Academic journal article Parergon

'Grete Luste to Slepe': Somatic Ethics and the Sleep of Romance from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Shakespeare

Academic journal article Parergon

'Grete Luste to Slepe': Somatic Ethics and the Sleep of Romance from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Shakespeare

Article excerpt

In 1484, William Caxton printed the Book of the Ordre of Chyualry with an epilogue criticising contemporary knighthood. Caxton admonishes his readers: 'O ye knyghtes of Englond where is the custome and vsage of noble chyualry that was vsed in tho dayes ... Allas what doo ye / but slepe & take ease / and ar al disordred from chyualry.' (1) This 'slepe' implies sloth and a lack of commitment to knightly duties. To counteract this decline, Caxton prescribed reading romances of Launcelot and of Gawain--romances that offered ethical instruction. Here, in this manual for the aristocracy and gentry, sleep offered a means to convey warnings about improper chivalric conduct; sleep was figured as the opposite of romance and its ethical aims. When sleep occurs in romances, it has similar connotations. For instance, in Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, which Caxton published the following year, the besieged Launcelot is compelled to answer his foes' taunts by an invocation of the honour--shame ethos that is explained through reference to sleep:

   hys kynne and hys knyghtes ... seyde at onys unto sir Launcelot,
   "Sir, now muste you deffende you lyke a knyght, othir ellis ye be
   shamed for ever, for now ye be called uppon treson, hit ys tyme for
   you to styrre! For ye have slepte over longe, and suffird
   overmuche". (2)

Here, sleep is figurative rather than physical, but it again reads as a comment about improper chivalric conduct. To have 'slepte over longe' is frequently presented as problematic and dangerous in Middle English and early modern texts. I have begun with a romance and a conduct manual printed on the cusp of the Tudor dynasty--in the case of Malory's Morte Darthur (31 July 1485), nearly on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth (22 August 1485)--because both use sleep as a language of identity formation that resonated in early modern England and in late medieval England. This article argues that literary sleep, both physical and metaphorical, often operated as an ethical discourse in late medieval secular literature, especially romance; it also argues that this medieval mode of thought continued to be influential in early modern literature.

A consistent set of attitudes about sleep persisted in England from the twelfth to the early seventeenth century. From the Peterborough Chronicle's comment that during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, people said openly that 'Crist slept' (c. 1137), to Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth Woodvilles lament that God must have been sleeping when her two little boys were murdered in the Tower in Richard III (c. 1591), literary sleep often marked a vulnerable or sinful state, a lack of perception, or a neglect of duties. (3) Sleep featured in romances from the genres rise in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries through to its use by Spenser and Shakespeare. These five centuries that saw the flowering of romance are also linked by the science of sleep that had been articulated within Galenic medicine, and by an architecture of sleep, since bedrooms became customary from the twelfth century onward, at least for the relatively wealthy literate classes. (4) Moreover, alongside romances, medieval and early modern people read dietaries and courtesy books that offered medical and ethical instruction about sleep. Such continuities testify to the longue duree of the premodern investment in sleep, before the scientific, literary, and social transformations of the seventeenth century weakened perceptions of sleep's cultural and cognitive importance. (5)

While the romance genre is primarily a medieval one, its popularity and the production of new texts, as well as the printing of old ones, continued through the sixteenth century. (6) As Brian Cummings and James Simpson observe, 'to continue to exist politely on either side' of the division between medieval and renaissance 'is to ignore the way that the works we study, and the way in which we study them, are implicated in . …

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