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  • Chapter 11 Lady as Temptress and Reformer in Medieval Romance
  • Michelle Sweeney

It is clear that many critics find the treatment of women in the romances problematic. Many of the female characters in the romances seem essentialized to nothing more than a sexual presence, one that functions to tempt a knight toward the path of love/sex and away from the path of honor. But it is equally striking that in many of the romances there exists a second formula at work, one in which it is clear that the “temptation test” or even a “threatened rape plot” provides a scenario in which a temptress can also lead a hero toward his salvation. The term salvation is heavily imbued with both secular and spiritual significance, which makes it like so many of the romances, as they also operate on multiple interpretative levels and borrow heavily from religious language. Initially, of course, the idea of using temptation or most especially the threat of rape as a means of achieving a knight’s salvation seems unlikely, but when we evaluate the “rape plot” in The Knight of the Cart by Chrétien, or Marie de France’s Lanval, and the temptation scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (henceforth SGGK) and Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, it becomes appropriate that we evaluate how the knights are reformed and, for some, even saved by the women who tempt them.

Kathryn Gravdal in many ways takes the opposite point of view. In Ravishing Maidens she argues, “Courtly discourse is a locus in which the feminine figures as an empty sign that can be filled with the reflections of masculine hegemony on itself.”1 Her interpretation suggests that the violence in these texts is necessary for the knights to be knights. Furthermore, she argues:

While forced coitus may not always fall under the heading of marriage law, however, there is another territory which the church claimed as its own in the Middle Ages: sexual behavior. … If, in the literary text, the violence of the raptor can be construed [End Page 165] as an expression of conflicted desire, the rape plot can become the basis of a romantic narrative.

(Ravishing, 11)2

In very interesting ways, this commentary on French romance makes room for the awkward position we find ourselves in when the tables are turned in medieval romance and the women are pursuing knights in the context of sex surrounded by violence. This does not translate directly to rape, raptus, or forced coitus, but the heroes in SGGK, The Knight of the Cart, Lanval, and The Franklin’s Tale are each threatened with violence that is intimately interwoven with sexual temptation (Ravishing, 1–20).3

It is clear that in romance terms Lancelot, Lanval, Gawain, and Dorigen each find themselves in situations where their chastity is challenged, and each must face the fact that if the situation is not correctly handled, it could lead to excommunication, isolation from court or a loved one, and potentially even death. In historical terms, Gravdal argues that secular law in twelfth-century France maintained “the death penalty for forced coitus (following Roman law). … [but the] softening influence of Christian love appears to soften only the fate of the raptor. … In 1200, Pope Innocent III allowed marriage subsequent to rape if the victim consented” (Ravishing, 8–9). Her interpretation of the primary sources is that “Gratian strove to regulate sexual behavior, such as bigamy, sodomy, and prostitution. But forced coitus, while it may have been a crime, was not a sin” (11). In thinking that Chrétien’s romances set the foundations in place for many of the romances to follow, with direct influences being suggested for at least the Gawain poet, it becomes necessary to consider how these religious and cultural views impacted the formation of romance norms for sexual conduct. If the Church argues that a rapist was punished by having to marry his victim, albeit if she gave her consent, then we have to consider that “violence” could be manipulated to achieve “happy” outcomes. People who actually wanted to get married could use this as a means of achieving that goal despite parental refusal. But...


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pp. 165-178
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