Sir Thomas Malory has little to say about women in his Morte Darthur, but this is hardly surprising. His decision to retell the entire history of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table necessarily entailed a primary focus upon knighthood (and its principal functions, war and governance), from which women were barred by virtue of their sex. Therefore, the relative lack of interest which Malory shows in women should not necessarily be taken as a sign that he is, as one feminist critic has alleged, “misogynistic” or “homoerotic” (Stiller 94). In fact, if we examine closely Malory’s representation of courtship and marriage — a sphere of human activity within knightly society where men’s and women’s interests and activities converge — we will realize that he is not at all “misogynistic.” On the contrary, he is remarkably sympathetic towards women.
In Malory’s day, young women were expected (and sometimes forced) to marry according to the wishes of their family, even though the Church taught that the sacrament of marriage was not valid unless both parties freely consented to it. This had been the teaching of the Church since the twelfth century (Noonan, Sheehan). Nevertheless, even three hundred years later, among Malory’s social milieu, i.e., the gentry and lesser nobility, families continued to arrange marriages for political and economic benefit, without much regard for the feelings of their children. Contemporary documents like the letters of the Paston family reveal that young woman were much more likely than their brothers to be coerced into marriage (Haskell). In theory, of course, a young woman coerced into marriage could have the marriage annulled. In practice, however, without the help of her family or her new husband, she would find it impossible even to bring her case before the ecclesiastical court.
Late mediaeval romances went much farther than the Church in positively advocating that young people be free to choose their mates for love. Since the late twelfth century and the innovative courtly romances of Chretien de Troyes, mediaeval romances had often made erotic love the basis for marriage, the only major exceptions being the romances of adultery connected with the legend of Arthur: Lancelot and Guinevere (whose adulterous love either Chretien himself or his patron, Marie de Champagne, invented) and Tristram and Isode. It was not until the fourteenth century, however, that poets and romancers began to argue that true love, or “bon’ am our,” ought to be consummated in marriage. This fourteenth-century argument appears to be the consequence of a conscious synthesis: to the courtly values of freedom and fidelity in love was added the Christian value of chastity, thus enabling “fin’ amour” to become “true love,” passionate but also chaste, and so ideally consummated in marriage.
Possibly the earliest expression of this synthesis is to be found in an Anglo-Norman “Art d ’aimer” written either in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. The poet insists that true love is chaste, “Que bone amur ne quert peche” (line 658). No matter how much the lover ardently desires his lady, he must not touch her “S’il ne soit de baisere, / Taunt que il ad esposé” (lines 659-60). For through the sacrament of marriage God makes true lovers “un char et un saunk” and blesses their union. Indeed, there is no better life for lovers than to serve God in this joyous manner (lines 676-83).
Much better known to English readers, however, is the rather different expression of this synthesis in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale. The Franklin begins his tale by telling briefly of Arveragus’s courtship of Dorigen and her acceptance of him as husband. This happy conclusion then becomes the occasion of some philosophical remarks upon the nature of love in which the Franklin stresses the importance of freedom:
Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.
Whan maistrie com th, the God of Love anon
Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!
Love is a thyng as any spirit free.
Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constreyned as a thral;
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal. (V. 764-70)
A few lines later, the Franklin pauses to reflect upon the paradox at the heart of the lovers’ marriage: Arveragus, who was Dorigen’s servant in love, is now also her lord in marriage, whereas she, who was his lady in love, is now also his wife. Is it possible for two people to be at one and the same time both ruler and ruled? Yes it is, concludes the Franklin, because their seemingly contradictory roles are in fact “acorde[d]” by “that lawe of love” (798) which decrees that love must be free. With this conclusion, the Franklin goes beyond the notion that young people should be able to freely choose their mates, to the much more radical notion that, if they wish to remain lovers, they must also remain free, unconstrained by “maistrye,” after they are wedded.
Neither the teachings of the Church nor romances like The Franklin’s Tale could alter the marriage customs of the gentry, however. The Paston Letters suggest that by the late fifteenth century, even though young people of both sexes were influenced by the romantic ideal of marrying for love, their parents still expected to be able to arrange their children’s marriages for profit. In 1469, Richard Calle addressed Margery Paston, as his “owne lady and mastres and spoke of the “greete loue” which had long been between them (No. 861). In 1477, Margery Brews addressed John Paston III as her “welebeloued Volentyne” (No. 416). Both pairs of lovers eventually married, but the contrast between the manner of their marrying is even more instructive than this one romantic likeness in their courtship. Margery Brews was able to marry John Paston only because their respective families finally, and after great difficulty, agreed upon the financial terms of the marriage contract. In contrast, Richard Calle was able to marry Margery Paston only because the young lovers managed to defy Margery’s parents by entering into a valid clandestine union.
Margery was probably only seventeen at the time, but her parents had been looking for a suitable husband for her since she was fourteen. She may well have been aware of, and determined to avoid, what had happened to her aunt, Elizabeth, when she was young. Elizabeth had been coerced into accepting a marriage repugnant to her, by beating, starving, and imprisonment (No. 446). Margery must have realized that her parents would never agree to her marrying Richard Calle, the family’s steward, and so secretly she betrothed herself to him, apparently knowing that words of betrothal spoken in the present tense would create a binding union in canon law.5 Her mother, Margaret Paston, went to the Bishop of Norwich to have the clandestine marriage annulled. But after questioning Margery and Richard separately, the Bishop concluded that their vows of betrothal were indeed sufficient to make a valid marriage. The family were powerless to prevent this unsuitable match, but they made Margery pay a heavy price for her disobedience. They disowned her, refusing ever to see her again, even though they continued to employ her husband as their steward for some years thereafter (Haskell 468).
Original article: Marital Fidelity in Morte D’Arthur