Defining Violence in Middle English Romances: "Sir Gowther" and "Libeaus Desconus"
Mitchell-Smith, Ilan, Fifteenth Century Studies
English romances were written in verses, often by anonymous authors, and frequently based on French adventure stories. Some romances appeared in the first half of the thirteenth century, followed by many others in the 1300s and 1400s. They are somewhat moralistic and treat Arthurian material. (The editors.) The Middle English romance Sir Gowther1 (c.1400; 757 verses) is often approached in terms of its connection to, and transmission from, the "Robert the Devil" narratives, specifically the French Robert le Diable (eleventh century, 5,078 verses) which is seen as its closest ancestor. There are significant changes from this base text, however, that complicate (for a scholar) the connection between Gowther and its antecedents. One of the important factors separating Gowther from its French source is the paternity issue: who was the protagonist's father? In Robert le Diable, a mother promises an infant son to the devil and as the child grows, his wildness and violence seem to become manifestations of this initial vow. In Sir Gowther, the son is not pledged to the devil, but is instead sired by him; and so the narrative concerns itself with a much more ingrained, inherited wildness and violence borne out as Gowther becomes an adolescent, commits various atrocious acts, and begins to embody his demonic parentage. While the mother's promise in the French text reduces Robert's culpability, the question of the child's paternity, as Francine McGregor argues, becomes the driving theme of the English narrative, and is essentially linked to related inquiries about the boy's authority, patriarchy, and masculinity. Critics have considered the identity of Gowther's bather and have connected Sir Gowther to what Jeffrey J. Cohen calls "identity romances"; and Cohen goes further to suggest that the English text, while not actually a "fair unknown" romance, is certainly informed by the tradition of Libeaus Desconus, in which a protagonist whose paternity is in question embarks on a quest of identity formation and is ultimately accepted into the fraternity of knights at the same moment that his father is revealed as Gawain.
I would like to argue that, specifically in the way that Sir Gowther treats violence and chivalry, this romance is significantly more influenced by the "fair unknown" tradition than has been previously suggested. Furthermore, I propose that a reading of Sir Gowther against the Middle English romance Libeaus Desconus (which this study takes as representative of the "fair unknown" motif) will reveal a construction of ideal chivalric masculinity complicating the way in which scholars have viewed knighdy violence in the past. There is a tendency in the scholarship on chivalry to treat physical force as an uncomplicated given - something that men naturally engage in if they would like to call themselves knights. In both Libeaus Desconus and Sir Gowther, however, excessive episodes of violence are sometimes presented in positive ways, but then criticized at other moments, depending on the spatial and religious context in which feats of power are perpetrated. In the Libeaus Desconus as well as in Sir Gowther, however, we find an ideal for chivalric masculinity constructed by episodic violent acts that happen only within narrowly defined spaces and at appropriate moments.
This treatment of chivalric excess by alternating praise and condemnation suggests that the traditional binary assumptions of aggression and passivity must be reconsidered as universal. The way that both Libeaus Desconus and Sir Gowther present violence is highly contextualized, such that extreme violence is celebrated only when knights are faced with monstrous enemies and fighting in spaces symbolic of wilderness. Excessive behavior is reserved for those who are monstrous, and masculinity is reified when periodic trips are made to the spaces where this excessive violence is sanctioned and legitimized by the politico/Christian power structure. Unruly behavior takes a much different form when performed outside of this space, and the identity of the knight who is fighting is dependent on that person's ability to negotiate the proper violence within the appropriate space. The examination of the violence in Sir Gowther and Libeaus Desconus also illuminates connections between the chivalry depicted within the romances of the late-medieval period and the knightly displays enacted during the crusades as well as in tournaments of the same period.
The "fair unknown" tradition focuses on a protagonist whose paternity is in question by his fellow knights, but whose fairness of face and behavior serve as irrefutable proof of his welcome acceptance to the chivalric community. The hero of these romances embarks on a quest of identity which culminates in the revelation of his father made public and therefore bringing the knight social validation. The authence already knows that the hero derives from the lineage of a great knight, often belonging to Arthur's court. Here the "fair unknown" motif functions very much according to the model that Susan Crane describes as "chivalric incognito" - in which knights (both historical and fictional) disguise themselves in order to focus attention temporarily on "the judgement of present actions without regard for lineage, past achievements, or past failures." That the incognito in Libeaus Desconus occurs by circumstance (by way of an absentee father) instead of by choice (Crane's more specific examples of knights disguising themselves on purpose) does not change the narrative function of the disguise - the hero's membership in the chivalric order must be proven and affirmed outside of the presence of heritability.
Libeaus's fairness of face is secondary, then, to the more immediate question of this romance, which concerns the authenticity of his chivalric abilities and whether or not he will be able to rescue the Lady of Sinadoun (who is being held captive by two villainous clerks). The revelation of Gawain as the protagonist's father occurs only after Libeaus has completed the journey to Sinadoun, after the clerks have been defeated, and after the lady has been freed. In other words, once Libeaus's chivalric identity as a successful knight has been established, the revelation of paternity reaffirms his place at the court after the fact, almost as explanation of why the mysterious youth was able to succeed.
Sir Gowther initially seems to pose the question of identity in different terms because not only readers but many of the characters in the story know that Gowther's father is a devil who seduced his mother. While Gowther himself remains unaware of his ancestry throughout his childhood and young adulthood, his father is revealed to him fairly early in the narrative by an old earl of his country, who seems to speak for the whole community as he explains:
we howpe thou come never of Cryston stryn,
Bot art sum fendys son, we weyn,
that werkus hus this woo;
thou dose never gode, bot ey tho ylle:
We hope thou be full syb tho deyll.
Leaving aside for a moment the physical unfairness that Gowther inherits from his infernal father (who is described in monstrous terms), it is important to note that Gowther is like Libeaus in that he grows up without any paternal presence whatsoever. While his father has engendered in him the predisposition to act in the horrendous way that he does, the devil who sired him disappears after the initial seduction and is never heard from again. Gowther's monstrous behavior is, of course, associated with the devil/father but is equally the result of a lack of paternal influence to contain his youthful aggression or teach him proper and sanctioned masculine behavior (maternity is not presented as a controlling force in the romance). Gowther's quest is different from Libeaus's in a number of ways but similar in that both protagonists strive to construct a viable masculinity all by themselves because of the father's absence.
Furthermore, the violence that each protagonist shows is depicted in contradictory terms, in that some of the fighting is construed as wholly positive and at other times seems excessive, out of control, and in fact monstrous. For example, in Libeaus Desconus, the hero's quest to rescue the Lady of Sinadoun is marked by various combats along the way. In the first combat, the struggle is non-injurious and results in a rectification of the social order as the defeated knight is sent to Arthur's court and integrated into his chivalric community. Combats that result in such an incorporation of defeated knights are common to the romance genre; and often, fighting seems to serve as the initial step toward intimate male friendships in a number of romances.
While Libeaus's first combat is punctuated by more or less friendly communication between the fighters and a conclusion that is non-injurious, the tone changes drastically when he faces a different kind of opponent in another space. As Libeaus rides towards Sinadown, he encounters two giants with a captive lady in a "wilde forest." Libeaus charges the men immediately and in terms of extreme fighting and brutal injury. At the start of the fight, for example, Libeaus thrusts his lance "Thorgh the liver, longe, and herte" of the first giant, so that "never he mighte arise" (w. 647-48). The second giant fights for a while longer, but eventually Libeaus hacks off his arm and then cuts off his head (w. 684-87). While the violence is excessive, it also is depicted as necessary and good for the social body. They are giants, after all, and their monstrous bodies represent the wildness of the forest in which they live. The romance does not suggest that they could have been incorporated into the chivalric order, for their monstrosity is depicted in terms of a rusticity placing them firmly outside of, and beneath, the chivalric class. They are also kidnappers, and their rough handling of a maid before Libeaus attacks suggests the threat of sexual violence as well.
What is interesting about Libeaus's journey is that his violence has a tendency toward the extreme even when he is not in the wild space of the forest and when he is no longer fighting monstrous opponents. The depiction of the combat in these moments is different, however, than when he was facing the giants. His tendency toward violence comes to a head when he steals a dog, refuses to give it back (after being asked quite politely), and then ends up fighting and killing groups of men as a result. After Libeaus's refusal he calls the owner (who is depicted as a reasonable and friendly person) a "cherl" (w. 1105-16), and the reader cannot help but question Libeaus's intentions. When the altercation becomes an all-out fight to the death, the violence is depicted in the same extreme language as with the giants, except that here the reader knows that the fight is not justified or necessary for any reason. During the climax of this fight, Libeaus seems to be in a killing frenzy, and the onlookers exclaim what the reader has already seen Libeaus is out of control to the point of having become a monster himself:
Libeaus s tede ran,
And bar down hors and man,
For no thing nolde he spare;
Ech man seide than,
"This is fend Satan,
That mankinde will forfare."
For, whom Libeaus araughte,
After his firs te draughte
He slep for evermore (w. 1177-85).
The reference to Libeaus as "Satan" here is especially interesting because of the connection, however tangential, that it draws between Libeaus and Gowther, whose own destructiveness is a result of his demonic father. This connection between the two protagonists is additionally supported by a brief moment of foreshadowing during the exposition ?? Libeaus Desconus, in which Libeaus's violent excess is linked to the absence of a paternal figure:
This Gingelein was fair of sight,
Gentili of body, of face bright,
All bastard yif he were;
His moder him kepte with hir might,
That he sholde se no wight
Y-armed in no manere,
For he was full savage
And gladly wolde do outrage
To his felawes in fere.
And all for doute of wikked los
His moder kepte him in clos,
As doughty child and dere (w. 13-24).
In both romances a tendency toward extreme brutality results from the youth's not having had a paternal figure during his childhood. The fact that this absenteeism in Gowther is connected with an actual devil does not lessen the thematic effect of the moments in Gowther's childhood when a strong controlling presence was decidedly missing.
While the arrangement of the violent episodes in Sir Gowther 'is different from those of Libeaus Desconus, thematically both romances depict chivalric overkill in the same way - some radical behavior is sanctioned as beneficial and identity building and other violent moments are condemned as monstrous and out of control. In fact, the separation of "bad violence" from "good" in Gowther is much more pronounced and obvious because unrestraint serves as the primary method by which we judge Gowther's early sins and his later penitence in what E. Bradstock calls the "penitential pattern" of the romance. Gowther's youth is characterized by a brute force that leaves no room for justification or amelioration: he kills travelers on the road (along with their horses) , burns a church full of nuns, ruins weddings by raping the brides and killing the grooms, throws friars off cliffs, hangs others on hooks, slays priests, burns hermits, and sets a widow on fire. His penance for these acts concludes with violence as well - in the form of a three-day batde with the Saracens. The outrage that Gowther perpetrates while fighting the Saracens is described as immoderate and exorbitant but, as in the case of Libeaus Desconus against the giants, there is no question that the violence is beneficial because of the clear threats that the Saracens pose. As in the case of Libeaus Desconus, the zealousness of Gowther's violence seems praised in some circumstances and condemned in others.
Additionally, both romances sanction excessive violence when perpetrated in a space outside of or beyond the home space of the court and the Christian acculturated milieu. For both Libeaus and Gowther, the quest for a viable chivalric identity involves physical travel - and in both cases the movement of the protagonist is toward peripheral areas - those spaces inaccessible to the rule of western civilization. In Libeaus Desconus, the protagonist begins in a home space totally controlled by his mother (wherein his threat of engaging in excess violence is not sanctioned, as discussed above), and his first move is to travel to the court of Arthur, where he is given the task of rescuing the Lady of Sinadoun. As he rides away, he finds himself in the forest wilderness of the giants. In this profane space outside of Christian rule, he can give full reign to his violent impulses and the bloody result (one giant transfixed by Libeaus's lance, the other left arm- and headless) is ultimately depicted in positive terms (the "maide" is saved "fro schäme" ). With this outcome in mind, the negative depiction of Libeaus's violence when he steals the dog is not so much a condemnation of physical force per se, as a rejection of injurious violence when inflicted at the wrong time and place, recognizable as such by the community and the court: against Christian knights in the space of a friendly count's forests. In Libeaus's penultimate fight with the steward of Sinadoun, he engages in a batde very similar to his first encounter, and the combat ends with both men more closely bound by homosocial ties of friendship. In other words, Libeaus demonstrates that he has learned to direct his violence appropriately.
In Sir Gowther the distinction between good and bad violence is more clearly associated with space and context than in Libeaus because the central theme of the romance concerns the recipients of Gowther's violence and the physical location in which this behavior is enacted. While young, Gowther directs his enmity against his own people, and the severity of the violence and the monstrosity of Gowther result both from the innocence of his victims and also from their being his people - not just in a local way but also as Christians in a religious land. Violence against these people is ultimately a threat to a unified and cohesive social structure. Once Gowther learns that he is the son of a Devil, he travels to Rome and confesses his sins to the Pope; as penance, he is forced to act essentially as an animal by never speaking and eating only food taken from the mouths of dogs. It is in this state that he finds his way to the court of the German emperor, with whom he discovers a domestic refuge while living among the emperor's hounds. The Christian court of the emperor, as the location in which Gowther's penance will be served (and redemption will be gained), becomes thus a new home space for Gowther.
The emperor's court in Sir Gowther is placed on the edge of Christian lands, seemingly right next door to the wilderness. Soon after Gowther's arrival, a Sultan, leading an invading army, comes from beyond this border and threatens to attack if he is not given the emperor's daughter to marry. The Christian sovereign refuses, of course, and this circumstance starts three days of warfare in which the emperor and his men ride out to fight against the Sultan and his Islamic army. Despite threats of invasion by the Sultan, however, the incursion never seems to happen; instead, the Sultan and his men wait patiendy in the liminal space between Christian and Muslim lands, constantly posing the threat of sexual violence against Christian women (specifically the emperor's daughter) and martial action against the men. God sends Gowther armor and a horse to fight against the Muslims during these three days, and each time he rides out in disguise to engage in the fighting. At the end of each day of fighting (during which Gowther wins), the Sultan dispatches another messenger to reiterate how serious he is about demanding marriage with the emperor's daughter and how much damage he will cause if he fails to get her. The repeated visits of this messenger become almost comical, though, because the invasion never happens and the Sultan continues to wait at the border, losing the fight day after day (despite what seem to be the numerical odds of his solthers). While this scenario is not intended to be comical, there is certainly a mechanism here to represent the Muslim threat as a constandy lurking danger existing in that wild space.
In this way the space between Christians and Muslims serves the same thematic function as the wilderness oí Libeaus Desconus, in that dangerous and monstrous enemies seem perpetually to wait there, attacking all who might enter and posing a (safely enclosed) threat. The Sultan functions as a kind of giant - his sexual and martial aggression is reminiscent of the threat of both rape and death posed by the two giants in Libeaus's wilderness. The characterization of giants as both brutes and rapists is a common tradition in chivalric literature, and can be found not only in Libeaus Desconus but also in romances such as Chrétien's Erec et Enid and in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. Furthermore, in most giant narratives these gigantic fellows are not rampaging across the countryside; instead (like Libeaus's giant and the Sultan), they are enclosed in the respective peripheral spaces.
This is the lesson that Libeaus must learn: a fight against Christian knights should end with oaths of fealty and a swelling of Arthur's ranks, as defeated knights are sent to do service for their king. A fight against a giant is another matter - against this kind of enemy, extremes of aggression and injury are not only sanctioned, they are encouraged - the most bloody and extreme fighting in the romance tradition is arguably directed against giants. This level of extremity is depicted as necessary, for the rape (and assumed murder) of maidens is at stake. As if reinforcing this theme, Libeaus comes to face the Muslim giant Maugis who is dressed as a knight. Maugis is surprisingly civil to him, greeting him with what seems like a kindly warning reminiscent of the words extended before Libeaus's first fight:
Say, thou felaw in whit,
Tell me: what art thou?
Torne horn again also tit,
For thy owen profit,
Yif thou love thy prow.15
Nevertheless, the fight seems civil, in fact, and Libeaus feels so comfortable with his opponent that he asks for a pause to drink from a nearby river; this act of course is a mistake, and the Muslim giant double-crosses Libeaus as soon as he can, pushing the youth into the water to weigh down his clothing. Now, Libeaus reverts to excessive and extreme aggression, cutting off the giant's arm, cleaving his back in two as the giant tries to escape, and finally chopping off his head (vv. 1471-85).
This episode in Libeaus is useful for our discussion because the story provides an explicit link between giants and Muslims. By suggesting that both groups may be problematic, Libeaus Desconus hints at a theme that Gowther takes on in earnest: the Muslim space existing on the Christian periphery is in fact a monstrous area, into which young knights must travel in order to engage in excessive and injurious violence in order to conform their chivalric masculine identities. Gowther's violence as unleashed during the three-day tournament, while extreme in its brutality, becomes the final stage in this knight's penance, and in completing the destruction of the Sultan and the Muslims, Gowther completes his redemption through violence, and his identity as knight and as man becomes secure.
Sir Gowther redefines the monstrous wilderness as a non-Christian peripheral space which has a historical dimension as well. Early crusading sentiment among medieval listeners and storytellers stresses the dangers that Muslims pose to the Christian homeland of Jerusalem. After the initiative of Pope Urban II (1095), the objective of what Jonathan Riley-Smith calls the "ordinary crusader" was to eradicate the Muslim presence from the holy land by military and political means. The personal rewards of crusading for those knights (remission of sin and gain of chivalric renown) were directly linked to the conquest and continued occupation ofjerusalem and other sites in the Middle East. Five crusades took place over a period of three hundred years.
By the time of the fourth crusade, there seems to be a shift in the attitude toward these enterprises, so that disbanding before the trip had reached its goal was a viable option for a number of travelers. The personal reward by remission of sins was given not in connection with a political or military objective, but in exchange for forty days of military service, following the model of feudal service to a secular lord. In the fifth crusade (1228-29), limited service by participants was prevalent, and by then, James Powell argues, the average time spent on crusade was around one year. The prevailing attitude, he says, was that the crusade was given to pilgrims by God in order to aid with their own salvation, and success or failure of the military initiative was left in God's hands. Powell goes on to describe the army of the fifth crusade in terms of a state of flux, with retinues continually arriving and departing (ibid., 176). In fact, the later crusades, at least from the standpoint of the ordinary participant, became a place where violence could be replaced by a viable chivalric identity in a more or less discrete economy of exchange. Military tours of service with the Teutonic order (in the areas that we now call Eastern Europe) increased in popularity throughout the fourteenth century and were undertaken by some of the most notable English knights of the period, including Henry of Lancaster, Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) , members of the Percy family, and Thomas Beauchamp." These crusading actions, possibly due to a constandy fluctuating membership of participating knights, were often of a very short duration. In the western medieval imagination, the lands of Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, and the Ukraine functioned (with other areas to the south) as the kind of peripheral space symbolized in the three-day war depicted in Sir Gowther - a boundary separating the Christian community from pagan threat and non-Christian rule. Referring to this space as a kind of metaphorical wilderness, Jennifer Goodman- Wollock suggests that one element of the medieval cultural geography is a constandy shifting awareness of the line that separates the Christian community from the non-Christian other.
Also, tracing the changes documented in the tournament tradition of western Europe reveals a general shift during the late Middle Ages, especially the occurrence of fights such as the Pas d'Armes, representing a more ritualized kind of fighting which carried the gender aspects of what we consider chivalry to be. Courtesy, courdy love, single, non-injurious combat, as well as costumes and pageantry, were at the forefront, while the elements of tournament that would encourage unchecked aggression (few or no observers, monetary gain through taking hostages, group-based tactics and combined infantry and cavalry action) were either de-emphasized or were completely absent. Theseus's modification of the tournament rules at the end of The Knight's Tale reflects this trend, as he oudaws all weapons that would be used to thrust (and therefore would be least impeded by armor).
A distinction emerges, therefore, between two types of combative encounter for the late-medieval knight: non-injurious fighting that allowed for the construction of identity through moderation and the avoidance of extreme aggression (as in tournaments) were sanctioned. Now, episodic moments of extreme violence were even encouraged, but only when enacted in the wild spaces beyond the borders - against the perceived monstrosity of the Muslim other. In Libeaus Desconus the hero's coming of age takes shape in his negotiation of these rules for how violence is meant to be perpetrated: his inability to manage his aggression leads to behavior that onlookers characterize as clearly monstrous (he is seen as a devil), but over the course of his journey to Sinadoun he learns his lesson. In the last two fights of the romance, Libeaus demonstrates his ability to moderate violence when exercised against certain opponents, and to indulge fully in excess when acting against opponents who do not fall under the protection of chivalric fraternity.
When Gowther is young, he makes himself a sword (a falchion specifically), and with this weapon terrorizes his father's lands. The author thus establishes a symbolic link between the falchion and Gowther's over-the-top aggression. When Gowther confesses to the Pope, he is asked to put down his falchion but he flatly refuses. Oddly enough, the Pope seems to accept this refusal and goes on to dispense a penance. The falchion stays with Gowther throughout the rest of the romance, and when God equips Gowther to fight against the Muslims, it is with this sword that he causes extreme injuries and a death. Because of his demonic parent, Gowther failed to comprehend against whom he should direct his aggression, and when he learns to use the falchion within the peripheral space in which the Sultan and the Muslim army wait, he essentially "gets it right." He understands the three-day tournament as a redemptive space, and at the end of the fighting God forgives him, whereupon he is able to rectify his previous wrongs.
What we learn from Gowther's example is a hyperbolic version of the lesson depicted in Libeaus Desconus. This knight is more extreme than Libeaus because, before he learns his lesson, he does not just act like a monster, he is a monster. Unlike Libeaus Desconus and other protagonists in the "fair unknown" tradition, Gowther's monstrous behavior is matched by an equally monstrous physicality - he grows much faster than a normal child, with an early dentition that suggests monstrosity and fiendishness, as Laskaya and Salisbury point out in the introduction to their edition. Besides being large he is also especially strong, so that no one can challenge his behavior; his description does more than bring to mind the giants of other romances - he imitates them and their sexual nature.
Additionally, the "fair unknown" tradition relies on the absence of the protagonists' fathers, paired with the children's "fairness" - a physical marker indicating membership in the chivalric class regardless of the seemingly modest circumstances of birth or upbringing. The unveiling of the true father reveals a paternal figure who is both of the chivalric class and also high-ranking in the Arthurian pecking order. The "fair" unknown, then, constructs a chivalric identity seemingly from a starting point, while the authence and the other characters of the tale remain assured of the unknown's nobility by his fairness of face and his obvious inborn ability to fight and attract lovers. Gowther is different, however, in that both the reader and figures in the story begin by knowing shordy into the plot who the protagonist's father is. The authence and other characters in the narrative also implicidy comprehend that Gowther is not fail of face regardless of his nobility of blood. Whereas Libeaus is fair, Gowther is ugly; whereas Libeaus is unknown in the sense of his ancestry, Gowther is known. Nevertheless, other elements of the romance, as discussed above, place Gowther ñrm within the tradition of "fair unknown" romances such as Libeaus Desconus, Perceval of Galles, and Malory's Sir Gareth. The author seems to be playing with the theme of "fair unknownness" by inverting the latter - Sir Gowther is part of the "fair unknown" tradition not because he is unknown and fair, but because he is unfair and known. Because of this twist on the theme, Gowther goes further with the topic of monstrous violence than Libeaus Desconus does, and much of Gowther unfolds with the authence being unsure of whether the tide character is protagonist or antagonist.
Gowther is also similar to the Sultan in a number of ways, further establishing his monstrosity within the narrative. Gowther's aggression of the Muslim Sultan is presented in terms of violent sexual advances aimed at the emperor's daughter and his wooing consists of threats (of violence) against her family and people. The Sultan and his Muslim soldiers are also described as specifically wearing black, and during the first day of fighting against Muslims, Gowther's armor is also black. While the argument has been made that this black signifies the humility that Gowther has attained, again, medieval readers and modern-day researchers must also be aware of the fact that black is often associated with sin, and blackness of dress functions as a point of connection between Gowther and the Sultan. The initial similarities between the two characters make Gowther's redemption an outgrowth of the controlling and punishing force he exercises against the kind of monstrosity that he once manifested. His own sexual violence in the beginning of the romance is, of course, grotesque in its details, but it is an affront not only to the moral sensibilities of the authence, but also to the generic norms of the romance tradition. Not only is he a terrible villain, he is also a monster who has appeared not in the wilderness, but in the civilized space of the court and the community.
In this context, the Pope's demand that Gowther take the role of a dog is not only penance but also a symbolic demonstration of Gowther's animalistic monstrosity. His becoming a dog is also important because doing so increases the symbolic link between Gowther and the Sultan, as Saracens were often associated with dogs, sometimes even depicted as dog-headed men. Likewise, Gowther's violence against members of the church furthers this similarity and combines with the threat of sexual violence (described above) to make the Sultan a double of the pre-redemptive Gowther. The latter comes to terms with his own monstrosity privately first, living alone (relying upon a dog who brings him food) ; once he has become reconciled to his new state, he shows his penance openly in the emperor's court. The incognito of his penance functions in the way that Crane suggests the incognito motif works (see note 7 above) : Gowther's hereditary nobility is set aside for a moment while his abilities as a knight are tested and proved, therefore eliciting (as it were) outside support for his dominant role in the social order at the end of the narrative. In this case, the power being tested is not (as Crane might suggest) the ability to fight, but instead the aptitude to determine how to fight in different contexts. The incognito has a secondary and oppositional function as well in that it allows Gowther to claim an identity outside of his biological parentage when he submits to the controlling force of the Pope as father. It is this second function of the incognito that drives the end of the narrative: Gowther's newly manufactured chivalric identity is one wholly submissive to divine authority, and with this submission comes a proper and clear outlet for his undiminished and excessive violence. Gowther does not learn how not to kill, he learns whom to kill, and when he does so successfully, he is rewarded and has a Christ-like redemptive power in the Christian community; he heals the body that he once threatened. Gowther's quest, then, is not just to seek redemption and a new, religiously based paternity (in the figure of the Pope), but also to separate himself from the monstrosity of the non-Christian other by use of excessive violence - controlled as well as socially and religiously sanctioned.
Angelo State University
1 All references to Sir Gowther are taken from "Sir Gowther," Six Middle English Romances. Ed. Maldwyn Mills (London: Dent, 1973): 148-68.
2 Mortimer J. Donovan, "Breton Lays," in A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500. General ed. Jonathan Burke Severs (New Haven, Conn.: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967): 133-43 (141-42).
3 Francine McGregor, "The Paternal Function in Sir Gowther," Essays in Medieval Studies 16 (1999) : 67-78. For a full discussion of the thematic function of the differences between Sir Gowther and Robert the Deuill see also Shirley Marchalonis, "Sir Gowther: The Process of a Romance," Chaucer Review 6 (1971/72): 14-29.
4 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Gowther Among the Dogs: Becoming Inhuman c.1400," in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler (New York: Garland, 1997). - The French source Le Bel Inconnu was written by Renaut de Beaujeu in 6,266 octosyllabic verses (c. 1190). Renaut used a Celtic original for his work, which is the only full-length Arthurian story written within two decades of Chrétien de Troyes's death.
5 For the sake of a more accessible Middle English, all references to Libeaus Desconus are taken from Libeaus Desconus, ed. Max Kaluza (Leipzig: Altenglische Bibliothek, 1890). Prepared and maintained by Larry D. Benson. Accessed via Electronic Facsimiles and Texts. 7 March 2008. Libeaus was created in the fourteenth century; all manuscripts date from the 1400s; there are 186 tail-rhyme stanzas, according to Severs (note 2 above).
6 This attitude is widespread, specifically in the uncritical reliance on prouess as a defining characteristic of chivalry or for the idea that violence is inherendy injurious, aggressive, and destructive. See Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984) : 2-3, especially for a discussion of reliance on prouess. See also Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), for a discussion of violence as being destructive. Furthermore: David Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book: Christian Europe and Its Neighbours (London: Brockhampton Press, 1996) ; and Fifteenth-Century Studies, vol. 27: Violence in Fifteenth-Century Text and Image , ed. Edelgard E. DuBruck and Y. Even (Rochester, NY.: Boydell and Brewer, 2002 [Camden House]).
7 Susan Crane, The Performance of Self. Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years' War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) : 129.
8 Gowther, vv. 205-209. In his apparatus Mills translates line 209 as follows: "we believe you are close kin to a devil."
9 Libeaus's initial fight against William Selebraunche is an example of the friendly quality that chivalric combat sometimes takes on in the literary sources. William, who is essentially demanding a combat from Libeaus, greets him with a jolly "Welcome, beaufrer" (v. 315), and then, when he is knocked from his horse, William seems even more friendly, exclaiming "By my fay, / Before this ilke day / Ne fond I non so wight" (w. 352-54). After he is defeated, William swears to Libeaus to travel to Arthur's court to become the king's prisoner, and he does so happily. Other examples abound, but good events are the combats in Chrétien's Erec et Enide, between Erec, Guivret, and Mabonagrain, respectively.
10 Libeaus, v. 590.
11 E. M. Bradstock, "The Penitential Pattern in Sir Gowther," Parergon 20 (1978): 3-10.
12 Gowther, w. 154-201.
13 Libeaus, v. 638.
14 Gowther, vv. 274-345 and following.
15 Libeaus, vv. 1370-74.
16 Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991): 89.
17 See Margaret R. B. Shaw, Chronicks of the Crusades (Joinville and Villehardouin) (London: Penguin, 1963) : 51, and Riley-Smith, 120-21, who suggests that this kind of attitude would never have been acceptable in the first crusade.
18 For a full discussion of this shift, see Joseph Strayer, The Albigensian Crusades (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992): 53 and following.
19 James M. Powell, Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213-21 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986): 116 and 179-80.
20 Ibid., 19.
21 See Jennifer Goodman, "Chaucer's Pruce, Lettow and Ruce Revisited: Frontiers of Awareness in Late Medieval Cultural Geography," Journal of the Linguistic University of Kiev 5 (2002): 134-46.
22 See ibid.
23 See also Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992) for a detailed treatment of medieval perceptions about the non-Christian/monstrous peripheral spaces.
24 For a discussion of this shift in tournaments, see Juliet Barker, The Tournament in England, 1100-1400 (London: The Boydell Press, 1986).
25 Larry D. Benson, ed., "The Knight's Tale," The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1987): vv. 2537-54.
26 Gowther, w. 286-91.
27 Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, eds., "Introduction," The Middle English Breton Lays (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995): 263-73 (267).
28 Shirley Marchalonis (note 3 above) : 14-29 (23).
29 Meredith C.Jones, "The Conventional Saracen of the Songs of Geste," Speculum 17 (1942): 201-25.…
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Publication information: Article title: Defining Violence in Middle English Romances: "Sir Gowther" and "Libeaus Desconus". Contributors: Mitchell-Smith, Ilan - Author. Journal title: Fifteenth Century Studies. Volume: 34. Publication date: January 1, 2009. Page number: 148+. © Boydell & Brewer 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.