38 pages 1 hour read


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1397

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Competing Notions of Chivalry

Although chivalry is often thought of as a unified code of conduct, the idea and practice of chivalry evolved throughout the Middle Ages, incorporating elements from different (and sometimes competing) value systems. The word itself comes from the French term for “horse” (“cheval”), and as an ethos, chivalry initially revolved around the virtues and duties of medieval Europe’s mounted warrior class: knights. In this sense, the notion of chivalry entailed bravery, honor, skill in combat, and loyalty to the lord to whom the knight had pledged service (typically in exchange for an allotment of land). As time went on, however, the definition expanded to include Christian virtues like piety, humility, and purity, as well as the concept of courtly love: a knight’s undying and ennobling devotion to an unattainable and often married woman.

All of these strands of chivalry are present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but they are not equally weighted. For one, Lady Bertilak’s attempted seduction of Sir Gawain brings to the foreground the obvious contradictions between courtly love, allegiance to one’s lord (or host), and Christian chastity. Lady Bertilak frames Sir Gawain’s failure to woo her and his resistance to her advances as a breach of his obligations as a knight, but as he himself realizes, he can’t fulfill her demands without violating his code of conduct in other respects: “His courtesy concerned him, lest crass he appear [in refusing Lady Bertilak], / But more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin / And belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house” (1773-1775).