Medieval Misogyny and Gawain’s Outburst against Women in “‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’
Gerald Morgan (Trinity College, Dublin)
The Modern Language Review: Vol. 97, No. 2 (Apr., 2002), pp. 265-278
The view has been gaining ground of late that the Gawain of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , a knight renowned as ‘Pat fyne fader of nurture’ (1. 919) and as ‘so cortays and coynt’ of his ‘hetes’ (1. I525), degenerates at the moment of leave-taking from the Green Knight, his erstwhile host, to the level of a churl capable of abusing the ladies of that knight’s household (11.2411 -28). In an article provocatively entitled ‘Gawain’s Antifeminist Rant, the Pentangle, and Narrative Space’, Catherine Batt claims that in this ‘anti-feminist passage’ (so-called), ‘Gawain imposes an unsatisfactory rhetorical patterning on experience, in order to make it intelligible in already-known terms’ and that he ‘does not later show regret for his illogical calumny of women, because its expression exists as a discrete encoding of received wisdom’. The assumption of anti-feminism in this passage has become something of an article of faith.
Thus Richard Newhauser refers without explanation to ‘Gawain’s misogynous outburst’, and Derek Pearsall without sympathy to Gawain’s willingness ‘to bluster ‘, whereby ‘he turns on women and blames them’. By Pearsall’s account Gawain does this not in the bitter moment of self-discovery but ‘when he has gathered himself somewhat’. In other words Gawain’s bitterness has the character not of an emotional spasm but of a considered insult. We seem to be on the verge here of substituting our own commonplaces for what we may take to be the commonplaces of the Middle Ages.