Love, Freedom, and Marital Fidelity in Malory’s Morte Darthur
By Beverly Kennedy
Florilegium, Vol. 10 (1988-91)
Introduction: 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”.
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. 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.