Women's roles in Arthurian literature. Chrétien de Troyes' romance "The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)" and his poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

Seminar Paper, 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Women in The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)
2.1 Guinevere
2.2 Laudine, the Lady of the Fountain
2.3 Lunete

3. Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
3.1. Guinevere
3.2 The Lady
3.3 Morgan Le Fay

4 Conclusion


1. Introduction

In King Arthur’s court represented in Arthurian literature, women play a centrally important role. Not only do they often influence the heroes of such stories in many ways, they even exert a strong influence on the events in the story and thus on the storyline itself.

In the following seminar paper I will elaborate on the roles of women in Arthurian literature. On that account I will concentrate on the medieval romance The Knight with the Lion (Yvain) [1] by the French romance writer Chrétien de Troyes as well as on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Not much is known about the author of Yvain, Chrétien de Troyes, other than that he wrote the five earliest Arthurian romances; some of them for his patroness Eleanor of Aquitaine as well as for her daughter Marie de Champagne. In addition to Yvain, which was written between 1177 and 1181, he produced the romances Erec and Enide, Cligés, The Knight with the Cart (Lancelot) and The Story of the Grail (Perceval). In Yvain he presents to the medieval audience a virtuous Arthurian knight, who, after hearing his cousin Calogrenant tell the queen the abashing tale of his defeat by an extrinsic knight, leaves his King’s court to seek honor and reestablish the pride of his shamefaced cousin as well as his own. Doing that, he kills Esclados the Red and falls deeply in love with Esclados’ mourning wife Laudine when seeing her the first time. Yvain is aided by Laudine’s handmaiden Lunete who hides him from the guards looking for their master’s assassin and talks her mistress into marrying Yvain. Laudine, in fear of having to live with her magic spring unprotected, consents to that idea. She marries Yvain and hereupon grants him a year to escort King Arthur and his fellow knights to go to tournaments and seek adventure.

However, enjoying himself with the other knights at the tourneys Yvain forgets to come back to his lady. Laudine then sends out one of her damsels to tell him that the period of time she has given him has expired and that she does not want to see him again. Subsequently, Yvain is faced with even more adventures, helping out wherever he can and saving damsels in distress to regain his lady in the end.

Similarly, the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also a medieval literary text about one of Arthur’s best knights and nephew, namely Gawain. The poem was written close to the end of the 14th century.[2] Its poet, generally known as the Gawain-poet, probably lived in the Northwest of England, close to Cheshire. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the chivalrous Gawain leaves the Arthurian court to restore the violated courtly norms after a huge, green knight disrupts the festivities at New Year’s and challenges King Arthur to strike him with his own ax. Instead of the King, it is Sir Gawain who severs the Green Knight’s head from his neck with a strong blow. Meaning to keep his promise and to receive a strike by the Green Knight in return the following year, Gawain goes out and, on his quest, is accommodated in Lord Bercilak’s castle. There he meets Bercilak’s wife, who repeatedly tries to seduce the knight. Having agreed on a game with his host, Gawain is obliged to give him everything he managed to gain during his stay in exchange to what his host catches indulging in his daily hunt. Gawain fulfills this deal and each night gives Bercilak the kisses he has obtained from the lord’s wife in exchange to the host’s prey. The third day, though, the lady not only kisses Sir Gawain but also gives him an embroidered green girdle supposed to keep Gawain safe in the upcoming fight with the Green Knight. In the end of that day, the host again delivers his prey. Gawain kisses the lord three times as he has received three kisses from the lady but he keeps the girdle. The following day he leaves his host to look for the Green Chapel and to meet the Green Knight. After a new beheading game, the Green Knight reveals that he is Lord Bercilak.

The whole beheading game was a scheme by Morgan la Faye, present at Bercilak’s court in the form of the old woman escorting the lady. In Bercilak’s opinion, Gawain still is a worthy knight even though he has not exchanged gifts honestly the third night of his stay at the lord’s castle. In the end he returns to King Arthur’s court and is venerated.

In these two pieces of Arthurian literature, the reader encounters different types of women. In the following, I will take a closer look at these women.

2. Women in The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)

2.1 Guinevere

Already in the beginning of Yvain it becomes clear to that women have a certain power to act. It seems as if the knights are not free to decide for themselves what to do. They rather “gathered in the halls at the invitation of ladies, damsels, or maidens.” (Yvain, 2004: 295) This shows that women in the Arthurian court – at least in literature – had an impact on matters concerning social life. Additionally, I would say that the knights’ virtue and courtesy did not permit them to ignore the damsels’ wishes.[3]

Yet a very authoritative and active woman in Chrétien’s Yvain is Queen Guinevere[4]. She appears to be a fairly forceful woman for she is able to detain her husband in bed during a feast at Pentecost.[5] Considering that King Arthur is the host and the head of the company it seems rather impolite of him not to join in the festivities but fall asleep next to his queen. Thus, whereas Guinevere is presented as being an active character, the king, nonetheless, is not.

Also, the queen’s force and potency can be seen when Guinevere even becomes virtuously ambiguous and presses Calogrenant to continue telling the story of his disgrace. Here, the queen’s power at court becomes explicit yet once more. She is the only woman in this social gathering of knights. Her presence influences the knights and shapes the course of their conversation. The men do approve her in their midst. This in turn gives her the power to act and to impact the events. She rebukes Kay who makes fun of Calogrenant because of his story. Nonetheless, after being reprimanded by the queen, Kay reminds her of her role as a woman when saying: “My lady, if we are not better for having your company, […] make sure we are not the worse for it.” (Yvain, 2004: 296)


[1] In the following, I will refer to Chrétien’s The Knight with the Lion (Yvain) with the short title Yvain. All citations and quotes from the text Yvain are taken from “The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)” in William W. Kibler (Ed.) (2004), Arthurian Romances, London, 295-380.)

[2] H. Bergner (1980: 270) appoints the date of the poem’s origin to about 1370, whereas Manfred Markus states in the epilogue to his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1998: 181) that the date of origin could be narrowed down to the period between 1360 and 1395. According to him, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be associated with the bible paraphrases Purity and Patience as well as the alliterative poem Pearl due to similarities in vocabulary and contents and therefore be appointed to that period as well. However, no exact date of origin is known.

[3] Cf. Krueger, 1996: 5.

[4] As there are so many different spellings of the queen’s name, I will in the following term paper refer to her as Guinevere.

[5] Cf. Yvain, 2004: 295.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Women's roles in Arthurian literature. Chrétien de Troyes' romance "The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)" and his poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
“Historical Linguistics and Medieval English Studies“ Proseminar “King Arthur in Medieval England”
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Women, Arthurian, Chrétien, Troyes’, Arthurian, Knight, Lion, Gawain, Green, Knight, Linguistics, Medieval, English, Studies“, Proseminar, Arthur, Medieval, England”
Quote paper
Jessica Schweke (Author), 2006, Women's roles in Arthurian literature. Chrétien de Troyes' romance "The Knight with the Lion (Yvain)" and his poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/66489


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