Between Guinevere and Galehot: Homo/eroticism in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 15 No. 2 (2007)
A homoerotic reading of the thirteenth-century Prose Lancelot, arguably the best and most sophisticated of all medieval romances ever written, lays bare a hitherto-disregarded ideological stance of courtly love. Through the first half of the Prose Lancelot, which is known as “Lancelot without the Grail,” Lancelot’s love for Guinevere is counterbalanced by Galehot’s equally passionate infatuation with Lancelot. While exploiting the well-established romantic rivalry between love and friendship to the fullest extent, this juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible erotic orientations, at the same time, points towards ideological proximity between the quasi-religious cult of erotic love and the celebration of male-male bonding in chivalric society. Although both love and friendship appear to be sensationally erotic and disturbingly antisocial in the Prose Lancelot, they eventually prove to be conducive to the patriarchal and feudal status quo since they urge the involved to sacrifice all worldly desires and ambitions for the sake of purely psychological reward, thus endorsing a curious lifestyle that might be dubbed as “erotic asceticism.” This eroticized ideal of asceticism objectifies and marginalizes not only the object of erotic desire (i.e. the lady) but also its seeming subject (i.e. the knight-lover), who, in turn, becomes the object of his friend’s erotic desire. What is “subverted and mystified,” therefore, is not female desire alone; male desire is also subverted and mystified. As “the female subject vanishes,” so does the male subject of romantic adventure, which Georges Duby has identified with the juvenes, the group of landless bachelor knights in feudal society who were “condemned to a prolonged ‘youth’” by the law of primogeniture. It is arguable, therefore, that a “well-wrought urn” of courtly romance creates a safely contained world of fantasy for both aristocratic women and “young” bachelors, who are institutionally excluded from patriarchal and feudal resources and privileges.