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Law and Justice in Le Morte d’Arthur

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My literature review is on the role of law and justice in Le Morte d’Arthur. The general consensus in the articles I read appear to be that the law and how it is enforced is a hinderance to true justice and even brings about Arthur’s eventual downfall by its failure.

In “The English Law of Treason in Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur,'” Ryan Muckerheide points out how the legal definition with treason sometimes clashes with a more genuine definition since, in medieval times, the way the law defined treason could sometimes be far too all-encompassing. One example he uses for the failure of the law of treason was the apple incident in which Guinevere was accused of treason as well as the murder of a knight. Despite her innocence, she is put through the whole process and is tried via trial by combat. She is ruled not guilty and the culprit is revealed to be Sir Pinel, who flees instead of being exiled, making him a traitor. The duality and failure of the law is displayed by the innocent Guinevere being marked a traitor by law but not the guilty Pinel who flees before being tried or exiled, thus making him a genuine traitor, but not in the eyes of the law. Another duality he points out is in Agravaine and Mordred’s revelation of the Guinevere-Lancelot affair. What they did is essentially treasonous in betraying their queen and riling up trouble which eventually brings about the fall of Camelot, but legally speaking, they were not traitors. By certain laws, in knowing about a legally treasonous act and not revealing it to their king, they would also be guilty of treason. Circumstances regardless, the only way they could be legally loyal to Arthur would be to reveal the affair, thus dooming their king and country. In this way, Malory shows plainly how legal treason and genuine treason are not always one and the same, as well as the flaws in the legal system that allows this.

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This may lead to how law is usually implemented in Le Morte d’Arthur, which is, as Amanda Taylor coins in her article, “The Body of Law: Embodied Justice in Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” embodied law. Essentially, embodied law is similar to English common law. It was unwritten, very situational, and largely determined by precedent. This is shown by how the demand of the common people “precipitates the actual moment of Arthur’s coronation” (Taylor 4). Oaths feature heavily in Arthurian society as well, with many characters repeatedly swearing on their body to uphold a promise. A prominent example of this is when Arthur swears to his foster father Sir Ector that he will make his foster brother Kay his seneschal and later keeps that promise. Taylor acknowledges how this kind of flimsy law can have its drawbacks, but overall has a “net beneficial impact on Arthurian society” (Taylor 4).

However, the law being arbitrarily enforced also has its downfalls. In “The Failure of Justice, the Failure of Arthur,” Laura Beckwell outlines how Arthur doesn’t enforce the laws fairly and justly which leads to problems which caused his end. In Le Morte d’Arthur, King Arthur makes his knights swear an oath to not commit murder, cause outrage, and other such crimes, which seems responsible at first, but the way it is implemented makes the oath next to worthless. Beckwell points out that for one, the oath didn’t have a priority order, meaning that if two aspects of it came into conflict, it was up to the knight to pick which one they wanted to break. This made it so a knight could commit murder in order to avoid causing outrage. The second problem was that the cost of breaking the oath was a loss of honor rather than actual punishment. This on one occasion kept Tristram from killing Palamedes because he cared about his honor as a knight. However, for the knights who don’t care, such as Agravaine or Mordred, the oath has no hold over them because there are no consequences for their actions. Take Sir Lionel, who murders two men, tries to kill his own brother, and only stops because literal fire from heaven separated them. Even when Arthur does punish his knights for crimes, it is very arbitrarily. Lancelot, for instance, is, to quote Monty Python, “a homicidal bastard” who kills without repercussion frequently. Four of Arthur’s nephews are well know murderers, but none of them are punished for their crimes. In large part, this is because their relationship to him makes Arthur go easier on them. This inconsistency leads to more and more crimes which eventually allows the whole thing to come crashing down. As for the punishments Arthur does use, Beckwell argues that they aren’t effective either. One common one is a loss of lordship, such as when he uses it as a means to screw over Sir Damas. However, even when he uses it, this punishment is just as arbitrary as all the rest. When he banishes Gawain and Uwain, he later rescinds them and lets the knights return, but the difference is Uwain wasn’t even guilty while Gawain was. Arthur essentially has only three punishments for any crime: loss of honor, loss of lordship, or death. (Citation?)

As for how those accused are deemed innocent or guilty, that’s another problem with Arthur’s justice. Guilt or innocence was determined by trial by combat most of the time, as it was believed God would guide the sword of whoever was in the right. The problem was that this method didn’t work in practice. Lancelot defended Guinevere the first two times she was accused of treason, and while she wasn’t guilty of the exact crime either time, she was absolutely committing treason with Lancelot by having her affair with him. Amant also accuses King Mark of treason, which he is indeed guilty of, but in the trial King Mark wins and beheads Amant. Overall, trial by combat “Results in a just verdict less than half of the time, even worse than what pure chance would predict” (Beckwell 12). Arthur also realizes it doesn’t work, which is why he doesn’t allow trial by combat to take place during Guinevere’s third trial for treason, where she is accused of her affair with Lancelot, in main part because he knows Lancelot will win no matter what. Ultimately, Arthur fails to met out justice in his realm which ends up creating escalating problems that lead to his and Camelot’s downfall.

Overall, law in Arthurian society is less based on solid, written law and more on an embodied law, more flexible and situational but prone to errors in efficiency and judgement. Justice is attempted to be carried out, but often falls short of its goal through the actions or inactions of characters.

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