Arthurian Images and Iconography, or, how to mix post-modern theoretical papers with traditional close readings

Getting back on the recapping report – perhaps my favourite session at the IAS was a Monday session entitled Arthurian Images and Iconograpy: Theorizing Lost and Invented Geographies and Monuments in Arthurian Literature. It was an immensely popular session – people sitting on the floor again – and immensely fascinating for the number of different methodologies across the four papers, which the session participants managed to hold together more or less cohesively. My preference was, by far, for Michael Twomey’s close-reading, historically grounded approach, but all four papers were interesting and it was an excellent case study of how seemingly disparate approaches can hang well together and inform one another.

A view from Cadbury Hill

Not Actually Camelot - view from Cadbury Hill, facing away from Glastonbury. Taken on an IAS excursion.

Kathleen Coyne Kelly began with “The Eco-Tourist, The Heritage Industry, and Arthurian Legend”. She talked about our desire to seek out the past by actually going there, and noted that what we seek is ‘historical fantasy’, not either the present or past reality of the site.1 She called it ‘a kind of nostalgic eco-pornography’. Her theoretical grounding was in current work on nostalgia; she talked about sites associated with modern authors as well as a series of places associated with Arthurian legend (a particularly good combination of the two is Merlin’s Cave, a backformation from Tennyson into the Cornish landscape). She discussed current debates about ‘heritage’ tourism – commericalised bogus history?; she noted that often association with a mythical or historical figure results in revitalisation rather than preservation; and that such desire for the past is often linked with a desire to connect with the natural world (but that these ‘natural’ experiences are equally artificial).

This paper raised a whole bunch of interesting ideas for me, but as you can probably tell, I connected better with the concrete parts – the examples of places; the discussion of current debates on heritage management – than the theorising. Also apparently we’re now all post-tourists? I had barely begun to be a tourist!

Next up, Michael Twomey gave a paper entitled “Sir Gawain and the Green World”. You’d think that everything there is to be said about the forest in SGGK has been said, and said, and said again, but in this case, Twomey was arguing that Bertilak’s castle is not an uncivilised outpost in an isolated wilderness. Rather, he argued, the environment is heavily managed – the hunting scenes, in particular, tell us of a local lord who is engaged with and carefully manages the forest parts of his domain. The poem, according to Twomey, is ‘ultimately anthropocentric’ – and Gawain is no more in the wilderness at Hautdesert than is a modern tourist at a heritage-managed site.

Twomey talked in great detail about forest law, which mediated conflict between the king and the nobility over rights to the forest and its produce, particularly game, but also timber and other products. Now, I have apparently taken down a bunch of technical information, like a glossary of terms for forest management, but not the key points of the argument. However, I have a note here saying that the Wirral had been disaforested at the time of the poem’s composition (i.e., it was no longer legally a forest, and thus not subject to forest law). I think Twomey may have argued that Gawain’s passing out of the Wirral and into Bertelak’s domain is passing out of the wilderness and into human domain. He also noted that, if Bertelak holds the land from Morgan le Fay, then either it is her royal forest, or she and Bertelak both are squatting on Arthur’s territory: this ambiguity is never cleared up in the text.

I liked this paper, with its pleasing mix of historicised landscape study (landscapes seem to be the It Thing right now! What gives?) and close-reading. I could see connections to the previous paper, and the overall theme of tourism, but I think to really draw them out you’d need to work with both studies of managed and unmanaged landscapes in ME romance, and something historiographical. If Gawain isn’t in the wilderness after all, why do we all want to think he is? You could tie that back to nostalgia very easily, I think, but Twomey didn’t go far down that road.

On the other hand, he has himself been an SGGK tourist.

View from Caldy Hill to Wales over the River Dee

View from Caldy Hill to Wales over the River Dee

Third up was Gillian Rudd, with a paper entitled ‘The Wilderness of Wirral in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Much has been said about the Wirral and will be said many times over yet, I’m sure: but Gillian herself is a resident of the Wirral! She began with a description from

Wirral Peninsula is placed between the River Dee and the River Mersey, overlooking both the Welsh Hills and the spectacular Liverpool skyline. Well connected to the rest of the country, Wirral is the ideal location for those wanting to get away from it all.

And then – after some commentary on nostalgia on which I haven’t got coherent notes – we set off to ‘get away from it all’ with Gawain – into the Wilderness of Wirral. Rudd filled us in on some information which I gather originally came from J.A. Burrow – the Wirral was a well-known refuge for ‘malefactors’. However, its disaforestation in 1376 removed the legal protection for outlaws. Does Gawain know this? Which of those two facts does he know?2 Are we, the audience, in Gawain’s mind, or someone else’s? “What is the space,” Rudd asks, “and how can you act in it?”

At this point my notes become a bit incoherent and focus on facts that seemed fun to me: Gillian Rudd thinks that the word “freke” at this point in Middle English is starting to pick up the connotations of “freak” – I’d really love to see that explored further!; she talked about shifting boundaries between the real/unreal, and the possibility that Gawain might be fighting off the terrors of the Wirral in his head rather than reality; she posited that the ‘twist’ is that you think you’re in another world but you’re not.3 The question of why Gawain sees no animals in the forest came up: clearly they live there, but he doesn’t see any. Does he want to believe he’s in an untouched landscape?

Finally, or at least, last among the things I wrote down, Rudd asked us if Gawain could be recast. Is he the hero going into the Otherworld, or the Other entering Bertelak’s court?

Arthur Uther Pendragon celebrating solstice at Stonehenge

Arthur Uther Pendragon celebrating solstice at Stonehenge

The final paper – and by far the most amusing – was Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Schichman, with Arthur Pendragon, Eco-Warrior. There is absolutely no way I could reproduce this paper: so much of it relied on the fabulous photographs, on powerpoint, of Arthur Uther Pendragon, a gentlemen much concerned with ecogological preservation (because the king and the land are one), and strongly opposed to English Heritage, who restrict and market access to sites of national importance, such as Stonehenge. Finke and Shichtman talked about the heritage industry’s dependance on the idea that the past is done and should be preserved, as opposed to Arthur Uther Pendragon’s desire to live the past, and in fact his claim to be the past, living. ‘In Arthur’s view, past and present are mutually constitutive’, I have in my notes.

This paper was well constructed: Shichtman discussed Arthur Pendragon’s life and career, and Finke provided commentary and theory-informed insights. I found it far better than the first paper, in terms of the tight relationship between facts and theory: I felt that here, it wasn’t just that links were being made between fact and theory, but that each illuminated the other indispensably. Of course, by the time we got to this paper I had the benefit of all three previous papers’ touching on the same theoretical concepts, so that helped. Regardless, it was a presentation which sparkled with humour and oddity, but also genuine engagement with Pendragon and his goals, as well as broader social issues.


1. Mea Culpa. Interestingly, when in New Zealand I zealously avoided LOTR-related sites, preferring to keep Middle Earth in my head; but evidently I am not content to keep the past in the past!
2. Another question worth asking, which neither Rudd nor Twomey did, is: does the forestation, or disaforestation, of the Wirral even -apply- in Gawain’s ‘verse? I am all down with Arthurian legend being used to work out real social concerns of the contemporary audience, but my gut instinct is that one of the features of the fantasy-past is that resemblances to the present are serve one of two purposes: because you need the similarities there in order to work out whatever it is your anxiety is; or because the -absence- of that feature would force you/ your audience too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not sure that particular legal status of the Wirral at the time of writing fits into either category (although the legal connotations of ‘forest’ certainly could fit one or the other).
3. This point intrigued me, since it’s the polar opposite of my friend and colleague Kylee Nicholls’ argument, which she trotted out in a paper at ANZAMEMS, that Gawain’s problem is that he walks out of the “real” world and into the world you find in romances -about- Gawain, and cannot figure out what on earth he’s supposed to do or be. I lean toward Kylee’s theory, but I’d like to see more of Gillian Rudd’s logic: I expect that the two arguments have much in common in the building-blocks.

IAS update #2 – Gawain and Guinevere, my two favourite Arthurian peeps

[Note: both these papers, and my recaps of them, deal with encroachment on personal and physical autonomy; the second in particular covered some distressing gendered violence in the narrative structure.]

The first paper I went to at Bristol was on what might just qualify as my favourite subject – the objectification (or, in this case, commodification) of Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Warning against the wyles of women – David Sweeten

This paper moved very fast, especially in the middle, so I missed chunks of it, but I really look forward to reading a hard-copy version at some point

David began with this quote:

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingFor were I worth al the wone of wymmen alyue,
And al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde,
And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde

Þer schulde no freke upon folde bifore yow be chosen.

[ll. 1269-71,75; Tolkien & Gordon 2nd ed. (ed. by Norman Davies); my quotation, not David Sweeten’s.]

Gawain, or Gawain-as-husband, is something which can be purchased with appropriate wealth. David went on to argue that Gawain’s honour is also a commodity to be bargained for: he read the bedroom scenes not as Lady B’s attempt to sleep with Gawain (or purchase sex from him), but an endeavour to get him to accept the girdle. She takes her time setting up the appropriate stakes: first offering a too-high price (sexual favours for his honour) in order to make the lower price, the girdle, more acceptable. The values of the items in question – Gawain’s honour, and the girdle, seem slippery: Lady B. can reduce Gawain’s standing by questioning his identity; and her revelation of the properties of the girdle forces him to re-value the item within the context of the exchange.

As well as this reading, which was fun in its own right, David offered some historical context. He argued that the poem is both rooted in its NW Midlands homeland, and closely tied to London politics of the day. SGGK’s anxiety about women’s commodification of male honour he linked to contemporary anxiety about the position of influence held by Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III. The nobility of the NW Midlands relied heavily on direct royal patronage: Alice’s strong influence over Edward threatened that relationship.

I really liked this paper. But then, I really like most things which have to do with someone bossing poor Gawain about.*

Next up, I missed the first five minutes or so (but enjoyed the rest of)….

The Queen was in her Parlour: Guinevere and Space – Kristina Hildebrand

This paper was in a session (“Women in Arthurian Literature”), which, perhaps due to its snazzy content and perhaps due to its respected moderator, Bonnie Wheeler, was so jam-packed that people (myself and David Sweeten included) were sprawled on the floor around the edges of the room.

Kristina argued that Guinevere marks out and defines royal space; her presence identifies civilisation in the text. This power is not to be confused with political clout, but it seems to be impossible to rule England without her.

Gwen, with crown

Guinevere is a stable figure at the centre of the court (for the most part), when compared to, say Iseult, who comes and goes from her husband’s court. She has a defined space, her personal chamber: Kristina talked about the stress in the social fabric of Malory’s Arthurian world caused by differing values placed on the queen’s space. To Arthur, he alone should have access to it; Gawain argues that because the queen has a public function as rewarder of knights, her chamber is a public space.

With this framework set up, Kristina talked about Guinevere in Meleagaunt’s castle: her space grows smaller and smaller; she attempts to defend a single room, and in the end she cannot even maintain control over her bed. This is a pretty distressing situation by any measure, but the framework Kristina set up around it, in which Guinevere’s space is not just about her person but her identity as queen, the whole process sent chills up my spine. Not-good chills, except insofar as I admire the careful authorial choices necessary to produce such effects.

Guinevere, then, is under constant threat: she is most safe inside Arthur’s court, but never entirely so. Kristina drew in Igraine, here, who was not safe even within her husband’s court; and then she asked if the convent to which Guinvere retires is a safe personal space at last? There, she has authority, and ought to be able to prevent male encroachments on her territory. However, Lancelot ignores her command and tries to see her. Kristina noted that Guinevere is saved, in the end – by death. Only God can protect her; and even then, only terminally.

I liked this paper! It was Relevant To My Interests, even if it was about Malory. Totally worth scrunching up on the floor for.


* I feel I ought to specify, since apparently many people assume otherwise, that I do not personally wish to shag Gawain! Boss him about, sure. My feeling on Gawain is that he should be my big brother, and his life would be much better if he had me to tell him how to run it.** And many other people’s lives would be improved because I would be bossing Gawain about, and not them. What, you mean you don’t all have fictional characters you want to adopt? *sidles off*

** I have a feeling the Maiden With Small Sleeves shares my feelings on Gawain, too.

A seasonally appropriate costume!

I wouldn’t normally go around posting photos of myself on this blog, but this was just too good not to share. One of my friends had a housewarming last night. Theme: villains.

Somehow, it became imperative that I dress as the Green Knight. Observe:

I need to work on my costume design skills – I cut the neck-line far too wide. The costume, such as it is, consists of green tights, a long strip of horrid green satin (I picked it out especially for its horrible luminescent quality), a lovely bottle green curtain tie (which comes permanently looped, so very easy to slipknot around oneself and the weight of the tassel pulls it taught), a green felt handlebar moustache (cut from a moustache template one of my colleagues made for Movember), and a metric fuckton of green hairspray.

I found a green broom to disassemble and use for a staff. Sadly, the town was devoid of toy axes yesterday. I then LOST my moustache somewhere in the town centre, in the fifteen minutes between changing buses (I am proud to say I walked into a burger shop and ordered a burger and chips dressed like this and sporting a green moustache). This saddened me greatly, but, on the other hand, when I GOT to the party, there was a pot of green body paint already there for someone else’s costume, so my face and neck and arms were suitably green-ified.

I’m half-tempted to do this over properly – sew a green tunic, paint up a length of dowel for a proper staff, and figure out how to make a fake axe. I’m also tempted to dye my hair green, I think it rather suits me.

Three Things:

1. You have no idea how much I hate the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos right now (unless of course you read my LJ, in which case you saw all the frothing at the mouth). Every time I think I have an idea, I can’t pin it down; it turns out to be wrong; it turns out I have two contradictory ideas; it turns out someone else already thought it and it’s not quite right; or despite the fact that my gut and a reasonable amount of historical evidence tells me that Wulfstan did not particularly want AEthelred back in 1014, I still can’t figure out how to read the Sermo except as advocating the return of AEthelred. What kind of person presides over the ordination of a new bishop of London, despite said bishop not being in your province, and despite the current bishop of London being in exile with your exiled king, and then turns around the next day and says ‘you know, it’s very sinful to kick out the king, we should get him back’. AND THEN KEEPS PREACHING SAID SERMON FOR FOUR OR FIVE YEARS, even after said king has been exiled and the young Viking dude you rejected in 1014 is now on the throne.  WTF, Wulfstan, WTF?

Oh, and the Thing is due in three weeks. Someone please preside over my execution immediately.

2. Hey, a medieval blog I didn’t know about! Hannah is studying at Melbourne with Stephanie Trigg, and is writing her honours thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She’s talking about “Duality and Ambiguity”, being the ways in which the poet sets things up with two possible interpretations; and about the relationships between devotional and romantic literature in SGGK. Gawain, however, is not all she talks about: check out her blogo-biography of Henry VI.

3. Oh, and I can tell my blog’s up and running again when I start getting loopy porn search hits on a daily basis. To the person hunting for Gawain slash fic, try a Google advanced search restricted to, that should do the trick.

For the benefit of the person who wanted to see medieval women naked, here are both Eve AND Adam naked. Eve is the one on the right, who appears to have two nipple rings. Adam is the one with the pot belly. (Apologies to the illuminator of MS Junius 11 for my terrible LOLmanuscript):

Chastity Belts: An “Academically Approved” Forum for Talking About Sex

So says Proffessor Albrecht Classen of the University of Arizona, author of “The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process”. The estimable Prof. Classen gave a paper for the Centre for Medieval Studies here, by the same title as his book. Many new and interesting things were learnt by all, I’m sure. For example, did you know:

* That before Classen, only five major studies of the medieval chastity belt had been written? The earliest was published in the 1880s, and the last in the 1990s. They all rely more-or-less on each other, are very difficult to get hold of due to the shady associations of the topic, and one of them was self-published and only two copies survive. It is also Classen’s opinion that none of them did very thorough artefact research- as well as not considering the possibility that the items in castles and museums might not be as old as their owners claim, apparently none of these five authors felt obliged to give useful details like item numbers and locations to back up their studies.

* There are no manuscript or literary examples of chastity belts before 1405? The aforementioned five books all cite various literary examples, which Classen carefully went through and demonstrated to be gross misinterpretations of a trope which associated belts with either a) prowess and heroics or b) love and romance, and sometimes both. See, for example, our dear friend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Apparently Gawain’s girdle is cited by all these five books as an example of a chastity belt! Excuse me while I die of hilarity now.)

* Belts, chaste or otherwise, didn’t come into fashion until around 1170? Before that, you had no idea where your top ended and your bottom began!

* The first known image of a chastity belt was drawn by a siege weapons designer? It appears, in 1405, in a manuscript called the Bellifortis, written by Kyeser von Eichstadt, accompanied by a rhyme about the dirty habits of Florentines, who supposedly invented the things. This is interesting, because everywhere else, although later, blames the Paduans. At any rate, this first example seems to have been a joke, a way of picking on the Florentines by mocking their sexual practices. As anyone who’s spent any time on a school bus knows, insults directed at by group A regarding the sexual practices of group B can be very inventive, often refer to anatomically impossible practices, and almost certainly do not give hard evidence of what group B get up to of a weekend.

The Bellifortis manuscript image

* Oh, and it would be actually impossible to survive more than a few days in one of these things? The hygeine issues alone would’ve been a disaster. This one below seems to provide more ample exit holes than some of the ones Classen showed us- making up for with spikiness for its lack of coverage. (Interestingly, only two of the examples Classen showed, this one and one from a German museum, thought to put spikes on the back door, so to speak. Regardless of spikes, they were all invariably far too small to use without serious waste disposal problems.)

Copyright- The Medieval Torture Museum, San Gimignano, Italy

* Chastity belts in art and literature really took off in the late 15th and 16th centuries? Everyone seemed to find them enormously fascinating, except for the English and the Spanish. There are, apparently, no references to chastity belts at all in England or Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Classen then moved into talking about the 19th century, when fascination with chastity belts was quite the thing. He showed us a few pictures of belts actually used on young boys, and talked about the appeal in the 19th century of chastity belts as a popular and “approved” way to talk about sex and sexuality in an academic environment. If, as Classen seems to have found, chastity belts weren’t actually used in the middle ages, when what becomes very interesting is the way that the early modern and modern periods have constructed and reconstructed the past to create this image of the barbaric, torturous middle ages, this ultimate symbol of the violent medieval patriarchy, out of a few very late medieval references which are probably facetious.

Speaking of modern reconstructions of the past, this brings us to our final ‘did you know’ for the night:

Did you know that…

A room full of medievalists can sit there very solemnly nodding away and not sniggering even once, while being shown slides of images from online S&M catalogues? Because apparently we can. I’m not sure if that’s evidence of the superior maturity of SRS ACADEMICS, or just evidence that they’ve learnt not to snigger at people’s papers by now.

All in the name of investigating modern responses to and reconstructions of the past, of course…


Oh, and Prof.  Classen told us a fabulous story about Dietrick von Something, an incompetent knight, and his cross-dressing wife. I’ve put in an inter-library loan for his book ‘Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany’, and when I get it, I promise a rousing retelling. It has love! Marriage! Adventures! Adultery! Seducation! Homoerotics! Cross-dressing! Magic Belts! Everything you want in a story, really.

My essay follows the same symettrical pattern as the poem itself.

1. Establish a social context.

2. Establish the ideal hero.

3. Test the ideal hero.

4. Reveal his weaknesses and return to relate him once again to his social context.

Yes, I am that awesome. Well, I would’ve been if I realised I was doing it. If I’d realised I was doing it, I would’ve broken the essay into four sections, and headed each with a decorated capital. (And possibly put four smaller capitals in there as well, which may or may not constitute further sub-divisions.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think of this until I was just about to hand it in, and I decided it wasn’t worth going and changing it now.

It is far too long (ahem. I mean… it’s just right, Lolo!), and my ideas are sprawling and there’s so much more I want to say. On the other hand, it’s certainly the most dense thing I’ve ever written. And it has a Theoretical Basis, even if it’s not a very well researched one.

However, in I’m-not-going-to-say-how-much-more-than-three-thousand words, I had all of fourteen or fifteen footnotes. This happened in the last essay I wrote too, although here it’s exacerbated by my decision, according to the rules of the MHRA Style Guide, to cite line-numbers in text rather than in footnote.  The beginning and end of the essay are resonably well represented with secondary source footnoting, but the middle is just me blathering on about the poem.

Is this supposed to happen? Until now, the better I’ve gotten at writing essays, the more footnotes I made. Last year I prided myself on a ratio of footnote/words that was greater than 1/50 at all times. Now I’m writing things which feel harder, and I suppose that’s the collorary of having a big slab of original idea: no one to cite for it. It feels a bit like having my training wheels taken off. (When I learnt to ride a bike, training wheels had to be taken off one by one when I wasn’t looking, or I’d cry and refuse to get on it again.)

While I go off to find a desperately needed coffee, have yourselves an interesting modern poem about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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Stop presses!

A Momentous First has just occurred. Highlyeccentric just drafted a paragraph- the very first paragraph in the essay, discounting the introduction- defining her theoretical approach to literature. Apparently, I use a ‘dialogic’ theoretical basis, as defined by Laurie A. Finke in her chapter on Sexuality in Old French Literature, in the aforementioned Bullough & Brundage ‘Handbook of Medieval Sexuality’.

It’s just as well I started reading B&B, really- I picked up my feedback forms from the honours conference today, and although I thought I’d gone through reasonably clearly for the benefit of everyone the way I saw literature (or at least SGGK) relating to social context, most of them came back with ‘please define your theoretical approach’. So now I have a definition, and I will wave it around. I like this definition, because it will also allow me to argue the validity of the study of literature before historians, should I meet any historians in a fightin’ mood. Also, thanks to Finke, I have names and publication titles which I can use (later) to read MORE about this theory, and generally advance in the world of literary awesomeness.

Everybody witness this amazing first:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a product of the chivalric ideals of the fourteenth century English nobility. It is not a pure reflection of the practices of that class, by any means, but rather a stylised expression of the ideals by which they identified themselves. The poet guides his audience to identify with Gawain, rarely presenting a scene outside of his point of view. For a fourteenth century audience, the poet’s artistry in this respect would only serve to emphasise a personal identification with Gawain based on his status as representative of Arthur’s court, the embodied figure of the golden age of English chivalry to which fourteenth century chivalry aspired to emulate. The literary depiction of the chivalric ideal is not a static one, however, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its construction of this ideal can be seen respond to the anxieties facing the knightly class in the fourteenth century. The literary construction of chivalry is, if you like, in dialogue with the actual situation of chivalry in society. This set of assumptions about the relationship between literature and history is defined by Laurie A. Finke, in his overview of theoretical approaches to the study of sexuality in Old French literature, as a ‘dialogic’ approach, emphasising the dynamic, two-way interaction between a literary formulation of an ideal, and the historical realities affecting that ideal.

Please note that it’s very draft-y, and you’re bereft of the rest of the essay it goes with (although so am I, not having written it). If it strikes you, however, that this makes no sense as an introduction to the basic assumptions underlying the essay I’m about to write, please do tell me.
In case you think I need to actually explain the anxieties of the fourteenth century chivalric classes if I’m going to argue anything based on them, yes, I know, and the next paragraph will be a SRS version of this post, plus some more stuff I’ve picked up along the way.

And now, to bed, to mourn the demise of my happy theory-free existence.