By Douglas Gray
Selim: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieaeval English Language and Literature, Vol.7 (1997)
Introduction: Malory’s Morte Darthur, as Caxton entitled it in his print of 1485, is well known and widely admired. This paper will try to relate it to an important part of its literary and cultural background, the fifteenth-century ‘literature of knighthood’ or ‘literature of nobility’, which is not well known and not admired at all. It was partly provoked by reading an examination script in which the candidate, discussing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, remarked that ‘the fact that Gawain’s armour freezes in the cold demonstrates the failure of the code of chivalry as such’. I know that beneath the unfortunate wording he (or she) was attempting to make an arguable point, but several things worried me. The tendency, for instance, to resort to rather absolute abstractions: the word code probably suggests something much more monolithic and legal than the not easily definable melange of physical and ethical and practical ideals included under the term ‘chivalry’. It seemed to me also that the candidate probably thought the ‘chivalry’ was not only obviously insufficient and ‘flawed’ – and therefore ought to be ‘criticized’ by any proper writer – but was also in decline, a sympton of the ‘waning of the Middle Ages’.