By Robert Rouse
The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain, eds. Amanda Hopkins and Cory Rushton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007)
Introduction: The late fourteenth-century romance Sir Launfal narrates the financial, martial and erotic adventures of one of the lesser-known knights of the Arthurian court. In Thomas Chestre’s popularised version of Marie de France’s Breton Lai (Lanval), our hero’s woes begin when he is excluded from the Arthurian court’s largesse after he refuses the predatory Guinevere’s sexual advances. Shamed by his resulting poverty, which is only amplified by the financial demands of his role as Arthur’s royal steward, Launfal takes his leave of the court and departs for Caerleon, where he vainly seeks succour at the hands of the city’s mayor, who has benefited in the past from Launfal’s own generosity. However, a knight out of favour in the royal court is of no current use to the mayor, who begrudgingly offers only meagre lodgings, and this is only forthcoming after Launfal sarcastically rebukes him regarding the value of past loyalties. Denied not only the company of men owing to his poverty, but also access to the Church, as he lacks clean clothing in which to visit it, Launfal is approaching the depths of despair. After a final humiliation of being excluded from the invitations to a Trinity feast hosted by the mayor, Launfal rides out into the forest to seek refuge both from the ridicule of the townsfolk and from his own sense of shame.
It is in this moment of extreme financial deprivation and social exclusion, the pathos of which is further intensified by his fall into a fen while riding to the forest, that Launfal encounters what turns out to be the unsought answer to his social and pecuniary predicament. Having stopped to rest and to contemplate his woes under a tree in a forest clearing, he is visited by two beautifully arrayed maidens, who greet him nobly before leading him to the pavilion of their mistress, Dame Triamoure. Once there, Launfal comes across a most magnificent scene of exotic opulence:
He fond in the paviloun
The kinges doughter of Olyroun,
Dame Triamoure that highte.
Here fadir was King of Fairie
Of Occient, fere and nyie,
A man of mochel mighte.
In the paviloun he fond a bed of pris
Y-heled with purpur bis,
That semilé was of sighte.
Therinne lay that lady gent
That aftere Sir Launfal hedde y-sent,
That lefson lemede bright.
For hete her clothes down she dede
Almest to here gerdilstede;
Than lay she uncovert.
She was as whit as lilie in May
Or snow that sneweth in wintris day –
He seigh nevere non so pert.