Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a complex poem with plot lines that can surprise the reader, from a beheading of a literally green knight to attempted bedroom seductions, to grand feasts in King Arthur’s court. Upon first glance, the poem may seem to simply be about a knight named Sir Gawain who goes on a quest to complete a promise he made to the Green Knight. A grand feast, great hunts, intimate bedroom encounters and battles of strength and honor fill the pages. However, when the reader delves deeper, it is apparent that the poem contains many misogynistic elements. This is because of the time period that it was written in, the middle to late 14th century. This time period was marked by the Black Death, the 100 Years War, and the Western Schism, when the Roman Catholic Church had two rival popes. This was a time of significant social stress in which women were clearly not viewed as the social equals of men. During this period, it was very common for men to harbor anti-feminist attitudes toward women. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the author’s treatment of three female characters, Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur; Lady Bertilak, the Lady of the Manor and hostess for her male guest, Gawain; and Morgan Le Fay, the old, haggard protege of Merlin the wizard, reveal the misogyny of the late middle ages. Through the actions and attitudes of the male characters, the author characterizes women as objects, deceivers and scapegoats.
To fully grasp the meaning of this poem, knowing the cultural context is important. For Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, learning about how women, particularly women of the nobility, were treated in Medieval times is essential. The vast majority of women during this period were peasants. The predominant Christian faith reinforced the view that women were inferior. The writings of Apostle Paul emphasized a husband’s control over his wife and, by extension, his daughters (Bovey 1). Women lived lives narrowly defined by their roles in childbirth, daily routines in the home, and assisting in the fields, particularly during the harvest. The next most numerous class of women were those of the town. They, too, had significant domestic duties, and they also played an important role in the success of their artisan or shopkeeper husband. Neither group of women had any meaningful rights, and they were generally subservient to their husbands (Bovey 1-3). Their sexuality was mostly centered on their role in reproduction. Prostitutes, fairly common during this period, provided sexual gratification for males outside the confines of the home. In short, women during this period had to listen to their husbands. They had to dress in the attire the husband wanted, say what the husband wanted, and were generally seen but not heard. They could not make decisions by themselves and had to rely on their significant other. Helen Jewell, writer of Women in Medieval England, states that “in archival records women tend to be under-represented because it was normal for the male head of a household to be the recorded taxpayer, or the nominal tenant of land” (Jewell 1). This means that women in the medieval period had lower status and power than men.
The female characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were women of the nobility. While certainly living better lives than peasant women or townswomen with respect to material possessions, leisure time, and comfort, female nobility lived restricted lives, both socially and legally. As Howard Bloch explains in “Medieval Misogyny,” women faced more severe punishment for adultery, did not enjoy men’s rights to possess and inherit property, nor did they enjoy the same rights as men to bear witness, represent themselves, serve as lawyers or judges, or bring suit (Bloch p. 8). Bloch also states, “If man’s desire is an ornament, or for that which is secondary, is analogous to man’s desire for woman, it is because woman is conceived as ornament” Bloch pg 12). Meaning, noblewomen were viewed as ornaments, valued for their appearance and indulged with decorative clothing and accessories to enhance their visual desirability
Queen Guinevere, from the start of the poem, is portrayed as a passive character, not only in the court, but also to her husband, King Arthur. When Guinevere is first introduced in the poem, the author describes her almost like she is the “trophy” of the court. The author wrote, “With Guinevere in their gathering, gloriously framed/ at her place on the platform, pricelessly curtained, by silk on each side…” (lines 74-84). This quote shows that Guinevere has no true role in the court other than being Arthur’s token to be looked and stared at by the other members. Arthur saw the women as a worthy reward. “The lord squeezed Gawain’s arm and seated him at his side,/ and called for the ladies to keep them company” (line 1083). This shows Arthur’s willingness to use ladies to bestow favor. In medieval times, all women wanted to be able to have a voice, to speak, but the author removes Guinevere almost entirely from the story line. The author completely suppresses Guinevere’s voice in the text, further illustrating the anti-feminist view of women as voiceless. Men did not want to listen to their spouses; instead, they wanted to be the ones in control and making the decisions. If a woman wanted to speak, she sought permission from her husband. In the entire text Guinevere is seen as a powerless lady who has no control. For example, near the end of the poem when it is revealed that Morgan Le Fay was in control of the entire plot, the Green Knight tells Gawain what had been happening. The Green Knight says, “She (Morgan Le Fay) guided me in this guise to your great hall/ to put pride on trial, and to test with this trick/ what distinction and trust the Round Table deserves./ She imagined this mischief would muddle your minds/ and that grieving Guinevere would go to her grave” (lines 2456-2460). Notice how the Green Knight tells Gawain that Morgan wanted to make Guinever “go to her grave.” This shows that Morgan saw Guinevere as nothing but a powerless woman and that it would not matter if she made her die. This also could be some form of female rivalry, that Morgan wanted to kill Guinevere because of her affair with Lancelot, and the affair’s threat to Arthur, Morgan’s half-brother. This further shows Guinevere as an object of jealousy, and a powerless woman, and Morgan as a woman scorned.
When Gawain first meets the two main female characters, Lady Bertilak and Morgan Le Fay, he tends to only focus on their outwardly appearance. When Lady Bertilak is introduced at the feast table, he is immediately taken by her beauty. The author states that Gawain thought that, “she was fairer in face, in her flesh and her skin, her proportions, her complexion, and her port than all others, and more lovely than Guinevere to Gawain she looked.” (lines 943-945). Here Gawain is acutely focusing on her physical attributes, which is extremely demeaning to her character. Lady Bertilak is an object to be admired, adorned with pearls described as “on the kerchiefs of the one many clear pearls were, her breast and bright throat were bare displayed, fairer than white snow that falls on the hills.” (lines 954-956)
Lady Bertilak’s entire role during this poem is entertain, charm, and seduce Gawain; the only reason she does this is because she was instructed to do so by her husband. When Gawain is sleeping in his bedroom, Lady Bertilak sneaks into his room and begins to tempt him. She states, “Good morning, Sir Gawain,” said the graceful lady,/ “You sleep so soundly one might sidle in here/ You’re tricked and trapped! But let’s make a truce,/ or I’ll bind you to your bed, and you’d better believe me.” (lines 1208-1211). At first glance, this may seem like the author has switched positions, now portraying Lady Bertilak as a powerful woman making it seem as though she is in charge. On a closer look, the reader knows that she is doing this because her husband instructing her to do so. According to Heng, “the Lady’s project is to appear as only one act in a grander, vaster design overseen by a male supervisor, with its crucial preeminence accordingly withheld” (Heng 508). Meaning, Lady Bertilak, despite her stealth-like entrance into the bedroom and her rather assertive initial actions, is a sexual object, there to fulfill her husband’s expectation that she fulfill her role as a Lady, available to her guest. She pursues this interaction as a noble act of hospitality, and despite the courtly nature of her actions, and her teasing and seductive actions, she is fulfilling a widely accepted gender role expected of noble women: to be an object of men’s desire. Her conversation with Gawain has significant sexual undertones and some hints at prostitution. Lady Bertilak tells Gawain, “You are welcome to me indeed, take whatever you want” (line 1235). In summary, Lady Bertilak is offering her body to Sir Gawain because she is expected to fulfill this seductive role and ultimately serve her husband’s task.
The other woman with Lady Bertilak is Morgan Le Fay; the author makes it clear that the reader knows Morgan is not nearly as beautiful as Lady Bertilak. In fact, the way the author describes her is extremely degrading. This makes it seem as though women are nothing other than objects to look at; the two women were even compared in the poem, to see which one is better than the other. The poem states, “For if the one was winsome, then withered was the other” (line 951). This apparent objectified comparison of Lady Bertilak and Morgan Le Fay is another clear example of misogyny. The comparison is also apparent when the author states, “But unlike in their looks those ladies appeared, for if the younger was youthful, yellow was the elder; with rose-hue the one face was richly mantled, rough wrinkled cheeks rolled on the other.” (lines 950-953) The women were objects to be compared in the most blunt and graphic manner.
Morgan le Fay, receives the harshest, most misogynist portrayal in the poem. Her mental strength and her mystical powers provide the greatest threat to the men of this myth. If a male character had her characteristics and acted as she did, they would be described as bold, or a “mover and a shaker.” The poem portrays her as old and ugly, unlike Queen Guinevere, described as an object of beauty. The poem states that Gawain thought, “Her trunk was square and squat,/ her buttocks bulged and swelled./ Most men would sooner squint/ at her hand she held” (line 966). She is portrayed not only as old and ugly, but meddling, petty, and malicious. In describing Morgan’s role in the story, Lord Bertilak says, “Bertilak de Hautdesert hereabouts I am called, by the might of Morgan le Fay that in my mansion dwelleth, and by cunning of lore and crafts well learned.”
Morgan le Fay does indeed play a key role in the story, acting as the instigator of the visit of the Green Knight, but her actions are not portrayed as a positive, admirable action. The motivation for her actions are presented as petty. She is described as creating this entire scheme to stir up trouble in the court. Denver Ewing Baughan, author of “The Role of Morgan Le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” observes that, “Morgan le Fay’s plan, as stated by Bercilak (the Green Knight), was twofold: it had as its purpose the frightening of Guinevere and the shaming of Arthur’s court.” (Baughan 242). Her actions reveal a case of resentment and petty female rivalry, not a bold action. Another critic, Catherine Batt, states, “The ‘testing’ of Gawain has been incidental to a plot the central purpose of which was to terrorize Guinevere” (Batt 137). This furthers the point that Morgan is devious in her motives and in fact is motivated by her resentment of Guinevere. Her actions bear the mark of female guile, not the exercise of power. In the Arthurian world view, power is the province of male characters; Morgan’s powers are portrayed as manipulative, vengeful, and evil. Any man with similar powers would be celebrated as a “wizard,” as Merlin was both by name and by profession. The main character, Gawain is described as “mighty in arms, courageous of heart true to his word, faithful to his duty, pure of body and of mind, courteous in even the most trying conditions, fine of spirit and ideal, devout of act” (Wells 56). A reader of this poem would be hard-pressed to find such a positive description of actions taken by any of the three main female characters.
At the end of the poem, when the Green Knight tells Gawain about the entire scheme he has been a part of, Gawain quickly shifts all the blame onto the women in the story. Gawain says, “But it’s no wonder whenever a women outwits/ A man.” (lines 2414-2421). Notice how the lady becomes a scapegoat for Gawain to lay all of the blame onto. He begins his rant by claiming that women are the ones to blame going all the way back to when Eve bit the apple and committed the Original Sin that all humans inherited. Gawain states, “But it’s no great wonder whenever a woman outwits/ A man and leads him away to mourning or to madness/For Adam himself was led astray by a woman” (2414-2421). Gawain goes as far as to compare himself to other biblical figures such as Solomon and Sampson. He says that even if these “perfect” men were deceived by women then it is almost impossible for him not to be. He says, “And Solomon by several, and so too was Samson/(Who was doomed by Delilah), not to mention David/Who was blinded by Bathsheba and suffered a bitter fate/These were all laid low by women’s lies. What great luck /If a lord could simply love them and not believe them!” (2414-2421). Gawain here is trying very hard to push the blame away from him and onto someone else. He cannot take responsibility for his failure to complete the game, laying blame on the devious workings of Morgan Le Fay. Gawain laments, “She put this magic upon me to deprive you of your wits in hope Guinevere to hurt, that she in horror might die aghast at the glamour that gruesomely spake with its head in had before the high table” (lines 2459-2463). Of course he is correct in identifying Morgan Le Fay’s central role in the games, but he clearly cannot accept responsibility for his own actions. Gerald Morgan, writer of “Medieval Misogyny and Gawain’s Outburst against Women in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’” says, “Gawain is not only humiliated by this realization of his sinfulness but also frustrated and embittered by the thought that his own virtues have made their contribution to that downfall.” (Morgan 276). This means that despite his chivalrous and honorable behavior throughout the entire poem, his true feelings about women all come out in this rant. In short, Gawain’s rant provides another example of the negative, misogynistic attitudes held by men of the medieval period. Howard Bloch, in his article “Medieval Misogyny,” explores anti-feminism in a wide range of medieval literature. He cites several examples of women as idols, concluding that, “It has been argued that the adoration of women, whether the Holy Virgin, the courtly lady, or the prophetess, is but another form of misogynistic investment.” (Bloch 8). He is saying that even when women are idolized, they are objectified.
Literature can provide deep and nuanced insights into a culture or a historical period. The Arthurian literature captures a time of gallantry, romance, intrigue, and mysticism. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provides the reader with a rich and complex tale of honor, bravery, and mystical adventures. On other levels, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight captures beliefs, attitudes, and values that illustrate how women were viewed in late 14th century England. The three main female characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife; Lady Bertilak, Lady of the Manor in which much of the action takes place; and Morgan Le Fay, an older, physically unattractive enchantress. Each represents at least one negative characterizations of women in medieval times. These three women are portrayed in ways that showcase misogynistic attitudes toward women: the trophy wife to be seen and not heard, the seductress serving her husband’s interests, and the unattractive, dangerous woman instigator and manipulator. It would take a very different view of these three females in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to attribute any positive values or capabilities such as independence, competence, and leadership. It is not surprising that the most powerful and capable female character is portrayed as old, mischievous and the least attractive. These three female characters exemplify the negative attitude towards women in the Middle Ages, showing that even the advantage of beauty, social status, or magical powers were not empowering factors for women.