Feudal Relations and Knighthood Upended
The Effects of Courtly Love in Lancelot as Mediated Through Female Figures
In Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot, multiple female figures continually frame the narrative and push it forward. Major shifts and turns in plot development carefully hinge upon the speech and actions of women. This effect of women is clearly seen and reiterated in the character of Lancelot. Ultimately driven by his totalizing, courtly love (fin’amors) for Queen Guinevere, Lancelot subjects himself to the whim of many female characters so that the possibility of proving himself worthy before Guinevere might be realized. In some instances, Lancelot submits and sacrifices himself so much so that he loses honor and becomes foolish and shameful in the eyes of his fellow knights, vassals, lords, and kings. In this way, the motivational drive of Lancelot’s courtly love causes him to turn over established expectations for knighthood, as presupposed by the feudal structuring of society in the High Middle Ages.
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Most importantly, Lancelot depicts courtly love as having two formative effects on the relations between the characters. First, there is an inversion of gender roles, with women wielding significant power and influence over men (i.e. knights). Second, there is a subversion of pre-established rules and assumptions for chivalric knighthood. The character of Lancelot veritably experiences these effects of courtly love, but only because of the female characters’ privileged position to control and mediate the effects.
From the outset, Chrétien establishes the gender inversion in the initial scene at King Arthur’s court. After Kay announces abruptly that he intends to leave the court, Arthur becomes “deeply upset” and ‘hurrie[s] to find his queen” (Lancelot, l. 114-15). Instead of dealing with the issue himself, he effectively divests his authority and places all hope for the issue’s resolution in the hands of his wife. Guinevere successfully persuades Kay to stay, something that Arthur could not accomplish on his own. Arthur’s deferral to Guinevere by seeking her counsel, whether intended by him or not, implicitly demonstrated how the role of queen was somehow more valued and had greater effectiveness compared to that of king.
Once Guinevere is taken under the protection of Kay and her whereabouts becomes uncertain, Lancelot rushes into action and the effects of his courtly love become apparent. Immediately, Lancelot’s honor and reputation are challenged when a dwarf asks him to sit in a cart (something only criminals and social pariahs would do), just so Lancelot could find where Guinevere has gone. Here Chrétien introduces how the subversion of knightly values—maintaining one’s honor, dignity, and respect—is necessary so that Lancelot’s courtly love will be proved genuine and strong enough to override norms of behavior in knighthood. Even from afar, Guinevere’s power over Lancelot (through love) forces him to compromise his identity as a knight by going into the cart: “But Love, speaking from deep in the heart, hurriedly ordered him into the car. He listened to love, and quickly jumped in, putting all sense of shame aside, as Love had commanded” (l. 371-76). This act, viewed by Lancelot’s fellow knights as shameful and probably unforgivable, completely blemishes Lancelot’s identity. This act is so significant that Lancelot is renamed “the knight of the cart” and commonly referred to in that way by Chrétien and other figures throughout the rest of the story.
Interestingly, not only does Lancelot’s courtly love subvert his identity as a knight, but it also temporarily effaces his sense of self: “Mind and body, the knight of the cart remained in Love’s firm grip, helpless against it; his thoughts were so tumbled about that he no longer knew who he was, or if he truly existed, or what his name might be…All he could think of was one woman, for whom he’d forgotten everything else” (l.710-16, 719-20). This subversion of Lancelot’s former identity of a knight is so severe that it has become a purposeful forgetting for the sake of the beloved. Here Chrétien demonstrates how Guinevere’s privileged status as the love object, based on gender role inversion and through courtly love, helps bring about Lancelot’s identity subversion and effacement.
Lancelot’s courtly love for Guinevere is stretched and tested when Lancelot comes upon a beautiful maiden who nearly forces him to sleep with her so he can have lodging at her home. In this case, any fidelity that was part of Lancelot’s former identity would be tested and maybe sacrificed for the sake of continuing the journey to find his lover. More specifically, there is a two-layered submission on Lancelot’s part that stems from his courtly love. Lancelot promises to sleep with the girl, submitting to her request, but by doing so he submits to the demand of his courtly love, which requires him to do any and all things so that the fin’amors is proved true. Still, it is important to note that the girl’s power over him is strong in this section, for “ his promise called him and bent his will” (l. 1216-17). Clearly Lancelot did not want to do this: “He could not pretend goodwill. And why? His heart had been captured by another woman” (l. 1228-30). Lancelot willingly (and maybe paradoxically) suffered at the hands of another, so that his love for Guinevere would be deemed more valuable. Luckily for Lancelot, he did not have to go through with the promise and the girl allowed him to sleep alone. Chrétien frames this encounter in such a way that it is most important for Lancelot to be willing to carry out his promise rather than actually committing the act. Lancelot’s submission and subversion are key here because they serve as valid indicators of the courtly love Lancelot has for Guinevere.
As Chrétien continues the narrative, the “tests” for Lancelot’s courtly love become much more difficult but at the same time more effective as validity detectors. In other words, the more difficult or humiliating a task is, the more valid Lancelot’s courtly love is if he completes the task without complaint or questioning. In one intense encounter with an enemy knight, Lancelot is forced by another damsel to cut off the head of the knight. This act would completely undermine Lancelot’s knighthood because the basic rules of chivalry would not allow for the beheading of a defeated knight. Nevertheless, the girl’s will trumps the will of Lancelot and she forcefully orders him to behead the knight (l. 2924-25). This is a serious speech-act committed by the girl, because in the moment her self-proclaimed authority extends not only over basic chivalric rules between knights, but over life and death. The girl is effectively an arbiter of death, so Lancelot cannot help but carry out her request so that he can progress and have his courtly love rightly rewarded as a result of his violent deed. Indeed, the girl sets Lancelot free from prison later in the story, which shows that Lancelot’s courtly love can earn him rewards that reinforce the love.
Another very serious test of Lancelot’s courtly love comes when he learns of Guinevere’s supposed death. Because Lancelot’s former identity (before courtly love) is so overridden by a new impulse that does nearly everything for the sake of the beloved, one would expect Lancelot to die along with his love object since there would be no more purpose behind living. This is exactly what happens: “He had no interest in living; death was all he wanted” (l. 4264-65). Lancelot’s identity had become so dependent upon Guinevere’s word and will, that the idea of Guinevere no longer living made it existentially impossible for Lancelot to continue living. The lover and the beloved became so tangled up in each other, with one defining the other’s existence. Even from Guinevere’s perspective Lancelot is called “…he whose live gave meaning to her own” (l. 4181-82). Neither Guinevere nor Lancelot really dies, but Lancelot’s willingness to end his life upon news of Guinevere’s death serves as a successful response that comes from his courtly, unconditional love for Guinevere.
One of the final measures of Lancelot’s courtly love is the fight he wages with the knights of King Bademagu’s court. Ironically, instead of fighting well and in turn proving his love for Guinevere by the quality of his fighting, he submits to the queen’s odd request to fight poorly: “He went on fighting badly, purely to please the queen…He worked at earning only shame, and disgrace, and dishonor, acting as if the other knights filled him with terror. And those who’d admired him at first, began to make him the butt of laughter and jokes” (l. 5670-71, 5679-5685). Here, an already shameful knight, the “knight of the cart,” has further embarrassed himself in front of an entire court by acting foolish. In no way at this point can Lancelot be considered the ideal knight. His courtly love has completely reversed the prescribed behavior for his knighthood.
At the end of the narrative, Lancelot’s identity has been completely subverted by a selfless, malleable will with the sole aim of earning Guinevere’s love. Because of the rigorous demands of courtly love as mediated by various female figures, Lancelot subjects himself time and again in order to be pleasing and desirable in the eyes of the queen. In Lancelot’s repeated subjection to women, Chrétien shows the power of courtly love with two primary features: the radical inversion of gender roles that provide women the means by which they can mediate courtly love’s effects, and the complete subversion of Lancelot’s former identity shaped by expectations for attitudes and behaviors within a feudal context.