ENL 4218 – Middle English Romance – Contradictions of Chivalry and Courtly Love


ENL 4218 – Middle English Romance – Contradictions of Chivalry and Courtly Love

ENL 4218- Middle English Romance

Contradictions of Chivalry and Courtly Love

“Chivalry is dead” is a phrase many people today use to highlight this generations lack of manners and courteousness towards the people around them. This phrase mostly comes from women who have made this observation of men due to their inability to hold the door open when a woman walks through or pull out a chair for her to sit down and even walking her to her door when taking her home. But the question that has caught my attention is where these expectations of chivalry stem from? And from our knowledge the most notable ideals of what chivalry is and how we interpret it stems from Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian Legend titled, Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory’s works gives us a depiction of chivalry in King Arthur’s court where “the knights are constantly questing in the name of chivalry, are loyal to their king in the name of chivalry, and honor and serve their ladies in the name of chivalry” (Beals 4). Three knights that have entire books dedicated to them in this work are Sir Gareth,  Sir Tristram and Sir Lancelot—whose stories display the significance of chivalry in their lives all of which we thought would be examples of model ones that other knights should try to imitate. However, their stories just expose numerous contradictions with what is traditionally expected to be “chivalry” in the 14th century. Sir Gareth shatters his persona of being a hero by attempting to sleep with a fair maiden he rescued in battle before their wedding night,  Sir Tristram has a series of lovers, and Sir Lancelot has an affair with the King’s wife. Providing evidence that these “contradictions” in the stories of Sir Lancelot, Sir Gareth and Sir Tristram highlight how their distinct understandings and actions regarding love fail to unite with their chivalric code.

In Malory’s day, chivalry is defined as, “an exclusive code of ideas and behaviour” (Rudorff 104). And every year at the feast of Pentecost, the Knights of the Round Table renew their oaths to continue to follow the chivalric code that was declared by King Arthur himself. However, according to author Raymond Rudorff, “The famous Song of Roland, one of the great, enduring sagas of the Middle Ages, was the first work in the French language in which the word ‘chivalrous’ made its appearance but the adjective is merely used to express the hero’s stubborn, warrior qualities” (111). Yet, Knights in Arthur’s court were supposed to have a chivalric manner in all aspects of their life from love to war and even religion; because chivalry falls under the category of many things such as showing clemency, fighting for the good of the people and protecting woman whenever they may be in danger or harm’s way. It also embodies a vast display of tradition in the court.

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Heraldry, became a tradition that would distinguish knights from one another on the battle ground allowing them to see whether someone was a friend or a foe. They even used heraldry in tournaments on more elaborate levels with bold colors but simplistic designs. Testimonies of faith were visually made on heraldry as well, with depictions of the Virgin Mary or crosses mostly painted red. Knights in this legendary tale traditionally are known by their armor or even banners such as the Green Knight in the book Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the knights Sir Gareth had to fight: the Red Knight, the Green knight and the Blue Knights all named that due to how they presented themselves. “Although the knightly code and ideology became definitively established —not to say fossilised —by the second half of the 13th century, the out- ward trappings and ceremonies of chivalry continued to evolve towards ever greater and more elaborate pageantry” (Rudroff 167) such as the Order of Garter. King Edward III was enthused greatly by the legends of King Arthur and his most famous Knights of the Round table that he decided to create his own group of notable knights and named them the Order of Garter. However, it was more focused around pageantry than knightly deeds and qualities. And despite the outward displays of design and colors, a knight was a warrior first amongst the many other things, in which he had been trained to be since he was old enough to hold a sword. To be a knight you have to:

“be brave on the battlefield, to die unflinchingly, sword in hand, to accomplish great feats of arms, and to be loyal to one’s leader were the great virtues. Skill in arms and physical prowess made the ideal warrior. As the feudal system developed and the question of the relationship between lords and their vassals became one of primary importance in a society geared for war, the notion of a warrior’s fidelity to his leader and his readiness to sacrifice himself out of loyalty assumed even greater importance” (Rudroff 106)

Because bravery, in terms of the principles of chivalry, was mostly depicted through the knights ferociousness and persistence on the battleground. And these qualities would be noticed by the King. However, according to Beverly Kennedy, author of Knighthood in Morte Darthur:

“late medieval chivalry was primarily a social phenomenon, the code of manners and ethics of knightly class, it is equally mistaken  to think  that there was only one code, to which all knights adhered. In fact, there were three competing views of knightlihood in Malory’s fifteenth-century English culture, each with its own code of ethics” (Kennedy 3)

The first of the three looks at knightlihood as “the privilege of aristocracy” and judges a knight on being noble, dauntless, Christian, skillful and loyal to his King. The second look at knightlihood shows its depiction of knights through the Crusades and “is represented in the Grail romances and in religious treaties about knightlihood”, regarding knightly qualities as a “’High Order’, ordained by God to govern Christendom, and led by the Hold Roman Emperor” however, the noble knight that the first look at knightlihood held to regard was not all that was necessary for this look. This knight had to have way more than “the feudal virtues of prowess, courage and loyalty”, it was also necessary for him to have “religious virtues of piety, chasity and humility”. And the last look at knightlihood stemmed from the “court culture” during the last Middle Ages of having honor granted upon him by the King. This knight had to have the “feudal virtues” as well as “virtues and accomplishments expected of a courtier…[demonstrating] courtesy (i.e. good manners but also competence in the courtly pastimes, e.g. dancing, harping, hunting and hawking). And must demonstrate prudence and justice” (Kennedy 3-4).

Each one of these looks at knightlihood was observable through Malory’s work. Every knight adopted a look depending on their character, beliefs and rank. Chivalry is a blueprint of knightlihood and without it Arthur’s round table would not have organized principles of how to act in his court. However, with the beginning of courtly love into the tradition of chivalry, the ideals of Knightlihood did not change.

Courtly love began in the court of Marie de Champagne who funded the writings of Chrétien de Troyes who wrote The Knight of the Cart, which happened to be one of the first accounts of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance. And from there courtly love began to be a theme in numerous Arthurian legends to follow meaning: the “secret love shared between a man and a woman who were not married to each other (although they could very well be married to someone else) and manifested itself to love letters, clandestine meetings, and tokens of affection” (Beals 12). Knights had now become the vassals of a particular lady, a position that brought with it a different set of customs, manners, and understandings that became assimilated into the chivalric tradition and “laid the foundation of courtly chivalry” (Painter 113-14).

Chivalric qualities were strengthened by the worship of a lady. A man would be a better knight if he loved—in fact it was doubtful whether a man who did not adore a lady could be a true knight (Painter 109-110). But the practice of courtly love was rather rare outside of literary work.

merely a “literary phenomenon” (Deonomy 46)

however, Malory also takes care to show just how difficult, if not impossible, this code proves for many of the knights, as well as how it can be easily corrupted through circumstance and human folly.

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Part 2- Failures of 3 knights

Lancelot in “The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot Du Lake.” Gareth is next with “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkeney,” and Tristram follows with “The Fyrste and the Secunde Boke of Syr Trystrams de Lyones.”

The Tale of Sir Launcelot and Quene Gwenyvere.”


favorite knight of the Queen

Lancelot’s first tale shows the union of traditional chivalry with courtly love in its best light. The entire tale is the success story of Lancelot’s combining his allegiance to Arthur and knightly virtues with his chaste loyalty to Guenevere.

“But in especiall hit [prouesse] was prevyd on Sir Launcelot de Lake, for in all turnementes, justys, and dedys of armys, both for lyff and deth, he passed all other knyghtes—and at no tyme was he ovircom but yf hit were by treson other inchauntement” (Malory 151)

Wherefore Quene Gwenyvere had hym in grete favoure aboven all other knyghtis, and so he loved the Quene agayne aboven all other ladyes dayes of his lyff . . .” (152)

Ideal knight and ideal courtly lover

After the glorious set up of Lancelot’s character it begins to highlight his knightly qualities

encounter with Sir Belleus, Lancelot grants him mercy and helps treat the wounds that Belleus has sustained through their duel: “. . . for this knight is a good man and a knight of aventures . . . and whan that I yelded me unto hym he laffte me goodly, and hath staunched my bloode” (Malory 157

“. . . know that I am Sir Launcelot du Lake, Kynge Bannys son of Benwyke, and verry knight of the Table Rounde. And now I defyghe the—and do thy beste!” (162)

. Lancelot’s bravery in announcing himself to Terquyne is shown in the fact that Lancelot has killed Terquyne’s brother; therefore, Terquyne “will not give up the blood feud and so Lancelot is forced to fight him to the death” (Kennedy 203).

After his defeat of Terquyne, Lancelot moves on to rid the realm of Sir Perys de Foreste Savage, a knight who “dystressis all ladyes and jantylwomen, and at the leste he robbyth them other lyeth by hem” (163).

After slaying two giants and rescuing the women that they have been holding prisoner (Malory 165), Lancelot rescues Sir Kay from four knights who are unfairly pursuing and attacking him. Not only does Lancelot defeat four knights at once in his rescue of Sir Kay, but the next morning, he takes Kay’s armor and leaves Kay his own so that no one will bother Sir Kay anymore: “And bycause of his armoure and shylde I am sure I shall ryde in pease” (167)

This first half of Lancelot’s story serves two purposes. First, it establishes Lancelot as “the grettyste name of ony knight of the worlde” (Malory 176-77). His “noblesse de courage” or “greatness of spirit” (Kennedy 108) is clearly portrayed in his exploits to bring honor to Arthur’s court and justice to Arthur’s realm. According to Lancelot, knights are bound by a code, a high calling, and he aligns his life in accordance with this code. Not only does he set this high calling as a goal to aspire to, but he actually achieves it and becomes the epitome of chivalry (Benson 91). (beals 19)

The second purpose of this tale of Lancelot is to set up his relationship with Guenevere. Lancelot’s speech on the importance of a knight’s remaining pure, as well as his denunciation of paramours, seems to solidify his innocence with regard to Guenevere.

In loving Guenevere from a distance and in performing all his great deeds in her honor, Lancelot remains a truly chivalrous knight, loyal to his lord, his oath of knighthood, and his lady (Kennedy 112

Thus far, no contradictions

, the accusations he receives regarding Guenevere illustrate the fine line that he walks in his observance of chivalry. If allegations are being placed against him now, while he is at the height of both chivalry and courtly love, he has no room for faltering and, therefore, no room for human failing


When Gareth first arrives at Arthur’s court, no one knows who he is or where he has come from, and since Gareth has no intention of revealing his identity, all anyone knows about him is that he is “the goodlyest yonge man and the fayreste that ever they all sawe” (Malory 178)

Stay for a year in King Arthur’s court

Gareth’s circumstances change when, after a year has passed, a damsel arrives, who is seeking help for her sister, who is being held captive by the Red Knight of the Red Lands. None of Arthur’s knights will take up this challenge until Gareth claims his second and third requests: to be given the quest of helping this lady and to be knighted by Lancelot after he has proved himself.

“Shall I have none but one that is your kychyn knave?” (Malory 181)—but Gareth is given the task nonetheless, and after defeating both Sir Kay and Lancelot in a joust, he finally reveals himself—though only to Lancelot—and Lancelot knights him (182).

Part 3- Conclusion

Painter, Sidney. French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1940.

Rudorff, Raymond. Knights and the Age of Chivalry. New York: Viking, 1974.

Benson, Larry D. Malory’s Morte Darthur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.

Denomy, Alexander J. “Courtly Love and Courtliness.” Speculum 28 (1953): 44-63.

JSTOR. 18 Jan. 2009 <>.

Kennedy, Beverly. Arthurian Studies XI: Knighthood in the Morte Darthur. Cambridge: Brewer, 1985.

Kay, Sarah. “Courts, clerks, and courtly love.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Roberta L. Krueger. Cambridge UP, 2000. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 04 February 2009 DOI:10.1017/CCOL0521553423.006

Hay, Gilbert. “Chivalry in Principle.” Le Morte Darthur or The Hoole Book of Kyng

Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of The Rounde Table. Ed. Stephen H. A.

Shepherd. New York: Norton, 2004. 777-785.

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