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Between Mars and Venus: balance and excess in the chivalry of the late-medieval English romance

Between Mars and Venus: balance and excess in the chivalry of the late-medieval English romance

By Ilan Mitchell-Smith

PhD Dissertation, Texas A&M University, 2005

Abstract: This dissertation is a study of how late-medieval romances construe ideal chivalric masculinity, and how aristocratic male violence was integrated into a beneficial model for masculine behavior. The focus is on the “fair unknown” romances of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and the final chapter reads Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” as thematically related to the “fair unknown” tradition in its treatment of chivalry and violence. By contrasting the masculine ideal of the romance with that of the chivalric epic, this study approaches chivalry in terms of multiple and competing models, and finds that, unlike the epic, the ideal of the romance was informed by the growing popularization of university-based philosophy and cosmology.

Between Mars and Venus argues that the most significant point of departure that the chivalric romance makes from the epic is its characterization of chivalric masculinity as a moderated avoidance of extreme behavior. Animalistic and monstrous references to knightly violence in the romance often result from episodes in which the knight has been overly amorous or court. By identifying both extremely amorous and extremelyaggressive behavior in terms of oppositional poles on a spectrum of excess, this study reads ideal masculinity as the mediated balance between the two extremes. The connection between the production of romances and the philosophy of the universities offers an explanation of chivalric masculinity in terms of Aristotelian virtue – as a mean between excess and deficiency of prowess. This reading of chivalric violence avoids the anachronistic assumptions of stereotypical male aggression that many critics rely on. By avoiding these assumptions, this dissertation offers a reworking of the feminine /masculine binary into a paradigm of competing masculinities, which is more attuned to the intellectual and philosophical contexts of late-medieval literary production.

Click here to read this article from Texas A&M University

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