Defining Violence in Middle English Romances: "Sir Gowther" and "Libeaus Desconus"

By Mitchell-Smith, Ilan | Fifteenth Century Studies, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

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. …

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