Why Medieval Romances are not Love stories.
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…’
It’s that danger of assuming the ‘transhistoric’ nature of human attitudes and behaviour that I want to explore, and here the danger, as always, is compounded by the words we use and the silent way they shape our readings of a text and ‘understanding’ of the past.
Three examples from ‘Owain or The Lady of the Well’ from the Mabinogion. Translations are by Sioned Davies unless otherwise stated.
The basic scenario which underlies the story is that every knight who finds the well of the title has been told what to do when he gets there: throw a bowl of water on the stone. This initiates a chain of events which ends with the arrival of a Black Knight. The knights then fight until one of them is beaten. The assumption in the story world is that no one finds the well by accident, and every knight who finds it is therefore looking for a fight.
Owain, the ‘hero’ of the story, mortally wounds the Black Knight, and chases him to his castle where he is trapped by a falling portcullis. He is saved by Luned, who hides him in an upstairs room.
Owain watches the funeral of the man he’s just killed from his hiding place, and at the end of the procession sees a beautiful but distraught woman.
And when he saw the woman he was inflamed with love for her until it filled every part of him.
Owain asked the maiden [Luned] who the lady was.
‘God Knows.’ says the maiden, ‘a woman you could say is the most beautiful of women, and the most chaste, and the most generous and wisest and noblest. She is my mistress, known as the Lady of the Well, the wife of the man you killed yesterday’.
‘God Knows’, said Owain, ‘she is the woman I love best.’
‘God knows’, said the maiden, ‘there is no way she loves you, not in the very slightest.’
Jones and Jones, in a more literal rendering of her reply give it as ‘ God knows’, said the Maiden, ‘she loves not thee, neither a little nor at all.’
What Owain says is: ‘Duw a wyr arnaf, mae mwyhaf gwreic a garaf I yw hi’
garaf is from karu/caru, which is translated as ‘to love’. There’s no option.
It’s related to the noun ‘Karyat/cariad ’ that names what fills every part of him and inflames him and can be translated as love, affection, fondness or friendship, though here it’s translated as ‘love’.
Luned’s response sounds like the voice of modern reason. But in the world of the story, it isn’t. Whatever ‘love’ meant to the original audience, it is a very different collection of emotions than those we might associate with it today. Consider the second example.
Luned will try to trick her mistress into accepting Owain as her new husband. Her approach is brazen. She finds her mistress grieving over her dead husband who she’s just buried. Luned asks her what’s wrong with her. The Countess is surprised.
‘God knows, said Luned, ‘I really did think you would have more sense. It would be better for you to start worrying about replacing your husband than wish for something you can never have back’.
‘Between me and god’, said the countess, ‘I could never replace my lord with any other man in the world.’
‘Yes you could’, said Luned, ‘marry someone as good as he, or better.’
The Countess’s initial reaction is understandable, She tells Luned to get out and never come back. But Luned points out the Kingdom can only be protected by deeds of arms, so the Countess needs a new man quickly. While the countess is initially offended by this, she also accepts its logic. Luned pretends she has gone to Arthur’s court to find a better man than the dead one. When she tries to pass off Owain as the man she’s found, the countess sees through the ruse, perhaps proving Luned’s description of her wisdom.
The Lady looks at Owein, and points out he doesn’t look like a man who’s been travelling.
‘What harm is in that lady?’
‘Between me and god’, said the Countess, ‘this in none other than the man who took away my Lord’s life’.
Luned replies ‘All the better for you Lady; had he not been stronger than your lord he would have not taken his life. Nothing can be done about that’, she said, ‘since it is over and done with’.
At no point in the interview does Owain speak. His character and personality, if he has either, are irrelevant.
The Lady calls a meeting of her realm and puts the problem before them. Either one of them marries her and defends the well…or she is free to take a husband from somewhere else.
If Owain’s love for the lady sounds like a dreamy infatuation of an adolescent with a wall poster, as far as ‘love’ goes this seems to be the defining moment in the story. She’s beautiful, wise, intelligent, rich. And not one man in her lands wants to marry her. In this story world not one man in her realm desires the Countess or her wealth.
The reason for this is fairly obvious.
Her Husband becomes the new Black Knight and he has to ride out every time a passing knight comes to the well and risk his life in combat. He has no choice. One day he will meet his match, or a strap will break, his horse will stumble, or a weapon will shatter and he will die.
And the men of her kingdom are quite happy to let an outsider take that risk..
She marries Owain. Up to this point, she hasn’t spoken to him nor he to her.
Imagine the wedding night.
We hear of Owain’s subsequent career as the Black Knight, but nothing about his dealings with his wife. He will abandon her for three years. He will go mad and eventually be reunited with her. But they never speak to one another in the story.
We translate what Owain feels for the Lady as ‘love’, but we have to accept that this is in no way a ‘transhistorical’ emotion.
The Lady’s body is tied into her role as Countess of the Well…she is the wife of the Black Knight, and the Black Knight is whoever is currently defending the fountain.
Her husband is always going to be the man who killed her husband.
It’s a story, but in this storyworld the body is not a private, privileged space. Just as Owain has no choice once he marries her. His body is now at the mercy of every passing Knight.
Arthur turns up with a retinue three thousand strong. After he has beaten Kei, Owain pitches his tent and fights (by implication) every one of them except Gwalchmei. It’s an absurd logic, but he doesn’t seem able to avoid the consequences of his position, any more than the Lady can avoid a wedding night with a passing stranger who just killed her previous bedfellow.
It's fairly obvious that this story represents a very different attitude towards the body, to the way society organised the relationships between the sexes, to the way people regarded themselves and each other. And it’s not unique to this story nor is it only fictional.
I’ll get back to Uther eventually.