Oh, for Shame: Public Perception and Punishment in Chretien’s Cliges

Oh, for Shame: Public Perception and Punishment in Chretien’s Cliges

Kathryn L. Weber (Illinois Wesleyan University)

Illinois Wesleyan University, Undergraduate Review: Vol. 14: Iss. 1, Article 3


Medieval French romances suggest that societies depended on a system of honor and shame to keep every individual in his or her place and to draw a distinc­ tionbetweenmenandwomen. Societyexpectedwomentoabidebythestandards it established, just as it did knights, and failure to uphold these expectations led to public humiliation. Chretien de Troyes’s Cliges models these two sets of codes and illustrates not only this culture of honor and shame but also how society held women to higher standards and punished them more severely for failing to uphold thosestandards. Placing them under a greater degree of scrutiny kept women out of the public, male sphere. The actions and reactions of the characters in Cliges reveal their understanding ofthis division between the sexes and the implications of failing to play these assigned roles. The romance highlights the importance of public perception during the time and the difficulty that one-especially a woman­ might encounter after facing shame and the importance of avoiding it at all costs.

To develop this argument, a basic understanding of medieval society’s con­ ventions is necessary in order to outline the parameters of this honor/shame cul­ ture. Larry D. Benson focuses on the involved role tournaments played in the soci­ ety about which Chretien writes. According to Benson, “tournaments were a very important activity, and a plausible image of the noble life” . Tournaments helped to determine a knight’s parameters and illustrate how a knight achieved honor and, at times, experienced shame. In tournaments, knights intended to show loyalty and bring honor and booty to those they represented, to flex their prowess muscle and to establish their own reputation in every confrontation with other knights – all qualities Sidney Painter discerns necessary for a knight. Not only did tournaments largely determine the worth of a knight, but also the court from which he came.

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