Medieval English Literature describing how courtly love plays into "The Tale of Sir Gareth" and Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. How pure is spiritual love to when compared to how physical love appears?
The primary question surrounding these two stories made famous in medieval English literature, namely that of Sir Thomas Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth” and Troilus and Criseyde show the existence of the role of courtly love have any major prominence in how these tales were written? The two stories are written from two time periods set apart within the Dark Ages or medieval period.
“The Tale of Sir Gareth” was completed by Sir Thomas Malory in his Le Morte d’Arthur at around 1470, the only story that Sir Thomas Malory writes from scratch and which was a pivotal time in history marking the turn of the Renaissance period when the printing press was first invented and put into mass use by Thomas Caxton. This enabled people who were able to read and write, for the first time ever in history, to have access to this masterpiece covering the enduring tale of King Arthur and his knights. On the other hand, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was completed in 1390, which was still during the Middle Ages in Europe.
Normally in courtly love romance stories, the lady, the beloved, whips the man or the lover around as she pleases. This is indeed a feature of courtly love where as according to Andreas Capellaneus in his The Art of Courtly Love alludes to the fact that the lover is to have blind devotion to his beloved by taking whatever abuse is dished out to him as was exemplified in the case of Criseyde toward Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde and Lynette in “The Tale of Sir Gareth”. In other words, the services of the lady are usually met first and also the vow to defend the weak such as children, the elderly and the infirm.
The protagonists, the main character heroes of these works, are Sir Gareth the lover of “The Tale of Sir Gareth” and Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde. These lovers suffer from various indignities to their manhood at the hands of their beloved from varying standpoints. The beloved Lynette, whom Sir Gareth falls deeply and dearly in love with daily receives insults and abuses with love for his lady and their relationship actually ends up with a marriage that is actually happy. The marriage situation tends to not fall into place with the principles of courtly love since there is not supposed to be any love within the bounds of marriage. Love is to be sought only outside of the confines of marriage according to the rules of courtly love.
Criseyde is an interesting character in the story of Troilus and Criseyde. This beloved lady of Troilus, even though she fell deeply in love, was not really true to her lover due to other interests that develop as the story unfolds, but this development is entirely within the grain of what courtly love stands for. After a series of crafty maneuvers on the part of Criseyde, a handsome young soldier by the name of Diomede, in Book V and Stanza 144 by Criseyde says, “I am not saying I will be your love, Nor am I saying no; but, in conclusion, I mean well, by the Lord that sits above”, decides to win over Criseyde’s love with only one persuasive speech, as opposed to Troilus’ months of serenades and endless propositions to Criseyde. Thus, here is the protagonist’s demise. Criseyde’s cunning uncle, Pandarus, an active character in the story serves to receive his somewhat “incestuous” delight in bringing Troilus and his niece Criseyde together. Troilus, however, plays a passive role in the story where he relies entirely on the wiles of Pandarus (the panderer, now a word in the English language) to pull the strings, as it were, to make the romance work. Perhaps it was Criseyde needed someone more active than passive aggressive as Troilus was and in meeting Diomede thought that he was indeed the man for her now and also someone that she personally alone decided upon and not the fierce manipulations of her uncle Pandarus whose heart panted for immediate consummation of their love.
Both of the lovers’ lives end tragically due to the love they had for their women, again, the tragic protagonists, as they were as their stories unraveled toward their endings again revealed the essence of what courtly love stands for. This was something of a catharsis where bad things happen in order for negative emotions to be purged. Sir Gareth, forever the ultimate knight and gentleman, who even shunned his own brothers in the name chivalry. As “The Tale of Sir Gareth” reveals, Sir Gareth ends up marrying Lady Lyoness instead of Lynette and on page 169 of Le Morte d’Arthur “On Michaelmass Day the Archbishop of Canterbury married Sir Gareth to Lady Lyoness and, at Arthur’s request, Sir Gaheris to Lady Lynet (or Lady Savage) . . .´ Troilus is portrayed as showing his undying love by his committing suicide due his beloved’s Criseyde’s unfaithlessness and ultimate betrayal toward him. Here, it can be deduced that reputation is a major influence in the effectiveness of courtly love to be relevant. Sir Gareth found himself in a trial by combat, where the right side wins; and as far as God Himself is concerned the right side always wins. The enactment of the same versus the guilt culture is evident through the fight for maintaining a fair reputation at all costs to the point of death in displaying their love. This love is the love that transcends all things in life, love being equal to a religion in a spiritual experience of worship to God but to the women in their lives through the rules of courtly love.
In one case, with Troilus and Criseyde, the love triangle ends tragically. In the case of Sir Gareth there is no real love triangle as there was that existed between Sir Lancelot and Guinevere as also told by Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur. Sir Gareth was supposedly murdered for noble causes, in other words “Le Bel Inconne” or “The Fair Unknown” for disallowing Sir Lancelot to rescue his lady love from execution as ordered by King Arthur, since Guinevere was accused of treason, since a charge of only adultery alone was not sufficient to stand with the King’s rash promise motif and his reputation. Of special mention is when Sir Lancelot tells Guinevere from page 504 in Le Morte d’Arthur, “Sweet lady, you would not have me marry; my vows to you are not to be broken? But as you do I shall do, and so I shall retreat to a monastery, and there with my poor prayers try to intercede for you with our Lord Jesu.”
Criseyde becomes a traitor not claiming her lover, Troilus, while Lynette and Lady Lyoness become heroines claiming their lover for life. One would like to ask in Criseyde’s case, does true love indeed exist, or is there a fatalistic aspect to it? Criseyde sought to free herself from the shackles of being a victim to her uncle’s plot, although deeply in love with Troilus. She, in fact, frees herself from her uncle’s grasp to the misfortune of Troilus by taking off and eloping with Diomede. Geoffrey Chaucer sought even medieval literature to give the woman some place of freedom from manipulation and not to live at the mercy of male pride or hubris as exhibited most actively by Panderus. Her lover, Troilus, receives the “bitter end of the stick” by falling to become his victim by not realizing true love as it was supposed to be. Such is the demise as is often seen in the motifs of courtly love in medieval literature.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur.
Penguin Putman. 2001.