Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Le Morte D'Arthur: Malory, Morals, and Manners

There are three major themes twined into the plot of the Morte, three medieval concepts that hold the key to the confusing moral tangle. They are, first: the Thomistic tension between the sacred and the secular, in which the sacred sphere is seen as a world removed and superior from the secular world which holds its own secondary virtues; second: the ideal of courtly love, the impossible or forbidden love of a knight for a lady which holds lasting interest only because it is secret; third: the chivalric ideal of courtesy as the highest secular virtue.
The morality of love in Malory can only be comprehended in the context of what the medievals believed about love. Their views on the subject were strongly influenced by the sacred/secular divide as explained by Thomas Aquinas. As I understand it, in the same way that the sacred world—the Church, the priesthood, philosophy—was somehow better than the secular world of kingdoms, families, and manual work, so to the mind of the medieval Catholic, virginity was better than marriage.
The Reformation assaulted the sacred/secular divide with all its might. Medievals like Malory could speak of Sir Launcelot “serving God daily and nightly” during the Grail Quest, meaning to be in prayer and fasting and suggesting that other occupations did not serve God; the Reformers told knights, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers that they too had vocations no less important and no less holy than those of churchmen. In the same way that the Reformers rescued mundane work, they also rescued marriage. To Malory, marriage is a middle way between pure virginity and guilty adultery. It is chastity reluctantly subordinated to the good of fruitfulness. It is fornication reluctantly legitimised (see Malory, Book XVII, chapter 5 for a good allegory of his views).
Add to this viewpoint the courtly love ideal. Courtly love celebrates an impossible love—often an illicit love. Because the love is hopeless, the lover's main attitude is one of tortured, pining grief. The love feeds on obstacles—if they all vanished away, so would all the romance of the thing. Peter Leithart says, “What keeps the passion passionate is that it is not consummated, or that it is consummated rarely and secretly” (Ascent to Love, p 35). The obstacles also provide a distance between the lovers which enables them to thoroughly idealise each other. In addition the ultimate loyalty of the lover is to his lady: it must be lifelong and exclusive of all other loyalties. Worship is given to the lady rather than to God, and the lady becomes the inspiration of the lover to all noble deeds. So in Malory, Sir Palomides is spurred to do the greatest feats of arms in his life at a tournament where he knows La Beale Isoud, whom he loves but can never love him, is watching; also Isoud and Tristram reprove the clownish knight Sir Dinadan, saying that only lovers can truly achieve greatness.
One of the most important themes of courtly love was the tension between worship of the lady and worship of God. Poets like Giacomo da Lentini in “Io m'aggio posto” tried to reconcile the two, hoping to get to heaven, but only as long as the lady also got there. The undercurrent to the courtly love ideal of Malory's time was the knowledge that the lover's love of the lady was pulling him away from his love of God. Since courtly love was incompatible with service of God, it could never pass from the secular to the sacred sphere.
The poet Dante and the other poets of the later courtly love movement, the stilnovisti or “new stylists,” resolved this tension by characterising the beloved as a manifestation of Divine Love and the pathway to God: the lady reveals Christ.
But for Malory, the lady remains opposed to Christ. She is a secular goddess, the inspiration for Sir Launcelot's and Sir Tristram's virtues of courtesy, nobleness, gentleness, and strength in battle. She raises them to higher things. However, she can only raise them within the secular world. If a man is to achieve the immeasurably higher and nobler sacred world, he must turn his back on the lady and serve God instead. Plot details suggest that there may be a way to have both, to solve that tension, but only by loving the lady without consummation, purely.
With that groundwork laid, the morality of the Morte becomes understandable. For Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and other knights, the sin is not so much loving a married woman but making love to her. Malory suggests that Sir Launcelot should have allowed the love of Guenever to spur him on to glorious deeds without allowing that love to become gross and earthly. Sir Percival, the naïve young knight who will go on to achieve the Grail, rebukes King Mark for being jealous of Sir Tristram:
“Ah, fie for shame […] Are ye not uncle unto Sir Tristram, and he your nephew? Ye should never think that so noble a knight as Sir Tristram is, that he would do himself so great a villainy as to hold his uncle's wife; howbeit,” said Sir Percival, “he may love your queen sinless, because she is called one of the fairest ladies of the world.”
Sir Percival can be reasonably assumed to be articulating the viewpoint of the sacred sphere. A pure love, Malory suggests, could be consistent with serving God, with being in the sacred sphere. Even Sir Galahad, the perfect sacred knight (as Sir Launcelot is the best secular knight) hints at a courtly-love relationship with Sir Percival's sister:
“Damosel,” said Galahad, “ye have done so much that I shall be your knight all the days of my life.”
For Malory, the difference between perfect and sinful love is not marital status. The difference is whether the love is consummated or not, and whether it is faithful or not. This is why adulterous love is not seen as particularly bad. It is good to love a lady purely, whether she's married or not; it is a shame if the love is “sinful,” whether you are married to her or not. If you are married to her, then at least you have the Church's sanction for it and the good purpose of producing children. If you aren't married to her, then at least she is your ideal of love, raising you to be the best that the secular world has to offer. The true sin would be in having a paramour, but not loving her faithfully.
Notice that there is a double standard in operation between the sacred and the secular world. Although the sacred world is best, the secular world has its own worthiness: courtesy, inspiring love, preservation of honour through revenge and feuding.
Those planted in the secular world have fewer expectations. But even for Malory, that isn't enough. The sacred world is calling, and cannot be ignored.

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