Depictions of Guinevere in Medieval Texts: From Silent Companion to Active Adultery in the Span of a Century
The Arthurian legends have been a subject of intense fascination and inspection by readers and scholars alike since they first appeared towards the end of the eighth century or perhaps the beginning of the ninth century BCE (Bruce, 319). Appearing to refer to events of the sixth century BCE, and without any clarity as to the actual existence of the hero or his true connection to the literary character introduced in the horribly inaccurate historical writings of the Welsh monk Nennius, it cannot be said with certainty whether Arthur — if existed — was truly a king or more of a general, though it appears certain he was not the king of a peacefully united Britain or the long-reigning champion of honor and chivalry that most stories have made him out to be (Bruce, 319). As with most similar fictions rooted in some level of history, the Arthurian legends contain references to events, places, and perhaps some people that can be tentatively identified using more accurate historical documents and archaeological findings, however a mere two centuries after Arthur might have fought the Saxons back from his British dominions his story was already warped and exaggerated beyond recognition to create the hero king celebrated by schoolboys today (Bruce).
The transformation of Arthur did not end with Nennius’ original (or at least first known extant) version of the legendary figure, but rather continued to morph quite freely over the ensuing centuries. Emerging from the Welsh tradition still clouded in a great deal of mystery, French poets and troubadours soon picked up the tale and embellished, altered, and added to the stories in a manner that answered many questions and supplied extraneous details and exploits, as well, almost certainly conflating other tales and legends with Arthur’s own while also twisting the stories to their own purposes (Putter; Taylor). This was occurring in a world still most of a millennia away from post-modern concepts of textual fluidity and unreliability in the positions of the authors and narrators as they are presented through their texts, and yet the lack of explicit recognition of such post-modern concepts can perhaps be attributed more accurately to their ubiquity and their pervasiveness rather than through a simple lack of critical examination. In a time when few were literate and when storytelling was explicitly fluid and open to interpretation — when each oral telling of a tale was a new event in and of itself in a manner that is far more direct than the creation of meaning that occurs when a reader engages with a fixed text — this fluidity and freedom on the part of the author is not only expected but necessary, and the drastic changes that occur in the Arthurian legends in the medieval French tradition are highly understandable.
The purpose and effects of the shifts, emendations, and whole-cloth creations made by various authors in the medieval French tellings of the Arthurian legends are far less easily understood, however, and require a deeper level of examination and scholarly consideration. Many different aspects of the tales, from Arthur’s own character to the chronology of events to the identities and actions of certain of the Knights of the Round Table, are significantly altered in these later versions of the legends in manners that meaningfully illustrate the difference in perceptions and values that occurred in the four-or-so centuries that intervened between Nennius’ tales and those scribed by the poets of medieval France (Bruce; Putter; Taylor). Any and all of these aspects can and have been the subject of abundant scholarship in modern and post-modern literary criticism and historical contextualization, yet one issue takes precedence in many examinations of the ever-more-detailed tales of King Arthur: that of gender and sexuality. Specifically, changes in the character of Guinevere as she is portrayed by these median Arthurian authors seem to demonstrate highly significant changes in the manner in which women, sexuality and sexual action, social conventions, and loyalties were perceived and interpreted by the authors and cultures that produced the various forms of Arthur and his subjects’ exploits. In the brief span of approximately a single century, Guinevere is transformed from a largely silent and deferent Queen to a manipulative and conniving creature of lust and jealousy, signifying a clear shift in the interpretation of her role and its reflection on contemporary society in terms of chivalry, royal loyalty, and certain aspects of courtly love.
Geoffrey Monmouth, a twelfth-century scholar at Oxford, can be credited as the foundation upon which modern conceptions of Arthur are built, through the French romantic traditions that would build on Monmouth’s tales decades after he himself either translated or invented a set legends and tales more complete than those mentioned by Nennius (no part of the book that Monmouth claims to have been working from when he wrote his History Regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain) has ever been found) (Putter, 38-9). His text does not focus solely on the Arthurian legends, describing many kings and events that supposedly came prior to Arthur, but the bulk of his work (Books Four through Twelve) is devoted to Arthur’s rise to power and the events that occurred during and immediately following his reign according to this version of “history.” Though many notable embellishments are given, it is interesting to note how small and how consistent a role Guinevere seems to play throughout the work. She is introduced almost in passing, after a description of Arthur’s unification of the country that had long been long plagued by a series of internal and external wars: “he took unto him a wife born of a noble Roman family, Guenevere, whodid surpass in beauty all the other dames of the island” (Monmouth, Book Nine, chapter IX). The text quickly moves on to more of Arthur’s adventures as he leaves his new Queen behind to conquer Ireland (a feat he accomplishes handily), and she is not mention again for quite some time (Monmouth, Book Nine, chapter X).
When she is mentioned again, the mention is as brief as the first: she along with Arthur’s nephew Mordred are charged with defending Britain while Arthur is off on another expedition (Book Ten, chapter II), and later Arthur discovers that Mordred has crowned himself king and forced a marriage between himself and Guinevere (Book Ten, chapter II). Arthur quickly returns with some of his army and puts the usurper Mordred on the run, and “When this was reported unto Queen Guenevere, she was forthwith smitten with despair and fled from York unto Caerleonshe purposed thenceforth to lead a chaste life amongst the nuns, and did take the veil of their order in the church of Julius the Martyr (Monmouth, Book Eleven, chapter I). This last mention of Guinevere seems to suggest that she bore some guilt for Mordred’s tyranny, though it is not made clear whether this guilt should be seen as political, sexual, or both, and indeed Guinevere’s motives, desires, and attitudes are never explicitly expressed in this text. When she is mentioned she seems highly important, but the brevity and the infrequency of these mentions tells another story altogether.
Guinevere (or Guenevere), in Monmouth’s recounting of the “history” of Arthur as a British king, is essentially a footnote. Her infidelity with Mordred is mentioned though not described, and it appears more likely that her guilt was inescapable and unplanned than that she was an active conspirator in giving Mordred Arthur’s kingdom and bed. In this, she is like a rock — an ever-standing testament to the place and duty of a good wife and Queen, symbolizing her chastity and her subservience even in the actions/scenarios that establish her guilt. Her individual character, which includes the elements of her gender, her sexuality, and her social ties and duties, is not ever detailed and is clearly not seen as important; she was beautiful and nobly born and raised, making her fit to be a Queen to Arthur, and she essentially seems to do what she is told by one male figure after another, without any deeper considerations necessary. While it would be dangerous to read too deeply into this description, it is fair to assume that Guinevere’s character and true individual identity is simply unimportant to Monmouth and to others of his time, with only her relation to Arthur’s crown and solidity of leadership issues of any meaningful import. Guinevere, in this early telling of what is primarily a military and political history, is truly a feminine object, primarily inanimate and without any true agency or ability to affect events and actions.
Chretien de Troyes’ Romantic Visions
Whether Monmouth’s depiction of Guinevere can be seen as indicative of cultural attitudes towards women at the time of his writing or if it was simply authorial discretion to depict her as politically unimportant and un-powerful is a matter of debate that can never be settled; there had certainly been potent women in Britain’s history to that point, though it is equally certain that a patriarchy had been firmly established in government and society for some time. The French tradition of the Arthurian legends, however, are far less overtly political in their approach to the tales and to Guinevere in particular, and though politics and loyalties are still important elements of these stories the aspects of romance, love, and sexuality are far more prominent. Beginning with the poet Chretien de Troyes, Guinevere began to take on a more active role that at once justifies the feminine and begins to suggest the degradation and un-holiness of the female body and intent. Though Man might still be the more active and potent partner, Woman can corrupt and influence Man, these tales suggest, and the character of Guinevere seems a brand new creation given her immensely increased prominence when compared to all known earlier forms of the legends (Fulton, 3).
Erec and Enide is the tale of one of Arthur’s knights and the peasant maid he loves and marries, but this tale begins to introduce Guinevere’s agency, sexuality, and other aspects of individual personality as well as shedding light on more general notions of gender and romance in the medieval French tradition. While Arthur and the bulk of his retinue are on a stag hunt, Queen Guinevere waits at another point in the woods and Erec rides up beside her, offering his companionship: “And the Queen thanks him: “Fair friend, I like your company well, in truth; for better I could not have” (de Troyes, Vv. 67-114). The Queen is welcoming, already beginning to show personality and agency, and this continues as the story of the poem progresses. Seeing a strange knight somewhat distant, the Queen sends her maid to ask him to approach, but she is struck by the knight’s dwarf servant, who tells here that, ” it is not meet that you should speak to so excellent a knight” (de Troyes, Vv. 155-274). There is a definite dismissal of the feminine as impossible of equaling the worth of a man, and yet this dismissal is given by a creature that is “rude and mean,” not simply questioning its legitimacy but in fact suggesting that this treatment of the feminine is inappropriate and even evil.
The goodness and rightness of feminine intercession is quickly demonstrated; after the killing of the stag the King is expected to bestow a kiss upon the fairest maiden, and each knight is willing to fight if they are dishonored by not having their own lady chosen, but the Queen intercedes: “Sire,’ says the Queen to the King, ‘listen to me a moment. If these knights approve what I say, postpone this kiss until the third day, when Erec will be back.’ There is none who does not agree with her, and the King himself approves her words” (de Troyes, Vv. 311-41). Erec does eventually return, having vanquished the abusive knight and having fallen in love with Enide along the way. Enide eventually wins the King’s kiss to the unanimous approval of all present, and thus her feminine beauty dissuades the men from unnecessary violent action, and yet this is not accomplished without Guinevere’s intercession; it is Arthur’s Queen that dresses the maiden in fine clothes, and then insists that Erec and his new maid deserve the utmost honors of the royal court (de Troyes, Vv. 1479-690; Vv. 1751-844). Sexuality and gender differentiation are quite clear, yet the feminine is seen as much more active and powerful — in a different direction and with different intentions than the male power also presented in the tale, but with no less potency.
It is in de Troyes’ Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart that Guinevere truly comes into her own as a character, though, and in which the complex interactions of femininity, sexuality, loyalty, and politics are questioned and never fully defined. Written at the court and according to some at the specific behest of Marie de Champagne, this is the first surviving tale surrounding Lancelot and also introduces the concept of his love affair with Guinevere (Bruce, 327; Putter, 44). Though the figure of Guinevere is quite prominent, however, she is not given much agency throughout most of the tale: kidnapped by the King’s enemy Meleagant, Lancelot — already in love — rides out to rescue her, with several adventures including a few hesitations along the way. This can be read as an ongoing battle between Love and Reason, which are naturally opposed, and in this tale not only is Love supposed to triumph, but the consummation of the Love between Lancelot and Guinevere is not portrayed as immoral precisely because of Love’s supremacy (Putter, 48-9). Her true moment of action appears to paint her in a negative light, in fact, as an ungrateful and capricious example of femininity:
When the Queen saw the king holding Lancelot by the handshe looked displeased with clouded brow, and she spoke not a word. ‘Lady, here is Lancelot come to see you,’ says the king; ‘you ought to be pleased and satisfied.’ ‘I, sire? He cannot please me. I care nothing about seeing himI shall never deny that I feel no gratitude toward him.’ & #8230;the Queen listened as Lancelot voiced his disappointment, but in order to grieve and confound him, she would not answer a single word, but returned to her room.
(de Troyes, Vv. 3955-4030)
Not only is Guinevere ungrateful, but her response is explicitly calculated “to grieve and confound him,” making it clear that feminine action is more subtle and indirect though no less powerful than the direct and often brutal power of the masculine, as evidenced by Lancelot and others in the romance.
Eventually, of course, love is restored between Lancelot and Guinevere, and Putter (49) reads Guinevere’s rejection of Lancelot as an indication of her displeasure at his hesitation — Reason should not have served to hold him back in any instance when Love was pressing him on. This not only excuses the adultery inherent to the consummation of their love but in fact compels it, making it an act of moral necessity rather than disloyalty, and thus Love is shown as transcending all political and social mores despite the clear ramifications of Love on these areas. This also places the feminine in an entirely separate sphere from that of masculine “real world” affairs, as the rules of Love that Guinevere establishes (in this reading) do not have any influence on the rules of society, political loyalties, etc., but are instead wholly distinct and “other” through their transcendence. Women are thus given more agency, but this agency is detached, different, and often incommunicative. This can be seen in Erece and Enide as well, with the initial shock at the treatment of the Queen’s maid, the physical transportation and transformation of Enide, and even the custom of the kiss all strengthening the sense of feminine mystery and otherness.
The Lady of the Lai
The Lais of Marie de France are a series of twelve poems devoted largely to the theme of courtly love, but in Lanval this theme is turned roundly on its head in a very telling manner. Courtly love as celebrated in the bulk of the Lais takes place between an unhappily married lady of some wealth and nobility, but in the tale of the knight Lanval the Queen is not truly unhappy in her marriage, but lusts after Lanval regardless and essentially throws herself at him, while Lanval remains committed to the fairy lover he has pledged himself (and his secrecy) to: “Lady,’ he said, ‘Let me go! / I never thought to love you so!’ (Marie de France). Interestingly, however, Lanval does not invoke a competing love that prevents him from taking the offer Guinevere extends, but begs off by citing his loyalty to the King. Whether this is necessary to protect his promised secrecy to his lover or not is not determined and is ultimately immaterial; the Queen accuses him of homosexuality whereupon he reveals his true affair and the Queen departs, shattered and rejected. Guinevere’s dastardliness does not end there, but when the King arrives she repeats the insults Lanval levied at her with a significant twist, claiming that the insult arose when, “He’d asked her for a love-affair, / She’d said no” (Marie de France). The truth of Lanval’s love is eventually revealed and he rides of to Avalon with his lover, but this is done through the female lover’s eventual appearance and intercession rather than through action of his own.
Throughout this lai, in fact, Agency is seen to be almost entirely feminine, for better or for worse. Lanval is completely powerless when he first meets the fairy lover, easily pledging himself to her after she sends her maids to approach him. The knight is the receiver of the love in this case, and is shown several times to be the less powerful of the two partners — at the end of the poem, he must leap onto the back of her horse as she rides underneath while she controls the reigns, in a direct subversion of the traditional rescuing of the distressed damsel by the steed-riding knight. Lanval is at once powerless against her love and powerless to defend himself against the Queen’s advances and court manipulations; though he does not succumb to her attempts at seduction his honor has been irrevocably and irredeemably violated, it seems. Arthur, too, is rendered essentially impotent by Guinevere’s actions; the concept of the spurned would-be adulteress turning on the man that refuses her with accusations of an attempted violation is not new, but is employed her with great efficacy, and Arthur’s actions not only fail to solve the real problem he faces — that of a disloyal wife who not only directly betrays him personally and politically through her infidelity, but who is now deliberately sowing dissension in his ranks as a matter of personal lust-driven vengeance — but in fact serve to exacerbate this problem through the explicit design of the problem-maker. Though feminine power is still wielded differently, as in de Troyes’ poems, it can be seen to directly impact the world of men and political action.
Guinevere’s character is more extreme in its transformation; though she was active and perhaps somewhat capricious in the Knight of the Cart, she is downright manipulative and mean here. It is important to note that she does not stand as an embodiment of all women, as the other female presence in the story is more powerful and more benevolent (though also more masculine in the form of her action, to some degree), but her actions do seem to represent the dangers that exist when a woman’s power is wielded in the court. The subtlety and strangeness of her attitude towards Lanval is capable of creating gross injustice and conflict among Arthur and his knights, and yet her honesty and honor cannot successfully be plumbed by the men of the court alone. Feminine power is decidedly dangerous when wielded thus.
Lanval was most likely written in the late twelfth century, and thus is not that far culturally removed from the poems of de Troyes, therefore it would be specious to suggest that a radical reassessment of women had occurred in society between the writing of the Knight of the Cart and the text under present discussion. It is possible that the championship of the former by Marie de Champagne, one of de Troyes’ benefactors, tempered the tone towards women that is struck in that poem, and it is equally likely that Marie de France simply had other motives in the composition of this lai that had more to do with representations of love, betrayal, and a good story to tell than it did with larger commentaries on society. The extreme and extremely different representation of females wielding power make the deduction of a specific view or description of women or of female power — or indeed of female sexuality, which provides an almost holy salvation on one hand and is the cause of strife and evil on the other — more than a little problematic, and at best it can be said that Guinevere’s transformation here is used as a device to strengthen the image of holy love, where gender roles are highly significant but where commentary on the larger Arthurian cycle is minimal. Lanval is the unhappy bride trapped in an unequal relationship with the Queen, and his fairy is the knight and courtly lover that saves him.
Quests and Deaths in the Vulgate Cycle
One of the last major tellings of the Arthurian tales in the period is known as the Vulgate Cycle, and in addition to recounting the famed quest for the Holy Grail that occupied the legendary King and his knights it also delves deeper into the affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, painting it in a far more positive and an even more pure and celebratory light than de Troyes. Though their love (or at least his love for her) has already been established, Lancelot and Guinevere’s first chance for a private meeting occurs demonstrates the clarity of feeling, desire, and a strange sense of chastity on both sides of this adulterous yet un-condemned relationship. Urged by their host to kiss the lovestruck knight, the Queen demures: “This is neither the time nor the place for kissing, she said. ‘Have no fear, I’m as eager for it as he is, but those ladies there are already wondering that we have done so much, and they would necessarily see it. And yet, if he wishes, I will most willingly give him a kiss’” (Vulgate). She is still desirous, even lustful and more secure in her passion as her later kiss of Lancelot demonstrates, but is also conscious of the mores of propriety and the holy nature of this love that would be sullied by voyeurism and gossip. Guinevere makes the expression of her feminine power purposefully secret, then; knowing it to be strange and unfit for matters of court, she removes it from that sphere. She makes this explicitly clear in a speech to Lancelot that comes immediately after she gives him a “prolonged kiss,” in which she warns the knight, “If my reputation were to suffer because of you, it would be a base and ugly love’” (Vulgate). Here, there is not as much worry that love and the exercise of feminine power will disrupt the court, but that the exercise of patriarchal powers will sully the purity of the love itself.
The story of their love continues with a great deal more pathos and bitterness than that with which it is commenced. In the final section of the Vulgate Cycle, which deals with the end of Arthur’s reign and several stories that have yet to be wrapped up, Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery is discovered but is never truly judged either temporally or through any show of divine intervention. Though the King now knows of the unfaithfulness of his wife and his most revered knight, more pressing problems intervene before this can be fully and explicitly dealt with through any sort of official proceeding and both Guinevere and Lancelot eventually end up cloistering themselves amongst religious orders, retiring entirely from the life of court and the power elements of society. Interestingly, this preserves the separation between love and the feminine power that Guinevere wields — though this has perhaps waned in her age, as have both Lancelot and Arthur’s potency — with the temporal and patriarchal powers of the court, again showing the feminine to be strange and separate yet without condemning it or in any way relegating it to an inferior or morally deficient position. Indeed, not only is the adulterous relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere is not only depicted as righteous and character-strengthening for both of the partners in this romantic entanglement, but it ultimately brings both of them closer to God through their self-imposed cloistering and internal reflection, which continues a strong Christianization of the Arthurian legend that can be seen throughout the Vulgate Cycle. In this, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere and the feminine control of this relationship can both be seen as holier or better than the masculine power and achievements of Arthur and his knights save one — the finding of the Grail (the feminine receptacle and symbol of Gods power) by the virgin Galahad. Guinevere has thus progressed to a point of true and comprehensive agency combined with true benevolence and efficacy in what can be seen as the most feminine-affirmative version of the Arthurian tales.
Guinevere’s transformation throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — and indeed from the late eighth century when the earliest mention of Arthur as a figure of importance is found — is truly profound and worthy of considerable examination. Her transition from seeming inanimacy in the version told by Geoffrey Monmouth to her extreme agency and extreme goodness in the Vulgate Cycle, with stops for more subtle intervention and outright dastardliness in the poems of Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France, is as much a tale of the feminine in transition as it is a reexamination and appropriation of old legends for new times. Arthur’s time, if Arthur actually occupied it in some form, was six centuries old by the time the earliest of these authors approached the material, and their understanding of events and characters was necessarily shaped — and likely explicitly so — by the mores and conventions of the period. The Norman Conquest that intervened between the events and the versions discussed here not only introduced the French to the tales, but also introduced French customs, emerging idealized traditions, and a new sense of security that was itself in need of perpetuation. The idealization of the feminine that is seen in Guinevere’s overall trajectory could be indicative of attempts to discourage martial activities and desires, and to instill a greater sense of calmer devotion to less directly powerful pursuits. On the other hand, an idealization of the feminine also makes women more worthy as objects of pursuit, and as sexual conquest is part of the bargain with Guinevere this reverence could be seen as more patriarchal wishful thinking.
Bruce, J. Douglas. The Development of Arthurian Romance in Medieval France. The Sewanee Review 13(3)(1905): 319-35.
Chretien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. Accessed 5 June 2012. http://omacl.org/Erec/
Chretien de Troyes. Lancelot or, the Knight of the Cart. Accessed 5 Juen 2012. http://omacl.org/Lancelot/
Fulton, Helen. A Woman’s Place. Quondam et Futurus 3(2)(1993): 1-25.
Marie de France. Lanval. Translated by Judith P. Shoaf, 2005. Accessed 5 June 2012. http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/jshoaf/Marie/lanval.pdf
Monmouth, Geoffrey. History of the Kings of Britain. Accessed 5 June 2012. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.htm
Putter, Ad. The twelfth-century Arthur.
Taylor, Jane. The thirteenth-century Arthur.
Vulgate Cycle. Norton. Accessed 5 June 2012. http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/middleages/topic_2/vulgate.htm
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