The picture of chivalry in medieval romance was primarily an idealised vision of knightly custom. The world of King Arthur and Camelot codified moral and courtly standards which were presented in literature as patterns for emulation. The writings of Sir Thomas Malory, the last medieval bearer-up of Camelot, was understood and received by medieval readers as a traditional praise of chivalry. It is therefore especially intriguing to find in the Morte Darthur the irreverent figure of Dinadan, a knight more ready for a jest rather than a joust, a clown whose words and deeds ridicule chivalric customs. His light treatment of chivalric norm and of courtly love sets him apart from the otherwise traditionally-minded Camelot. On the one hand, Dinadan may be viewed as Malory's touch of comedy and common-sense in his late medieval treatment of the old, quaint world. On the other hand, Dinadan's irreverence may be seen as a serious breach in the otherwise didactically idealised image of Arthur's Britain. The presence of Dinadan complicates the moral appeal of Malory's Camelot and brings a dose of ambivalence and a lack of clear didactic closure into the text.
Any modern discussion about the medieval man, his mentality, his social and religious behaviour, even his spirituality, is dominated by the useful, though limiting assumption of the inherently normative quality of the medieval mind. It cannot be denied that many norms were defined, taught and followed in the Middle Ages: scholastic philosophy brought the imperative of normative authority into all medieval discourse, the teaching of the medieval church impressed the grid of normative thinking on human moral behaviour, the strict hierarchy of the medieval society and the patriarchal nature of the medieval family were certainly a source of everyday dos and don'ts for every man and every woman.
Medieval literature reflects this need for norms in its overtly didactic and instructional tone. Manuals of sins, monastic and rules, specula or mirrors for princes and other members of society, collections of moral examples, books on ars moriendi, even guidebooks up the scale of spiritual perfection, all defined models of behaviour and encouraged their emulation. Latin and vernacular writings in many European languages confirm the universality of the prescriptive function assigned to literature, which, by quoting sententiae from recognised auctores and supplying exempla of proper behaviour, address the reader's ability to learn and follow norms (see Curtius 1948: 63-67). The frequently quoted sentence from St. Paul: "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction" (Romans 5: 4), well summarises this exegetic and didactic attitude to reading and writing.
The medieval world and medieval literature, as we have learnt to know them, are indeed peopled by saints, holy women, ideal princes and the most chivalric knights. Yet right next to them, the student of the Middle Ages, finds practices and their literary expressions that undermine, questions, parody or even deny the moral or social teaching of the positive examples. One is usually determined to see them as exempla momentia, examples to be avoided vs. exempla trahentia, examples to be followed (Goller 1997: 93), but frequently such a reading is rendered dubious by the lack of a closed moral argument in the text. Baffled by the irreverence of the boy bishop traditions, the low humour of some plays in the mystery cycles, or the pornographic images in the fabliaux, we tend to call them marginal or lewd, insisting on the otherwise pure and conclusively normative message of medieval literature.
The genre of medieval romance is also generally believed to have been treated as an expression and a definition of the knightly ideal. Life and literature inspired each other and devised a set of chivalric role models, knights of Camelot and the Round Table, to whom real knights and courtiers would aspire. …