Fearful Villainy

Fearful Villainy

Moffat, Douglas

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)


It is true that medieval writers never seem to tire of those old saws, that even a man of high station can act like a vilein, that gentility might be found even in a cow shed. But these exceptions only confirm the rule: the vilein as stereotype behaves in exactly the opposite way from a courtly and chivalrous man; the vilein lacks courtesy, good manners, discretion, largesse, magnanimity, and so forth. Even in his physical appearance the vilein, because of his gross and filthy ugliness, embodies the opposite of the courtly ideal. The Romance of the Rose, because of the formalism of its allegory, makes explicit a fundamental stylistic opposition between vilein and courtier. Amant achieves entry into the Garden of Delight, is invited to join the dance of Mirth’s beautiful companions, and finally becomes the God of Love’s man because of his courteous manners. Villainy is one of the figures depicted on the outside of the garden wall, one of those excluded from the company of Mirth, and it might be argued that all the figures depicted there represent “villainous” behavior or situations.

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