Sexuality, Love, and Loyalty:
Sir Gowther as Secular Romance
'Romance' has become the accepted antonym of 'realism', and we accordingly tend to define romance in terms of what is not true: much killing of dragons and giants by knights in shining armour. Those elements are of course there, but it is tempting to emphasize them to a degree that makes us overlook just how closely much Middle English romance connects with real life. (Cooper 13)
And so it is with Sir Gowther. Though the tale is of a man sired by a fiend, once the focus on demonic presence is bracketed real life issues emerge: marital, familial and social relationships; heirs and succession; poverty; barrenness; rape; and unwanted pregnancy and/or children, including those with severe behavioral problems (an understatement in Gowther's case) which might lead to abandonment or infanticide. Like demonic impregnation, which is couched in clerical authority in Sir Gowther, most of these issues were of concern to theologians, but as Cartlidge notes, the audience was "likely to be vernacular, non-clerical and unused to the frankness of intellectual theology" (Cartlidge 139). He imagines it as "considerably less uniform in its education or expectations than a clerical audience would have been" (Ibid. 142).
Audience reconstruction is, of course, always conjectural, but it is easy to see members of the lower aristocracy, gentry, middling ranks, rising bourgeoisie, and mercantile and laboring classes who, while believing in demons and miracles, might have only passing interest in the theological aspects of the tale that attract modern critics. As likely, while being entertained they would also relate to situations with which they were familiar and that may have touched their lives. The emphasis in this paper is on the overarching themes of sexuality, love and loyalty that encompass and interweave the plot elements of the poem. Though framed within the supernatural, Sir Gowther is also bound up with responses to life's exigencies and realities.
A concentration on the preternatural and theological elements of Sir Gowther can overshadow characters, who become stick figures propping up the plot rather than people in human situations. Historical research is invaluable in understanding the society in which literature is created and thus aids critical interpretation, but poets can enhance supporting data by telling us about people's values, beliefs, hopes and fears, customs, and other components that comprise everyday life. Assuming that romance, like most literature, reflects the concerns, views and experiences of the audience, at least as perceived by the poet, then Sir Gowther touches on matters that would resonate within the culture, and the currency of those themes is reflected in a number of other romances of the period.
Defining the romance genre or mode is notoriously slippery, and Sir Gowther is especially so. The poem, which tells of a man begotten by a devil then raised to sainthood through extraordinary penance, is seen as homiletic, exemplary and penitential romance, secular legend and secular hagiography, though not without debate.1 The poem is preserved in two manuscripts, the British Library Royal MS and the National Library of Scotland MS Advocates. There are textual differences between the two, and interpretation of the chivalric and hagiographic elements greatly depends on the version studied. Here the poem is placed along with popular romances in which ferly (wondrous) events occur but usually act as catalyst for the exploration and testing of social values and norms that dictate human behavior. To that end, the Advocates version2 is used in agreement with Vandelinde's opinion that it "takes a much earthier and more secular approach to the tale," while the Royal version "focuses on the spiritual and religious elements" (Vandelinde 139). Because Sir Gowther may not be familiar to all, the essay follows the structure of the poem, beginning with marital and sexual relations3 .
Many, if not most, romances end with blissful unions, though usually after trials and tribulations, and are often long-lived and sometimes exceptionally fertile. Havelok and Goldeboru, whose "love was ay newe" (Havelok 2974) were married for sixty years and had fifteen children, all of whom became kings or queens. The Erle of Tolous and Beulybon also had fifteen children during the twenty-three years they led together "wyth joye and myrthe" (Erle of Tolous 1214).
Such conventional denouements may seem to contradict the thesis that romances "come close to real life," but wish fulfillment provides momentary relief and illusory resolution to realistic problems that plague relationships, which also appear in romances. Goldeboru is miserable in her forced marriage to Havelok and loves him only after she discovers his royal status. In Ywain and Gawain, Alundyne marries Ywain out of political expediency; he proves faithless and, though rehabilitated, he is reunited with the unwitting and unwilling Alundyne through trickery. In Sir Amadace, the impoverished knight marries for money and position. In Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, Walter marries to produce an heir,4 as does Guroun in Lay le Freine. Gawain marries Dame Ragnell to save the king's life out of loyalty in The Weddyng of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell. In the Breton lay portion of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, the rapist also marries to save a life—his own—and in the Prologue to her tale, the Wife proves that marriage can be less than idyllic.
Despite the Wife's spirited but conflicted marital career, doubtless many others had happy unions. But although love is a component at some point in the above literary samples as in life, it is not a guarantee for success in the personal, social and legal complexities of relationships and marriage, including the thorny subject of sexuality.
Medieval romances, lyrics and other narrative forms are full of sexuality, from marital to illicit, sublime to raunchy. There are some lovely bedroom scenes, like the wedding night of Gawain5 and Dame Ragnell (after she amazingly turns from hag to beauty when released unwittingly by Gawain from a spell):
"Kysse me, syr Knyght, evyn now here!
I pray the be glad and make good chere,
For well is me begon!"
Ther they made joye oute of mynde,
(So was itt reason and cours of kynde)
They two theymself alone.
The Weddyng of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell (703-08)
"Kiss me, Sir Knight, here and now! I pray you be glad and smile happily, for I am fortunate!" There they made unsurpassed joy (as it was reasonable and natural), the two of them alone.
Procreation, payment of the marital debt, avoidance of fornication, and sexual pleasure, the four motives commonly recognized for marital sex in the fourteenth century, had been the topic of many theological views and arguments for centuries. The authorities differed on the place of sex in marriage and the degree of sinfulness, if any, attached to the act. Fourteenth-century attitudes had passed through Jerome, Augustine, and Lombard (Spisak 15-16). The opinions of theologians, canonists, and moralists regarding the sexual act ranged from it being natural and healthful to dangerous and damning, the weight generally falling to the latter. But as confirmed by the oft-quoted observation with which the Wife of Bath opens the Prologue to her tale, there was a difference between auctoritee and experience, and sex, like life, went on.
The lusty Wife is available "bothe eve and morwe" when any of her husbands want to "come forth and paye his dette" (ProWBT 152-53), and she works them until they cry "Weilawey!" (216). A bit farther up the social scale, Dame Ragnell, in her hag form, expresses the commonly held expectation that her husband pay his marriage debt (which applied to both partners):
"Shewe me your cortesy in bed—
With ryght itt may nott be denyed!
Iwyse, Syr Gawen," that lady sayd,
"And I were fayre ye wold do anoder brayd—
The Weddyng of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell (630-33)
"Show me your courtesy in bed—it may not be rightfully denied! I know, Sir Gawain," the lady said, "if I were fair you would act differently."
Some authorities conceded that there were marriages based on love, and saw "marital affection" as well as conjugal debt as part of a relationship. But the sexual act itself, both marital and nonmarital, was generally viewed as highly problematic, and moralists' disapprobation focused on lust and passion, seemingly disconnected from love. Ecclesiastical and civil courts attempted to regulate sexual behavior through penalties and punishment. A number of scholars examine the representation of legal theory and practice in the literature and find that poets were often well informed. The intersections between reality and literature are not always harmonious, but viewing fictive actions through the lens of pragmatic consequences connects experience with cultural attitudes and expectations.
Love was not always noble in literature or in life, and the ultimate degradation was rape, which created sexual and social disorder, particularly for virgins; loss of value as a marriageable commodity was considered property theft due to the loss of dowry and potential marital position. The literature reflects the severity with which the crime was viewed. Athelwold, who kept "gode laws" ("good laws"; Havelok 28) in "are-dawes" ("bygone days"; 27) soon castrated whoever "dide maydne shame / Of hire bodi, or brouth in blame" ("shamed a maiden's body or brought her dishonor"; 83-84) against her will. In the Wife of Bath's Tale, the "lusty bacheler" (883) who had taken a young woman's maidenhead "by verray force" (888) was condemned by law to lose his head.
Saunders sees these punishments as reinforcement of the ideal that "the safety of women in the kingdom is the mark of law and order, and of a good ruler" (Rape 75). The death sentence decreed in the romances was one of many possibilities, including excommunication, exile, and mutilation (though this was generally fading by the end of the thirteenth century), down to fines and compensation to a victim or her family. Depending on the court and circumstances, institutional regulations and their application did not always accord, freighted with ambiguous legal definitions and terminology, complex procedures and rules of evidence, and class-related pressures, and the poets may be criticizing the failure of the courts to prosecute and punish rapists more vigorously.
This small sampling across the culture and literature supports the inclusion of Sir Gowther in the discourse of attitudes and representations expressed in secular romance. While it is true that "the narrative treatment of sexuality and will in Sir Gowther is rooted in the thought of the time" regarding rape by a demonic figure, the poem's "powerful and resonant narrative structure" rests not only on the notion of rape as suggested by Saunders (Questions 300), but equally on the effects of sexuality, love, and loyalty on the individual and society.
The first character introduced in Sir Gowther is the "fowle fende" ("foul fiend"; 4) who is able to take on human form and impregnate women in the guise of their husbands, which is a "selcowgh thyng" ("wondrous thing"; 13) to hear. The early promise to the audience of a tale of marvels is conventional, but in Sir Gowther it is also a prelude to the corruption of the sanctity of marital relations and pre-marital chastity. Such acts cause women "so mikel wo" ("great woe"; 11), like Gowther's mother, and there are many peripheral victims as the consequences reverberate outward.
But the first characters we actually meet are the duke and duchess, prefaced by brief descriptions of them and their childless and thus disintegrating relationship. The motivation for their marriage is not given and while it could have been a love match, quite possibly it was the need for an heir. In the Advocates the focus on the duke's prospective bride is her beauty; there was "non hur lyke, / For comly under kell" ("none so beautiful"; 32-33). In the Middle English Dictionary, kell is glossed as "headdress," and "?cloak." If the latter is used, the conventional description becomes slightly suggestive of sexual appeal and fertile production, while at the same time she is likened to the lily and rose (34-35), standard virginal qualities. In the Royal there is a similar confluence of earthly and ethereal, of fair "flessch and felle" ("a lovely body"; R 33), and the "lyly" (R 34). In addition she is "nobil and riche" (R 32) which, combined with her comeliness and chastity, makes her a most suitable candidate for duchess.
Selection of a proper wife to ensure an heir of appropriate rank on both sides often dictated marriage. The lord is frequently pressed by his barons,6 as in Lay le Freine when Guroun's magnates convince him to give up his beloved and virtuous mistress, whose noble birth is unknown to all (including her), in order to wed a woman of aristocratic lineage. In the Clerk's Tale, Walter's people beg him to marry, for should he die they would be subject to a "straunge successour" (138), which would cause them woe. They offer to find a bride of proper lineage, but he shocks them by choosing a poor peasant girl; she proves worthy, but not without torturous testing by her husband.
In Sir Gowther, the duke and duchess had been happily married for ten years and presumably engaging in sexual relations or she would not have been suspected of being barren although, as Jewell observes, "it is impossible to tell whether childlessness was the start of the discontent in some childless marriages, or the product of it" (141). He appears to love her, for when telling her they must part "for gretyng he con not blyn" ("he could not stop weeping"; 57). In the Royal version it is the duchess who weeps (R 60), which makes the duke seem rather cold. Nevertheless, he feels he must protect his lands and lordship through legitimate succession, a pragmatic matter for the aristocracy. At the magnate level, such as duke, lands held directly from the king could revert to the crown for redisposition upon the lord's death, or even during his lifetime, through a variety of means.7 So the duke's worry over securing succession is justified, as is his wife's fear of losing her husband and position.
The duke's presumed ability to replace his wife may have been clear to a medieval audience, since sexual behavior and marriage accounted for the majority of local ecclesiastical tribunal case loads, and marriage and divorce were the leading types of civil action at the intermediate level of the judicial hierarchy of the church courts (Brundage 481).8 But it is somewhat puzzling to the modern reader. Though scholars use the word "divorce," its modern sense does not apply to medieval law or custom. Dissolution of marriage that allowed remarriage to another person could be claimed on the grounds of a technical flaw in the marriage, such as an existing previous marriage, forced marriage, or consanguinity. More often the marriage was not nullified but the couple could live apart when the marriage failed due to irreconcilable incompatibility.9 Depending on the circumstances, either separation or dissolution might be granted in cases of extreme cruelty. The same is true of impotence. While male sexual dysfunction could in some cases be proven physically (through a rather bizarre process) and was thus a valid basis for annulment, a woman's infertility could not, so barrenness generally did not constitute grounds. However, it could "have been a motive for seeking extrication from a marriage" (Jewell 141)10 through means such as making claim of a prior marriage, obtaining a groundless nullity or separation through a lenient court or, rarely, a false divorce through corrupt courts (Brundage 509).11
The duchess sees the threat of divorce as very real, and in response she prays to God and Mary for a child, "on what maner scho ne roghth" ("she didn't care by what manner"; 63). Her prayer is usually seen as careless, which implies failure to consider the consequences. It can also be viewed as reckless, made without care about the consequences. Likely, the devil's response to her prayer was not one of her expectations; perhaps she hoped for a miraculous cure of her (or the duke's) sterility or the fortuitous appearance of a noble foundling. The presentation of an heir might happen through more pragmatic means, like adoption, which did not formally exist but occurred, or even the purchase of a child to serve as heir, though the practice was condemned by the church. Discrete adultery would be risky and the child still illegitimate, but at least human.
But her prayer opens the door to the fiend, who appears as the duke and has his "wyll" (69) with her, which is a form of rape and an offense against legitimate marital sex. In the introduction to their edition of Sir Gowther, Laskaya and Salisbury focus on folk motifs, including the Wish Child/Devil's Contract. They observe that popular ideology expressed in folk narratives "often places enormous emphasis on familial relations and the politics of domestic life as well as the concerns of the larger community" (Laskaya and Salisbury 265), and these social spheres are devastatingly impacted by the duchess's irreverent wish.
The Gowther-poet's handling of the prayer and conception is one of several redactions he made to the basic tale, Robert the Devil, which has been retold in many languages over centuries. McCoy compares six versions, including the two earliest extant versions, the Old French Robert le Diable, one thirteenth and one late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, and Sir Gowther in her study of changing attitudes towards human sexuality reflected in the tales. In the two French versions, the duchess appeals first to God, then to the devil in anger and rebellion against God.12 The child's conception is empowered by the devil during acts of excessive lust, disorder and violence, and "the degree of violent passion determines the degree of guilt" (McCoy 32), which reflects the theological debate over the sinfulness of sexuality.
In Sir Gowther, the duchess does not pray to the devil, but he intervenes on his own. Though the duchess consents, she would not have submitted had she known it was not her husband, which makes her a victim of rape, but not guilty of adultery since she believed she was having sex with the duke. The complex and fluid theories and laws regarding intercourse varied on the sinfulness of sexual pleasure, though it was believed to be necessary for the woman to release her seed and conceive. In McCoy's view, the fiend is individualized, and his direct intercourse with the lady enables the audience to "differentiate between an evil associated with the sexual act and the specific act of copulation with the Devil." This leaves the duchess guiltless when, at the end of the tale, she marries the earl whom Gowther names as heir to his dukedom (McCoy 38). However, the cynic or realist might construe that union as a political strategy to validate the succession and/or guilty reparation for the marriages Gowther had ruined.
McCoy concludes that "sexuality is not a problem" in the fourteenth century unless the devil makes it so (38), though we see immediately that sexuality is a problem in Sir Gowther, even without the devil's help. Though the tale's events seem to be initiated by the fiend's rape of the duchess, it could be argued that the tragedy that propels the rest of the story is precipitated by the duke's rejection of his wife. Or, more strongly, her desperation that drives her to pray for a child by any means possible, and her deceitful seduction of the duke. Rather than shaping only the beginning of the tale, these initial events persist as the backdrop to Gowther's experience and development.
The duchess is faced with a dilemma when she learns she has been impregnated by a "felturd fende" ("shaggy fiend"; 71) and will bear a wild child. She is already in a precarious position, so the truth would probably not advance her case, and even then they would have to decide what to do with such a child. Infanticide would be one possibility, which was sometimes motivated by the belief that a child could be a changeling, or the offspring of the devil. Abandonment, as occurs in Lay le Freine and Sir Degaré, would be another option though, like infanticide and abortion, it theoretically would carry penalties, which could range from excommunication to the more likely penance13 and would inflict hapless victims with the problem, as would exile. Imprisonment would be futile, given Gowther's nature as later revealed.
The duchess decides to bear and raise the child, perhaps hoping it will not be as predicted by the fiend. Saunders muses that the woman may have hoped the demon was half-angelic, a notion based on Arthurian histories and theological suggestion (Questions 295-96), though it is much more likely that the duchess is desperate to retain her marriage and status. The unholy deceit she invents to seduce her husband by telling him an angel has foretold the conception of an heir breaks the bonds of marital trouthe and perpetuates the corruption of sexuality engendered by the fiend.
As far as the duke knows, their intercourse that night is for the purpose of procreation that will end their "stryfe" (85). But as he "pleyd hym with that ladé hende," ("played with that gracious lady"; 91), she knows she will be carrying the fiend's child, which she keeps secret and allows everyone to believe that the child is the duke's son. Trouble starts immediately when the baby kills nine wetnurses in a year with his violent sucking, and nearly kills his mother the same way.14 The breast is associated with the related aspects of sexuality and maternity, and the infant Gowther assaults both with presumably unintentional force that he will later intentionally direct. Further, the seeds of social strife are set early, as the knights of the country collectively refuse to supply any more wetnurses for fear of losing their wives.
The boy grows phenomenally rapidly and to great strength and terrifies the people with the sword he makes. Whether out of love or fear, the duke does not chastise Gowther; despite the boy's savagery, he makes him a knight, perhaps out of chivalric duty or, as many have suggested, hoping it will ennoble him.15 But Gowther remains uncontrollable, and the duke dies of sorrow; though his mother "mor sorro for hym sche myght have non" ("could not have had more sorrow for him"; 154), she flees and hides from her son. Gowther then becomes duke, a most unfit lord. The separation between lord and vassals is dramatized by the old earl who confronts Gowther on behalf of the people with the charge of demonic parentage. Undoubtedly one of the duke's magnates and perhaps counselors, he bravely continues that role and responsibility despite the risk in order to protect the frightened populace.
The doughty, noble knights who had celebrated the marriage of the duke and duchess with feasting and jousting now run from their new lord and curse "that ever modur him fed" ("that his mother ever fed him"; 162). No one is safe from his murderous rampages, and although he has been christened, he rejects the church and loves to victimize religious of all types: friars, parsons, priests and hermits. His most abominable crime is the raping and burning of a convent of nuns in their church.16 Like his biological father, he violates marital bonds by raping wives and killing their husbands, and destroys young women's chances for marriage by taking their virginity. He sets fire to widows, who are exceedingly vulnerable and in need of protection. As is commonly noted, all his actions violate the chivalric code to which he is sworn.
When he confronts his mother with drawn sword, she tells Gowther of his true parentage and he immediately determines to go to Rome "to lerne anodur lare" ("learn another way"; 234) and weeps with his mother. His reaction shows his human side, so that it must be questioned whether his evil nature and acts have been driven by demonic forces as he works his "fadur wyll" ("father's will"; 173), or represent the potential in all men for good or evil. The latter is suggested strongly in Robert le Diable, in which the hero becomes aware of his nature through his own conscience rather than outside intervention. Saunders acknowledges that Gowther's rational side manifests itself when he learns of his demonic parentage, which she interprets as "proof of the fact that through God's grace all evil can be overcome" (Questions 227), ironically dehumanizing Gowther and reducing him to a stick figure subservient to a hagiographic orientation.
A number of theories have been presented regarding Gowther's sudden "conversion."17 A close look at the text provides an explanation: he is shocked into realizing that his soul, and his mother's, are in peril. Perhaps fueled by the awakening of a deeply buried awareness of good and evil, heaven and hell, his immediate reaction is the desire to have his "soule" ("soul") brought to God's "blys" ("bliss"; 241). But he expresses no contrition or remorse, or wish to make amends for his sins, thereby skipping the first two stages of the penitential process—repentance and atonement. These come after he has achieved the last two stages, penance and forgiveness, and has reached his full human potential through worldly experience and influence, as do many secular romance heroes in need of corrective reorientation.
Gowther's departure for Rome relieves his subjects from terror, and social order and civil peace can be restored under the rule of the steward to whom he entrusts the land. The penance imposed by the pope is severe: Gowther may "eyt no meyt bot that thou revus of howndus mothe" ("eat no meat except that received from a dog's mouth"; 293), nor "no worde speke for evyll ne gud" ("speak no word for evil or good"; 295) until he receives a sign that God has forgiven him. As a knight, one of Gowther's main responsibilities was to defend the church, but he destroyed it instead. We learn later that the act that burdens his previously dormant conscience is the burning (with no mention of the raping) of the nuns. He should also have been protecting his people and maintaining stability within his dukedom. Obviously, he deserves the death penalty many times over; it would be imposed for the rape of just one nun, but he was probably given penance on the assumption that he was under demonic influence. Though the pope's primary concern is Gowther's crimes against the church rather than society, the knight is destined to serve his penance in the secular world. Fortunately, the haven into which Gowther stumbles provides a model of all that was missing in his father's fractured court.
Although the duke and duchess had lived in "joy" (51), there is little evidence of a loving relationship. There is little marital affection at any time between the duke and duchess; when he "be tho lappe he laght his wyfe," ("caught his wife by her robe"; 86) it is a prelude to their attempt to conceive an heir, which lends a feeling of more than sexual sterility to Gowther's world. Procreation was a legitimate matter, but not necessarily a loving one. The comfort he gives her after the child is born is the last time they are seen together, and it can be imagined that their already strained relationship was broken by Gowther, who seems unlovable and unloving. Gowther is capable only of lust. As he ravages the country, his behavior is marked with sexuality, but it is degraded and bereft of love.
After leaving Rome, Gowther wanders into "anodur far countre" (305) and comes upon an emperor's castle. His entrance into that court marks the reversal of his previous experience, and he eventually gives as much as he receives to and from individuals and society. But first he must learn, which is done through observation since his penance has reduced him to bestiality, though a much more humble and benign form than he formerly practiced. And what he sees and feels from the place he takes underneath the emperor's dais is social stability, familial solidity, and tolerance. Though he is Hobbe the Fool, the courtiers treat him with compassion, feeding and sheltering him.
Peace is shattered by desire: that of the sultan who wants to marry the emperor's daughter, who is "feyr and heynde" ("fair and gracious"; 383) but unable to speak. The emperor is proud of her despite her muteness and hopes one day she will be cured by God. Moreover, he will not give her to a Saracen. She is undoubtedly chaste, and intercourse with a "hethon hownde" ("heathen hound"; 389) would be as bad as being raped by a fiend or a fiend's son, a point unlikely missed by Gowther, who prays for and is miraculously supplied with armor and horse and, incognito, joins the emperor's knights in battle against the Saracens.
The relationship between Gowther and the girl is best described in the Royal manuscript, in which love develops between them before Gowther joins her father's forces against the Saracens. In fact, directly after she is introduced:
To him she was a ful good frend,
And mete to houndes for his love wold send
Ful ofte and grete plenté.
Ether of hem loved other right,
But to other no word thei speke ne myght:
That was the more peté. (R 367-72)
She was a very good friend to him, and out of love sent hounds with meat to him, often and in plenty. Each loved the other, but they could not speak a word, which was more the pity.
Brewer cites the relationship between Dorigen and Arveragus in Chaucer's Franklin's Tale as an example of friendship being the "highest expression of marital love" (133). The potential for that kind of deep, respectful relationship between Gowther and the maiden is presaged here. However, in the Advocates she pays attention to him after she knows he is defending her and her father, which makes her motives seem to be based more on his status as a knight, and perhaps admiration and appreciation, rather than a natural attraction and empathy.18
She is the only person who knows that Hobbe the Fool is the valiant knight who rescues her father when taken hostage by the sultan, whom he beheads. The maiden keeps Gowther's secret, not due to her inability to speak since she must have had means of communicating with her family, but intuitively.19 She sees him transformed into an armed warrior and watches and prays for him from her tower, presumably unknown to Gowther though, again, the manuscript versions vary. Gowther does not know that the maiden is near death after falling from her tower out of sorrow after seeing the knight wounded by a Saracen. In the Advocates, Gowther returns to the chamber after the third battle and takes off his gear, then "myssyd he that meydon schene" ("missed that bright maiden"; 642) before going to dinner, which suggests he had been aware of her watching him. In the Royal, he "myssyd the lady shene" (R 600) only after he enters the hall and finds her absent.
When the pope arrives with his cardinals for her interment, she awakens, is able to speak and tells Gowther that God "forgyffeus the thi syn yche a dell" ("fully forgives your sins"; 656) and tells her father that Gowther is the incognito knight. Ironically, her recovery of speech, while miraculous, adds to the secularization of the poem, as pointed out by Bradstock. He observes that in Robert le Diable the maiden reveals only Gowther's deeds, and it is a hermit acting as God's agent who pardons Gowther (Bradstock 37-38); the forgiveness is thus shifted by the Gowther-poet from the holy to the human sphere.
The maiden's deliverance of God's message to Gowther and their simultaneous recovery of speech signify a bond between them that could enable a successful union. As mentioned previously, their love is explicitly stated only in the Royal version. In both poems it is clear, especially from the maiden's distress over Gowther's injury in the last battle, that she loves him. But in the Advocates any reciprocation must be assumed since the text is silent, which leads one to question whether Gowther has gained the ability to fully internalize and emulate the love he has witnessed in the emperor's court. Saunders' vision of the forgiveness scene as one of "mutual love" (Rape 227) is deflated by a common romance topos: marriage to a noble maiden as reward for chivalric service, especially in battle. The marriage is arranged "thro tho pope and the emperour asent" ("through the pope with the emperor's assent"; 670), and not least among her attributes as bride is the fact that she is "of all hur fadur londus eyr" ("heir to all her father's lands"; 674).
After Gowther "weyd that meydyn gent" ("wed that gentle maiden"; 671) she is not seen again, nothing more is told of their life together, and there is no mention of children, which is again a departure from many romances. But if an heir were lacking, it is doubtful that Gowther would replace his wife. Whether he is capable of feeling or perhaps expressing love, he adheres to the ideal of trouthe, which included loyalty and the keeping of one's plighted word.20 Like Orfeo, he would name a suitable successor; he had already done so for his dukedom and would make a similarly wise choice of an heir to his other vast lands if necessary.
Sir Gowther recalls Sir Orfeo in another respect. In both poems, the final focus is on the hero as he serves the author's agenda: in Orfeo the continuation of social and political stability through right rule and succession; in Gowther, personal, social and spiritual benefit from rehabilitation. In both poems the wife is not involved: Heurodis, except for a brief reappearance at the end by Orfeo's side as queen, disappears from the text after her rescue and return to Winchester, and Gowther's maiden vanishes after their wedding. The great difference is that the loving husband/wife relationship is fully developed in Sir Orfeo, but not in Sir Gowther. The couple has no conversation after they recover their speech and no interaction once they are wed, so there is no evidence of marital affection. Directly after the bridal feast, Gowther sets off on a pilgrimage of reparation, and if his wife accompanies him, she is not seen or heard. From then on, it is all about Gowther.
Those studying Sir Gowther as penitential romance or secular hagiography would stress that by using his chivalric prowess in defense of Christian people and hence the church against the heathen Saracens, Gowther becomes the perfect Christian knight. But while fulfilling his penance, he also develops attributes needed for successful social relationships and leadership: respect, humility, reciprocity, charity and communal responsibility. While defense of the emperor, his daughter and lands make Gowther the ideal knight, and he "had no thoght bot of is syn / And how he myght is soule wyn" ("thought only of his sin and how he might save his soul"; 532-33), he is also motivated by loyalty to the man he considers to be his lord.
The pope's assurance that "now art thou Goddus chyld" (667) is often interpreted as the exchange of fathers: God in place of the devil. McGregor examines Gowther's paternity using the Lacanian "Name-of-the-Father" symbolic function as a basis.21 She concludes that "the profundity of the poem . . . lies in its absolute reinvestment in the symbolic father," God, and the "reconciliation of the split function of paternity represented by the Fiend and the Duke" into one father (McGregor 75). Attributing paternity to the devil, Mitchell-Smith examines Sir Gowther against the "fair unknown" motif as a quest for identity in which proponents strive to "construct a viable masculinity all by themselves because of the father's absence." He posits that Gowther claims a new identity "outside of his biological parentage when he submits to the controlling force of the Pope as father."
But the emperor as surrogate father should not be ignored. He is Gowther's protector, role model, and family member through marriage, all solidifying bonds. Finally, he is Gowther's "fadur" ("father"; 705),22 and Gowther gives away his own patrimony and makes the place where he gained a family and his humanity "hom" ("home"; 703). Considering the secularization of the poem, this might have been a good place to end rather than with Gowther's sainthood, which Bradstock sees as "almost incidental" (39).
Gowther's sainthood in the Advocates version may indeed seem "incidental" as the poet pulls the vision earthward with a reminder of material values:
Thus syr Gwother coverys is care,
That fyrst was ryche and sython bare,
And effte was ryche ageyn;
And geyton with a felteryd feynd,
Grace he had to make that eynd
That God was of hym feyn.
This is wreton in parchemeyn,
A story bothe gud and fyn
Owt off a lay of Breytyn.
Jesu Cryst, Goddys son,
Gyff us myght with hym to won,
That lord that is most of meyn.
Thus Sir Gowther recovers his care, who was first rich and then poor, and after was rich again; and begotten by a shaggy fiend, through grace he made that end and God was pleased with him. This is written in parchment, a story both good and fine out of a Breton lay. Jesus Christ, God's son, give us strength to win him, that lord who is most mighty.
Compare to the heavenly gaze of the Royal version:
This tale is wreten in parchemen,
In a stori good and fyn,
In the first lay of Britayne;
Now God that is of myghtis most,
Fader and Sone and Holy Gost,
Of owre sowles be fayne!
All that hath herd this talkyng—
Lytill, moche, old, and yyng—
Yblyssd mote they be;
God yeve hem grace whan they shal ende,
To hevyn blys here sowles wend
With angelys bryght of ble.
Amen, pur charite.
Explicit Vita Sancti.
This tale is written on parchment, a story good and fine in the first Breton lay; now God that is most mighty, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, be glad of our souls!
All who have heard this telling, small, great, old and young—blessed may they be; God give them grace when they end to go to heaven's bliss with bright angels. Amen, for charity.
As noted earlier, critics have difficulty placing Sir Gowther generically, which seems driven by their need for a basis of interpretation and re-visioning of the author and audience. While medievals were probably less concerned with genre than moderns, it is tantalizing to consider their reaction to Sir Gowther. Some were probably absorbed in the demonic presence which, though seeming superstition to us, was not to them. Others might have set aside the supernatural and gained inspiration for overcoming human temptations and flaws and, perhaps while thrilling to the "selcowgh" ("amazing"; 13) aura of the tale, also connected with its contemporary social and cultural realities, as done in this study. If they saw it as hagiography, his conversion, penance, forgiveness and secular sainthood would be lauded but unrelated to their own lives which, hopefully, were untouched by demons. Some may have taken comfort in the final resolution as interpreted by Saunders, in which "violation and death . . . are replaced by miracle and healing; rape is revised, rewritten in explicit penance, love and divine approval" (Rape 227).
Still others may have been less sure of the possibility of such a "rewriting," and less forgiving of Gowther than are the emperor, maiden and pope, since his penitential success, like his earlier acts, involves violence, albeit righteous. As Crawford points out, the poem presents the limits of restoration; lives cannot be brought back, though conscience-stricken Gowther attempts to memorialize the nuns he burned by building a new abbey and convent for the living "unto tho wordus end" ("until the world's end"; 700). For Crawford, the miracles "do not balance the physical devastation that Gowther has wrought" (45-46). And it might be questioned whether material or social reparation could either. Whether the sorrow, loss, pain and disorder that runs through the poem could be overcome by the denouement for medievals cannot be guessed, yet it causes one to wonder whether the conventional "happy endings" of many romances nullify the pessimism and criticism often expressed in the poems. To assume so would be a discredit to the audience and authors of medieval romance.
Illustration by Marsha Mello
For more on Middle English literature, see Medieval Forum
1 For example, see E. M. Bradstock, "Sir Gowther: Secular Hagiography or Hagiographical Romance or Neither?" AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 59 (1983): 26-47.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all citations are from Sir Gowther, Six Middle English Romances, ed. Maldwyn Mills (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1992) (Advocates version).
4 All citations from The Canterbury Tales are from The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).
5 Spelling was not yet standardized and varied between and often within poems. Characters' names are normalized by scholars for uniformity and are used here. Special alphabetical characters such as the "thorn" and "yogh" have also been normalized for readability.
6 This is the case in a thirteenth-century French version of Robert the Devil, the story of which Sir Gowther is one retelling.
7 For some examples, see James Bothwell, "Edward III and the 'New Nobility': Largesse and Limitation in Fourteenth-century England," The English Historical Review 449 (1997): 1121-40.
8 For example, in the late thirteenth century, sex and marriage cases accounted for nearly two-thirds of the actions at the court of the Official of the Archdeacon of Sudbury (Brundage 481), and in the late fourteenth century, marital cases accounted for approximately one-third of the business before the Canterbury Consistory Court (ibid. 509). However, most actions were brought to maintain existing marriages rather than for dissolution.
9 According to Pedersen, the granting of divorce for adultery had died out by the fourteenth century, and pleas for separation on those grounds were rare (134).
10 There is disagreement among authorities regarding barrenness as grounds for annulment, but the consensus is negative.
11 In the stanzas of the fourteenth-century poem The Simonie that attack corrupt court officials:
Yif a man haue a wyf, and he loue her nowt,
Bryng hyr to the constery, ther trowth schuld be wrowt,
Bringe twey fals wytnes with hym and hymself the thrydde,
And he schal be departed as fair as he wold bydde
From his wyfe. (C 217-21)
If a man has a wife and doesn't love her, bring her to the consistory court, where truth should be wrought. Bring two false witnesses with him and himself the third, and he shall be separated from his wife as easily as he would wish.
12 "Diable," fait el, "je te proi / Que tu entenges ja vers moi: / Se tu me dones un enfant, / Che te proi des ore en avant" (Robert le Diable 45-48).
13 In The Trental of St. Gregory, the pope's mother commits infanticide. In order to protect her reputation for devoutness, she does not confess or do penance, and therefore goes to hell.
14 Some critics, like Laskaya and Salisbury (267), credit the injuries to early dentition, a folkloric sign of demonic or supernatural nature. However, it is clear from the text that he "sowkyd" ("sucked"; 110) not bit the nipples.
15 In Robert le Diable, the duchess suggests that the duke knight Gowther to end his wild behavior.
16 The rape is omitted in the Royal manuscript.
17 See for example Laskaya and Salisbury 301n; Spisak 15; Velma Bourgeois Richmond, The Popularity of Middle English Romance (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1975) 66; and Maldwyn Mills, Six Middle English Romances (London: J. M. Dent Sons Ltd., 1973) 216.
18 This is reminiscent of Goldeboru, whose love for Havelok comes only after she discovers he is regalian.
19 In Robert le Diable, she attempts three times to tell her father but is dismissed.
20 Marriage contracts could be made without church ceremony or clerical presence, but since Gowther and the emperor's daughter are married by the pope, they would have exchanged consecrated vows. Gowther has demonstrated his honoring of such promises through the completion of his penance, and the same fidelity to his marriage vows would be expected.
21 For other discussions of Gowther's paternity using Lacanian theory, see Jane Gilbert, "Unnatural Mothers and Monstrous Children in The King of Tars and Sir Gowther," Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain: Essays for Felicity Riddy, ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Rosalynn Voaden, et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000); and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Gowther Among the Dogs: Becoming Inhuman c. 1400," Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997).
22 "wyfis fader" ("wife's father"; 663) in the Royal.
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