As always, a complete set of site navigation options is available at the bottom of this page.

Lecture by Linda A. Malcor

Introductory Lecture on Women in Arthurian Romances

The figure of King Arthur appears in literary references as early as the late 5th century A.D. Reputed to be the leader of a warband in the last days of Celtic control of Britain, Arthur has his roots in history, but his major contribution to Western culture has been the wealth of material his legend has supplied for medieval and subsequent authors. Arthur first appears in the chronicles of Britain as a pseudo-historical figure. The next set of references to Arthur is found in 9th century Welsh literature. In the Welsh stories Arthur is seen as a Celtic demi-god who is in charge of delivering souls to the land of the dead. Two companions also appear with Arthur: Bedwyr and Kai. In the course of these stories other figures begin to attach themselves to Arthur as his Followers: e.g., Gwalchmai (Gawain), Pryderi (Perceval), and Leodegrance (Guinevere's father). In the mid-twelfth century our first record of perhaps the most famous of Arthur's followers appears. Lancelot makes his debut in a French poem which is now lost; however, a German translation of this poem survives under the title Lanzelet. The Lanzelet is interesting since it represents a body of non-Christian literature which has Celtic elements but which may not be necessarily Celtic at their core. It is this body of literature rather than the courtly love literature of Chrétien de Troyes on which Walter Map based the prose Lancelot, the first work which I want to look at today.

The prose Lancelot dates from late 12th century France. The work is frequently credited to a British author who lived in France and who wrote under the name of Walter Map. Literary analysis and comments by Map's contemporaries suggest that Map wrote Parts I, II, and V in full but only outlined Parts III and IV. Two other male authors later completed this work. It is believed that Map wrote the first two Parts, discovered that he was dying, outlined two more parts, and wrote the final part on the request of the French King. The first two parts are important to our class because the role of women in these stories is very different from the role of women in courtly love. In these two parts the Lady of the Lake, Guinevere, and Lancelot form what one critic has called "a terrible trio." The Lady of the Lake provides Lancelot with everything from his equipment to his battle plans; Guinevere uses her own troops to supply Lancelot with men and uses her influence over Arthur to keep additional men and money flowing to the continent to support Lancelot's war efforts. In the two parts not written by Map the Lady of the Lake rides through one scene (sitting on a white horse) and Guinevere appears only as the Queen on the Pedestal. In the last part of the prose Lancelot there are more courtly love elements than in the first two parts, but Map specifically states that he is writing this part at the direction of his king each time one of those elements appears. And when Arthur dies, Map cannot resist having Guinevere put on armor and take over the command of Arthur's troops.

So something happened around the time of Map's death, during the period of the composition of the prose Lancelot, which resulted in the reduction of the role of women in that work. To show that this is not a unique case, let's take a look at two other legends from the Arthurian corpus: the "Lay of Sir Launfal" and the legend of "The Dame Maleficent."

"The Lay of Sir Lanval" first appears in the works of Marie de France, ca. 1150. Marie tells the story of a knight who falls out of favor with Guinevere because he does not adhere to the rules of courtly love. A trial of love is held, the knight's lady (who just happens to be the faery queen) rescues her lover at the last moment, and the happy couple departs for an eternity of bliss on the Isle of Avilon. The original story was very different from this account. In 1375 A.D. Thomas Chestre also writes a "Lay of Sir Launfal," basing his work on Marie's poem as well as on a Welsh survival of the Celtic legend of Launfal. Chestre tells the story of a foreign prince (similar to Lancelot) who is a priest/knight (similar to Percival or Galahad). Launfal falls in love with the faery queen after being exiled from Arthur's court because he warned Arthur not to marry Guinevere because the future queen had a reputation as a whore. Launfal is recalled to court after several months under strict orders from the faery queen not to reveal their love. However, Launfal is so flustered when Guinevere makes a pass at him that he refuses her in the name of his beloved. Guinevere conspires with Arthur to insure that Launfal cannot get a fair trial on the charge of attempted adultery and (because the intended object of this adultery was a queen) treason. The Knights of the Round Table are appalled at the attempted miscarriage of justice, and Launfal's lover arrives at the last moment (in answer to Arthur's summons) to chastise Arthur, blind Guinevere, and carry Launfal to the Isle of Olyroun since he proved himself too noble to remain in the company of mortal men. Launfal's lover in this second story is far more powerful than she was in the first. Technically, she appears as Arthur's vassal, but SHE judges Guinevere, SHE delivers sentences in the trial, and SHE is unquestionably in command of the court while she is present. SHE is "Triamour," the Triple Goddess of the Celts, who is also known in legend as the Faery Queen, Morgan Le Fey, and the Goddess of Witches. Yet here she appears in a completely positive role, satirizing the king's justice and wielding power that no ideal medieval woman theoretically was able to claim.

The third example of an anomaly in the literature which I wish to point out is found in the legend of "Le Dame Maleficent." Usually portrayed as a sharp tongued woman who finds herself against her will in the company of Gawain or his youngest brother, Gareth, "Le Dame Maleficent" is surrounded by a body of legends which tend to differ from the medieval ideal of feminine. Sir Thomas Malory originally included a scene in his Le Morte D'Arthur which his editor, Caxton, removed before printing the manuscript in 1467. This scene portrayed "Le Dame Maleficent" in the company of Gareth attempting to rescue her sister who was being held prisoner in a castle. Gareth takes one look at the prisoner and freezes, paralyzed with love and oblivious to the knight who is charging toward him. Lynet, Le Dame Maleficent, sees that Gareth is in danger. She doesn't faint like the typical courtly love woman. Nor does she try the equally conventional technique of screaming to alert the knight to his peril. She darts into a tent, dresses herself in armor, picks up a sword, mounts her horse, rides over to Gareth, and starts beating him on the head with the flat of her sword until he wakes up enough to defend himself. As unacceptable as this portrayal of a woman was in the 15th century, the fact remains that the story was remembered and that the author, if not his editor, was willing to write the scene.

In all three of these examples, Map's prose Lancelot, Marie de france and Chestre's lays of Sir Launfal, and Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, the role of women decreases in importance in stories which are developed after the advent of courtly love. The British authors appear to be more willing to adhere to the powerful heroines of the original legends than the French authors. Part of the British view of women may stem from the survival of Celtic legends in Scotland, Cornwall and Wales.

The Celts honored women to a higher degree than most of the people we have studied so far. For example, recent research into Celtic law has revealed this interesting pattern: if a murderer killed a man, the murderer was required to pay the dead man's family a set price for killing a man. If a woman was killed an autopsy was performed to see if she was pregnant. If she was and no sex could be determined for the child, then wergild was paid for the woman alone. If the child was a male, the murderer paid three times the wergild for a single male. But if the child (albeit unborn) could be determined to be a girl, then four times the usual wergild was demanded.

Although a change in this particular set of laws with the prices shifting in favor of the men can be noted by the 12th century, there is also legislation being enacted to protect women's rights in other areas. These laws were to protect a woman while she was alive rather than to compensate her family after she was dead. I refer to the laws concerning the woman's dowry. In a recent interview Professor Eleanore Searle of Cal Tech informed me that in 12th century France and England there were laws that allowed a woman upon her husband's death to reclaim her dowry "regardless of whether or not that dowry had been sold." A man could try to use money from his wife's dowry while he was alive, but even if she consented to the sale of her lands, if she survived him those lands would return to her intact at not cost to herself: the buyer was simply out the money. The result of this legislation was that no one wanted to buy anything from a husband if there was even a rumor that the item offered for sale might have belonged to the wife's dowry. So even though the husband might have nominal control over his wife's wealth, the ultimate power lay with her.

Widows in medieval society also held the kind of power exhibited by Map's Lady of the Lake, Map's Guinevere, and the Faery Queen in Chestre's "Lay of Sir Launfal." Completely in charge of their husband's estate until they son (if any) came of age, the widow held what was probably the most desirable position for a woman in medieval society. However, current research is beginning to reveal that the life of a medieval wife was not as confined to the proverbial pedestal as the medieval French troubadours would have liked us to believe. Professor Searle told me the story of a bastard daughter of a 14th century French King who is remembered for many accomplishments, among which is maintaining the defense of her husband's castle by firing a crossbow at her own father. If this example is taken as the norm rather than as the exception to women's roles in the middle Ages, a new vision of the medieval wife begins to emerge. The laws of physics, namely momentum,. prevent a lighter woman from charging on horseback at a heavier man and winning. Therefore, women, in medieval terms, do not make good offensive fighters. However, when defense is considered there is no reason that a woman should be any less effective with a crossbow used from a castle tower or wall than her male counterpart. The fighting femme, Lynet, of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur may have her roots in the actual history of medieval women.

Another place it is possible to see Malory's Lynet is in a passage from a document cited by Mary S. Beard in Woman as Force in History. Knighton of Leicester, an English chronicler, records the following scene:

In those days [1348] there arose a huge rumor and outcry
among the people, because when tournaments were held, a
band of women would come as if to share the sport, dressed
in divers and marvellous dresses of men--sometimes to the
number of forty or fifty ladies, of the farest and comeliest
(though I say not, of the best) among the whole kingdom.
Thither they came in party-coloured tunics, one colour or
pattern on the right side and another on the left, with short
hoods that had pendants like ropes wound around their
necks, and belts thickly studded with gold and silver--nay,
they even wore pouches slung across their bodies, those
knives which are called daggers in the vulgar tongue; and
thus they rode on choice war-horses or other splendid steeds
to the places of tournament. There and thus they spent and
lavished their possessions, and wearied their bodies with
foolish and wanton buffoonery, if popular report lie not.
(pp. 246-247) What seems to have happened in medieval literature is this: the pre-courtly love literature presented a fairly accurate portrait of women's role in society. Then, with the advent of courtly love some authors felt the need to conform the role of women in literature to that which was assigned to them by the philosophy of courtly love. However, when these authors used materials which pre-dated courtly love the former role of women appeared. Also in areas, such as those near Wales, where realism was popular in art, the role of women which actually existed in medieval society was portrayed rather than the fanciful vision created by the champions of courtly love.

Site Navigation Options

Pre-School & Kindergarten  ||  Elementary School  ||  Middle School  ||  High School

Undergraduate  ||  Graduate  ||  Adult Learners  ||  Short Seminars & Lectures

Textbooks and Films  ||  Maps  ||  Graphics  ||  Audio and Video Files  ||  Related Websites

Arthurnet Discussions  ||  Pedagogy Page ||  Arthuriana Main Page

© Arthuriana
Site Administrator: Alan Baragona
Last revised: August 5, 2014
This page is
SMU Required Secondary Information Server Disclaimer:
The contents of this Secondary Information Server are the sole responsibility of Arthuriana and its contributors, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of Southern Methodist University or the Norwick Center for Media and Instructional Technology. The administrator of this Secondary Information Service is Bonnie Wheeler