means we have a mental category for ‘men-who-prefer-young-men’. And, for added bonus points, we can go around shaming men by implying that they’re in that category of men-who-prefer-young-men.

There’s two such fabulous passages in the Roman d’Eneas, in which first Lavinia’s mum warns her that, if she shacks up with Eneas, he will bring hot young men into their marital bed (this is not supposed to be an incentive; perhaps Lavinia takes it as one? She marries him, anyway); and then, after Eneas buggers off on her, Lavinia soundly denounces him for being insufficiently heterosexual.

I’m sure someone’s written on this trope in particular, but I’m having a mental blank and can’t remember who (Simon Gaunt touches on it, but he doesn’t deal with Lanval, so far as I can recall). At any rate, it seems to be a conceivable response, in 12th century French lit, for a woman to accuse a man who’s rejected or abandoned her of preferring to seek his pleasure with young men.

Accordingly, it’s really intriguing to me that Lunette does not launch this accusation against Yvain, despite the fact that Gauvain has basically single-handedly coaxed Yvain away from his wife and ‘distracted’ him so much that he forgets to return home. I really don’t think it’s because the concept didn’t exist: manifestly, it did.

Sir Gawain: as gay as christmas. ESPECIALLY at Christmas.Also, for bonus points, guess who Lanval had been hanging out with immediately prior to being propositioned by Guinevere?

YOU GUESSED IT. GAUVAIN AND YVAIN. This is pleasing to the part of me that likes to pretend all Arthuriana is contiguous, even when it clearly isn’t.


You might be able to teach Chrétien without talking about rape, but I shan’t

Yesterday, I talked about some ethical problems that bug me when it comes to teaching texts with a lot of sexual violence in them. As you may have gathered from that post, I don’t have a choice about what my texts are at the moment, but I do get to make some judgement calls on how to introduce them in tutorials, and about what goes into the lectures when I’m scheduled to lecture. As I noted in that post, I made this judgement calls after talking to fellow bloggers and my boss, and having read a few chapters on teaching ‘dangerous subjects’.

Since we’re talking about warnings protocol, have a trigger warning for academic discussion of rape in literary texts.

I made my judgement call  as a tutor last semester: I gave trigger warnings for the Conte du Graal and Chevalier de la Charette: I advised that there were attempted rape scenes, and suggested that those for whom that posed a problem, summaries online might help them navigate the text. This semester I did the same, with an added warning for blood and guts in the Chanson de Roland (less of a hot topic, but I do have at least one friend, a medieval studies student although not at my uni, who cannot handle descriptions of blood and guts, even in text).

Interestingly, I now know I’m not the only person doing something like this: a student mentioned to me that a tutor in a different course had emailed her personally to let her know that the following week’s content dealt with death and bereavement, which the tutor knew might be difficult for her. That was a one-to-one exchange, but nevertheless, the principle stands. The tutor in question was a formidable academic (not in my field at all) for whom I have great respect, so I took heart from this evidence that I’m not running around in circles here with a strange newbie idea all by myself.

Another judgement call was in order for the actual lecture content. In the end, I simply couldn’t talk about Erec et Enide without talking about rape, because rape – or more specifically, raptus (marriage-by-capture, which Magistra covered here) is so tied up in the marital politics of Chrétien’s romances. How do you talk about the Count of Limors and the deliberate (ironic?) contrast between him and Erec without talking about raptus? So that answered the ‘is it necessary’ question, and I gave the class a general warning last week that there was a ‘high probability of me talking about rape’.

A lecture - the art of transferring information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of eitherWhen I sat down to structure the second lecture, though, I ended up talking about far more rape than I’d meant to. I ended up structuring the whole lecture around ‘the two most difficult topics – rape and structuralist theory’. They’re difficult for completely different reasons, but both are topics that I wanted to walk the class through personally. I wanted to give the class a run-down of Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity, so that those who needed to deal with him could go in armed with my lecture slides. He’s difficult because of his dense prose, which is, um, useful, but not exactly undergrad-friendly, shall we say? He’s also challenging because his ‘schema’ based structuralist approach looks for commonalities across a wide range of texts, which doesn’t easily account for unique features of particular narratives. That provides a great opportunity for creative students to start with the framework and poke at how it doesn’t quite fit the text; but given that it’s taken me a year and a half to feel I can do that comfortably myself, I thought second-years deserved a walk-through before we set them loose on the essays.

And I ended up approaching the whole topic of sexual violence in the same way. I had to conclude that it would be negligent of me to teach this text without talking about what the hell is with all the rape. What I said to them at the outset is that I wanted to give them some idea of an academic way of responding to this, in addition to the perfectly understandable readerly response of throwing the book across the room and declaring that they’re all shits. So that’s what we did: we walked through each of the attempted abduction and forced marriage scenes, tied them in to a reading which focuses on Enide progressively becoming more outspoken; and talked about masculinity, rape law, and so on. I gave two different but complementary readings on why all this rape, taken from Katherine Gravdal and Tracy Adams respectively, and I really hope that by the end of it the class could go away with something to say about sexual violence in 12th century romance other than “oh god they’re all bastards”.

I don’t know if this is a right answer, but right now, I would rather be the teacher who talked about rape too much than the teacher who pretended like it wasn’t there at all. I am going to trust that, with a heads-up in advance, anyone with really devastating triggers will make whatever decisions they need to, given that attendance is not marked in lectures; and that the remaining body of students benefit in some way from a content-heavy lecture on what the hell is with all the rape.

Also, I think I deserve a cookie for managing to get the I-read-this-so-you-don’t-have-to summary of Donald Maddox to flow smoothly into a discussion of all the rape, and close readings of Enide’s speeches. Now if only my thesis were this so coherent.

[Yeah, this post gives away quite a lot about me and my institution and my job. Given that my associate supervisor reads this – hi, Lawrence – and so do a number of my former students and my postgrad peers, the discretion ship has sailed.]

Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?

Going to hell in a bobsled cause it's faster than a basketThere must be a special hell for anyone who gives a lecture titled ‘Erec et Enide II: Rape, and structuralist theory’. And it is to this hell that I am going, in my specially designed handbasket.

Some time ago, I had a conversation in a comment thread somewhere with Magistra about how one might handle problematic and potentially triggering material in a classroom setting. I’ve also had long conversations with people in my LJ, and a couple of conversations with my boss, and I’ve read with care the ‘Teaching Dangerous Subjects’ chapter in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, and a similar chapter in a book of essays on history pedagogy.

Background: I have participated in feminist internet spaces for long enough that it is now second nature to me to provide trigger warnings before recommending material to people. I sometimes miss things, but still, if I lend you my Sara Douglass books I will give them to you with profuse recommendations and a cautionary note for graphic rape and general misogyny on the part of the characters (but not, I believe, the author). Even if I don’t think that will bother you in particular.

The Geek Feminism wiki explain it better than I can:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

They tend to look like this: Trigger warning for: academic discussion of rape in literary texts. (You may now consider yourselves warned for this post. You should probably consider yourselves warned for my blog at large and also any conversation you get into with me in a pub.)

There is often a lot of debate and wank about precisely how much warning is necessary, in what formats, and so on. I think we can skip over that, but one common point of contention to which the debate keeps coming back is the conflict between the desire of the creator of, say, a fanvid, to educate the audience about something (say, violence against women in TV shows), and the need of some audience members to protect themselves from just that material. Fear of censorship also runs pretty strongly there.

Personally, I wouldn’t like to work or learn in an institution where one wasn’t allowed to discuss problematic material. I would also be skeptical of any attempt to make broad policies on warnings in educational context, since it seems likely to me to swiftly become more about policing the curriculum and Thinking of The Children than extending courtesy to adults who just happen to be our students. I also see a significant difference between texts one reads for educational purposes and texts or blogs or whatever that one reads for fun. But it’s still a problem – how do you frame sexual violence in a literary classroom?

  • Do I have a responsibility to teach my students about sex and violence in 12th century literature? That’s not actually a straight forward question. They didn’t enrol in ‘Violence in Italy’ (one hopes students of Violence in Italy are prepared for, well, violence). They enrolled in a general medieval studies course.
  • Do I have a responsibility to discuss sex and violence in Erec et Enide, given that I didn’t chose the text (perhaps I would have chosen a less rape-tastic text… or perhaps not)? I’m pretty sure my boss got through last year’s lectures on same without talking for half an hour about rape. Am I banging my personal drum and potentially harming others in so doing?
  • But conversely, would it be negligent to leave out an intellectually challenging, infinitely fascinating area of study which I know a couple of students are particularly interested in, because it’s too problematic?
  • Would giving trigger warnings imply that one doesn’t need to read a text to pass the course/learn the content? And if one doesn’t need to, then shouldn’t a teacher use that class time on something more accessible and more valuable?
  • Would I handle this question differently if it were another issue, equally problematic but with less personal relevance to me? Would I handle a violently racist text differently? Would I discuss genocide differently?
  • One problem we don’t have in Chrétien studies, but I’m told we do have in other areas, especially the study of Sir Degarré, is how does one deal with secondary material which is itself problematic (a friend of mine has run into ‘but it wasn’t real rape’ type commentaries in Sir Degarré). Thus far, everyone I’ve found either handles the sexual violence in E&E fairly well, or doesn’t touch it at all: but it’s a point of pedagogical concern worth keeping in mind.

I am not speaking from a point of patronising concern here, either. The week I first read Cligés, I could do nothing and think of nothing else. My first reading of Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens also chewed up a lot of my mental and emotional energy, in a way that, say, Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity never does (it saps my will to live with its dense prose, but isn’t actually traumatic). Now, I dealt with that by giving a paper on sex and submission in Cligés, but I’m an odd case and I don’t expect that your average undergrad deals with upsetting material by turning it into exciting academic work.

That raises another concern – I worry about my own vulnerability. I worry about acknowledging that this material is upsetting as well as academically challenging; I worry about what that says to students about me. Conversely, I worry about being seen as callous or perverse because I’m interested in rape as a literary trope. I worry that these perceptions might detract from the academic content of my work; I worry that students might find them too self-revealing, or threatening in some way.

This post is getting long, so I shall cut it here, and tomorrow talk about the judgement calls I make as a tutor with regard to set texts, and with regard to my lecture content, which did, in the end, talk about rape rather a lot.

Improbable story time, or, Highly grumbles about dude-centric assumptions

Let me tell you a story.

Let’s say we have a girl, born in France, oh, around 1150. She’s the daughter of nobility; not royalty or the daughter of a duke, but well-established baronial class. Let’s say she’s not the eldest daughter; perhaps the second or third child. Let us suppose that she also has at least one uncle well-placed in the secular clergy, or perhaps female relatives in a nunnery. Let’s suppose that she spends some time with these religiously-inclined relatives. Perhaps she even considers taking vows herself, but just as they lack money Medieval: a woman readingfor a dowry right now, her family don’t have the money to make the substantial donation required. Or perhaps they have a falling-out with the religiously-inclined relative and their institution. Maybe they need her in order to broker a treaty-and-marriage arrangement with a former enemy, but the former enemy decides he’d rather be a current enemy, and the deal falls through.

One way or another, our young noblewoman – let’s call her Helene, for no particular reason – never enters the church, but she picks up a knack for Latin (she’s always been good with languages) and a passing familiarity with bits and pieces of Christian doctrine. What Helene likes best, though, is poetry. She really, really likes Ovid.

Mind you, Helene has always liked poetry. Picture Helene as a child: she has a knack, she remembers things easily, she learns nursery rhymes and folk songs and charms from her nurses. When she’s old enough to join her mother and older sisters, she learns the stories women tell one another, folk stories from here and there, and the songs the troubadours come to tell them. She’s not always a part of her father’s court, and she doesn’t get to join him at the county court, as her mother sometimes does – so her chances to hear really good singers and storytellers are limited. Helene likes stories and Manuscript image - a pipersongs; Helene’s sisters and friends enjoy stories and songs. So what they do, when they hear particularly good chansons or the newer songs, the romans of with heroes and damsels and magic – what they do when they hear them is memorise them. They don’t get everything right; they don’t have the training in metre and mnemonic skills that the troubadours have. But Helene has a knack. When they try to retell the stories to themselves, Helene is the one who’s best at putting it all together in her memory, and making up new bits to paste over the gaps.

The time Helene gets to spend with her religiously-inclined aunt, or possibly uncle, sharpens her skills. She memorises Ovid and learns the rudiments of Latin poetic metre. When she returns to her family, her mother is taken into the Countess’ retinue, and Helene goes with her. Here, she has access to some of the finest poets and artists in France. She hears several different variations of the Song of Roland and gets all excited when she finds out that there’s a poet in town who knows a new song about William of Orange and his relatives. The other ladies in the Countess’ retinue think she’s a bit weird in her fixation, but they’re happy enough to listen to the exciting bits she’s memorised and can recite for them. Sometimes she tells silly versions, makes up daft stories about Charlemagne and William when they were children. Her mother laughs and says she’s a real poet. Helene knows mama is joking, but the idea sticks anyway.

Gwen, with crown

What Helene *really* likes, though, is the stories of King Arthur, and King Mark and Tristan – and Queens Guinevere and Iseult, and all the adventure and magic of the Matter of Britain. She listens to as many of them as she can, annoys as many troubadours and bards as she can, but there just don’t seem to be many such stories.

So she makes up her own. Helene makes up stories about King Mark and Tristan, and sometimes it seems like no one can tell the difference between her stories and the ones the Countess has read out of her big, beautiful books. And one day, one perfectly normal, perfectly nice day toward the end of summer, when Helene is sitting with the Countess and the rest of her ladies in the gardens, the Countess gets snappy, and sends the court poet away.

‘I think I’ve heard all his stories five times by now,’ the Countess says. She’s almost petulant. Helene’s never been very good at knowing when to keep her mouth shut.

‘I know a new story,’ she says. ‘A roman, one no one’s told at this court, at least not since mama and I came here.’

‘Go on,’ says the Countess. ‘What is it called?’

‘The Shoulder Bite,’ Helene says, and a few of the ladies’ raise their eyebrows.

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingThe Countess looks sceptical. ‘And who composed this… Shoulder Bite?’

Helene is suddenly stuck. She hadn’t thought this far, not at all. ‘A man from Troyes,’ she says, and Mama, at least, will know at once that she’s lying. ‘A Christian man, from Troyes.’

When, some time later, the Countess says to her that she would not mind hearing more romances by this ‘Christian from Troyes’, Helene is certain the Countess knows she’s lying, too. The name sticks, though.

Why, yes, that was an exercise in sophistry and extremely unlikely chains of events. I don’t actually think – not even in a wishful-thinking maybe-possibly-at-least-we-should-consider-it kind of way – that Chrétien de Troyes was actually Christina de Troyes. It’s just too unlikely: the co-incidences which would have to line up to produce a young woman with the right linguistic training and literary background (to say nothing of the author’s apparent familiarity with the squishy grey bits of canon law – but note, they are the bits to do with marriage) to produce the extant romances are phenomenal. And, perhaps more telling, the length of career under the one name, and the association with two different patrons, raises the chances of pseudonymous writing from ‘quite unlikely’ to ‘extremely improbable’.

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzBut consider for a moment the co-incidences which lined up to produce Heloise. Unlikely co-incidences but possible ones. Consider Marie de France. Consider that what’s more unlikely than Heloise, or Marie de France, is that Heloise and Marie de France are one-offs.*

It is, when you come down to it, pretty unlikely that a woman wrote any given piece of surviving medieval literature. But it’s very unlikely that every single one of the extant anonymous romances, and every single one of the extant male-attributed romances, was written by a man. Not when we know that women are more likely to write anonymously/pseudonymously, and more likely to have their authorship denied when they do write. Marie de France knew that – somewhere in one of her prologues or epilogues** there’s that fabulous rant daring any man to appropriate her words.

Y’know, we could talk about conventionally ‘girly’ literature. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle (except apparently that’s Malory now?). Ywain and Gawain, in which the ladies are a bit more prominent than in Chrétien’s original. Silence, if you want to pick a named-man-author who could be a pseudonym (I dunno about you, but the idea that Maistre Heldris was a cranky old woman amuses me no end). And you could pull out counter-arguments – the Gawain-poet is misogynist, clearly he’s a man! There’s too much hunting in this poem, ladies don’t hunt!*** And you’d probably be right, but also, you’d have made the bizarre assumption that ladies only write about lady-things, and all ladies – even in the twelfth-century – are forward-thinking in their assumptions about gender.

I’ve heard people suggest that the Wife’s Lament was written by a wife (logically enough), but no one ever suggests that the Wanderer-poet might have been a woman. You’d laugh me out of the internet if I said the Song of Roland was written by a woman, but we know nothing at all about the author. Would you consider it, though, for something like Floire et Blanchefleur? After all, F&B is less impressive, literary-wise; and it’s about ladythings, where by ladythings we mean… heroes. And heroines, but mostly heroes.

Last I checked, women live with men, care about men, read books about men, write books about men – it seems to me that this is only more likely to have been true in the Middle Ages, not less. If you need evidence that women are interested in men, and masculinity, and stories about men look at the genre of medieval romance. If you can hold down the simultaneous beliefs that romance, as a genre, catered to women *and* that ladies aren’t interested in stories about dudes, I… think you need to read some 70s feminist criticism of romance. Viz, it is, to a great degree, about dudes.****

Well behaved women rarely make history

I have nothing resembling an argument that any given text was written by anyone other than Standard Author Dude. It’s probable I never will have any such evidence. On a case-by-case basis, dude authors are usually more likely. Universal dudely authorship, or universal dudely authorship except where clearly stated otherwise and even then we’ll argue that she had a man helping her, though – that’s unlikely. And it bugs me that we have no way of talking about that. Some of these anonymous poems are probably by women! We don’t know which! There’s no secret formula for detecting ladywriting! But ladywriting certainly did happen, and probably some of it got preserved!


* Two-offs? Also note that Heloise is surely not the only pretty, clever girl seduced by an arrogant-but-attractive academic in the 12th century; she’s just the one we have a manuscript record for. Someone tell me why Heloise, respectable Abbess of the Paraclete, happily put down in writing (which was hardly a private mode of communication in that day and age) that she regularly thought about shagging when she should’ve been thinking about Mass? Understandable thoughts, but I’m curious as to why she didn’t think that would damage her standing when it became public knowledge!
** Can anyone give me a citation to the lai for this? All I have to hand is my year nine assignment on Medieval Women, which took the quote from a children’s book. I’ve seen it quoted enough times to know she did in fact write something to this effect, but have never got the text to hand when I want it.
*** Bullshit they don’t. They might not do the cutting-up themselves, but they’d have seen animals butchered. I am also informed by one of my students, who’s both a very bright medievalist and a re-enactor, that its’ easier to use a bow when you’re mounted side-saddle. I think it’s because you’re already in the side-on stance? And you’re basically wedged in and Citation needed [XKCD]can’t fall off. I didn’t know this until I decided to be a horrible shit and ask my class why they thought Sir Gawain was written by a man. That was a fabulous class full of cackling and glee. Mostly on my part.

**** Joan M. Ferrante, Woman as Image. Except not in quite those words. Like a good scholar, I have paraphrased and interpreted!

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.

The objectification of Sir Lancelot

I cannot stand Lancelot. There, I said it. And, knowing my luck, my supervisor will stumble across this and it will put a terrible gulf between us (her devotion to Sir Lancelot rivals my adoration of Sir Gawain). But the fact remains: Lancelot is a moron! And Guinevere is a wet blanket and they deserve each other.

To make matters worse, I read my way through the whole of the Chevalier de la Charette and it had very little in it which is of any use to my thesis whatsoever. But I did notice something! And although it has nothing to do with my thesis and, for all I know, many eminent people may have noticed it before me, I am nevertheless going to blog about it.

Lancelot’s milkshake brings all the girls to the (court)yard. He knows it; and he’s completely OK with exploiting this to his own ends.

Which is to say, in serious terms, that Chrétien’s narrative systematically objectifies Lancelot, and that Lancelot manipulates his status as an object of desire to get what he wants. Including implicitly and explicitly bargaining sex for material aid. That’s – that’s fascinating, especially since the Charette is playing complicated games with sexual ethics already.

The two main aspects of sexual ethics, as discussed openly in the Charette‘s plotline (either by the characters or by narrator’s commentary) are: firstly, men’s power/right to sex and/or marriage by conquest; and secondly, sexual fidelity. It’s mostly Guinevere’s marital fidelity which is in question, and needs to be preserved both against rape-by-capture and potentially consensual adultery, although we are also given the  impression that maidens wishing to go on journeys seek strong knightly protectors in order to avoid the likelihood of capture and rape. (Funny, that.)

Interestingly, Lancelot’s fidelity also features. We establish very early on, when he does his level best to get out of sleeping with a woman who offered him hospitality (being a knight he has the power to do so; having defeated her protectors he has the right to do so; and she consents, which would appear to give him some moral justification for doing so) that he’s in love with Guinevere, and only Guinevere, and won’t have a bar of anyone else.

The introductory parts of the adventure objectify Lancelot in two ways: they establish him as one hot piece of knight-flesh – apparently so hot that random ladies he meets on the road are willing to construct elaborate deceptions so that they get to sleep with him. But moreover, they establish him as an object of humour, both for his fellow characters (who get to point and laugh at him for riding in the cart) and for the audience, who are privy to hilarious scenes like “In Which Lancelot Nearly Falls Out Of A Window Trying To Catch A Glimpse of Guinevere” and “In Which Our Manly Manly Knight Does His Best To Avoid This Girl Who’s Throwing Herself At Him”. Lancelot is a moron, and it’s quite possibly meant to be ridiculous, the way everyone he meets falls all over him.

And so on we go, until Guinevere is found, slept with, rescued, and sent home to Camelot. At this point, Lancelot is locked up in a manor somewhere, and things start to get really weird. We, like Guinevere, are really curious to find out what Lancelot won’t do for the sake of his ladyfriend. The first thing we knew about him is that he’d give up the chance to sleep with other women (which might be shameful – compare to the Chevalier a l’épee, where Gauvain is terribly worried about what it’d do to his reputation if he’s known to have slept in a woman’s company and not shagged her; or it might earn Lancelot brownie points in the consent-over-capture value system Chrétien’s promoting); then we find out that he’ll embarrass himself in combat if Guinevere wants him to. What lengths will he go to to get out of prison (twice)?

Well, apparently, what he’s willing to do to get out of prison (twice) is to promise his affections and his body to whatever woman’s in a position to get him out. First the lady of the manor in which he’s being held captive – and she’s not silly, she knows his love is already taken, but she makes him promise it to her anyway (whether she ever claims it, we do not find out, but the implication, since Lancelot’s emotional love is all taken up with Guinevere, is surely that he’s promised her a good roll between the sheets instead). Then he promises his love and, explicitly, his body, to the pickaxe-wielding princess who gets him out of the tower.*

Do we have a problem with this? Are we going to get any kind of commentary on the fact that our hero, who was heroically faithful a couple of thousand lines ago, is now willing to seduce and bargain his way out of prison? That he is, in fact, doing exactly what Guinevere was accused of doing: selling his body to anyone who asks?

No, apparently we’re not. Instead we find out more about how awesome Lancelot is, how all the women at the tournament want him and all the men want to be him – until, at Guinevere’s bidding, he decides to play the incompetent for a while and ruin his reputation, at which point all the women still want him and all the men want to laugh at him. Meanwhile, Melagaunt wants Lancelot in order to prove his own manliness, but is quite willing to take Gauvain as a substitute.

The whole situation is ridiculous (and Lancelot, as I said, is a moron). But the upshot of the whole anonymity device, coupled with Lancelot’s apparently thoughtless abandonment of his fidelity, is that his character is undermined. The desire which defined his character for the first half of the story (his desire to find, and ultimately shag, Guinevere) is achieved, and instead, he becomes a sort of placeholder. An object, something everybody wants for one reason or another – the cause of much fuss and no substance.


* Incidentally, The Princess With The Pickaxe is my new favourite character. Running around demanding the severed heads of people who piss her off, and rescuing knights from towers with her trusty pickaxe. HOW OFTEN IS IT YOU MEET A PRINCESS RESCUING KNIGHTS FROM TOWERS, I ask you?

Medieval eating disorders, anyone?

Do any of you know if any work has been done on eating disorders in the middle ages, or even the early modern period? (Quick JStor searches for “eating disorder middle ages” brings me a fair bit about middle-aged modern persons suffering from eating disorders, and not much else.)

Now, I know that the simple answer to that question is “they didn’t exist”. If you’re of the ilk of Keith Windshuttle, they wouldn’t exist because we have no documentary evidence of their existence.1 If you were of a more theoretical bent, you might say that the concept “eating disorder”, like the concept “homosexuality”, did not exist before some point in the fairly recent past, and I’d pay that. I understand that there are a unique set of social factors in first-world society from, say, the mid-twentieth century which contribute to both the *occurrence* of disordered eating and to our construction of “eating disorders” as medical and psychological conditions.

Of course, food in the middle ages was scarce (duh), and thus thin-ness wasn’t the be-all and end all of attractiveness for women. Chaucer’s Duchess was “fattish, and fleshy, but not greet therewith”, which warms the cockles of your heart right until you remember that probably very few people met the appropriate standard of “fattish, and fleshy, but not greet therewith”.

So I’m not so much interested in finding out if people (probably but not necessarily women) restricted their food intake to be attractive in the middle ages. Presumably those who were “greet therewith” might have tried a bit of dieting; those who felt themselves too thin could likewise have tried to gain weight. That’s… not so interesting to me.

I’m wondering about the relationship between food and control, food and sin, food and autonomy – things which are unlikely to be the same as they are for eating disorder sufferers today (or for the rest of the population today); concepts and behaviors which may not map neatly onto our ideas of eating disorders at all; but which might be worth exploring nevertheless. I think I’m thinking of the sort of thing which Greg Carrier used to do with disability studies (whatever happened to Greg, anyway?). Work in this field, if it exists, might have a fair bit in common with some sub-branches of queer theory, and probably also with a particularly excellent article I read the other day, ‘The Language of Rape in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Law: Views from the Anglo-Saxon(ist)s”, by Shari Horner. The sort of things which recognise that the past doesn’t share our own conceptual framework, but also that the people of the past may share common experiences with us, and then tries to look at how those people thought about their experience.

This hypothetical field – which I seriously hope exists because I do not have the skills, psychological knowledge, or emotional fortitude, to start it – ought to look at archaeological evidence (what could you tell from preserved remains? Eating disorders certainly screw around with your body, including the skeleton – but could you distinguish these effects from malnourishment from other causes, like famine or disease?). Someone in this field would have to look at existing work on beauty and the body, and think about what factors in the medieval context might lead to a disordered relationship with food.2 Someone could go down all kinds of interesting (and precarious) routes by looking at various aesthetic religious groups and practices (extreme fasting? St Patrick and his happy habit of standing in freezing cold rivers all night to teach his body not to get uppity? Flagellation, obviously) and asking how these practices overlap with self-harming practices, and if the contemporary doctrines provided a channel for impulses or drives which we now bundle together as psychological disorders. Someone else could go through charters and wills and local records and look at causes of death, perhaps? It would be guesswork at that stage, but it might produce some pieces of the puzzle. Once the field got going a bit, I expect that there would be grounds for some lit scholars to come through and start talking about things like characters who refuse food, and consider the grounds on which they do so, and the judgments which authors come to about the choice to refuse food.

So please, O Internet: tell me that someone’s started work on this?

Otherwise, every time I read that, just for example, Fenice refused food and drink in order to become “pale and livid” (yeah, that’s the penguin translation, I’m reading ahead in the English so I know what’s coming) and fake her own death and escape her marriage, I’m going to start wondering if Chrétien’s just pulling that out of a hat, or if he knew any women who did starve themselves until they were “pale and livid”, or if he didn’t know any but he considered it a reasonably plausible response to her situation, or, or, or…

And that is why someone else had better have started this field. Because I have nothing better to go on than some literary tropes, and I have more cheerful things to think about when it comes to Chrétien anyway.


1. For those who are not Australian, Keith Windshuttle doesn’t believe in things that don’t have extensive documentary evidence. Because, y’know, there’s never been any category of things which might be *less likely to be documented*, or any of that. I’m afraid I don’t understand The History Wars nearly as well as I should. Should get on to that.
2. By the extremely scientific method of “guessing” and “brainstorming this with the friend who asked me if there were eating disorders in the middle ages” (she has more personal experience with eating disorders than I), I suggest that, if plump were a beauty ideal, one might strive for thin-ness if one felt threatened by male attention; it’s *possible* that one might strive for under-nourishment in order not to fall pregnant, although I’m not sure how common that would be; one could have all kinds of guilt about food, coming either from the Seven Deadlies or perhaps resulting from having lived through a famine; one might deprive one’s body of food after a traumatic event (rape, assault, abandonment, grief) which resulted in a low investment in one’s health or continued survival; over-exposure to some of the more unpleasant doctrines about the body and sin might lead one to deprive one’s body of food… and on and on we go.