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Chivalry, Masculinity, Romance

ENGL 321.301
TR 1:30-3

Medieval historian John of Salisbury, in his Policraticus, justified the function of bellatores, warrior knights, as being “to protect the Church, to attack faithlessness, to venerate the priesthood… to pacify provinces, to shed blood… for their brothers and to give up their lives if necessary.” From the time of the First Crusade, culminating with the capture of Jerusalem by Christian forces in 1100, chivalry  became incorporated into liturgy (the daily worship of the Church). The sea and land routes that led pilgrims eastward could also be used for military traffic; the promise of rare and exotic merchandise could send merchants and financiers in their wake. Such complex fusions of religious, militaristic, and commercial motivation suggested by chivalry continue to play out across the world (and particularly in the Middle East) today. The US Marine corps (motto: “the few, the proud”) represents its members as sword-bearing knights.

In this class we will examine this powerful, long-lived ethos of chivalry, along with the literary genre that carries it into battle: romance. We will also consider how masculinity is fashioned: those strong bonds between men defined above all through protection of the feminine (the lady; the patria). We begin with The Song of Roland, a poem from the time of the first Crusade that survives in a manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Roland sees the nephew of Charlemagne fail to prevent the Muhammadan invasion of Spain (based on actual events in the eighth century). We then move to the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1135-83), penned just as the European economy is about to explode into its most colorful and vigorous phase. Here we see the development of the grail quest; we also see women (such as Guenivere) take a much more active role, in what has been termed “feminine chivalry.” Chivalry, even as it is invented, seems to be a concept that many regard with humorous scepticism; women in Chrétien certainly direct or entice their knights into some strange positions. From here we move on to the magical Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: an almost perfect poem that sets the young Arthurian court against more ancient forces of the natural cycle. Our final medieval text is Malory’s Morte Darthur: an extraordinary summation of chivalric values, written as the aristocracy are fighting themselves to near-extinction in civil war and published just as the Tudors come to power (in 1485).

The greater part of this course is formed by a selection of medieval texts that see the shaping and evolving of chivalry and romance; the last part considers how these values endure and mutate down to the present day. We begin with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale: a text that carries forward central romance motifs of adultery, exile, and triumphant return. We may then look at later developments of romance and chivalric genres, such as Jane Austen’s Persuasion and the poetry of World War I; films to consider might include Glory and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. There are many American chivalries to consider, including the complex meshing of chivalry with southern plantation culture. Students might thus want to watch Gone with the Wind, or to ponder the meaning of Alfred Douglas’ sharing a name with an Arthurian knight.  Animal lovers might like to think about the cheval in chivalry, as seen in relationships between individual men and their named horses (Gryngolet, etc.); as in the maiming and mass slaughter of horses in war.

Assessment will be by one or two shorter assignments, plus one longer final essay.                                              

fulfills requirements