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Sexual Harassment in Arthurian Legend:  Assaulting Men, Slandering Women


Sexual Harassment in Arthurian Legend:  Assaulting Men, Slandering Women

Zuzu Tadeushuk

This essay won the Maxwell Anderson Award from the RCC Foundation in 2018.

It was written for Medieval Lit H, RCC, November 2017   

    As I write this paper, not a day passes that does not yield a new story about sexual misconduct in the workplace. An October 2017 investigation by the New York Times into Harvey Weinstein’s predatory history raised a floodgate of sorts that had for years suppressed a deluge of sexual harassment accounts so toxic that they could no longer be contained. Though chilling and to a certain degree eye-opening, the stories were not so shocking in content: the weaponization of sex, far from being a new blight, has persisted for centuries, appearing in many of the foundational texts on which modern society rests. These include religious texts, such as the Old Testament, and non-religious texts like the legends of King Arthur, folkloric material which originated in medieval England and France and whose peculiar power and timeless appeal have woven it firmly into the very fabric of Western culture as we know it. Issuing from a variety of sources written over a few centuries, the Arthurian legends feature some of the most grotesque and violent sexual offenses to appear in literature since. According to the Arthurian Vulgate, for example, Merlin’s conception is achieved when one of Satan’s demon’s, hell-bent on begetting a half-human child, kills an entire family to break the “resolve” of one pious daughter, whom he proceeds to rape once she’s fallen, heartsick, to sleep (Story of Merlin 170). In other gruesome sequences, an adolescent Arthur makes love to his half sister without her consent or knowledge (she believes him to be her husband, King Lot), and therewith begets his malevolent son Mordred (Story of Merlin 237), and a similar trick is played on Ygraine by Uther Pendragon in the siring of Arthur himself (204). 

There are, however, subtler, more ambiguous sexual manipulations to be found in these legends, too. These are far less violent and duplicitous than the rapes that produce Merlin, Arthur, and Mordred, and hence can be overshadowed by their grosser counterparts, and overlooked by the romantic reader. The actions of Guinevere in Marie de France’s Lanval and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are examples of such ambiguous sexual confrontations. In each case a lady attempts to elicit sexual intimacy from a knight, and in each case her suit is unsuccessful. Hence it is easy to construe the scenes as instances of frustrated seduction. I contend, however, that the advances which Guinevere makes on Lanval and which Lady Bertilak makes on Gawain constitute legitimate sexual harassment. Furthermore, the very trait which renders the abusive status of these acts so ambiguous also qualifies them for a greater rhetorical purpose. The fact that the forced seductions are committed by women complicates our perception of these sexual transgressions and simultaneously suggests that they are not featured in their respective legends simply for their value as catalytic plot points, or even as a way to denounce sexual misconduct, but rather for their insidious ability to demonize women.


    In seeking to define and identify sexual violence we must appeal to the domain of psychology. Behavioral researchers Barak, Pitterman and Yitzhaki explain that sexual predation cannot be understood without first identifying the assaulter’s motive. They provide an overview of existing theorizations of the role of power differential in determining this motive. The type of power differential to which this study refers, and which I see operative in Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is an “organizational power position (status)” (Barak et al 512), held by only one of a pair of individuals within an insular hierarchy, such as a company, institution, or community. Guinevere evidently occupies an organizational position over Lanval within the hierarchy of Camelot, as she is queen of the land and confidante to Lanval’s overlord. Lady Bertilak, on the other hand, is not ostensibly higher-born than Gawain, who is Arthur’s nephew. Nonetheless she wields more power than Gawain, or the reader, originally suspects, for she is a key player in a conspiracy that the knight is powerless to influence. For one thing, Lady Bertilak occupies a position of domestic power within the ‘organization’ of the Hautdesert household. For another, she acts throughout the poem in consort with a mighty sorceress and a king, thus functioning as a vessel through which is channeled the power, both organizational and physical, of these other figures.


    Additional factors, Barak et al explain, that contribute to determining sexual harassment are known as moderator variables. These are qualitative traits, such as sex, age, race, or marital status, that influence the likelihood of a certain behavioral pattern occurring, and predict under what conditions it is most likely to occur (Baron and Kenny 1174). In the context of Barak et al’s research, the behavior in question is of course sexual harassment. When Barak and his coauthors speak of moderator variables, they are referring to the various traits attached to a victim of a sexual offense. Specifically, they refer to “victim's personal vulnerability and response strategy” as moderator variables that are “thought to have a significant impact on experiences of sexual harassment” (Barak et al 499-500). This suggests that a victim’s sense of violation varies depending on how vulnerable they already are, and on how free they are to reject an assault or out-maneuver their assaulter; to consider alternatives. ‘Personal  vulnerability’ and ‘response strategy’ may be moderator variables that shape the assault experiences of our two knights explicitly: I will show how Lanval, recovering from his unpopularity at court, can be supposed to be ‘personally vulnerable,’ while Gawain, confined as a guest in a complex chivalric quandary, can be seen to struggle with ‘response strategy.’


    The first of these scenarios occurs in Marie de France’s lai Lanval, in which the eponymous character, a knight who is conducting a clandestine affair with a fairy, attracts the notice of Guinevere, queen of Camelot. After observing Lanval from her window, the Queen orchestrates a private audience with the knight and tells him directly of her desire for him. She prefaces her actual proposition with an insinuation of what she perhaps views as her entitlement to Lanval’s compliance, reminding the knight: “I have shown you much honor” (Lanval 263). Lanval’s response to the queen’s solicitation (“My lady, let me be!” 269) would likely not have been heeded if Guinevere had been a man soliciting sexual favors of a woman. It is heeded here, however, as the queen makes no further advances on Lanval; but this does not mean the knight escapes unscathed. Having been rebuffed, Guinevere lashes out at Lanval with a retort that smacks of blackmail: “Lanval, she said, I am sure / you don’t care for such pleasure; / people have often told me / that you have no interest in women. / You have fine-looking boys / with whom you enjoy yourself…my lord made a bad mistake / when he let you stay with him” (276-85). These dual insinuations of homosexuality, and more pointedly of pedophilia, amount to what is doubtless a most damning accusation from the lips of a queen. The possibility that such “noise” might get around Camelot, or jeopardize Lanval’s favor with Arthur, cannot be appealing to the knight, who has only recently gained popularity among the knights of the Round Table (and who may be willing to do anything to keep this popularity). Additionally, in observing that Arthur “made a bad mistake when he let” Lanval serve him, the queen reminds Lanval that he enjoys a position at court which the King might easily revoke, perhaps even at the queen’s behest. Wounded and menacing, Guinevere can thus be seen undertaking to bully Lanval into submission. 


    Such an undertaking is almost unnecessary, however. Lanval’s outcast past is a factor that could itself so destabilize the knight to social pressure as to render any blackmail on Guinevere’s part superfluous. Lanval’s history of isolation and poverty, which may be seen to correspond with Barak et al’s “personal vulnerability,” singles the knight out as an easy target for manipulation. It is observed of Lanval at the start of the lai that “Arthur forgot him, / and none of his men favored him either” (Lanval 19-20). Aside from making him “depressed and very worried” (34), this also means Lanval is financially stressed, “for the king gave him nothing” (31). But when Lanval receives riches from his enchantress lover and generously shares them with “stranger and friend” alike (213), he comes into sudden esteem among his fellow knights and things seem to be going his way at last. Lingering psychological patterns, however, like an inferiority complex or social insecurity, could render Lanval thrall to the slightest display of approval or interest on the parts of his superiors. Guinevere’s bullying does not explicitly mine this vulnerability, but the changeable nature of Lanval’s status is one of the defining traits of this lai, and could be seen as defining the man, too, and informing his actions and interactions. Uncharacteristically, then, this agglomeration of circumstances allots to a female the capacity to coerce and take advantage.


    Lanval, however, does not yield to his temptress, even after Guinevere levels such accusations at him. Instead, in a heated defense of his heterosexuality, the knight informs the queen that he has a mistress of such beauty and refinement that “any one of those who serve her, / the poorest girl of all, / is better than you, my lady queen” (298-300). In so exposing his mistress, Lanval betrays her, and quickly comes to regret it. This reply gains him only a court date and a pending death penalty, on the fabricated grounds that he propositioned the queen: “the men the king sent / arrived and told [Lanval] / to appear in court without delay: / the king had summoned him / because the queen had accused him” (352-56). In court, Lanval denies having made advances to Guinevere, but admits to insulting her, and when Arthur’s barons withdraw to determine a verdict they exhibit a pragmatic inclination to please the king on whose protection they rely:

“many wanted to condemn [Lanval] / in order to satisfy their lord. / The Duke of Cornwall said: / ‘No one can blame us; / whether it makes you weep or sing / justice must be carried out. / The king spoke against…Lanval; / he accused him of felony, / charged him with a misdeed— / a love that he had boasted of, / which made the queen angry. No one but the king accused him…if one were to speak the truth, / there should have been no need for defense, / except that a man owes his lord honor / in every circumstance.” (431-48) 

It is not, of course, true that “no one but the king accused” Lanval, for it is the queen who has supplied Arthur with his defamatory material on the knight. The capacity of the queen to manipulate her victim is thus further demonstrated, to a sinister degree. After bringing a romantic suit to him, she now brings a legal suit against him, leveraging her status as queen not only to place Lanval’s life in the balance, but to ensure that the barons who settle Lanval’s case will feel predisposed to favor her, and hence unwittingly to advance Guinevere in her crusade for retribution. 


    Perhaps the legitimacy accorded to Guinevere’s accusations is also due to the fact that the queen’s inverted version of events is more believable in many ways than the truth is. Indeed, women more often find themselves in the place of sexual victim than do men, as it is typically women who hold positions of lower power than men in physical or organizational frameworks. This comprises a typology that Guinevere is shrewd enough to tap into with her accusation: though the queen’s femininity proves a disadvantage to her in the majority of Arthurian legend, overriding her royalty in the eyes of narrators and fellow characters alike, perhaps here it works to her advantage. For Guinevere uses her femaleness, and the perceived inability of a fair damsel to pose any legitimate threat to a knight, to nearly bring about Lanval’s demise. 


    A second instance of female sexual predation occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while Gawain is staying at Bertilak’s castle. The hero is on his way to deliver himself to the dreaded Green Knight and is unaware that his host and his nemesis are one and the same. On the last three mornings of Gawain's sojourn at Hautdesert, Bertilak’s wife creeps “most quietly and craftily” (SGGK 1188) into Gawain’s bedchamber after her husband has gone out to hunt. She watches the knight until he wakes, then proceeds to flirt with and flatter him, and Gawain, recently come into this region and this company, is uncertain what to make of it. When he first spies her entering, “the knight felt nervous” (1189), and feigns sleep to buy himself time to “turn over in his mind…where the lady’s unlikely visit might lead” (1196-97). With her first words to Gawain when he opens his eyes, Lady Bertilak makes clear that wherever her visit does lead, she is definitively at the helm this morning. “You’re tricked and trapped!” she begins, “But let’s make a truce, / or I’ll bind you in your bed, and you’d better believe me” (1210-11). When Gawain begs to rise and dress, the lady responds “Not so, beautiful sir…Bide in your bed—my own plan is better. / I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner, / then playfully parley with the man I have pinned” (1222-25). Such injunctions make use of the imagery of combat (trap, truce, parley, pin), and, despite being delivered by a Medieval lady, exude dominance. Gawain and Lady Bertilak banter back and forth, he “graciously…on guard” (1282) and she undaunted and persistent, until at last she arrives at her proposition, “you’re free to have my all, / do with me what you will. / I’ll come just as you call / and swear to serve you well” (1237-40), and he “counters [her] case by case” (1262). Lady Bertilak repeats these visits to his bed on the following two mornings, but only ever succeeds in compelling Gawain to accept from her a series of courtly (albeit ardent) kisses, and an enchanted girdle. 

    While the language of Lady Bertilak’s actual proposition is no longer that of dominance (“do with me what you will”), and while she poses little physical threat to the expert knight Gawain is known to be, Bertilak’s wife yet exercises one formidable power over Gawain: she is a lady, and his host, and both of these dictate that the knight must show her utmost respect and even devotion. Lady Bertilak overtly exploits these positions. She abuses her rights as hostess when she presumes to enter the chamber, and even the bed, which she has lent to her trusting guest, and which she might ostensibly rescind if her good will were for some reason to sour. And she abuses her entitlement, as a woman in the tradition of courtly love, to a warrior’s flattery and adulation when she offers Gawain “her all.”  


    Lee Tobin McClain writes of the harrowing demands of Medieval chivalric code. He explains that 

“Gawain's symbolic pentangle showcases the impossibly conflicting rules faced by chivalric knights who must be outwardly courteous and inwardly dedicated to religious values…Gawain must be chaste to maintain his religious values and do right by his host, whose wife tries to seduce him; but he must also be courteous which means he may not reject her openly.” (195)

We see this paradox operating in Gawain’s circuitous and contorted efforts to extricate himself from his predicament, and thwarting him at every turn. It is in the name of chivalry that Lady Bertilak first obliges Gawain to kiss her: she remarks that “‘a good man…the embodiment of courtliness…could never have lingered so long with a lady / without craving a kiss, as politeness requires’” (SGGK 1297-1300). And although Gawain is frequently “maddened and amazed” at her gall, he submits to her flirtation because “his breeding forbade him rebuking a lady” (1660-61). Ultimately this cultural cynosure of politeness nearly forces Gawain to yield his body to Lady Bertilak, and this fact is nowhere more evident than in the remark that the “princess pushed him and pressed him, / nudged him ever nearer to a limit where he needed / to allow her love or impolitely reject it” (1770-72). Is there a double entendre in this “pushing and pressing,” another sense to this “limit”? Whether her pressure of Gawain was purely verbal or involved physical contact, the knight somehow succeeds in “tiptoe[ing] through this tortuous situation in fine courtly style” (McClain 194) and evading his hostess’ ardor.


    Like Lanval, however, Gawain does not leave this encounter unscathed. McClain explains that the contradictory nature of the code of chivalry “can cause the breakdown of an individual who tries to meet all [its] demands perfectly” (194). Later in the story we do indeed witness Gawain’s “breakdown” when he is informed of the test his hosts have put him to. At this juncture his ‘cowardly’ acceptance and concealment of the enchanted girdle is revealed. Mortified, Gawain dramatically labels the episode “my downfall and undoing,” lamenting that “dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts / meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot / the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow. / And now I am found to be flawed and false, / through treachery and untruth I have totally failed” (2378-83). Until this point in the tale Gawain has acted with unwavering transparency and sincerity; the drama of green girdle, a symptom of his confrontation with his hostess, indelibly taints this record. The chivalric code can thus be understood as a hindrance to Gawain’s free will, and the primary advantage that Lady Bertilak weaponizes in pressuring the knight to yield his body to her. It can also be viewed as the moderator variable of “response strategy”: by drastically limiting the knight’s potential responses to his assaulter, chivalric code amplifies Gawain’s experience of a sexual advance he could physically have warded off with ease.


    Such detailed inspection, then, reveals these two scenarios to be fairly straight-forward instances of sexual manipulation via the abuse of an organizational power differential. Their appearance in Arthurian literature serves to assert the oft-overlooked brutality embedded in the very same culture that devised courtly love. As one scholar put it, “the erotic and aggressive impulses in human nature…provide the primary motivation for most behavior in all the best and most characteristic Medieval romances” (Mandel 243), and these two scenes of fraught sexual confrontation provide perhaps one of the most vivid intersections of the aggressive and truly erotic impulses to be found in the legends of Arthur. 


    These particular scenarios also, however, play a strategic and misogynistic role in their respective tales. This becomes clear when we examine what unfolds after the knights are pressured for sex. Like most victims of sexual harassment, Lanval and Gawain sustain emotional damage in their encounters with sexual predators. Unlike standard assault victims, however, the knights’ specific complaints have little to do with the actual overtures they are submitted to. Lanval suffers over his betrayal of his supernatural lover and fear of losing her, and Gawain over his shame concerning the girdle. Far from originating in the sexual propositions, the knights’ respective regrets stem instead from steps the knights take themselves after they have been propositioned, steps they take in response to being propositioned. The knight’s woes spring from the fact that they each break a promise which comprises the premise and fundamental tension of these two Arthurian poems. Simply put, Lanval would not have suffered the anguish he suffers after his encounter with Guinevere had he not impulsively revealed the existence of his lover. The disclosure constituted Lanval’s earnest attempt to defend himself, but it also constituted a violation of his vow to his mistress that he would at all costs conceal their relationship. This betrayal seems to cause Lanval more distress than the fact that Guinevere goes on to litigate for his life: before he is notified of the queen’s accusations against him, Lanval “called on his love, again and again, / but it did him no good…from time to time he fainted; / then he cried a hundred times for her to have mercy / and speak to her love. / He cursed his heart and his mouth; / it’s a wonder he didn’t kill himself” (Lanval 339-346). Likewise, Gawain would not have suffered the bitter shame brought on by the discovery of the green girdle on his person had he not succumbed to reasonable fear of the Green Knight’s axe. When he accepted a safeguard to his life, he also consented to conceal this safeguard from his host, thus violating the terms of their arrangement to exchange their winnings at the end of each day that Gawain stayed with them. 


    Hence, the one by revealing, and the other by concealing violate the agreements they have sworn to honor. This violation has the potential to deprive the knights of happiness and honor, but also of their very lives. For while Lanval faces death as retribution for refusing his seductress, Gawain will face death if he submits to his seductress. The “game” which Bertilak proposes he and Gawain play during the knight’s stay at Hautdesert appears to be a straightforward trial of Gawain’s honor, a test to see if the famed knight will honestly disclose the gifts he receives while Bertilak is out hunting. We eventually discover, however, that Gawain is unwittingly defending not only his name but his neck as well when he proves at the end of each day that he has remained chaste. After the reckoning at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight explains to Gawain that his three failed swipes at Gawain’s neck reflected the three mornings that the knight was wooed by Lady Bertilak and accepted, for the most part, nothing from her. The Green Knight asserts that this “was only fair / in keeping with the contract we declared that first night…twice you were truthful, therefore twice I left no scar… The third time, though, you strayed / and felt my blade therefore” (SGGK 2346-57). This suggests that had Gawain accepted more from his temptress than a girdle he would have received more from the Green Knight than a nick under the ear.


    Though the ladies’ advances catalyze this disintegration of the knights’ certain and ordered existence, this is not equivalent to saying that they cause it. As we have seen, the distress experienced by Lanval and Gawain originated from the knights’ own hasty judgements. The ladies who assault these men, however, have already been demonstrated to be deceitful and manipulative characters, and hence it is all too easy to assign them all the guilt. This is exactly what these texts go on to do. When Lanval’s mistress arrives in court to exonerate the knight, she declares “I don’t want [Lanval] to suffer / for what he said. You should know / that the queen was in the wrong” (Lanval 618-20). In this statement the enchantress, like the narrator, effects a partial dislocation of guilt from its proper source. If we can safely assume that Lanval suffers primarily from his belief “that he’d lost his love” (Lanval 335), and that this belief causes him such sorrow that “they could have killed him, for all he cared” (358), it naturally follows that primarily responsible for this suffering is the knight himself. Lanval alone made the disclosure he now so rues, in a defense of his pride which he could perhaps have achieved by means of a more prudent argument. 


     For his part, Gawain, when he discovers the trick Lady Bertilak has played on him, wastes no time in dislocating guilt for his acceptance of the girdle to the woman who offered it to him. After initially rueing his own “cowardly doubts” (SGGK 2379), Gawain’s tone changes and he starts blaming his embarrassment on

“womanly guile— / it’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman, / and Solomon because of several, and as for Samson, / Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David / was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief. All wrecked and ruined by their wrongs; if only / we could love our ladies without believing their lies.” (2415-21) 

Here we see precious page space (imagine a scribe laboriously taking quill to velum for a sense of just how precious) given over to the condemnation of all manner of women who have deceived men. We see an extreme reaction to a moderate assault. As if to make this extreme reaction more credible, it is revealed that the Green Knight and his wife were put to their duplicity, most conveniently, by another woman: “Morgan le Fay, / so adept and adroit in the dark arts…guided me” (2446-56). By casting women in the positions both of mastermind and instrument of this scheme, the author assists Gawain in all the more easily ensnaring the entire female sex in the culpability, ultimately, of one spiteful sorceress.   


     Taking this misallocation of guilt into consideration, the way things work out for the knights post-assault might be seen as an attempt to frame women for corrupting men; a continuation of the tradition, originated in Genesis’s Eve, of vilifying feminine morality. This misogynistic enterprise places Guinevere and Lady Bertilak in the company of numerous other Arthurian women who are yoked to villainous roles in numerous other Arthurian legends, including Bisclavret’s wife, who tricks her husband into living as a werewolf, and the Lady of the Lake, who woos Merlin with the purpose of trapping him in a tomb, where she abandons the wizard to die (Post Vulgate 247). 


     Perhaps the unique danger of the two poems at hand, however, lies in the distressingly plausible nature of the offenses which Guinevere and Lady Bertilak perpetrate. Unlike werewolf heists and dark love spells, sexual harassment is all too real. It is especially real to the modern reader, in the current context of the #metoo movement. Sexual harassment is a crime that should not be made light of, whether you’re a big shot movie producer in the twenty-first century or a fictitious noblewoman in the Middle Ages. And hence the poets of Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are initially justified in their ridicule of these ladies. This initial consonance, however, makes it much harder to detect the subsequent inconsonance, harder to tell exactly when the severity of the condemnation begins to outweigh the severity of the crime. For it is precisely in the crossing of this threshold, the tilting of this balance, that Guinevere and Lady Bertilak are transformed into tools for projecting slander and infamy onto all womankind. We as readers are responsible for recognizing this threshold, and taking care not to let our credence follow the narrators’ hurtling logic over it. For, just as the assaulted knights ought to own responsibility for the errors they make, the ladies who woo them are answerable only for their own transgressions, and not for any one else’s, whether man or woman, Biblical or contemporary. That is their limitation; it is their deliverance, too. 



Original watercolor, December 2017


Works Cited:

Barak, Azy, Yael Pitterman and Rivi Yitzhaki. “An Empirical Test of the Role of Power Differential in Originating Sexual Harassment.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 17, no.4, Dec. 1995, pp. 497-517. EBSCOhost,

Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. “The Moderator-Mediator Variable Distinction in Social Psychological Research: Conceptual, Strategic, and Statistical Considerations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1986. pp. 1173-1182.

Lanval. Marie de France. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante,The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 154-67.

Mandel, Jerome. "Constraint and Motivation in Malory's 'Lancelot and Elaine'." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 20, no. 3, 1984, pp. 243-258. EBSCOhost,        url=                                direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1984024270&site=ehost-live.

McClain, Lee Tobin. "Gender Anxiety in Arthurian Romance." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science     Fiction and Fantasy, vol. 38, no. 3, 1997, pp. 193-199. EBSCOhost,        direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1997065956&site=ehost-live.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Simon Armitage, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 186-238.

The Post Vulgate, Part 1: The Merlin Continuation. Trans. Martha Asher, in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, Gen. Ed., vol. 4, Garland, 1996, pp. 246-248.

The Story of Merlin. Trans. by Rupert T. Pickens in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, Gen. Ed., vol. 1, Garland, 1993, pp. 167-172, 237-38.