Chivalry and Gender Relations in View of Christianity in 14th Century Europe
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century medieval English poetic story on romance and male chivalry. It is categorized as an Athurian story combining aspect of chivalry from the French, Irish, Welsh and English cultures as shown through the codes of behavior of Sir Gawain and other characters (Neilson). The codes of chivalry are grounded in Christian morals and those in support of chivalry are also in support of Christian ideals being propagated to a fallen world. This theme of men relating to men in a certain way can also be found in parts in “The Miller’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chauncer in the second of Canterbury Tales (1380s to 1390s). As such, this essay evaluates how the aspect of chivalry and the general interaction between men and women were in the 13 and 14th centuries in medieval Europe and how that aspect was intertwined with Christianity.
Sir Gawain shows commitment and passion to treating women right, with respect and in a dignified manner. His symbolic shield that has a pentagon shape carries the meaning of chivalry in the English community. It represents generosity, courtesy, chastity, friendship, and piety (Gardner). Sir Gawain adheres to all these virtues. He is tested on his adherence to the five virtues by being asked whether heavenly virtues can operate in a fallen world. However, seemingly the true test is on whether Sir Gawain and the men can adhere to chivalry as they thought or hoped they would in a patriarchal world where women lacked a place and voice to express their concerns.
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Women in the 13 and 14 century Europe were largely regarded as property and items of pride for the man with the fairest or the most women under control. As such, The Miller’s Tale presents a case of a love triangle –with two men and one woman. The men are in competition to win the “prize” which is the woman by the name of Alisoun (Joewono). Alisoun is objectified and not regarded with as much respect or as one bearing rights as is the case with in Sir Gawain’s story where women seem to relinquish their decision-making powers to men. However, something happens to enlighten the men that women also had rights and freedoms to determine for themselves who their best suitors and partners would be. When describing the encounter between Nicholas and Absolon, in The Miller’s Tales Chaucer states “speak, pretty bird, I know not where thou art” (Chauncer 105). The assertion here comes in the manner of the realization to the men that women also had choices to make and the choices had to be honored. As such, Absolon realizes that he is not in competition with Nicholas but with Alisoun whom he had to impress.
Absolon gets frustrated and gives cup competition for the girl and with the girl as he had gotten some sense of how to treat a woman and to respect her wishes. Although this came at a cost, it shows the appreciation among men in the 14 century that women were not mere objects or prizes for which men would compete but independent beings deserving respect and autonomy.
Chivalry remained a controversial issue in 14th century Europe as men struggled to assert their dominance whilst seemingly appreciating women. For instance, the court of King Arthur relied heavily on the subjects’ adherence to the code of Chivalry (Gardner). However, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight criticize the fact that chivalry seemed not to favor or prioritize the truth but rather values and symbols of the issue. For instance, King Arthur is introduced as the “most courteous of all” to indicate that those in his court were ranked according to their obedience to a certain code- the code of Chivalry. In instance, the Green Knight challenge’s King Arthur’s court and to do so he mocks them for being afraid of mere words. He suggests that appearance and words hold great power. Members of the court choose to remain courteous, beautiful and fair spoken although they harbor discontentment.
Essentially, The Miller’s Tale presents a case of men being cunning in their ways to overpower and abuse women. In the story, a cunning clerk named Nicholas tricks a rather dumb carpenter with the aim of having sex with the carpenter’s wife (Joewono). Nicholas is shown as being clever in his seduction game. He uses his prophesy to try and seduce Alisoun while Absolon tries to use his musical talent to seduce Alisoun. None of the men is coming straight to treat the woman in question with dignity and transparency but there is generous dose of trickery and cunningness in the strategies that men use to conquer women. It shows that men regarded women as some sort of mystery or a puzzle in which one has to apply tactics and tricks to conquer.
In regard to the issue of chivalry and how a gentleman ought to keep his word, the poem uses Biblical words such as “covenant” to assert to the importance therein. Although the Green Knight refers to his challenge as a “game” the word covenant to refer to a set of laws is used. The Bible can be summarized as a making and fulfillment of covenants between God and the people. As such, the use of that word means a serious commitment to the fulfillment of a promise. It is the issue of the covenant and commitment to chivalry that keeps Sir Gawain from sleeping with his wife’s hose as he was preparing to go fight the Green Knight.
Chivalry like Christianity presents an ideal to which all men strive. However, it does not guarantee that one will overcome mortal challenges to do so. For instance, the Green Knight’s challenge teachers Gawain that he was just still a human being with plenty of fears and concerns over his life. Chivalry or the commitment to honoring promises as a man does not take way one’s consciousness of their weakness and mortality. Gawain, was regarded as one of the best in adherence to chivalrous code but the manner in which he flinched at the Green Knight’s axe, his acceptance that ne needed teachings from his challenger proved that he was capable of errors (Neilson). Similarly, there is a message coming across that although Christianity set high ideals in the 14th century as it does today, human beings, even the very disciplined and committed have mortal weaknesses to overcome.
The Miller’s Tale confirms of human weaknesses and shortcomings in life by asserting that human beings do not always get what they think they deserve. John was a kind-hearted man who was in love with his wife and respected her but he ended up being a laughing stock in his community. Alisoun on her part cheats on her husband, John and she does not feel an ounce of guilt doing so. In all there is the moral lesson that as people strive to adhere the dictates of religion and societal codes such as chivalry and treating women right whilst honoring covenants, it does not guarantee such people all they good they deserve.
- Chancer, Geoffrey. Justice in The Miller’s Tale web. 13 December 2018 from http://personal.monm.edu/mmb/English220/Miller’s_Tale_Example.pdf
- Joewono, Jaqueline. Talking Some Sense into Chaucer: Bodies in “The Miller Prologue” and “The Miller’s Tale”. 2016. 13 December 2018 .
- Neilson, W. A. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . 13 December 2018 .
- Gardner, John (translator). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Web 13 December 2018 from https://www.northallegheny.org/cms/lib4/PA01001119/Centricity/Domain/1312/sir%20gawain%20text-0.pdf