Skip to content

Chivalry and a Found (Medieval Geek) Feminism

2012 December 13

“Chivalry” is one of those words guaranteed to start an argument. In a newspaper column, a bar or an office, a discussion about chivalry tends to divide the participants into two energetically opposed groups: those who believe that ‘women should act like women and men should act like men’, and those who believe that the cavalry tactics of the thirteen century have little to offer modern conceptions of gender.

Of course, I’ve deliberately stacked the deck there, partly because I don’t think the chivalry debate is actually a debate; it’s a way of obscuring the real issues behind a warm, old-timey phrase.

Illustration by Kate Beaton. A lady watches a tournament boredly.“Chivalry” tends to enter the conversation when it is suggested that women might be treated as equals in the public space, that they might not be subjected to sexualised commentary for simply walking down the street, or might be paid an equal salary to men.

Then “chivalry” suddenly arrives as the benign, patronising face of patriarchy. Don’t women want men to open doors for them, to buy drinks for them, to arrange for them to be unable to support themselves economically and thus be dependent on the contingent goodwill of another person for their livelihood? That’s just plain mean, and almost certainly emotionally manipulative.

The reason this gambit interests me is not how ridiculous it sounds when spelled out (though that too) but how much explanatory force is attributed to such a vague and nebulous ideology.

Even more than evopsych, another gender-wrangle bugbear, “chivalry” offers so little specific justification. Even the debased version of evolutionary psychology one meets in the arguments of MRAs and redditors who have stumbled furiously into the comments section of Feministe (in the manner of a partygoer in Cancun who reaches for that Hawaiian shirt in the wardrobe and finds himself amid the snows of Narnia) purports to present an argument and a set of historical (well, mythical) explanations.

That’s why “chivalry” is so often a distraction, a way of blowing warm, nostalgic smoke across the debate until its not clear what we’re even arguing against.

The other reason it seems odd is the diametrically opposed way we use “medieval”. Like sixteenth-century humanists, we rush to brand anything barbarous, vicious or ignorant as “medieval”. The actions of Boko Haram, for example, or the conditions in an inner-city crackhouse, or Creationism. Somehow “chivalry” expresses a comfortable reactionary vision of gender relations, in which women simper and accept being corralled into particular spheres of activity away from real power, whereas “medieval” is backward and dumb. The bad kind of backward and dumb.

Between them these terms manage a bait and switch on our engagement with the past and its bearing on gender politics. A necessary one, given the preponderance of “princess” vocabulary which saturates the images offered to girls and young women. Narratives about dating, dress and men’s attention are full of language which assumes that the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages – all those castles, quests, damsels and princes – are the natural image of relations between genders.

At the same time, it’s necessary to decry the treatment of women in other countries as “medieval”, to maintain the fiction that women in our culture have nothing to trouble their heads about. The terminology carefully allots two meanings to the same collection of past events, and assigns our (rightly) divided feelings of shame, horror, belonging and heritage to whichever side is needed to keep gender norms in place.

The word “chivalry” has been particularly bothering me recently since I started rereading bits of Malory’s Morte Darthur. One of the most influential Arthurian works in the English language, this fifteenth-century version of the Camelot legends looms over almost all subsequent Arthurian works in some form or another, whether that be Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, or the recent BBC TV Merlin.

An examination of this romance also gives a bit of a lie to the myth of “chivalry”. It’s not that it debunks the soft-focus pageantry with a brutal expose of fifteenth-century repression and sexual violence (though an account of its author might do something of the sort). Rather, it undermines the “princess” paradigm by offering a very different kind of female character.

As Helen Cooper notes in her edition of Morte Darthur, women are often the characters who incite action:

Most of them, moreover, are active agents, not mere passive damosels.

The book also seems quite at home with women’s romantic agency: to quote Cooper again, Malory “takes it as natural and unthreatening…that women have sexual desires” and act upon them.

One particular passage struck me as illuminating this issue: when Dame Lyonet realizes her sister Lyonesse is in love with the knight Sir Gareth. The section doesn’t need much more prologue:

Then was Sir Gareth more gladder than he was more. And then they troth-plight, other to love and never to fail while their life lasteth.

And so they burnt both in hot love that they were accorded to abate their lusts secretly. And there Dame Lyonesses counselled Sir Gareth to sleep in no other place but in the hall, and there she promised him to come to his bed a little before midnight.

Their counsel was not so privily kept but it was understood, for they were but young both, and tender of age, and had not used such craft before.

Wherefore the damosel Lyonet was a little displeased, and she thought her sister Dame Lyonesse was a little over-hasty, that she might not abide the time of her marriage; and for saving of her worship [reputation] she thought to abate their hot lusts.

And she let ordain by her subtle crafts that they had no their intents either with other as in their delights, until they were married.

Unfortunately I haven’t got space to continue copying out the episode, but the way she decides to use her “subtle crafts” to frustrate her sister’s insufficiently crafty crafts involves creating an enchanted knight who comes charging in whenever Gareth and Lyonesse manage some alone-time, causing Gareth to have to battle it.

'I know what you really want...' 'I'll be in the bedroom.' Cartoon by Kate Beaton.He defeats it each time, in increasingly final ways (eventually swiping its head off, and carefully chopping the head into a hundred pieces and dropping it out of a window into the moat) but each time Lyonet puts it back together with magic ointment. Because who doesn’t have space in their life for a moment-ruining sorcerous cyborg created by their older sister?

This passage also exhibits some surprising gender politics. On first reading it’s simply another fabulous (in both senses) tale of magic and love, but the framing is strikingly modern.

Firstly, the narrator seems to find nothing either surprising or blameworthy about the two young people wanting to have sex before marriage: that use of “lust” is, in context, simply denoting a particular emotional and physical state. It’s not the “lust” of the Seven Deadly Sins, it’s more like the lust of a Magnum advert or a Cosmo special issue.1

Neither does Lyonet see anything wrong with her sister wanting to sleep with Sir Gareth – she simply realizes that everyone else knows what is going to happen, and that her own wish for her sister to be happy won’t stop people shaming Lyonesse. She creates the magical knight because she’s acutely aware of the gap between her own sympathetic understanding of her sister’s feelings and desires, and the hypocritical attitude of the society they have to live within.

Interesting that the word “craft” is used of both Lyonesse’s secrecy and Lyonet’s magic. I’m tempted to read this as suggesting they’re both sets of skills which the women have developed in order to survive in a difficult world – though Lyonesse’s is far less effective. The initiative Cooper identifies in Malory’s women is dramatically present here: Lyonesse instructs her lover where to be at night and comes to visit him, whilst her sister makes a counter-plan to foil her.

Sexual attraction is hardly an unusual motive for action in the fiction we see around us, but in this case it’s the young women who take action and negotiate their way between their feelings and the expectations of a broader community.

There’s also something meta-romance about Lyonet’s solution. I may be over-reading this brief passage, but Malory’s deliberately laconic style encourages us to interject motivations and connections to make sense of the narrative. So I think the form Lyonet’s obstruction takes – an enchanted bouncer – is also a symbol of her superior ability to understand heroic romance as a genre.

“Alright, little sister”, her choice of magical weapon seems to say, “You want to be the heroine of a chivalric romance? Because in all the romances I’ve read you don’t get the knight that easily…” She ironically goes along with Lyonet’s casting of herself as romantic damosel, and cranks up the volume, providing her sister with her very own enchanted nemesis to overcome before she can get what she wants.

If we wanted to translate this into a realist mode, this gestures towards the idea that love doesn’t end your story arc as a person, and that finding the person you want to spend “happily ever after with” doesn’t subsume your identity into a “game over” montage.

Lyonesse still has to deal with what Camelot will think of her, and she’ll do so whilst remaining Lyonesse and a member of her own society. The meta-romantic element, in which Lyonet goes to the spell-book to slow up her sister’s love life, seems to valorise young women who are symbolically and semantically competent, as well as active in the world.

Lyonet wins this episode because she is more capable than Lyonesse of taking the narratives which surround them in their culture, understanding and decoding them, and then redeploying those narratives to her own advantage, with a combination of critical analysis, sisterly compassion, and geeky in-joke wit.

So if nothing else, this chunk of Malory provides us with another reason to sneer at “chivalry” when used to argue that the world was better when women were (supposedly) passive, and to own up to our medieval heritage, whether it’s embarrassing, troubling or apparently irrelevant.

Because occasionally we may trip over moments like this, where Dame Lyonet is exercising her subtle crafts. Crafts which, as I read them over again, look more and more like medieval geek feminism.

  1. Not that either of those are anything but problematic, but my point here is the modernity of the word’s implications. []
One Response leave one →
  1. December 16, 2012

    Barbara Tuchman in ‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’ that it was chivalry that played a part in the decline of the French empire of that period; the noblemen couldn’t refuse a fight on grounds of honour, so they’d be repeatedly charging off to get themselves and thier soldiers murdered in entirely avoidable combat and tactical blunders.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS