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I also assume that human history is a record of brutality interrupted by occasional attempts at idealism. And despite the common orthodoxy, this doesn’t just apply to white male patriarchal societies…fear, greed and stupidity seem to characterise all societies at all times. So the past is always going to be dangerous territory.
The danger of dealing with past texts is succinctly expressed by Corinne Saunders in ‘Rape and ravishment in the literature of medieval England’:
'[…] by contrasting past and present, and assessing the past according to contemporary ideologies, we validate our own political assumptions. The temptation is to assume the transhistoric nature of contemporary premises and therefore to fit the evidently ‘misogynistic’ structures of the middle ages into a pattern to be censured and exposed…’
Such an approach, eager to find fault, inevitably misses the often complex nature of medieval narrative. Combine that with the typically ignorant assumption that medieval story tellers are inferior to modern ones and you get the classic rewrite of ‘Beowulf ‘or ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ to ‘problematicise the heroic ideology of the poem’ which misses the fact that the poems already do that.
But to return to Uther and the story of the conception of King Arthur.
Laȝamon's version is not straightforward: the birth of the Great Hero is A GOOD THING, but His conception is an act of treachery, a sin, and a failure of a King who should have put duty before desire.
At the core of this complex layering is our recognition that the story of Arthur’s conception is shaped by the Gospel narratives of the Nativity, which in turn echo Greek hero stories. There have also been attempts to reconstruct ‘Celtic’ stories in which a divine character pretends to be a woman’s husband so that a hero can be conceived. More of this later. This understanding pulls the reader’s response in one direction: Whatever the morality of the act, the consequence is good.
But Laȝamon’s version presents Arthur's conception as a troubling and problematic act.
In Malory, Uther and Gorlois have been at war. The underlying tensions of the feast don’t require too much to set both men at each other’s throats.
Laȝamon emphasises a double betrayal. Gorlois has previously saved Uther from a military disaster. His piety and loyalty have been emphasised. The feast at which Uther meets Ygraene is to celebrate that victory. Uther repays his debts by going to war with Gorlois and disguising himself as her husband so he can f#ck Ygaerne.
It’s that brutal. It is not a love story.
So morally and legally this is wrong.
In Malory, Lancelot is morally and legally wrong but it’s difficult not to admire him.
However, the assumptions that love is good, that there’s something heroic about someone who thinks ‘the world well lost for love’, even that romance should be a part of life, are not ‘transhistorical’ but the result of a cultural progression that shapes modern readers’ expectations. Laȝamon is writing before that expectation takes hold.
For Laȝamon ‘love’ is not ‘admirable’; it’s a diseased state in which people, notably kings, fail to fulfil the demands of their role. Locrin’s infatuation with Aestrild, and Vortigern’s with Rowena, bring disaster to themselves and their kingdom. The accumulation of previous stories critique Uther’s actions even if no character does.
Throughout the Brut a social role, whether King, King’s Daughter, Queen or Knight, is almost a verb. In the Brut you do kinging. What defines a King as good or bad is established by all the examples of all the previous kings, and the reiterated lesson is that one who puts his own desire before his duty is a BAD KING. His actions will have disastrous consequences for himself and/or his country.
Uther is therefore not only morally wrong: the church would condemn him as an adulterer, but the text in no way asks us to sympathise or condone his actions. Being overwhelmed by desire is not heroic; it’s wrong.
Despite the assumption that a medieval priest would be stained with clerical misogyny, in this case, the woman is explicitly exonerated: not only does she not know it’s Uther, but there is some complicated manoeuvring so that Gorlois is dead before Arthur is conceived . Her innocence is emphasised.
And then, to complicate matters further, at the centre of this tangle of contradictions, Laȝamon manages what is probably the quietest moment in the whole of the Brut.
The story presents Arthur’s conception as anything other than straightforward for the reader. Perhaps medieval story tellers were willing to give their readers freedom to come to their own conclusions. They were writing for adults. To read it simply as ‘a rape story’, to assume a medieval writer would have little sympathy for a female victim and would condone an act of male aggression, wilfully misses its complex presentation.
In the next post, rewriting the past as a form of lying.