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.

Ok, I have a terminology problem!

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzWhen talking about audiences of my thesis texts, I would like to divide them along gender lines.* I want to talk about women-in-the-audience without using hyphens.

I see two commonly used terms:

Women Readers


Female audience.

Medieval: a woman readingEach of them has a significant methodological problem. Women Readers implies that the act of reading is central to being in the audience. Although I think Kreuger, in her book of the same title, did tackle this problem in her introduction, as a general term, it’s misleading.

Female audience relies on the adjective female, meaning “possessing breasts and vagina and other appropriate ladyparts”.** When actually what I care about is audience-members who are women, that is, identified by themselves and/or those around them as women; individuals performing and expected to perform femininity; and individuals who are not performing femininity and are marked as transgressing the bounds of their gender because of it. Even if most or even ALL of that audience possess female junk, I don’t actually care about their ladyparts! Their ladyparts are not relevant to this conversation.

But woman audience just sounds wrong, and rather like I think there was only one woman who received this text (which it shouldn’t; nouns in compound must be the same in number – see also bookshelf) and women audiences still sounds like I want to treat them in discrete sets. Given that it’s also foolish to assume that an audience is homogenous, women audiences might be an acceptable option. But then you’d have to also say lay audiences (pl) and men audiences (pl) – doesn’t the latter one sound RIDICULOUS?

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingSo far, I’m sticking with female audience, on the grounds that the 12th century isn’t known for its sophisticated concepts of gender fluidity; an individual born with ladyparts had even less opportunity to self-identify as anything else than do genderqueer and transgendered people today. But it’s not an entirely satisfactory solution. What if I want to have a cross-disciplinary conversation about ladies-who-consume-literature with modern scholars? How does the gender-savvy modern literary theorist refer to an audience composed of women, without excluding transwomen? Perhaps the modern literary theorist can get away with women readers – but a film theorist, or pop culture theorist, surely can’t.


Also, speaking of genitalia and gender, here is a post about Christ’s penis. Go on, you know you want to.


*But why, I wonder? I mean, I am talking about gendery stuff, so it seems natural. And I think I agree with whoever-it-was (probably Kreuger) who argued that the gender gap between Man Dude Writing Things and women in his audience is bigger than the vocational gap between Clerk Dude Writing Things and his lay audience. Although as I recall that wasn’t so much argued as stated as if it were obvious to all right-thinking feminist readers. Hmmm. Given that this is romance, the fact that we have a Celibate Dude writing about love and sex and stuff is pretty damn important. Tracy Adams goes interesting places with this, as I recall. All that stuff about sex and rape and love and more rape? Probably written by celibate dudes who, at least in theory, were not supposed to do any of these things.

**In modern terms we might also mean “possessing XX chromosomes”, and then we can get into a fun conversation about how sex isn’t really binary at the chromosomal level, or the hormonal, or the neurological, and certainly not in the what-bits-go-where level. Unless someone has citations to the contrary, I’m operating on the assumption that the “male/female” decision was usually made in the Middle Ages on the basis of whether a baby was in possession of a penis or a vagina. If anyone has read fun and exciting articles about people with ambiguous genitalia in the middle ages, I would like to hear about it!

Things we can expect: WOMEN TALK. In Arthurian literature (and life in general, but life in general is not the topic of this blog)

Dear internet:

Today is a day on which I need to vent my frustration! In the course of my attempt to write a chapter of my thesis (it is not going very well, because every time I get rolling I run into something infuriating) I have discovered something: if a woman character does anything interesting, ever, EVERYONE, including most of the feminist scholars, will declare that she is transgressing gender boundaries.

One which I see coming up again and again is women’s use of powerful words. Ellen Germain, in her argument that Lunette acts as a man1, argues that Lunette’s lectures to Yvain and Lunette on the appropriate course of action and on political responsibility are a masculine function (she borrows a little here from Kreuger, who argues that Lunette’s words to Laudine ‘resemble those of her male advisor’ – I presume this is a hypothetical male advisor, since I don’t recall there being a male advisor in the episode). Maureen Fries’ analysis of women’s roles in Arthurian lit, ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’ identifies a ‘female hero’ as a woman who steps outside of normative gender behavior, especially through the use of wit and powerful words. Perhaps her most interesting example is Enide, whose character she divides in two – the archetypical heroine of the opening and closing sequences of the poem, and the ‘wife-hero’ during her estrangement from Erec, during which period she exhibits a ‘loyal and loving disobedience’. Building on Fries’ work, Margaret Jewett Burland argues that Enide is concurrently both heroine and female hero (rather than either one or the other at any given time). As evidence for this, Burland notes that Enide transgresses furthest from gendered expectations *after* her reunion with Erec, when she upbraids Guivret for his unchivalrous behavior in attacking the wounded Erec.

Absolutely, yes! I am completely behind the idea that Enide’s character is a coherent whole, and that, as Burland argues, she, like her husband, undergoes an heroic crisis and subsequent transformation.

But what’s with this assumption that it’s outside of gendered expectations for a woman to exert power through words? No really, what the hell? Not all of Chrétien’s women-characters do exert power through words: Fenice does not; if Laudine does, it is primarily through her mourning speech which Yvain happens to accidentally overhear; Soredamors does not; Guinevere does, but frequently for dubious moral purposes.

But many of Chrétien’s women-characters do exert power through words: as Burland herself argues, over the course of her journey Enide learns to use her powers of speech for positive effect (at first self-defense, but later for the defense of others, and eventually as a creative act with the power to restore social harmony); Lunette talks all the damn time and without her rhetorical powers Yvain’s story simply wouldn’t happen. The two feuding sisters present their case to Arthur’s court. The weaving maidens tell their story to Yvain. Now that I think about it, Fenice *is* able to speak and exert power through words, but primarily in homosocial context – her appeals to Thessala incite Thessala to take actions which are beneficial to Fenice. The Conte du Graal is positively littered with women who turn up and upbraid one or other of the heroes and influence their actions in some way.

WOMEN TALK. Not all of the talking-women are heroines, but they are still there. It seems to me that “gendered expectations” in the mouths of scholars doesn’t actually refer to *things we can see that women do in Arthurian romance* but rather to *things we, twenty/twenty-first century scholars, expect women to do in Arthurian romance*. Maureen Fries’ ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’ shows pretty clearly that there are (at least) three common archetypes of womanhood in Arthurian lit: at yet scholars, Fries included, persist in acting as though the only set of behaviors which might be expected of a woman are those of the heroine.

Which is not to say that these three (for the sake of argument) archetypes aren’t valued differently (it seems pretty clear to me that the heroine is normally more highly valued than the female hero and the counter-hero). But if you have a set of recurring character-types – such that one can say that a woman who does this will also do that and the other; if this set of behaviors is not normally censured, or, if censured, does not normally result in the woman being treated by her fellow characters as a gender traitor:2 then what you have here is not one set of “gendered expectations” but several.


1. Disclaimer: Germain’s methodology is all over the place. I honestly can’t tell if she thinks Lunette is a man in gender, or if she thinks Lunette is a masculine woman, or if she means Lunette is “narratively male”, a term I’ve seen come up in Lacanian discussions to label any woman who does anything interesting, ever (because of how women are all passive and receptive and boring and so on, Lacan said so). Germain doesn’t seem to have read Butler, which is fair enough since her article was published in ’91, only a year after Gender Trouble. But she also doesn’t seem to have mastered the distinction between sex and gender, and I’m told *that* has been around since Simone de Beauvoir. My conclusion is that Germain’s work doesn’t tell us much about Lunette’s own gender-idenity, *or* about Chrétien’s ideas about womanhood, but a lot about Germain’s own inability to countenance the idea that women might actually do interesting things in medieval lit.
2. Some women are: consider the Malevolent Maiden, in the Conte du Graal who is “not a maiden” but instead “worse than Satan”. The Malevolent Maiden, although she speaks in her own right and has some power to manipulate other characters, is neither Female Hero nor Counter-Hero by Fries’ standards: rather, she is a potential-heroine gone wrong, a woman who occupies the place of a heroine in the narrative but refuses to conform to the heroine’s model of femininity.

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.

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.