British Literature Research Essay

Courtly love and chivalry are two characteristic features portrayed in the majority of literary works written by British authors in the Middle Ages, or, to be exact, in the era of King Arthur and knighthood. This era is widely known for its brave knights fighting with horrible monsters to protect their land and beloved women. The audience of such literary works as “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was mainly women, including the queen, countess and other ladies of the queen’s court. That’s why medieval authors put women in the center of the literary setting depicted in their works; this may be explained by the interest expressed on the side of medieval women. The concept of courtly love was relatively new in the Middle Ages, however at that time portraying of brave warriors, such as Beowulf, and the knights, such as Sir Gawain, was typical for British authors of that historic period. According to historic evidences, medieval writers and poets were the first ones to depict courtly love, which was sort of invented by the people living in the Middle Ages. At that time major place in the life of people was occupied by the transition from Paganism to Christianity, and thus, before Arthurian era authors used to depict religious love, such as love towards all people, brothers and sisters and God, rather than love of men and women.
Generally speaking, courtly love and chivalry are two interdependent concepts, which may be found in British literature of medieval period. If a man was bestowed to knighthood on, he was sure to have a lady to love and serve, that’s why these concepts are so popular among authors of that time.
The main objective of current essay is to speak about courtly love and chivalry and the way these concepts were depicted and discussed in “The Canterbury Tales” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

Analysis of courtly love and chivalry in the works of medieval authors
Before speaking about courtly love and chivalry, it is necessary to define these terms and explain what they meant for the people living in the medieval period. The term “courtly love” means a relationship between a knight and his beloved lady, whom he loyally and obediently serves, while she also loves him and faithfully waits for him to return as a winner after war. This kind of love usually inspired knights and they accomplished even more feats in order to prove their courage and strength. Sometimes knights loved women whom they had never seen, or women even didn’t know about knights’ love, however, the result was the same. As a relationship courtly love “typically was not between husband and wife, not because the poets and the audience were inherently immoral, but because it was an idealized sort of relationship that could not exist within the context of “real life” medieval marriages” [4]. The reason for that was because the majority of marriages were decided in advance and based on material and dynastic advantages rather than on love. Though courtly love was very popular among readers, everybody knew that this kind of relationship was unreal and impractical. Speaking about “chivalry”, this term is also peculiar to this era, and means a collection of customs and traditions practiced by the medieval knighthood in order to demonstrate the loyalty to God and king, devotion to beloved ladies, readiness to help innocent victims and willingness to fight with all sorts of enemies. According to chivalry the knights should have possessed certain personal traits, including courage, loyalty, politeness, honor and ability to help the weak and innocent. And exactly these traits were portrayed by medieval writers. A good example of it would make a poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, which was rather popular in the Middle Ages. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is written in Arthurian England by an unknown author, who is considered to be a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. The main character of the poem is Sir Gawain, the nephew of the king Arthur of the Round Table. As any other knights Sir Gawain is depicted as courageous and loyal, showing the best example of chivalry. The main character of the poem is shown as the true hero struggling with a horrible creature, who is neither a person nor an animal. Throughout the poem Sir Gawain is being tested to show his best qualities and he almost succeeds, however, the author wants to laugh at his main character, and thus reveals Sir Gawain’s personal traits which don’t really correspond to the image of a chivalrous warrior. At first the author of the poem shows Sir Gawain and other knights as the best examples of chivalry, who are loyal, generous, chaste and courage. The whole Camelot is being shown the way in which it totally depends on chivalry rather than truth. For example, when the Green Knight attacks the Arthur and other knights while their celebration, they are all afraid, but nobody shows any signs of fear, pretending that they are brave enough to fight with the Green Knight. Though Sir Gawain remembers that he is a knight, who ought to be courageous and courtly, his fear and desire just to continue life prevails, which is especially noticeable in the relationship with Morgan le Fay. Sir Gawain failed to fulfil the tests, and was bitterly satirized by the author, who was successful at making a mock out of Sir Gawain, because he was first given a positive perception. However, not only chivalry is satirized in the poem. The poet also speaks about courtly love, the rules of which are almost broken by Sir Gawain, while staying in the hunter’s house. Sir Gawain fails to perform his courtly attitude to his host’s lady, from whom he receives a number of kisses, trying to give them back afterwards. From my point of view, this situation shows Sir Gawain as a ridiculous character, breaking all the moral rules of chivalry and courtly love. There are other proofs of Sir Gawain’s dishonour and cowardice, including, Morgan’s second test, during which Gawain performs his strong feeling of self-preservation rather than preservation of knight’s honour. By keeping the girdle of the huntress Sir Gawain chooses to be safe, however, he breaks the image of an ideal knight and shows disrespect towards his court. Finally, his constant performance of cowardice disgraces the court, the king Arthur himself and chivalry as a whole. Among the good things which are performed by the main character of the poem is his realization of the sins, which makes the readers forgive him, and understand that not all knights are perfect indeed. Generally speaking, the ideals of chivalry that were created by medieval people were broken by the knights, who felt ashamed because of that but could do nothing about it. The evidence of it is the scene when all the Knights of the Round Table meet the Green Knight and realize their inability to follow the rules of chivalry, because all of them feel fear and are not able to give their lives to protect the king.
Another good example of British medieval literature is famous “The Canterbury Tales” written by Geoffrey Chaucer, who devotes a lot of his verses to the chivalrous knights. This is especially seen in two of his tales, including “The Wife of Bath” and “A Knight’s Tale”, where knights are the main characters. In “A Knight’s Tale” the author speaks about two knights, who are found wounded and are later imprisoned by Theseus. While in prison they fall in love with a lady named Emily, and both treat her very respectfully performing the best example of courtly love. In “A Knight’s Tale” Geoffrey Chaucer speaks about true chivalry and courtly love. This can be noticed even in the structure of the tale, where the author speaks about the kings first and only later introduces the main heroes. Palamon and Arcite are chivalrous knights whose main goal to receive the love of Emily. When both of them are free they choose to fight with each other in order to reach their goal. During one of their fights Arcite was mortally wounded and asks Emily to marry his friend Palamon as he doesn’t know any other good man for her. This tale by Geoffrey Chaucer addresses the best moral values of that period of time, including the observance of moral codes and codes of honour, emphasised by Theseus, who set the rules for the battle between the knights, and respect and infidelity of the knights in the relationship with the lady.
Speaking about “The Wife of Bath”, it is necessary to underline that this tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is rather different from “A Knight’s Tale” in terms of how chivalry and courtly love is depicted there. To be exact, in “The Wife of Bath” all the rules of courtly love and chivalry are broken rather than obeyed. The first time we meet the Wife of Bath is in prologue, where it is stated that she has five husbands, which is unusual for that period of time. The male character in the tale is the knight, who does not personify any of the ideals of chivalry. The first of his sins is the rape of a young girl, which breaks all known principles of chivalry, because knights were supposed to be engaged in platonic love which supposes having no sexual relations with women and total respect towards them. Though, these principles were broken by the knight, he was not sentenced to death, which is also very unusual, but was sent to the Queen, who gave him a special task to get to know what women want the most. The Queen said “I’ll grant you life if you can tell to me what thing it is that women most desire” [2]. Trying to find the answer, the knight met the wife of Bath, who told him that women most desire:
“Women desire to have the sovereignty
As well upon their husband as their love,
And to have mastery their man above…”
Thus, the life of the knight is saved, but he still didn’t learn how to be courteous to the women. He remains with the old women and treats her badly, showing disrespect towards her. The knight had to marry the old lady, as it was the condition under which she told him the correct answer. At first the knight denied, but he had not choice but marry the lady, whom he treated badly. However, by the end of the poem the knight seemed to learn how a true knight should behave. The tale ended in a happy end, as the old lady turned into a young and beautiful woman.
Generally speaking, in “The Wife of Bath” tale Geoffrey Chaucer reveals the true nature of the knights, who only seemed to be chivalrous and devoted to the principles of courtly love. The knight in this tale behaves indecently with the women, breaking all the rules existing in that period of time. However, chivalrous behaviour and courtly love is well depicted in other tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, including the above mentioned “The Knight’s Tale”.
Though a lot of literary works are devoted to courtly love, marriages in the Middle Ages were not based on love, the exception is the “Franklin’s Tale”, where the author describes the life of married couple Dorigen and Arviragus, who truly loved and cared for each other. “Franklin’s Tale” shows one of the best examples of how men should treat women, because the main features of Arviragus are his loyalty and respect towards Dorigen, who in her turn is also loyal and loving.

Having spoken about courtly love and chivalry and the way these two concepts are depicted in the works of medieval writers and poets, it is necessary to make a conclusion. The Arthurian Age is the time of courageous knight struggling with horrible monsters to protect their honour and love. However, the principles of chivalry and courtly love created in the Middle Ages were not strictly followed even by the knights. This is especially noticed in the literary works of that period of time. The image of a knight was too idealized and often the knights didn’t correspond to the ideal image. As any other people the knights could feel fear and be concerned more with their self-preservation rather than defending their honour. But still, this period of time remains a beautiful era of courage, love and romance, strong and brave knights and their gentle ladies. In my opinion, this is priceless literary heritage that should be always remembered by the British people as well as the readers from other countries.

1. Bisson, Lillian M. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. London: Macmillan, 1998
2. Geoffrey Chaucer, Nevill Coghill “The Canterbury Tales, in Modern English.”
3. Lee, Brian S. “Exploitation and Excommunication in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Philological Quarterly, Vol. 74, 1995
4. Schwartz, Debora B. “Backgrounds to Romance: “Courtly Love”.

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