Saturday, June 30, 2007

"I'm 'a get medieval on your eyes"

Cardigan, Wales
"Go west, young man Gawain, go west..."
(Image from Mair O Aberteifi)

We left Gawain in trouble yesterday just as he had turned from devotion offered to the true heavenly queen to devotion offered to a more earthly aristocratic lady. Part of Gawain's trouble stems not from this pagan turn but from the nature of the courtly love that he accepts as part of his aristocratic culture.

I'm working on this topic (and hence boring my regular readers to tears) because the International Center for Korean Studies (ICKS) has asked me to present a paper at the ICKS International Conference on "Celibacy and Enlightenment/Salvation" (August 2-3, 2007), which will take place at Korea University. Since I've long wanted to write something about my favorite Medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I'm taking this opportunity to do so ... and thereby inflicting my interests on my wary but longsuffering readers.

The connection between the theme of this conference and my Gawain paper lies in the Christian conception of humankind's fallen nature and the need for a salvation external to one's own efforts. Early in the poem, Gawain is described -- though perhaps ironically -- as an almost perfect human being, one who perfectly embodies courtly and Christian virtues. He initially manages this by paying court to the Queen of Heaven, for he can thereby fulfull the demands of both systems. Gawain, however, must fail in his efforts at perfection if this poem is intended to convey a profoundly Christian soteriological point. The nature of Gawain's failure is what links my paper to the conference theme of celibacy and salvation, for when Gawain turns from the Virgin to Lady Bertilak, the love expressed turns from spiritual to carnal, for that's the nature of courtly love.

The following is part of what I've been working on to establish the problem posed by courtly love for Gawain's attempt to remain chaste. I'm not saying anything new, of course; I'm merely trying to fill some details for scholars outside of Medieval English studies.
In the Medieval context, courtly love would ordinarily entail some problematic elements. In the ideal case, a knight devoted himself to service not only to his liege lord but also to his lord's wife, whom he was bound to protect, honor, and love. But what sort of love? Although perhaps modeled on the paradigm of the Christian's devotion to the Virgin Mary, in which case the ideal courtly love would be a highly sublimated sort of love similar to Christian caritas (cf. Edmund Reiss, "Fin'amors: Its History and Meaning in Medieval Literature," in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8 (1979), 74-99), the reality is that courtly love was an unstable complex of sexual desire and spiritual aims. Francis Newman noted that courtly love was "a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and self-disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent" (Francis X. Newman, ed., The Meaning of Courtly Love (1968) vii). Similarly, C.S. Lewis described it as "love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love" (C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), page 2). From a rigorously Christian perspective, courtly love is inherently adulterous, for its practice entails that mature men express their love for an already married lady in language that powerfully emphasizes her physical beauty. From the explicit teaching of Christ as given in Matthew 5:27-28:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
The operative word here in this King James Bible, obviously, is "lust," but we should dig a bit deeper into the past and look at the Wycliffe English translation, for John Wycliffe was a contemporary of the Pearl Poet:
Ye han herd that it was seid to elde men, Thou schalt do no letcherie. But Y seie to you, that euery man that seeth a womman for to coueite hir, hath now do letcherie bi hir in his herte. (Matheu 5:27-28: Wycliffe Bible)
But we should also check the Latin Vulgate, which the Pearl Poet would surely have known:
Audistis quia dictum est antiques: non moechaberis. Ego autem dico vobis: quoniam omnis qui viderit mulierem ad concupiscendum eam iam moechatus est eam in corde suo. (Matthaeus 5:27-28: Vulgate)
The two words are thus coueite (covet) and concupiscendum (ardent desire), and they are related etymologically. The former derives from the Latin word cupere, meaning "to desire, covet," and in the 14th century, the time of both Wycliffe and the Pearl Poet, the word coueite meant "To desire with concupiscence or with fleshly appetite" (OED I, 1106, 2), hence demonstrating why Wycliffe (or one of the Wycliffe 'team') rendered the Latin Vulgate's concupiscendum by the Middle English coueite. As for the latter term, concupiscendum, it derives from the Latin concupere (the intensive prefix con- plus cupere, thus "to long for, desire"). The related Latin term concupiscentia was taken over into English as "concupiscence" as early as the 14th century, appearing in Chaucer, The Parson's Tale (c. 1386), with the meaning of "Libidinous desire, sexual appetite, lust" (OED I, 777, 2). Given the Pearl Poet's theological interests and scriptural knowledge, he would surely be aware of Christ's teaching on adultery as a matter of lusting in one's heart.
I still need to fill out this part of my paper more completely, for I need to put my own stamp on the material, maybe liven it up a bit so that it won't be quite so boring as this blog entry.

Perhaps if I were to quote from Lady Bertilak's attempts to seduce Gawain...

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