Depiction of Courtly Knighthood Elements in the Literature of Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Eras
Through the course of history, there has been intrusions of tribes from different areas. Such invasions have affected the course of history, and it also impacted the literature realm. The various invasions have occurred during the early centuries and are known as the Anglo-Saxons. With the occupying of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings in Great Britain, generations to follow have been able to encounter various elements that are still in effect in contemporary society. A few of the elements that are still visible in today’s world is the exposure of rich tales. Such stories journeyed their way through the intellect mind through the tradition of oral storytelling.
Because this was an oral traditional process, stories were passed through various speakers with various visions; consequently, there were vast versions of dialects of the narratives. As an outcome, there was multiple encirclements of the tales with several traits. Majority of the tales surrounded the idea of knightlihood while others allowed the uncovering of Christian values to complement the Christian audience of the time. Nonetheless, while there have been rich Anglo-Saxon tales, it is important to claim the evidential nature of courtliness through the Christian lens. Therefore, through the reading of the Canticle of the Sun, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Dream of the Rood – one can examine courtly values alongside Christian traits.
Although the Canticle of the Sun was not composed, nor belonged to the Anglo-Saxon age, it still coincides with the medieval era. Additionally, I would still like to consider it through an Anglo-Saxon’s lens. Through the Canticle of the Sun, it is notable that the poet composed this, not only with the obvious Christian values but also with courtly characteristics. Such characteristics are depicted through Saint Francis’ loyalty and love to God and nature. Although the term “courtly” is often associated with the term “love”, this should not be mistaken for always being connected with human kind-of-love. However, this should be viewed as a general type of love in which a poet often sings the joy of his/her love for something s/he longs to exalt. In other words, it is simply the praising and extolment of something of existence. Through the reading of the poem, one can note that the poet appeared to have written the text with a musical feel.
The poem reads as if it were a recurrent melody that was created as a token of appreciation in order to exalt God. A valid example of Saint Francis’ courtly love is seen through the opening lines, “Most High, all powerful, good Lord, / Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, / and all blessing / To You alone, Most High, do they belong, / and no man is worthy to mention Your name” (1-5). As the poet praises his God for His mightiness, the reader is able to detect that there is an invocational tonality that this poem is indeed of a prayer form. This compliments not only the loyalty of attaining courtly characteristics but also works well as a tribute to the Christian audience. The poet additionally creates a pathway for the audience to apprehend that all that is to follow reflects the omnipotence nature; hence, Most High, all powerful, good Lord. With the given notation, it can be perceived that one’s exalting the goodness and magnificence of God is of great importance. Because of such pathway, this ties well with the Anglo-Saxon idea of Christianity.
An additional connection with Anglo-Saxon’s is seen through the loyal grounds of the persona in the poem of Saint Francis’. As loyalty is one of the main foundations found in a chivalric character, I believe that the persona/speaker of the poem embodies the loyalty of a medieval knight. In “Franciscan Churchmanship” Weigel points out, […] the self-emptying, of the Son that the Father effects salvation in the power of the Spirit. In that sense, Francis of Assisi’s life as a mendicant embodied in evangelical witness the truth of the Christological hymn in Philippians and its celebration of ‘Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:6-8). This experience of being saved by the love of God made manifest in Christ was made tangibly present for St. Francis in two privileged ways: in the Eucharist and in the Bible (45-46).
As Weigel explains, I believe that by Saint Francis’ poem, the persona concludes an embodiment as a witness of Christ’s, serves my argument well as a depiction of knightlihood. The code of a medieval knight was a combination of several elements such as honor, graciousness, mercy, humility, faithfulness, and courtesy toward women. However, for the sake of this poem, my idea with courtesy toward women will be in fact modified to courtesy toward nature. The persona of the poem is clearly seen magnifying his Creator, not only for his own existence but for the existence of all that surrounds him. This serves well with the connection of courtesy in general. It also compliments the idea of graciousness and honor. Through Saint Francis’ poem, one can note the evidential connection with knightlihood through the persona’s invocation.
Additional link of Anglo-Saxon lens with the Canticle of the Sun is seen through the persona’s sense of chivalry. One may question the concept of chivalry especially in a poem that is not entirely of an Anglo-Saxon’s tradition. This is especially true given that the audience is already aware of the poem’s original author (Saint Francis of Assisi); whereas, Anglo-Saxon texts are widely noted that they are of “anonymous” composers. Weigel asserts the idea of chivalry through the following caption, Clark no doubt surprised his viewers by then veering off in a different direction, with an encomium to a chivalric figure of a quite different sort, the spiritual knight errant who, by the time of his death, had captured the imagination of much of Europe: St. Francis of Assisi (43).
Weigel’s claim strongly harmonizes with my argument of the chivalric characteristic found in Saint Francis’ poem. Indeed, Weigel does not directly quote the Canticle of the Sun; however, his assertion that Saint Francis is depicted as a spiritual knight who embodies chivalric essence, widely acknowledges the poet’s capabilities that mirror greatly in his poem. The poem exemplifies a range of characteristics that link with chivalry. Aside from the religious codes, the persona of the poem stresses a moral rule.
As the poem reads the following lines, it is notable that the speaker of the poem adopts an honorable chivalric element:
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation (23-28).
One may question how such lines depict chivalry, yet I argue that as the speaker professes his appreciation for “…who sustains…provide various fruits…bear infirmity and tribulation” (24-28), it is evidential that the persona serves almost as a protector of that of which provides “fruits”. The speaker does not only serve as a defender but is also mindful of the “tribulation” to follow. A final idea of knightlihood is seen through the last stanzas:
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility (34-40).
The speaker of the poem immensely serves the knightly persona through his encompassment of the general idea of life. He defends death and with that, it allows for me to confirm that it is a valiant adoption. This idea vehicle the poem through the persona’s embodiment as a knight who accepts the concept of death and understands that this life is of a mortal nature.
This idea also aids the knightlihood through the accepting of death not just as a cycle of life, but the way the speaker presents it, that when death knocks, it will be taken as an honorable factor. Similarly, it renders to the view of a knight who fights in a war for his lord and is aware that death is a virtuous token for the fallen. It is also noted that death is seen as an inevitable, inescapable, and unstoppable visitor. It almost reads as if the speaker is speaking in a heroic tone.
The second text in which I will analyze is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem is an Anglo-Saxon courtly tale that was composed in the late 14th century. The tale is regarded as a popular Arthurian legend which has an intertwined style of the concepts of achievement and a beheading game. The tale is composed in a continuous form that complements the journey of Sir Gawain. In the Arthurian era, Christianity, heroism, chivalry, and loyalty were the ultimate foundation of knightlihood. Christian elements are the first to be noted as a base of knightlihood.
These elements are apparent in the most ritual form. In an article titled “Christian Significance and Romance Tradition in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’” M. Mills suggests, “It is worth noting at the outset that even the most purely ‘secular’ romances are in some respects well adapted to support a Christian meaning” (483). According to Mills’ claim that romances of the medieval era inevitably consist of a religious connection supports my claim of the representation of Christian lining. The most obvious Christian element is noted through the opening event of the poem which is Christmas celebration.
An additional reference to religious values is through the act of prayer. With prayer being an existential Christian element, the reader is able to notice the anguish that conquered Sir Gawain during his quest: ‘Thus un peril and pain and plights full hard through the country wanders this knight all alone till Christmas Eve. At that tide to Mary he made his moan that she might direct his riding and lead him to some dwelling’ (Gawain I).
This direct quote showcases the character’s quest not only through a hopeful victory over the Green Knight but in his inner journey through psychological battles. The concept of the Virgin Mary exemplifies Sir Gawain’s human nature. His fragility and sinful nature are vividly seen through such a vulnerable moment. Additionally, another Christian essence is through his desperate confession session in order to receive absolution for his sins. Gawain’s delicate nature directs the reader to note that through his mortal essence, he adopts Christian fundamentals.
On the other hand, through the various events and challenges Sir Gawain encounters, the reader is able to note the steadiness of his nobility through his actions. Furthermore, the stanzas also showcase the heroic nature of the young Sir Gawain and his quest. His loyalty to his journey works well with his nature in order to magnify the Arthurian court. In an article titled “Gawain’s Shield and the Quest for Perfection” Richard Green states,
The dominant image which bound the ideals of chivalric and Christian perfection was the image of the Christian knight, champion of the Church militant on earth, committed to the pursuit of personal virtue and the preservation of the divinely sanctioned social order (122).
Through the many obstacles Sir Gawain encounters, the reader is able to witness his skills that were challenged. As danger enters Camelot, Sir Gawain’s persona asserts courtly core through his voluntary action. Sir Gawain’s chivalry is widely seen through the tale by his behavior toward the Green Knight. The community of Arthur’s court is artificial and significantly unoccupied towards the chivalric element. However, it is valid and is still existential in a ritual form that is found in Gawain. Harbus explains the several ideas found in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,
[…] ideas can be applied to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the aim of tracing its emotional texture and cuing. With its focal hero, quest, beheading game, Christmas theme, supernaturalism, ritual and Arthurian context, this poem is a mesh of prototypes, symbolic systems, intertexts, generic markers and highly charged representations, to which a great deal of critical attention has been paid. Within all this narrative business is a highly stylized account of one individual’s—somewhat tentative—embodied emotional reactions to a range of exciting and varied events (598).
Although Harbus does not clearly state the core foundation of Gawain’s attributes, there are valid points made about the poem. Harbus’ attempt is to expose the story’s main ideas which lead to the chain of events of Gawain as he exposes his chivalric persona. As Sir Gawain accepts the challenge brought on by the Green Knight, he is forced into a year’s worth of a journey which ultimately leads him to the castle that vehicles the story. In an article titled “The Chivalric Gawain” Leffert asserts, after weeks of traveling in discomfort, exposed to the harsh elements and harsher natives of varying lands, Gawain arrives at Lord Bertilak’s stronghold. Enjoying this welcomed refuge, Gawain meets the residents of the castle, who greet him with gracious welcome, luxurious surroundings, clean clothes, a sumptuous feast, and a warm bed. There, he takes pleasure in his new found companionship and his much longed for mass (19).
Through Gawain’s stay, the castle does not entirely aid Gawain as a shelter, but in fact, it aids him in being able to find the Green Knight, as well as become immensely challenged through the various tests he encounters. Additionally, as the reader reads on, Gawain’s chivalric nature is gradually shown. Leffert continues to expose Gawain’s chivalric essence,
This new state of affairs calls for the practice of the social and religious elements of the Code of Chivalry. As a chivalric knight, Gawain must exhibit courtesy, good manners, a lordly appearance, and courtly love; and he must continue to observe his sacred customs. Gawain meets these demands with varying success. Gawain follows his religious needs—religiously. Always keeping his Lord in mind, Gawain responds to his host’s hearty reception with a prayerful hope: ‘May Christ your pains repay!’ (19).
Gawain’s assertion of his faith has allowed him to continue mirroring his chivalric persona as he pursues to communicate with the characters of the poem. An example of his chivalric nature is seen through the very games that are occupied throughout the tale. The idea of the game composed by the Green Knight indicates the encouragement of chivalry given that it actually tests the worth and honor of the one who volunteers. With the games in mind, it is clear that there is a gradual leading to a great test for the lead character. Additionally, when the lord of the castle, lord Bertilak, develops the game of exchange, Sir Gawain complies with the rules. As the lord would share his winnings through his hunting(s), Sir Gawain would return any prize he was to achieve for that day as well. This leads to the idea that the poem consists of a stronghold of the use of games which symbolizes as a morality check for Gawain.
The Green Knight continually utilizes diversions to survey the valiant ethics of Sir Gawain over the span of the story. The clearest subject in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is amusement playing where the Green Knight includes Sir Gawain in diversions by going about as his host, using his lady, the rewards, and the last test of the Green Chapel meeting. The demonstration of amusement/game playing assumes a basic job by and the large subject of courage. Between the timespan when the story was composed, courage was an essential code to have adopted and lived by. It spoke to the ethical code and the way of life pursued and portrayed by the medieval knights. Chivalry involved various things that depicted one as such. These elements were determination, self-sacrificing, honor, politeness, and loyalty to most. It is obvious that Sir Gawain was faithful as he exhibits his reliability when he acknowledges the test from the Green Knight instead of King Arthur. The Green Knight had tested the court and it was just ruler Arthur who was to pay to attest to the game. However, with Gawain’s intervention, one can note his chivalric nature. This is simply due to the fact that he insists on representing his king by assuming a right-hand role.
Finally, The Dream of the Rood does not only contain vivid Christian elements, yet heroism is depicted through both Christ and the Cross. The representation of Christ in the majority of cases is Christ the incarnated God who was sent to human beings in order to pay our moral debt. Most pictures showcase Christ on the cross as a distressed individual who is entirely consumed of all of mankind’s anguish. However, in The Dream of the Rood, Christ is presented in an entirely different form. The Anglo-Saxons have presented Christ through their traditional lens of heroism. Christ’s magnificence is seen through His acceptance of His journey. He adopts the idea of the cross in a knightly form. For an Anglo-Saxon era, the accurate depiction of a hero is portrayed through blood-shedding-gore of the knightly individual; however, this is not the case for Christ.
One may argue, what makes Christ in The Dream of the Rood any different than other heroes considering that He still experiences death. However, my counterargue is as such: Yes, He is indeed exposed to death; I agree that in the poem, it is not entirely evidential that there is a depiction of war-like battle. Nonetheless, in the poem, Christ is granted to the reader as anything but inconsiderable: “He stripped himself then, young hero – that was God Almighty” (39). Christ is served as a hero from a different lens. He literally “stripped himself” from all that connects Him with Earth. Moreover, the idea that lies with “stripped himself” voices an authoritative character. Additionally, in an article titled “Christ as a Hero in ‘The Dream of the Rood’” Carol Wolf confirms, throughout the crucifixion passage, the Rood- poet uses the traditional language of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry to depict Christ as a hero valiantly engaging in conflict. He emphasizes the Redeemer’s heroism by describing Him as a warrior-lord, explicitly calling Him a young hero (39a), a warrior (42a), and a powerful king (44b). Christ appears, moreover, as the prince (58a) and the illustrious ruler (69a), titles which, as Robert E. Diamond has observed are frequently applied to the heroes of Beowulf. Accordingly, when the Rood- poet uses such phrases to describe Christ he invests Him with the aura surrounding the traditional heroic figure (203).
As Wolf examines, it is unmistakable that Christ is indeed portrayed as a hero in the poem. Through the style of the text, it is also clear that this was composed of a roaringly magnifying manner. Furthermore, the text signal’s Christ’s heroism through His compliance with death; His own death. “Strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows” (40), the poet grants Christ’s character the strength as He constructs the courage to voluntarily climb to His literal death. The eagerness to embrace His death signals the trait of self-sacrifice which immensely magnifies the element of heroism that ties with knightlihood. This also compliments the element of bravery, “He climbed upon the cross brave in the sight of many when he wanted to ransom mankind” (41). The text clearly states bravery as a way to announce to the reader that the persona is continuously maintaining knightlihood.
On the other hand, the personification of the Rood, itself, vehicles the poem by adding to the bravery of the character(s). Although the Cross is merely a solid base for Christ to be attached to, yet the Rood itself also possesses knightly essence. During the course of history, the story of Jesus is solely told from Christ’s journey, almost as if it were from His own point of view and the Cross is silenced throughout. However, through the poem, the Rood is redeemed through its personification. Wolf continues to expose,
Throughout the passage he repeatedly indicates that the cross is indeed the thane of Christ. It does not dare to fall to the earth when Christ ascends it because to do so would be to disobey its lord’s command (35-36a). Like a good thane, the cross would defend the prince but it must again restrain itself because of the master’s word (37b-38). When the apostles come to care for the body of Christ, the cross bows down meekly with great zeal to deliver the corpse into their hands (203).
Wolf’s argument asserts the Rood’s personification is indeed of a knightly nature. Given that the Cross does not “dare…fall to the earth when Christ ascends” / “the cross would defend the prince…” contributes to my idea. He (the Cross), acts as a soldier that does not cry out even when in dire pain of his own.
He does not bend or break despite all that he is experiencing. He is standing firmly in order to (literally) carry through his knightly duty in the battle he has been drafted to: “I dared, still, not bow to earth, / fall to earth’s fields, but had to stand fast. / Rood was I reared. I lifted a Mighty King […] (42-45). With the Rood’s substantial decision, it alerts the reader of the colossal seal of heroism. This is especially true given the reflection of not just exterior strength, but internal strength as well. As it was adequate of disintegrating, yet with its brave choice-making, it held firmly through both Christ’s pain alongside its own pain. This vastly suggests bravery, as well as a sacrifice with, are elements that reflect heroism in an Anglo-Saxon age.
To conclude, the literature of Anglo-Saxon and medieval eras heavily relies on multiple elements that depict a traditional courtly knight. To have been considered part of a courtly knightlihood: humility, bravery, heroism, chivalry, loyalty, as well as respect to others were the foundation. Additionally, the literature of such time heavily relied on Christian elements that served the greatness and grace of a Mighty God. Through the traditional ground of heroism, it was noted that in addition to attaining the mentioned characteristics, one was to be considered a hero through violence and gore. However, the characters/personas of the analyzed texts do not show signs of violence nor gore; but they still attain the valuable characteristics of a knight. The persona of the Canticle of the Sun is not in a battlefield, nor is he carrying any type of weapon, yet he mirrors the adoption of a knight that is a mere guard to his lord’s valuables.
Additionally, as he continues to protect and admire the treasure in which he has called to guard, he is aware that at any moment, death may seek his life. With such a view, the persona of the poem embodies qualification of a Christian knight. On the other hand, although Sir Gawain journeys through to reach the Green Chapel in order to redeem himself, he still exemplifies a gentle and delicate nature. To his human ability, he continues to honor the host of the castle that took him in. He also attempts to fight off physical temptations and holds fast to the code of honor. Finally, The Dream of the Rood depicts two heroes.
The poem exemplifies Christ as a brave hero that willingly climbs to His death. It also portrays the Cross as a soldier of the Lord’s that did not dare to fall during the battle despite its own wounds. The Rood spoke as if it were an elderly wounded veteran that told a story of a warrior that has yet to have an equivalence. All in all, through these texts, one can note knightly ingredients that are planted through a Christian lens.
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