Le Morte Darthur: The Masculine & Feminine State Dynamic

“Ryght so there cam a damesell into the halle and salewed the kyng and prayde hym of succoure.”

Sir Gareth of Orkney, 226:12

The damesell’s interaction with Arthur at court reveals a political complexity concerning the obligations between men and women in the context of the medieval romance genre. Here, women possess considerable power and influence and are just as capable as the men to perform in the state political sphere. This male / female relationship dynamic illustrates the intricacy of the roles both men and women can play in the political realm and reveals the considerable power women actually possess in spite of the majority of Malory’s word count being devoted to masculine action and influence.

The damesell, unable to take care of the Rede Knyght of the Rede Laundys by herself, addresses Kynge Arthur in person at his court in hopes this masculine governing body will provide her with necessary service, “[my sustir] is beseged with a tirraunte,” (226:16) and that the damesell has “come to you for succoure” (226:18). The damesell understands that the purpose of Arthur’s administration is an effort to bring order to all England, which she is showing respect to by coming directly to Arthur as well as deferring to his rule. However, in not revealing the full facts of the case, the name and location of her “sustir”, she is refused. Though Arthur and his (male) knights have sworn and are obligated to protect ladies from harm (the Pentecostal Oath), especially against a “tirraunte” (226:16) who is doing such harm, Arthur can refuse this obligation since the damesell is also refusing information for him. The damesell, understanding that Arthur cannot just send out his military without having full reliable information, shows political tact, “than muste I seke forther” (226:35) when Arthur denies her request.

While she does ultimately obtain a champion, Sir Gareth, “graunte me to have this adventure of this damesell,” (227:7) since his true royal lineage is kept from her she does not see the worth that this “kychyn knave” could honorably provide for her, and in fact grows angry, “she wexed angry” (227:17) and insults Arthur himself in front of the whole assembled court, “Fy on the” (227:16). The damesell requires the full and honorable force of the masculine state institution to uphold its obligations to protect the people, especially in this case since it’s a lady in need of assistance, and so she feels justified in behaving openly hostile towards the king since she believes these obligations are not only not being met, she also believes her honor and need of assistance is being mocked by being assigned this “kychyn knave” as if it were some sort of bastardized consolation prize. For his part, Arthur shows political tact and restraint by not punishing the damesell for insubordination or disrespect since she is, after all, one of the lady’s he has sworn to protect, a fact the damesell is well aware of and knows will protect her in this verbal sparring match.

Yet Arthur does have an option that allows him to uphold his protection obligations without necessarily being directly implicated in the damsell’s affair should the adventure turn out bad for the him and the state. By allowing Gareth to be knighted not by the head of the state, Arthur, but by his lieutenant, Lancelot “than Sir Launcelot gaff hym the order of knyghthode” (229:16), Arthur can still save face and not neglect his obligations. In turn, the damesell, though begrudgingly, does her part in shaping the character of this fresh knight by constantly testing him, either through verbal abuse, “thou stynkyst all of the kychyn,” (229:28) or by upholding the chivilaristic rule of mercy as a teaching moment (as far as she believes it to be) for Gareth, “sle hym nat, for and thou do thou shalt repente hit” (236:9).

Thus both parties, male and female, show political shrewdness and take full advantage of the complicated opportunities which have been given to each of them. For the damesell’s sake, at worst Gareth would be killed by one of the numerous knights they will encounter during the adventure and so she will be free to just “seke forther,” and in Arthur’s case he has an opportunity to remove yet another “tirraunte” from his kingdom. In their own ways, both Arthur and the damesell possess great influence in the shaping of society and in upholding chivalry.