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Characteristics of a Medieval Knight as presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Canterbury Tales & I Sing of a Maiden

Mother Written by Doaa Alaa Hashem MA Student at English Department Ain Shams University

Characteristics of a Medieval Knight as presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Canterbury Tales & I Sing of a Maiden Mother Medieval knights were bound by a Chivalry code of manners and morals. Chivalric ideals included bravery, benevolence, brotherly love, courtesy, friendship, chastity, generosity and piety. In his article, Chivalry in the Middle Ages, Simon Newman divides Medieval Chivalry into three types; duties to king & liege lord, duties to God and duties to women. These three areas intertwined often and were sometimes hard to distinguish. 1 Duties to king & liege lord or warrior chivalry, deals with a knights virtuous traits such as valor, honor and protecting the poor. This type of chivalry also calls for knights to put others lives before their own. An example of warrior chivalry in the Middle Ages was Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. A knights duty to God under chivalry included being faithful to God, being faithful to the church, always being a proponent of good against evil, and putting the worship of God above all others, even the feudal lord. This was known as religious chivalry. Examples include Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight & Chaucer's knight in Canterbury Tales. Chivalry towards women included honoring one woman before all others, as well as a general graciousness and gentleness towards all women. This was known as courtly love. The knight serves his courtly lady chastely with obedience and loyalty. The knight's love for the lady inspires him to do great deeds, in order to be worthy of her love or to win her favor. This model of courtly love encouraged chaste love & moral behavior. An example of courtly love chivalry in the Middle Ages was I Sing of a Maiden Mother. An anonymous article titled Characteristics of a Hero: Comparing Beowulf and Sir Gawain2 suggests that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight portrays many chivalric qualities such as chastity, humility, honesty, and devotion to the Lord, making Sir Gawain the epitome of "a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities" (Merriam 1). When the Green

Knight bursts forth into King Arthur's court, all other knights stood down and allowed Arthur to approach the Green Knight. It was only Sir Gawain who asked to be the one to take the Green Knight's challenge. In the text of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Sir Gawain's humility is expressed when he kindly asks, "would you grant me the grace... to be gone from this bench and stand by you there if I without discourtesy might quit this board" (343-345). The true test of Gawain's inner strength comes when he stays in the mysterious castle for three nights. During these nights, Gawain shows great humility and chastity. When the lord's wife comes into Sir Gawain's chambers to seduce him, he shows humility again when he says, "I am one all unworthy" (1244). Not only does Gawain try to stop the situation kindly, he also stays chaste, both of which are particularly chivalric and Christian traits. Gawain continues to decline the advances of the seductress until the third day when she offers him a green girdle, telling him, "If he bore it on his body, belted about, there is no hand under heaven that could hew him down" (1852-1853). Gawain accepts the token, but only because he fears that the Green Knight might kill him with his blow. Yet, from the moment Gawain takes the girdle, he is ashamed by his lack of faith in God's protection, hence why he does not tell the lord of the castle about the gift. Catherine S. Cox, author of Genesis and Gender in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, comments on the feelings of Gawain after his acceptance of the gift, "Having invested his faith in the Lady's magic girdle--which, as promised, girded a man who was not harmed-- rather than in his Christian faith, Gawain expresses contrition for his apostasy and cowardice" . Chaucer's knight in Canterbury Tales embodies the Code of Chivalry. Chaucers description of this knight sheds light on the true spirit of chivalry: There was a knight, a most distinguished man Who from the day on which he first began To ride abroad had followed chivalry, Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy.

He had done nobly in his sovereigns war And ridden into battle, no man more, As well in Christian as in heathen places, And ever honored for his noble graces He was of sovereign value in all eyes. And though so much distinguished, he was wise And in his bearing modest as a maid He never yet a boorish thing had said In all his life to any, come what might; He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight. Speaking of his equipment, he possessed Fine horses, but he was not gaily dressed. He wore a fustian tunic stained and dark With smudges where his armour had left mark; Just home from service, he had joined our ranks To do his pilgrimage and render thanks.3 According to Katherine Blakeney in her article Perceptions of Knighthood: Comparing the Character of "The Knight" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the Knight in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal , Chaucers description of the Knight in his General Prologue may be seen as a multi-layered narration. First he gives a very precise and historically relevant account of his campaigns. Based on what Chaucer knows about the knights deeds he gives his own evaluation of his character. Chaucer calls him a reputable man, trustworthy and courteous, loyal to his king, and honored for his abilities. From this description we get an image of a respectable person who cherished the profession of arms and acted within a set of moral principles suitable for a knight of his time. It also seems that Chaucers characterization of the knight abounds with what may be the knights own statements about himself. Several phrases stand out on the background of Chaucers objective and rather sensible text: [he] travelled far; no man as far as he, in Christian and i n heathen lands as well, often he took the highest place at table, over the other foreign knights in Prussia, no Christian of his rank fought there more often4

In I Sing of a Maiden Mother, a mother chose a matchless knight of all knights for her son in law. The lyric describes the courtly lover's qualities that made the mother choose him. He was "wonderly agile", fresh as spring, true to his love, "with chivalry, chastity and honour too". He is also "valiant & courteous". All these qualities embodied the ideal medieval courtly lover, so the mother accepted him for her daughter's husband. The lyric emphasizes the knight's chastity & honor which were very important as they proved that he'd honor one woman (his intended bride) before all others, assuring her of his loyalty. The three literary works; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Canterbury Tales & I Sing of a Maiden Mother present a well rounded picture of the ideal medieval knight. The three knights possessed warrior chivalry, with virtuous traits such as valor, honor and protecting the weak. They showed faithfulness to God & the church, always being a proponent of good against evil, and putting the worship of God above all others. They also presented chivalry towards women, chastely and loyalty.

Notes: 1. Chivalry in the Middle Ages, by Simon Newman: http://www.thefinertimes.com/Middle-Ages/chivalry-in-the-middle-ages.html 2. Characteristics of a Hero: Comparing Beowulf and Sir Gawain, anonymous: http://voices.yahoo.com/characteristics-hero-comparing-beowulf-sir-810889.html 3. The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill; New York, Penguin Books, 1951. 4. Perceptions of Knighthood: Comparing the Character of "The Knight" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the Knight in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal By Katherine Blakeney: http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/93/perceptions-ofknighthood-comparing-the-character-of-the-knight-in-geoffrey-chaucers-canterburytales-to-the-knight-in-ingmar-bergmans-the-seventh-seal