‘But this much I shall offer me to you,’ said Sir Lancelot, ‘if it may please the King’s good grace and you, my lord Sir Gawain. I shall first begin at Sandwich, and there I shall go in my shirt barefoot; and at every ten miles’ end I shall found and gar make a house of religious …’
The revelation of Malory’s Lancelot is that a truly noble action is now to disarm oneself, offer generosity upon God, and allow God (or at least the church) to redistribute these gifts to those most needy.
A definition of nobility (gentil, gentle) which has been continuous through our texts concerns generosity. In Beowulf, Hrothgar is described as a “faultless king” (Beowulf, 121) due to his generosity. The giving of gifts is what a noble leader is supposed to do, and it is frowned upon when a leader fails to do so, such as in “Lanval” whom King Arthur “did not remember” (Lanval, 73). We’ve progressed a long way from Theseus giving gifts, “Conforeth and honoureth every man,” (Knight’s Tale, 2716), when Palamon’s losing, yet still heavily armed mercenaries needed to be kept from revolting due to any lingering shame they may have felt at losing the tournament.
Lancelot’s willingness to disarm himself (493) mirrors Sir Gaheris’ and Sir Gareth’s decision to remain unarmed, “we will be there in peaceable wise, and bear no harness of war upon us” (480) when Lancelot is to rescue the Queen. They will not take arms against he who had previously favored them because they are in debt to him, gift giving has strengthened and reaffirmed the bonds which tie clans together just as it had in Beowulf, “many men / will greet their friends with gifts;” (Beowulf, 120). By remaining unarmed they are humble before Lancelot, thus Lancelot’s decision reflects this respect shown to him.
Lancelot’s decision to found and endow, presumably at his own expense, a new church every ten miles is also revolutionary because rather than allowing the corrupt court of King Arthur (only King Arthur knew of Sir Gawain’s secret (502) of strength) to posses Lancelot’s wealth, he will give it to the church who might actually do some good with it. After all, The Pope has the authority to demand peace, “charging [Arthur] upon pain of interdicting of all England” (489) and so seeks the welfare of those who might otherwise be killed in a needless battle, such as Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth.
Thus Malory’s Lancelot redefines nobility by moving on from the gift giving which strengthened the bonds of warrior clans (as in Beowulf), or corrupt Arthurian court to providing a new definition of nobility through the peaceable actions of laying down arms so that innocent may not needlessly die, and endowing the ultimate authority, that of the church, with generous gifts to expand its influence.
Yet unlike Palamon’s men whose shame for losing was subdued by the generous Theseus of Chaucer’s Knight, Lancelot’s revolutionary ideas of what nobility should be are not accepted without a fight. Sir Gawain still holds to the old ideal of nobility found in Beowulf – he even possesses seemingly supernatural abilities as Beowulf had (502) – but Lancelot wounds Sir Gawain to such an extent that the fatal blow eventually kills Sir Gawain, “And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawain yielded up the ghost.” (509). Malory’s Lancelot has, metaphorically, dealt the final blow upon the old / traditional definition of epic nobility and is now vanguard, in the guise of the church, “and there he put a habit upon Sir Lancelot” (521), for the new, humble nobility which seeks peace instead of war.