This week, I welcomed Victoria Emily Jones, the writer and creator of the website Art and Theology, to join me on Old Books With Grace. You can either watch the YouTube video of our discussion (right below this paragraph), or listen to it on the podcasting service of your choice. Below I’ve included the art and poetry that we discuss in this wonderful episode! I hope it encourages you in your preparations for Advent and imitating Mary in receiving the Christ child.
“Our Lady’s Salutation” by Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595) (spellings modernized)
Spell Eva back and Ave shall you find,
The first began, the last reversed our harms;
An angel’s witching words did Eva blind,
And angel’s Ave disenchants the charms;
Death first by woman’s weakness entered in,
In woman’s virtue life doth now begin.
O virgin breast! the heavens to thee incline,
In thee their joy and sovereign they agnize; [agnize = acknowledge]
Too mean their glory is to match with thine,
Whose chaste receipt God more than heaven did prize.
Hail, fairest heaven that heaven and earth doth bless,
Where virtue’s star, God’s sun of justice, is!
With haughty mind to Godhead man aspired,
And was by pride from place of pleasure chased;
With loving mind our manhood God desired,
And us by love in greater pleasure placed:
Man laboring to ascend procured our fall,
God yielding to descend cut off our thrall.
“Annunciation” by Scott Cairns, from Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014)
Deep within the clay, and O my people
very deep within the wholly earthen
compound of our kind arrives of one clear,
star-illumined evening a spark igniting
once again the tinder of our lately
banked noetic fire. She burns but she
is not consumed. The dew lights gently,
suffusing the pure fleece. The wall comes down.
And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become
the kindled kindred of a king whose birth
thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.
The land lies open: summer fallow, hayfield, pasture. Folds of cloud mirror buttes knife-edged in shadow. One monk smears honey on his toast, another peels an orange.
A bell rings three times, as the Angelus begins, bringing to mind Gabriel and Mary. “She said yeah,” the Rolling Stones sing from a car on the interstate, “She said yeah.” And the bells pick it up, many bells now, saying it to Mechtild, the barn cat, pregnant again; to Ephrem’s bluebirds down the draw; to the grazing cattle and monks (virgins, some of them) eating silently before the sexy tongue of a hibiscus blossom at their refectory window. “She said yeah.” And then the angel left her.
Mysteries of the Incarnation: “She Said Yeah” by Kathleen Norris, from Little Girls in Church (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)
More resources on the Annunciation and art, suggested by Victoria Emily Jones:
Shannon K. Evans, author of Rewilding Motherhood: Your Path to an Empowered Feminine Spirituality, joins me on this podcast episode to consider the ancient, powerful metaphor of Jesus as our Mother. How might thinking of Jesus as a Mother change our ideas about God? Where did this idea come from? How can it affect our lives and faiths today? I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed recording it!
Shannon K. Evans is a woman with a Catholic spirituality and an interfaith heart. Her passion is opening up deeper waters of contemplating God so that our experience of the Divine grows further loving and curious rather than static and complacent. She is a regular contributor to Franciscan Media and writes the Everyday Ignatian column at Jesuits.org, the official website for the Jesuits of U.S. and Canada. Shannon is the author of two books: Rewilding Motherhood and Embracing Weakness.
It’s the last installment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and while I was prepping for today’s post, I was reading the poem aloud. I got all teary-eyed because I just love the poetry here. The content is wonderful and the Middle English is wildly beautiful, even unearthly. I hope that many of you are discovering that same love, truth, and wonder hidden in this 650-year-old gem. Let’s get to it.
Gawain wakes up on the morning of his destiny. He puts on his most dazzling outfit, and makes sure to tightly wrap the green girdle around his waist (the poet comments that it looks good on him, but he wasn’t wearing it for beauty). He saddles Gringolet, his horse, and a guide leads them both into the wilderness. From Simon Armitage’s translation:
They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare,
clambered up cliff faces where the cold clings.
The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped
so the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist
and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head. (Armitage, 2077-2081)
I love that Armitage gleans so much from the Middle English here. One of the most charming lines of the original mentions these “mist-hats” on the mountains, “Vch hille hade a hatte, a myst-hakel huge” (2081). Next time you see a mountain-top covered in cloud (for me, a regular occurrence, because I live in Denver), you can gently whisper to yourself, a “hello, myst-hakel”!
Gawain’s nameless guide gets him close to the chapel, then uneasily begins to take his leave. He attempts to convince Gawain to join him in fleeing. You don’t know this Green Knight, says the man. He LOVES to murder people! It is his favorite pastime! The servant pleads for Gawain, whom he has grown to love and respect:
for God’s sake travel an alternative track,
ride another road, and be rescued by Christ.
I’ll head off home, and with hand on heart
I shall swear by God and all his good saints,
and on all earthly holiness, and other such oaths,
that your secret is safe, and not a soul will know
that you fled in fear from the fellow I described. (Armitage, 2119-2125)
Gawain refuses, with some irritation, and says he will never be taken for a coward. He adds:
He may be stout and stern
And standing armed with stave
but those who strive to serve
our Lord, our Lord will save. (Armitage, 2136-2139)
Now this is rather interesting to me. Both of these men are doing something which we often do today—talking about God’s work in the world confidently, directly, as if the Lord didn’t use mediums or go-betweens or subtleties in his work. For the servant, it seems that Christ doesn’t have enough power to rescue Gawain if he does something so colossally stupid as following through with his promise to visit the bloodthirsty green fiend. Meanwhile, Gawain seems to have conveniently forgotten about his own compromises he has made—ahem, secretly keeping the green girdle—undermining the strong statements that he makes on finding his fortune on “the grace of God alone” (2159). He sounds like the folks today who triumphantly declare their faith in their God-given immune systems, conveniently forgetting that God has saved lives through the hands and feet of people (including doctors and scientists, and perhaps sexy court ladies) countless times. We all can easily vacillate between perhaps performative assertions of utter trust, and implicit doubt that God himself can deal with the terrible implications of our choices. And we are all remarkably blind in our capacities for self-deception. I see myself in Gawain’s erratic ability to go from sneakily pocketing an item of enchantment for self-preservation and loudly declaring infallible trust in God in the meantime. In this moment, the blame doesn’t rest in his taking the girdle, but in that intellectual dishonesty.
Equally this doesn’t invalidate Gawain’s courage in this moment. He has an out, and he refuses to take it. We the readers know he has been afraid, dreaming dreadful dreams, facing foes seen and unseen to get to what will likely be his death, and yet he goes onward. And boy is that courage about to be tested.
Gawain reaches the Green Chapel. This hill surrounded by frantically rushing water is creepy:
it had a hole at one end at either side,
and its walls, matted with weeds and moss,
enclosed a cavity, like a kind of old cave
or crevice in the crag—it was all too unclear to declare.
‘Green church?’ chunters the knight.
‘More like the devil’s lair
where at the nub of night
he dabbles in dark prayers.’ (Armitage, 2180-2188)
Then, another moment of wild horror and cleverness. A sound rings out over the seemingly empty, haunted scene. Not a scream, but something close: it is the shrill sound of an axe being whetted. Here, I read in the Middle English, because yet again our poet imitates the sound of steel on a whetting stone, being honed to a fine edge perfect for shearing necks:
What! hit clattered in the cliff as hit cleue schulde
As one vpon a gryndelstone had grounden a sythe.
What! hit wharred and whette as water at a mulne;
What! hit rusched and ronge, rawthe to here. (2201-2204)
Can you hear the noise that clatters and cleaves the cliff? The repetition of what! is particularly ingenious. The word was traditionally used in alliterative poetry as a call to listen closely (it’s the first word of that famous Old English poem, Beowulf) but here it also sounds like the sharpening itself. It’s basically a pun via sound! The sounds used in the alliteration also echo the sharpening, the w’s and the r’s closely resembling that screaming, shearing, rasping noise. It sends chills down my spine.
Gawain has one last chance to lose his nerve, but instead calls out and reveals his presence. Come out, it’s now or never, he calls. And something growls back: “Abide!”
Out of the stones comes the Green Knight, now with a giant new axe in his hand, and the massive green man uses it to vault over the rushing waters and comes to Gawain. He greets Gawain, and notes he has fulfilled his promise. Gawain tries to look unafraid. He bares his neck, and bows before the knight. In a theatrical flourish, the Green Knight draws the axe high above, ready to deal a deathly blow. As he brings it down, Gawain suddenly flinches and shrinks, and the axe-wielder diverts his swing. “You’re not Gawain,” he says. Such a man would never shrink
at foretaste of harm.
Never could I hear of such cowardice from that knight.
Did I budge or even blink when you aimed the axe?” (Armitage, 2270-2274).
We’ve heard this taunt before. Its presence, as always, is telling. Gawain’s life is at stake, but more importantly to him, his reputation is on trial. Gawain protests that he won’t do it again, but brusquely tells the Green Knight to get on with it. The Green Knight taunts him by repeating the swing, but moving it away at the last second. This time, Gawain is rooted like a tree. With inner fear and outward anger, Gawain demands that the Green Knight just hit him already.
With a great, final stroke, the Green Knight brings the axe mightily down upon Gawain’s neck.
Hoisted and aimed, the axe hurtled downwards,
the blade bearing down on the knight’s bare neck,
a ferocious blow, but far from being fatal
it skewed to one side, just skimming the skin
and finely snicking the fat of the flesh
so that bright red blood shot from body to earth.
Seeing it shining on the snowy ground
Gawain leapt forward a spear’s length at least,
grabbed hold of his helmet and rammed it on his head,
brought his shield to his side with a shimmy of his shoulder,
then brandished his sword before blurting out brave words,
because never since birth, as his mother’s babe,
was he half as happy as here and now.
“Enough swiping, sir, you’ve swung your swing.” (Armitage, 2309-2322)
Gawain has lived! He’s ready to fight if the Green Knight follows through on his murderous reputation, but instead the Green Knight looks at Gawain standing aggressively and bravely, and in his heart admires him.
The Green Knight explains his own game, that he had divided his strokes into three. “Had I mustered all my muscles into one mighty blow, / I would have hit you more harshly and done you great harm,” he explains, but instead, he feinted with his first blow, for Gawain’s truthful behavior had won his trust (2343-2344). He missed Gawain again with his second, “and this for the morning / when you kissed my pretty wife then kindly kissed me” (2350-2351). Wait—the Green Knight is Lord Bertilak?!?! Yet this hardly has a chance to hit us because he keeps going with his explanation. The last time he hit Gawain for real, and shed his blood, because of that very green girdle which belongs to the Green Knight himself. I sent her to test you, he acknowledges,
“As a pearl is more prized than a pea which is white,
in good faith, so is Gawain, among gallant knights.
But a little thing more—it was loyalty that you lacked:
Not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse,
but you loved your own life; so I blame you less.” (Armitage, 2364-2368)
This was all a trick, engineered by the enchantress, Morgan le Fay, to tempt and weaken the great King Arthur. Gawain stands speechless, absorbing the shock. The blood rushes to his face and he shrinks in shame. This moment stretches out in time—the cringing, handsome young knight with his sword beginning to sink downwards, the smiling, giant green man looking at him with triumph and also, strangely, some love and understanding.
Gawain breaks the silence. Like a child throwing a toy that hurt them, he fumblingly unties the girdle and flings it at the Green Knight in an agony of anger and shame. He cries out:
My downfall and undoing; let the devil take it.
Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot
the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow.
And now I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed. (Armitage, 2378-2383)
At first, Gawain’s words are disorienting. Why is he confessing all these crazy sins, when it seems that his only mistake was a lie of omission in a game? This seems like an overreaction. But do you remember Gawain’s personal emblem on his shield, the endless knot, the pentangle of virtues that characterized his face to the world? Gawain’s endless knot has utterly collapsed. The vices he cites are the opposites of those virtues. His understanding of himself, and the way he is in the world, is crumbling in one moment. The Middle English here is especially interesting. Gawain is “taught” by “cowardice” to “forsake” his “kynde” (2379-2380). Kynde is a central word here. We still use some word-ancestors of it today: our modern “kind” as in kindness, appropriate and attentive behavior to one another, and our modern “-kind” in mankind, or type or category (as in I like that kind of candy). Medieval people used it in those ways as well, but it was a far more powerful word. It’s a multivalent word that means identity, a deep nature inherent to a person. With the discovery of his girdle-theft, Gawain feels as if he has forsaken his deepest nature as a knight and as a man.
In contrast, the Green Knight argues this only means that Gawain loved his life, an understandable weakness in the face of death. In this sense, it is in accord with an even deeper kynde for him to betray these values, these ideals of knighthood and manhood. But Gawain isn’t having it. He’s so frustrated and ashamed of his failure. So he asks the Green Knight to forgive him, and the Green Knight absolves him, in a secular parody of confession, penance, and absolution. The Knight even invites Gawain back to the castle, to meet his wife now as friend and not foe. Gawain refuses, and enters on a tirade against women worthy of the most virulent friar of the Middle Ages. I hate to give it airtime, so to sum up: ever since Eve, women have been the source of man’s downfall.
Do we take this vitriol against women seriously? Is Gawain echoing what the poet truly believes to be true about women? We could. This speech is part of a long tradition of medieval writing and thinking, especially from friars and other religious men committed to chastity. Some readers do. I do not. I think the poet is having a last bit of fun at people when their values collapse into a heap in a moment of failure. Surely it can’t be my own fault! Gawain is desperately casting about for something to blame when the world isn’t as it should be according to him. As it so often does, the hammer of blame falls upon women (we also see unfair blame cast at persons of color regularly). All of this is in line with Gawain’s general overreaction, shame, and anger with himself. It is also apiece with the poet’s keen awareness of the fragility of some types of masculinity—Gawain’s overweening interest in his reputation, especially with women, Arthur’s advice towards greater violence in a game, and the Green Knight’s interest in cutting them down to size.
The Green Knight tells him to keep the girdle, and Gawain swears he will wear it always, as a sign of his sin and failure and frailty of flesh. It will act as a check to his prowess, his pride in his skills and abilities, and a reminder of his humanity. And Gawain rides, green girdle tied aslant his chest, back to Camelot:
So he winds through the wilds of the world once more,
Gawain on Gringolet, by the grace of God,
under a roof sometimes and sometimes roughing it,
in valleys and vales had adventures and victories,
but time is too tight to tell how they went. (Armitage, 2479-2483)
I think the ending of the poem is perhaps the most curious and interesting, and I still vary in how I interpret it, despite having read it so many times. When Gawain arrives back at Arthur’s court, everyone rejoices to see him alive. He shows them his scar from the axe, and the girdle, and tells them the story of his failures. “I was tainted by untruth,” he announces, and shows his new knot, the knotted lace that he wears around his human body. The court comforts him, then laughs and they all agree to wear a green girdle themselves. Each knight who wore the girdle was honored ever after, and the girdle becomes a symbol for honor and for the great court of King Arthur.
Who is right about the girdle? Gawain, in his shame, as a symbol for sin? The court, as a symbol for a knight who was brave and managed to live? Either way, isn’t it amazing that the knot of perfection is replaced with this new knot? I have three main interpretations that I see as possible, and will tell you all.
The first is that Gawain is right, and he is now a truth-speaking man within a court of frivolity that cares little for the failures of man. The court acts like a certain American ex-president: something that should be shameful becomes part of the pageantry and excitement of a political party, a shallow and unethical way of being in the world. If we celebrate failures and dishonestly turn them into triumphs, we don’t have to deal with their consequences.
The second is that Gawain is being overscrupulous about his sins. He is self-flagellating, punishing himself too severely for something that he should feel properly guilty about and move on. The court sees the girdle as a symbol of common humanity, of honor even in weakness. Gawain needs to lighten up and recognize that he fails like everyone else.
Either of these last two are extremely viable interpretations, but the third is my favorite. Both Gawain and the court are a little bit right. We all wear the girdle of our mortality, in the form of our crumbling and glorious bodies. We need both Gawain and the court, both the girdle as reminder of weakness and the girdle as reminder of bravery and honor in human limitation pushed to its limit. We mourn our sins and we rejoice that we live in a world with the beauty of courage and great action.
I wrote this on Halloween, and it occurred to me that this is what Halloween, celebrated properly, is about. Facing, and celebrating, our littleness in the face of so much unknown. Our merry rejoicing against the darkness, combined with a little healthy fear and respect for the vastness and vast unknowability of our world. Our simultaneous reclamation of the knowledge that we are made to live well, in the image of God, and knowing that we aren’t the people of the righteously perfect eternal knot though we would like to believe so. We make decisions not knowing their outcome, but we try to practice the virtues. We, like Gawain, are learning. We are learning where we have imbibed toxic cultural untruth, where we are haunted by grand ideas of ourselves that hold us to suffocating unreality. What is our kynde? We are not the people of the pentangle, the glorious, perfect, intertwined crown of virtues, yet—but the people of the green girdle, bound to fail in our big and often dark world, yet learning who we are and how to live.
Let’s end this series in the words of the poet of 650 years ago. I’ll first read Armitage’s translation, and end with the Middle English.
…once the siege and assault at Troy
our coffers have been crammed
with stories such as these.
Now let our Lord, thorn-crowned,
bring us to perfect peace.
After the segge and the assulte watz sesed at Troye,
Mony aunterez herebiforne
Haf fallen such er this.
Now that bere the croun of thorne,
He bring vus to His blysse!
If you enjoyed this series, I’d love to hear from you. Please share, subscribe, or follow me on Instagram or Twitter. Thank you so much for listening. I had a blast thinking through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I hope you did too.
Here we are in Fitt III of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the wondrous, thoughtful, magical fourteenth-century poem. If you’ve missed the previous three installments, I’d recommend reading those first, because we are now on the downward slope towards the exciting conclusion. Gawain has found himself in an enchantingly beautiful castle in snowy, distant woods, just in time to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. And much to his relief and trepidation, he has learned that the Green Chapel, where he must meet the blow given by the mysterious Green Knight, is only two miles distant. Despite all Gawain’s negative past experience with games offered by strangers, he has entered into yet another one, with the host of the castle, Lord Bertilak. Bertilak is going hunting for the next few days, and anything he kills in his hunt he will give to Gawain—if Gawain gives him anything that he has received at the castle in Bertilak’s absence.
Fitt III is constructed in a really interesting way. It’s split, between scenes of Bertilak hunting and scenes of quite a different kind of hunt. I will be frank with you: this is my least favorite fitt. Hunting scenes are not my jam. However, hunting was an elaborate, important medieval ritual for the nobles of the time. I say nobles, because that’s mainly who hunted. The King owned forests for the most part in medieval England, and he granted permission to hunt in them. Otherwise, anything caught in those forests belonged to him. Peasants were even killed for daring to hunt for food in those areas.
Hunting was also another area in which to display your aristocratic, well-bred courtesy and expertise. There were entire handbooks written for the correct way to kill and then process a deer. There were entirely different rules for the hunt of each kind of animal. And so this passage is another chance for the Gawain-poet to show his aristocratic audience that he’s in the know. The hunt was a place to show your style as much as the court was. We can still see the ancestors of this idea today, in England, with fox hunting. Fox hunting is an elaborate ritual, with the right kind of gear, the best horse, and its own vocabulary, incomprehensible to the uninitiated… or the not-so-high-class.
The Gawain-poet writes with a savage, bloody beauty in these hunting scenes, deploying that correct vocabulary with precision. It’s unbelievably skilled, but more difficult to appreciate today due to our distance from that culture and taste. Maybe if you’re a hunter you would enjoy it more; I am not one. Also, it seems to me that hunters and poetry folk might not coexist in the same Venn Diagram. I’d be happy to be proven wrong! Listen, briefly, to Simon Armitage’s translation of the hunting of the female deer:
But the hinds were halted with hollers and whoops
and the din drove the does to sprint for the dells.
Then the eye can see that the air is all arrows:
all across the forest they flashed and flickered,
biting through hides with their broad heads.
What! They bleat as they bleed and they die on the banks,
and always the hounds are hard on their heels,
and the hunters on horseback come hammering behind
with stone-splitting cries, as if cliffs had collapsed. (Armitage, 1158-1166)
From this loud, hacking, driving scene, the poet leads us into a quiet bedchamber back at the castle. Exhausted after all his journeys, Gawain sleeps late in a room dappled with sunlight. He awakens when he hears the door gently open. He quietly peers to see who the intruder is. It’s the lady of the castle, and Gawain decides to pretend like he’s still sleeping, and meditates on what this visit might mean. She’s gorgeously arrayed, beautiful as ever. Gawain decides he should stop pretending to sleep and ask her what she’s doing here, and this part cracks me up:
So he stirred and stretched, turned on his side,
lifted his eyelids and, looking alarmed,
crossed himself hurriedly with his hand, as if saving
I love the fake crossing himself with shock. I think the poet is having a little laugh at Gawain’s bad acting, especially with the glimpse into his thought processes. And by the way, we take such interior monologuing in literature for granted, but this is a really early example of “interior consciousness” in poetry. This is also why you should roll your eyes at anyone who thinks modern people are more conscious or self-aware than medieval or ancient people.
Gawain is “trapped” as the lady laughingly announces, just like the deer driven down towards the water then slaughtered by the hunters in wait. Gawain carefully “loads his words with laughter” as he asks permission to rise and put on his clothes (we think perhaps he is sleeping naked, making this scene all the more vulnerable!). The Lady winkingly refuses—she notes she has pinned the famous Sir Gawain, and now she and he are left all alone, she suggestively emphasizes. “Do with me what you will.” Not very subtle!
Thus begins a game of romance chess. Each player in this game counters the other. The Lady moves with overt seduction, layering each speech of hers with sexy innuendo. Gawain, too, layers his speech. He flirts with her, compliments her, but avoids her seduction at all costs, determined not to betray his host. But he is truly trapped, more than just being caught in bed with his pants down. Both know that one of the chivalric values of knighthood is that very love-talk we discussed in the last episode. So Gawain is effectively caught between two facets of his identity: the knight Gawain and the Christian Gawain are at odds. The knight Gawain is expected by his society and tradition to woo and court this beautiful lady (whom, the poet makes perfectly clear, Gawain does desire). The Christian Gawain, with Mary on the inside of his shield, must not commit adultery nor betray the person who took him in from the bitter cold, Bertilak.
Finally, the Lady taunts Gawain into giving her a kiss:
“May the Lord repay you for your prize performance.
But I know that Gawain could never be your name.”
“But why not?” the knight asked nervously,
afraid that some fault in his manners had failed him.
The beautiful woman blessed him, then rebuked him:
“A good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded,
the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being,
could never have lingered so long with a lady
without craving a kiss, as politeness requires,
or coaxing a kiss with his closing words.’ (Armitage, 1292-1301)
And yes—Gawain enfolds her in his arms, and kisses her. Alarm bells should be ringing right about now. The original verse of Gawain as the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being clues us in to some big problems: “Cortaysye is closed so clene in hymseluen” (1298), or courtesy is closed clean in himself. Remember Gawain’s shield? Cleanness, or purity, and courtesy, or impeccable knightly manners, were both points on the pentangle. And now they are at odds with one another.
As so often happens in real life, parts of our identities clash with one another. Difficult choices or foolish mistakes reveal the selves we desire to be, and who we really are. We see this all the time in public apologies, to make a brief point. I hate the phrase “that’s not really who I am” after someone messes up publicly and has to apologize. Though you may not like that you did that, and now see the error of your ways, it was you who wrote that stupid tweet, made that ill-advised comment, and so on.
This poet lived before public apology was really a thing. But he sees that the values we build up around ourselves—the public and private identities, the shields and self-portraits—simplify deeply complex motives and fragile ecosystems of inner peace. This, of course, doesn’t mean that virtue isn’t real, or undesirable. But it does indicate that when we use them to construct ourselves, to portray ourselves to the world, they can be just as breakable as anything else. Any virtue, as every medieval theologian knew, can be susceptible to that ultimate corruptor, pride. Gawain is actually not proud at all, the way we are used to thinking of it. He’s constantly aware of the others around him, serving those he needs to serve, not trumpeting his skills or flaunting how much people love him. But Gawain, like any of us, can become so aware of, so enchanted with, this ideal, wonderful version of himself that he presents, that it becomes the driving force behind all his actions. Gawain so desperately wants to live up to his reputation as the perfect knight that he can resist this breathtaking woman who so clearly wants to sleep with him—up until she invokes that very identity as the perfect knight.
Once he kisses her, she leaves him, to his great relief. He attends mass and feasts joyfully with her and the old crone who is her companion. No damage has truly been done yet. In a famously homoerotic moment, the two men exchange their winnings at that night’s feast. Gawain merrily kisses Bertilak after receiving what seems like countless deer corpses. And onto the next day.
Yet again, Bertilak happily slaughters. Today, instead of deer, he pursues a ferocious, massive wild boar. I thought of this scene recently when a wild boar attacked the pop singer Shakira in a park in Madrid, an absolutely wild headline that sounds generated by the web. It really happened though! Too bad Bertilak wasn’t there. And by the way, wild boars can be extremely dangerous. He handily kills the great, savage beast, again in the flawless, brutal web of specialized hunting poetry woven by this poet.
And yet again, the Lady sneaks into Gawain’s room in the morning. And again, when he does not follow up on her more explicit advances, she challenges his identity, and suggests he could take what he wanted anytime by force. If you are truly Gawain, use those muscles to get what you want. Interestingly, just like in the last game, we see the inherent connection between knightly identity and the violence always just one step away. Gawain rebuffs her, saying that while he does have nice big muscles, he doesn’t take gifts not given freely. If she demands a kiss, he will courteously supply it. And so she does, and he does. And she teasingly doubts him again, wondering aloud why such a renowned knight is not schooling her in love-talk while her husband is away. Gawain cleverly says that he should be learning from her, not vice versa, and dodges the attempt. And so finally they kiss again, and she leaves, and he heads off to mass.
Bertilak and Gawain exchange their winnings again, kissing twice and proffering boar meat. But at the feast that night, the Lady is so flirtatious with Gawain, that he is
maddened and amazed,
but his breeding forbade him from rebuking a lady,
and though tongues might wag he returned her attention
all night. (Armitage, 1660-1663)
Dawn of the third day. Bertilak hears mass and leaves to go hunt a wily fox. And the wiliest fox, Gawain, finds himself again with the Lady in his bedchamber. He had been in fitful sleep, dreaming of the Green Chapel and the coming blow. This time, the poet tells us, the Lady is dressed to truly impress. I read in Middle English:
No hwef goud on her hede, but the hayer stones
Trased aboute her tressour be twenty in clusteres;
Her thryuen face and her throte throwen all naked,
Hir brest bare before, and bihinde eke. (1738-1741)
That naked expanse of skin dazzles Gawain with flowing, warming joy. And the poet warns us that he stands in great peril, unless Mary will save her knight. Gawain knows the boundary between chivalrous flirtation and adultery is thin, but he swears he won’t pass it. They kiss, and the lady begs him to give her a gift to remember him by, or at least to take a gift from her.
You may be familiar with this system of knightly behavior. Think of a movie you’ve seen with a tournament scene. The one I embarrassingly immediately think of is Disney’s Robin Hood, with the archery tournament. Fox Robin Hood in disguise takes Fox Maid Marian’s handkerchief and wears it proudly as a token of her esteem and affection. Knights wore the token of their lady, secretly or proudly, and in return they won whatever tournament in her name. Often, such tokens signified fealty to the wife of their lord—sometimes they signified more.
The Lady tries to give Gawain a ring, and when he refuses, she offers something smaller. She unties a girdle, a belt or lace, from around her body. It is green, trimmed with gold, and tries to give it to him. But she urges him to take it: “If you know, Gawain, of the power this girdle possesses, you wouldn’t say no.”
‘“For the body which is bound within this green belt,
as long as it is buckled robustly about him,
will be safe against anyone who seeks to strike him,
and all the slyness on earth wouldn’t see him slain.”
The man mulled it over, and it entered his mind
it might just be the jewel for the jeopardy he faced…’ (Armitage, 1851-1856)
The one condition upon taking this green, life-saving girdle is not telling her husband. Gawain agrees, and kisses her. He hides the girdle away, and goes to confession so that if he dies on the morrow, he will be clean. Fully and frankly, the poet tells us, Gawain confesses his sins.
This part always confuses me. The priest pronounces him clean. But did Gawain tell the priest of his lie of omission in keeping the girdle? Does it not count as a sin? The poet gives us no clear answers.
And he and the Lord exchange winnings, and Gawain merrily feasts. He believes he has weathered the temptations of Bertilak’s castle without dishonoring his host and damaging his own reputation. Yet in the back of his mind, he cannot escape the recognition that he will face his doom the next day. Will he live? Will he die? Is the girdle truly magical? He has broken the rules of one game. Does it matter? Only tomorrow can tell.
If you have questions or thoughts, I’d love to hear them. You can tweet at me or comment on Instagram, or even send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re enjoying this series, I’d really appreciate it if you shared, or subscribed, to help others find this series more easily.
Welcome to the fun, autumnal Fall 2021 series on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We have arrived at Fitt II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We left off Fitt I in Arthur’s court, the poet forebodingly warning Gawain to not lose his nerve as the deadly game’s conclusion draws closer and closer. And I was struck, as I read and wrote this week, with the beginning of this section. Simon Armitage begins his translation with: “This happening was a gift” (491), a gift that Arthur has asked for and received. Armitage’s “gift” translates the medieval word “hanselle.” A hanselle is a New Year’s Gift, given as token of good fortune on the New Year. To begin a section with the gifted nature of this game, as a nod to Arthur’s desire, fascinates me. I don’t know if Gawain would see it as a gift. Instead, this gift is transformed and refitted into a moment to show prowess, from unearned token of fortune to part of an economy of skill and honor. And again, in one minor, easily overlooked moment, the poet cannily reveals something of human nature. We take what is given to us and transform it into a statement on our abilities, worth, skill.
Next, our poet describes the seamless passing of the year as the gift-game approaches.
After lavish Christmas come the lean days of Lent
when the flesh is tested with fish and simple food.
Then the world’s weather wages war on winter:
cold shrinks earthwards and the clouds climb;
sun-warmed, shimmering rain comes showering
onto meadows and fields where flowers unfurl;
woods and grounds wear a wardrobe of green;
birds burble with life and build busily
as summer spreads, settling on slopes as it should…
Then autumn arrives to harden the harvest
and with it comes a warning to ripen before winter.
The drying airs arrive, driving up dust
from the face of the earth to the heights of heaven,
and wild sky wrestles the sun with its winds,
and the leaves of the lime lie littered on the ground,
and grass that was green turns withered and grey.
Then all which had risen over-ripens and rots
And yesterday on yesterday the year dies away,
And winter returns, as is the way of the world
At Michaelmas the moon
stands like that season’s sign,
a warning to Gawain
to rouse himself and ride. (502-535, translation by Simon Armitage)
Such a beautiful, evocative passage. And worth especially noting, besides its wild beauty, because one of the oldest ways of reading this poem is with an emphasis on nature versus humankind, or pagan old ways versus Christian new ways, Green Knight as emblem of all this versus Gawain, ambassador of mankind distanced from nature. For this is a question we haven’t thought about yet: what are we supposed to make of the Green Knight’s greenness? Is he, for instance, a pagan manifestation of nature worship and old ways? Is Gawain, the consummate knight, symbol for Christian civilization constantly trying to control the looming power and darkness of what came before? Does the Green Knight “stand for” anything?
I don’t believe the medieval world thought in dichotomies that way. This dualistic thinking is more reflective of a 18th, 19th, even 20th -century understanding of the world—the destructive, powerful, so-called white man’s burden, that colonial mindset of conquering and “improving” nature, women, other races, and the pagan past and present. Certainly, the Green Knight is a force beyond the ordinary and a challenge to Arthur’s court and way of thinking about the world. But it’s far more complex than simple dualisms. In the passage I just read, both the humanity-focused, Christian liturgical holidays of Christmas, Lent, Michaelmas, and All Saint’s Day blend seamlessly with the stunning natural world. Christianity and nature are not opposed—it’s the unnatural, the head that won’t stay dead, the green-hued skin, that threaten Arthur and Gawain. And again, we today can learn from resisting such dualistic ways of seeing the world.
Now it’s Michaelmas (September 29), and time for Gawain to go, but he tarries until All Saints’ Day (November 1). He declares the outcome of the game, when discussing with Arthur, to be merely a “trifle.” But perhaps we can already sense a clash between his words and his actions as he lingers. Then, the poet goes on another one of his super-detailed fashion descriptions. Gawain is dressed in the absolute height of taste and weapon technology, we learn, as the poet spends line after line describing his clothing and armor.
In the midst of all this admittedly boring, though quite virtuosic description of Gawain’s clothes comes my favorite part of this fitt: the description of Gawain’s shield. On the inside, there’s a painting of the Virgin Mary, to whom Gawain is devoted. On the outside, there’s something that the poet calls “the endless knot,” a five-pointed star we call the pentangle today, or pentagram. Yes, this is the same star that your fifth-grade teacher drew next to your successfully answered math problems. If you were like me as a kid, you at that same age practiced that star crookedly over and over because you thought it was really cool. And no, despite all its associations with witchcraft today, Gawain’s star has nothing to do with sorcery.
The five points of Gawain’s star stand for many sets of five that the poet lists for us. It’s a “token of fidelity,” of faithfulness, because each line links to the next. So it is eternal, and when one side of the star is taken out, it collapses. The Gawain-Poet, like many medieval folk stretching all the way back to the early church, loved the significance of numbers and their power. The five-pointed star stands for five fivefold things:
Gawain’s five senses, in which he strives for perfection. Medieval people conceived of the senses as not only how you made sense of the world, but also as the gateway for sin and illness or conversely, blessing and health. What you saw, smelled, tasted, and heard potentially affected you in ways little understood.
His five fingers, symbolic of his actions, also in which he strives for perfection.
His faith, founded in the five wounds of Christ. The Five Wounds of Christ—his two pierced hands, his two pierced feet, and the wound in his side—were popular images of devotion in medieval England. Meditating on these images of Jesus’s suffering helped one to suffer with Jesus in the midst of their own suffering, remember their redemption by the Cross, and recall their sins in confession as part of what had wounded Christ.
The five joys of Mary in her son Jesus, another popular tool for meditation. Mary’s five joys included the Annunciation, when Gabriel told her she would bear Christ; when Christ was born on Christmas day; when Jesus rose from the dead on Easter; when Jesus ascended into Heaven; and lastly, when Mary herself ascended into heaven in her Assumption. The Five Wounds and Five Joys were often linked together in medieval Christians’ emphasis on both the suffering and the joy of the earthly life. Take courage, life involves both, these fives tell us.
And finally, the last and perhaps most significant symbol of the Pentangle are five virtues that Gawain takes as his own. Friendship, fraternity, purity, politeness, and pity are how Simon Armitage translates them. In the Middle English, they are fraunchyse (loyalty), felaȝschyp (fellowship), clannes (cleanness), the all-important cortaysye (courtesy), and pity. Note that these are slightly different from the translation. These are knightly virtues. Loyalty to one’s lord was incredibly important, fellowship with other Christians and especially those of the Round Table, cleanness extended beyond purity to include cleanness of body as well as cleanness of mind (another way of distinguishing oneself from the rather filthy peasantry of the time), courtesy included manners and the way one carried oneself, and pity, which was a class-conscious virtue of mercy towards women, the needy, and the oppressed. Gawain has a reputation of being the perfect knight; these are the virtues he must practice to keep that reputation intact. Without any one of these, his knightly perfection collapses just like the pentangle.
It’s also significant that these virtues are on Gawain’s shield. They protect him as knight; they are what he faces out to the hostile world as his representation of himself. Remember, the emblem on a knight’s shield identified him in battle to both his friends and his enemies. So the pentangle, to Gawain, encompasses his identity and protects him from his enemies—it’s more than just a meaningful symbol to him.
My good friend Jessica teaches Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to undergraduates on a regular basis. When they get to this part of the story, she asks them to draw a pentangle and label it with the pentangle virtues of their university’s or their own cultural background. It’s a good, even enlightening question. What virtues does your culture tie tightly together, then suffer when they collapse inevitably? I know that Americans don’t really have one Pentangle, but I think certainly the Left and Right, even the middles and extremes, all have their set of interlocked prized virtues. So do the different varieties of Christianity I see. Episcopalians proudly wear a different pentangle set of virtues than Baptists do. It’s kind of a fun thought experiment to think on what these virtues are, and how something so valuable to one subset of people, integral to their identity to the point of collapse if they fail, is worth so little to another set. What appears on your shield that you face outward to the world? What traits or virtues do you use to protect and portray your identity?
After much bemoaning of Gawain’s fate by the court, he finally leaves among November’s chill and dead leaves. On this journey, he encounters giants and serpents, wolves and wild men of the woods. But his worst enemy is the cold and loneliness. Here’s a snippet of the beautiful Middle English on Gawain’s war with winter:
For werre wrathed him not so much that wynter nas wors,
When the colde cler water fro the cloudez schadde
And fres er hit falle myȝt to the fale erthe.
Ner slayn with the slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtes then innoughe, in naked rokkez
Thereas claterande fro the crest the cold borne rennez
And henged heȝe over his hede in hard iisseikkles. (726-732)
Again, we have a wonderful effect in the alliteration. Can you hear the clattering of the cold water running down Gawain’s helm as the clouds sleet on him, near slain in his cold irons, his armor? The icicles form on his helmet as he hunkers down in the freezing air. “Naked rokkez,” or naked rocks, is also fantastic and just sounds jagged and unforgiving.
As Gawain and all of nature suffer under the onslaught of winter, Christmas Eve arrives. He prays to Jesus and Mary that they will provide somewhere he can hear Mass on the following holy day. And seemingly miraculously, as he wanders in this freezing wood, a castle appears, complete with battlements and barbican, towers and pinnacles and chimneys built in white stone. It is so perfect that Gawain thinks it looks as though it were cut out of paper and set against the snowy landscape.
He’s warmly welcomed into the castle, especially once everyone finds out who he is. “Now we will get to learn from the famous Gawain,” whisper the courtiers, “of the best manners and of love talk.” Love talk? Is this 1990s MTV, or perhaps the American Girl book series on boys and flirting that I perused in great secrecy and embarrassment around that same time? Being skilled at “love talk” was an important aspect of chivalric manners. One of the most influential poems of the entire European Middle Ages (and one that I rather hate) was called The Romance of the Rose. The poem concerns the pursuit and courtship of a lady by a knight all set into tortuous garden allegory, with a practically pornographic ending on the consummation of this wooing. It was fashionable for knights to write poetry and pine after a lady of the court, married or not, to wear their colors in tournaments, and yes, to be known as a ladies’ man, but not a brute. Gawain the love-talk-tutor is in town!
We meet Bertilak, the lord of this castle, and two mysterious women. They are a study in contrasts. one is old, squat, and Gawain mentally notes how the immaculate white folds of her headdress contrast with her hoary, ancient face. The other is, as the kids would say, a whole snack. She is blooming, and pearls gleam on her breast and throat like snow on mountain slopes. She’s Bertilak’s wife, but she and Gawain almost immediately begin to flirt at the feast. Their pleasure in one another’s company “surpassed all princely sports by far” (Armitage, 1014).
Gawain happily stays with them for the Christmas feast, but regretfully announces his intentions to leave the following morning to continue seeking the Green Knight at his mysterious Green Chapel. But laughing, the Lord reassures him that he could sleep in on New Year’s Day and still keep his frightening appointment with destiny, for this Green Chapel is only two miles away. Stay, dear Gawain, and rest in mirth.
And, Bertilak adds, play a Christmas game with me. (Gawain, shouldn’t you avoid Christmas games? Remember what happened last time?) But Gawain, ever the good sport, agrees to play. Bertilak is going to hunt for the next few days. Anything he catches, he will give to Gawain. Remember, in a world with limited food options and one where only a privileged few are allowed to hunt at all, such prizes are valuable. But here’s the catch: anything Gawain “gains” at Bertilak’s castle, he must give to Bertilak. What could go wrong?
Share with a friend if you enjoyed this, or subscribe for emails. Stay tuned for Fitt III, coming next Wednesday. You can also listen to the podcast of this text, if you prefer, on the podcast service of your choice.
Today we dive into Sir Gawain and the Green Knight! I’m so excited to journey through this wonderful fourteenth-century poem with you. On the last post, I discussed some of the background and context of the poem, so you can go check that out if you missed it.
Welcome to what the poet calls Fitt I, the first part of the poem. And we are plunged into—Troy? Isn’t this poem set in England with King Arthur? From Simon Armitage’s translation:
Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the traitor who contrived such betrayal there
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth… (Armitage, 1-4)
This traitor, the poet writes, is Aeneas. The poet goes on to do some serious namedropping: post Troy, Aeneas’s ancestors go on to found Rome through Romulus, someone named Ticius builds Tuscany, Langobard builds Lombardy, and finally, Felix Brutus founds Britain in this mythology of civilization-building. What in the world are we doing here?
Our medieval poet would have heartily agreed with the 20th century Southern gothic novelist William Faulkner, whom I heartily hated as a youth: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As Faulkner’s characters are haunted by their past, so Arthur’s court, we understand before even meeting him or his round table, is haunted by its legacy and forebears. What is this legacy? Treachery and violence. Hm, rather ominous.
We begin every story, every life, with echoes of the old behind it. My culture likes to forget this. Americans do not wish to remember the haunted past, but our poet reminds us that we are never without it. It matters because it shapes how we see the world, how we make decisions, and the substance of our values. Though as we will see, Gawain and his friends of Arthur’s court, including Arthur himself, frame themselves as the pinnacle of chivalry, constantly striving for perfection as men and as knights, they have been born from betrayal. The poet won’t let us forget it.
To get uncomfortably theological for a minute: this is another portrayal of the hard reality of original sin, the doctrine that we are born into sin. Medieval people had loads of theories on why this was, including some regrettably bonkers ones, like that sex itself transmitted sin. But I think this poet illustrates it better. We simply can’t escape, through our own good deeds or perfection, the evils of our forebears, whether those are literal or cultural ancestors. I must face, by the grace of God, the evils that my ancestors visited upon the earth, rather than pretend the damage is over and confined to that past. My ancestors, not that long ago, practiced slavery. My cultural forebears, until very recently, used asbestos and polluted freely. I as a person face the consequences of those intentional and unintentional sins today. So the treachery of the ancient past hangs over Gawain in his quest to be the consummate knight:
And wonder, dread and war
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand. (Armitage, 16-19)
It’s Christmas at Camelot. Feasting, jousting, jokes, singing, and gifts abound around the Round Table. Queen Guinevere is radiant; King Arthur is young and strong. The names around the table are already renowned for their acts of daring. And among them is Sir Gawain.
The poet launches into a genre we are familiar with—at least if you read People Magazine. He spends a LOT of time describing the feast, from the clothes worn to the food consumed. He is showing how wonderfully stylish and up-to-date the court is—important for an obscure poet of the Northwest, not London, to show that he’s up to speed with the latest fashion in clothing and food. The Gawain-Poet is very fond of that move, and we will see it time and time again. He has a lot of fun with description. It’s probably the part of the poem least to our modern taste, but only because we don’t have the fourteenth-century sense of what is cool. It is like me describing to a current thirteen year-old the aesthetic of MySpace in 2004—slightly wasted.
But into the marvelous, elaborate description comes something from another world, with the impact of a volcanic eruption. The doors of Arthur’s Great Hall open suddenly, and in trots a massive warhorse, with an enormous knight astride it.
a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,
a hulk of a human from head to hips,
so long and thick in his loins and his limbs
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
Amazement seized their minds,
no soul had ever seen
a knight of such a kind—
entirely emerald green. (Armitage, 136-150)
I have to give you a little dose of Middle English, because it’s just too wonderful:
For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enker grene.
Overall pure green! And moreover, unlike the portrayal in recent movie on this poem, this knight is handsome, broad of shoulder and slim of waist, sounding like a massive, graceful professional athlete. He’s not Shrek; he’s emerald-toned Lebron James. The poet goes into another of his long descriptive passages that reveal the elegance and coolness of the Green Knight’s raiment. His armor is impeccable, rich fur spills out of his cloak, gold edges brighten the green fabric. He wears no helmet, meaning that he’s not literally about to fight someone. Yet in one hand, he holds “the mother of all axes,” as Armitage memorably puts it, a giant, gleaming, green weapon. In the other, he holds a branch of holly, both appropriately festive and declaring his current lack of interest in killing someone.
However, the Green Knight is rather rude. “Who is the governor of this gang?” he laughingly snarls into the faces of the startled knights. This question is more meant to offend then to discover—clearly he showed up at the Round Table and expects to find King Arthur. The guests sit in silent shock. All he wants, the Green Knight insists, is to play a game. If the knights of Arthur’s court are as worthy as he’s heard (and he notes they don’t look particularly impressive), then they will happily grant him this game.
if a person here present, within these premises,
is big or bold or red-blooded enough
to strike me one stroke and be struck in return,
I shall give him a gift of this gigantic cleaver
and the axe shall be his to handle how he likes.
I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts? (Armitage, 285-291)
In twelve months and a day, his game-playing partner will have to meet him for his side of the blow, announces the Knight. The hall is dead silent. Wouldn’t you be, if green Lebron challenged you to strike him and twinklingly announced he’ll strike you in return afterwards? Green and grinning, the Knight announces that he knew they were all cowards.
The young, brash king leaps up in anger and says he’ll happily do it. But our Gawain intervenes, speaking for the first time. “It’s not fitting for a great king to respond to the challenge, let one of his lesser men do it instead,” gently argues Gawain as he talks Arthur down.
What’s the big deal? It’s just a game, right? Why not let Arthur do it, or why not laugh the Green Knight out of the hall and refuse to play this psychotic game (warily and from a distance, of course)? But here we begin to touch on something that will run through this poem, in a vein to its heart: the question of honor, closely related to what the poet calls courtesy.
For medieval knights, courtesy was far more than opening the door for a woman or saying please and thank you. It was part of the chivalric code of honor, part of knowing what was appropriate for a knight to say and do. From large issues (like when it was appropriate to kill someone) to small issues (conversation at the table), honor and courtesy ruled their behavior. It’s unfitting that Arthur answers this challenge when he has knights, lesser in importance, to do it for him. So Gawain steps up.
Arthur tells him to hit cleanly and then he won’t have to worry about the following blow, because the Green Knight will be dead. Bold assumption that he can die, Arthur, given that the man is green and seems a little out of the ordinary. Gawain introduces himself and takes the ax. The Green Knight bows, baring his neck. Gawain takes a mighty swing and—“The scharp of the schalk schindered the bones.” (424) What a bone-chilling, brilliant piece of poetry! “Scharp” is sharp, an adjectival noun that describes the axe blade, schalk is man, and schindered broke. But the cleverness comes not from the mere fact of alliteration—think of the swooshing noise that a blade makes as it whistles through the air, the shear as it encounters wind, then flesh, then bone. We can hear Gawain’s deadly stroke in those creepy “sh” sounds of the very line. But that’s the thing, his mammoth swing is not deadly at all.
The handsome head tumbles onto the earth
and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.
Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,
yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink
but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs
and rummages around, reaches at their feet
and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,
and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,
steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle
still gripping his head by a handful of hair. (Armitage, 428-436)
What a vivid scene! The head literally rolls around the floor and the lords and ladies of the court kick at it. I’ve always wondered whether that was in arrogant mockery, or in horror, like kicking when you see a mouse, that a head was bouncing about on the rushes of Camelot. It doesn’t matter too much, because that head does not stay there. The massive, tree-trunk legs stride forward uncommanded, and the headless torso scoops and gropes for the head. He grabs his head by his own hair and swings gracefully back into the saddle.
I just adore the creepy cleverness of this poet. For from then on, he refers to the body as “he” but the head as “it”:
For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist;
to the noblest at the table he turned the face
and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead… (Armitage, 444-446)
If I wasn’t worried about bursting your eardrums as you listen, I’d scream in delighted horror right now. Happy Halloween, everyone!
The ominous “it” reminds Gawain that he must get to the Green Chapel, to receive his just desserts in this terrifying little game, next New Year’s morning. The body with the dangling head gallops out of the hall, putting even Washington Irving’s headless horseman to shame, as the horse’s hooves strike the stone of the floor and bring forth fiery sparks.
But the spirits of this group cannot be dampened on Christmas. After a moment of awkward silence, laughter and excited chatter fill the air again, and people feast and dance until dawn. The poet’s voice of the poem warns Gawain: you must not forget your appointment nor delay, no matter how overwhelming your dread.
I have one major, looming question about the Christmas game. Did Gawain have to behead the Knight? I can imagine an alternate world where Gawain nicks the Green Knight’s skin with the giant blade—a blow, and an answer to the challenge, but without the excessive violence. After all, the giant knight uses words like blow, barlay, strike, stroke. He never actually uses the specific language of beheading. Did Arthur’s advice to end it without fear of retribution unduly influence him towards more bloodshed, more violence? And of course the Green Knight implicitly condones Gawain’s choice by deliberately baring his neck. Gawain takes these suggestions and controls his fear, the fear of the return blow, with what he thinks ensures his safety: a blow so final that it makes a return impossible. He’s wrong about the finality of his beheading, of course!
But I want us to tuck this question away and to ask what it might mean. How lethal should this game be? Is it more like a duel to the death, a grim game in its own right, or more like twelve year-olds shooting each other with paintball guns? Does the game have imaginative flexibility, where that answer—the amount of violence—depends on the ear, the fear, the company, and the values of the person being challenged? I find it brilliant and fascinating that the poet gently links Gawain’s growing fear and the court’s challenged pride with a parallel, unnecessary increase in violence. We only see and ask these questions retrospectively. In the moment, Gawain feels like he has to behead him. Yet I think by leaving this space in intention, the Gawain-Poet means us to ask such questions. He’s a playful poet, one who asks his reader to remember, and to question. We the readers play our own game of interpretation.
Coming up in Fitt II: some super medieval fashion and a journey into the wild with our hero Gawain. Of course we will talk about those things, but we are also going to think hard about how our lives embody our values, or don’t, and how we handle that conflict. You can listen to the podcast of this text below:
I’m happily back in my wheelhouse with this new series on the fantastical medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I first want to address the elephant in the room. We all have limited time in our lives. So why read this (or any) medieval poem together, or listen to me discuss it? After all, there’s an endless amount of other things we could be reading or consuming, philosophy, theology, literature, the Bible, the latest work of literary beauty, or a comforting old friend of a novel. Let me make a case to you for Gawain.
I have now been studying medieval literature for a decade. And nothing, outside of Jesus and my family, has more opened up to me my humanity in both its created beauty, community, and profound limitation. The humanities are called the humanities in part because in reading works from a time alien to us, we learn our human selves locked in these fascinating, other human histories and moments. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a profoundly human poem, which is kind of hilarious given that it’s about mythical kings and queens, monsters, sorceresses, beheadings that don’t stick, a strip of cloth that possesses magical powers. But what makes discovering our shared humanity with all its gifts and curses alongside medieval folks more fun is all that magic stuff, and the absolutely stunning poetry which is its vehicle. Plus, it’s spooky season, and this poem is delightfully spooky without being scary. So let’s read Gawain and discover ourselves, consider the image of God and human imperfection, think hard about what we put value in, find friends and teachers who lived seven hundred years ago, and also have a lot of fun in that process. We’re all Gawain, as you shall see.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century. To put that in context, the poet writes at least two hundred years before Shakespeare writes Romeo and Juliet, at least one hundred and twenty-five years before Martin Luther ignites the Reformation with his theses. He is writing during a particularly calamitous and dramatic time in England. The church is divided over who the pope is in the great Papal Schism, England and France are constantly at war, oh and bubonic plague just killed a third of Europe in what we now call the Black Death. Ethical issues over war and violence? Corrupt secular and religious power? Living through a pandemic? This all sounds very relevant. We can perhaps barely begin to imagine what life looked like when a third of your friends and family had just died from a grotesque and painful illness. Yet none of this appears directly in the poem. It is set in the fantasy of the ancient past, the world of King Arthur and his knights.
It is New Year’s Day, and the court has gathered to feast. Arthur and Guinevere are in their youth, strong, beautiful, full of righteous conviction about what knighthood and virtue mean. Gawain, Arthur’s nephew, is the hot young thing of that hot young court. He’s known for his bravery, chivalry, courtesy, way with women. Into this dazzling setting strides a massive knight upon his horse. And from head to toe, he’s green. And he’s rather rude. Here we begin this strange little poem.
We all know about King Arthur today. The legend lives on. But in the fourteenth century, Arthur was even more wildly popular. Arthurian legends could be best compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, the comic and film behemoth. Within Marvel, there are multiple storylines, wildly varying foci and personalities even within the main characters, even different universes and outcomes, but it’s all understood to be part of the mythology of Marvel Comics. The tales of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the Round Table were the fourteenth-century Marvel, with different storylines, styles, emphases, and characters, but all taking place within this commonly recognized England of the distant, legendary past. Also like Marvel: some of these poems and songs are powerful and well-crafted, and others are definitely more like cheesy B-movies.
Despite the poem’s incredible virtuosity, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was not a blockbuster “bestseller” of its day, like The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. While The Canterbury Tales survives today in about one hundred manuscripts from the medieval era, only one copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives, and it rests in precious solitude and solicitude in the British Library. This poem is older than the printing press, so it appears in a handwritten manuscript called Cotton Nero A.X. with three other poems—Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness—that scholars assume are by the same poet. (For what it’s worth, Pearl might be my favorite poem in the entire world. I love it so much I named my eldest daughter Margaret, which means pearl. Sometime we will read it together in this space.) You may be able to see the manuscript if you go to visit London, peering in at the precious artifact in its climate-controlled box with bulletproof glass. But for those of us stuck in the States or elsewhere, you can look at the digitized manuscript if you’re curious.
You probably have noticed that I have yet to mention the poet’s name. That’s because we have no clue who wrote this. There are theories but nothing close to definitive. It’s likely that the poet was a cleric of some kind, because he had an education and knew Latin quite well. I do say he, though we don’t know for sure, because of the poems’ content and the high level of education evident in the poetry—sadly, women just did not have the same access to books and education that men did. I would love to get to Heaven and be wrong on that one. Some scholars believe that he had read the latest Italian poetry, like Boccaccio and Dante, and it influenced him. He was not a Londoner nor a Southerner. He lived in the Northwest of England, and he writes in a dialect from that area in Middle English.
Middle English is what scholars call the English of the Middle Ages, and it looks and sounds very different from today’s English. This English already is fairly difficult for readers today to understand without some training and practice. But one can still struggle through some medieval writers like Julian of Norwich or Geoffrey Chaucer without a ton of experience, because the dialect of these writers was London or close to it, which is the linguistic ancestor of modern standard English. This poet’s Northern dialect makes his writing far more difficult. Today our regional differences in language have become so smoothed out by the dominance of radio and television. But imagine a world where it took days to get from town to town. Neighboring regions in England could sometimes barely understand one another. It’s like when I, a clueless Arizonan, went to Boston when I was twelve and stared blankly when a woman at a donut shop asked me for my order with her thick, incredible New England accent. She laughed at me and said, “You’re not from here!”
In a perfect world, you’d be able to pick up this poem and enjoy it by itself, but the language barrier makes it far too difficult. Here are lines 1998-2005:
Now neȝes the Nw Ȝere and the nyȝt passez,
The day dryuez to the dark, as Dryȝtyn biddez.
Bot wylde wyderez of the worlde wakned theroute;
Clowdes kesten kenly the colde to the erthe,
Wyth nyȝe innoghe of the north the naked to tene.
The snawe snittered ful snart, that snayped the wilde;
The werbelande wynde wapped fro the hyȝe
And drof vche dale ful of dryftes ful grete.
Pretty incomprehensible, right? If you’d like to hear this read aloud, it’s on the podcast. You may have noticed that strange character that looks like a three. It’s called a yogh, and it didn’t survive into modern English. These lines describe a particular moment: Gawain is waking up in bed on the morning he faces potential death, and the world outside, New Year’s Day, is shatteringly cold, snowblown, and unwelcoming. I’ll share a translation with you in a minute, but let’s sit with this wild, snapping, weather poetry for a moment. Did you note the repeating sounds in lines? “The snawe snittered ful snart,” is one of my favorite lines in this poem, with its “sn” repetation sounds like a horse snorting and pawing in the snow, like a man sniffing with drippy nose as snowflakes catch in his eyelashes. The entire poem is alliterative like this, to varying extents. Each line has a letter or sound that it repeats again and again, both at the starts of words and prominently in their middles.
In English, alliterative poetry is a much older tradition than rhyming poetry. Rhyming poetry in English comes originally from French and Latin sources—languages with an abundance of end-rhymes in their words (as you may remember from high school Spanish or French classes). English doesn’t offer such wealth in rhyming. Instead, early English poets created rhythm and harnessed sound through alliteration, as in the famous poem Beowulf.
Here’s Simon Armitage’s translation of the same lines:
Now night passes and New Year draws nere,
drawing off darkness as our Deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man’s very nature,
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills,
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.
As with any poetry written in a different language, translations cannot fully reproduce the original. But Armitage’s, though not literal, gets very close to the sound and feel. He uses alliteration to great effect. If you’re wanting to follow along with the poem, be careful what translation you use—make sure it’s alliterative to get closer to that original poem. However, that’s not necessary at all. I’ll be working to make this poem accessible to you whether you’re reading or not, so I hope you’ll think with me about this medieval poem regardless.
For those who are going to read: I’d recommend either Armitage, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s as a fun second place. There are also free translations online if you’d like to follow along with ease. For those who are not going to read, welcome! I’m so excited you’re here to think with me and enjoy the Gawain-Poet.
We may never build a time machine that can take us back into the past. Old books are the closest thing we have. Poems like these are a precious gift. Not only is Gawain constantly beautiful and even funny at times, it’s a window back into a time so different from and yet so similar to our own. How are we special today? How are we not at all? How can we confront our hidden biases and beliefs about being in the world? How can we learn to live a virtuous life? How can we face our failures and our triumphs without letting either define us as creatures of God? These are the questions I hope to think about with you, led by our sneaky, anonymous poet-friend from depths of the fourteenth century. Come along with me, let’s enter King Arthur’s castle on New Year’s Day, sidling in behind the giant green knight on his enormous green horse. No one will notice us in his wake.
You can also listen to this series wherever you get your podcasts.
I’ve been on hiatus, getting my three kids back to school and working on some other projects. But Old Books With Grace will be returning soon, on September 29th, with new guests and conversations and two new series this fall.
We are kicking off the new school year with a conversation on Sept. 29th with Haley Stewart, of the blog Carrots for Michaelmas and the podcast Fountains of Carrots. Haley is a writer with a passion for her Catholic faith, literature, and being with her family. She is finishing up a book about Jane Austen and the good life–and that’s what we are going to chat about! I can’t wait to continue some of the conversations started through the Summer Old Book Club’s reading of Persuasion this summer (you can catch up on those on YouTube on the Old Books With Grace channel or on the podcast platform of your choice).
Do you like contemplation on human nature, the complex clash of values we all face in our decision-making, and a hefty does of magic in your literature? I am super excited about the fall series that will begin on Oct. 6th on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s just the poem to shiver a bit, think a lot, and curl up with a cup of tea when it’s beginning to get a little crisp outside. A knight, green from head to toe, shows up unexpectedly at the great Christmas feast of King Arthur. Gawain, the young knight, beheads him at the Green Knight’s challenge. The consequences are complicated and cast into question Gawain’s own values and beliefs. It’s spooky, mysterious, challenging, swashbuckling, and provocative. I love it. The recent movie, The Green Knight, is based on this fourteenth-century masterpiece. I thought you might to think with me about the original, real deal poem. It’s in a fairly inaccessible fourteenth-century dialect of English, but thankfully, there are loads of thoughtful translations that you can order if you want to follow along. The renowned poet Simon Armitage has recently done a beautiful copy illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, if you like your books to be as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. There’s also J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic translation. I have an older copy of this one, and the cover is truly hideous, so you can spring for the opposite of Armitage! I will likely use the Armitage alongside the original Middle English in the series, but you can go for whatever translation you’re interested in.
Be sure to sign up for email updates so that you don’t miss a post in this series! Or subscribe on the podcast. I can’t wait to get back into my roots: medieval poetry and theology, and I hope you join me.
Welcome to the Lent series of Old Books With Grace, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” We only have two left before Easter! Check out the previous installments either on the blog or podcast. I must warn you, today I am really embracing the self-reflective, penitential nature of Lent. This episode is more about what we do to Jesus than about Jesus’s character and love for us. It is necessary to cultivate awareness of the gap between the two. But before we meet Jesus, the nice medieval Christian, we must undergo a short history lesson.
In fourteenth-century England, something interesting began to happen. There was a huge upswell of interest in devotional texts. People began to read more. More texts were produced to aid individual devotion, like Books of Hours, which directed you in prayer at specific times of day, contemplative works like those by Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich, penitential texts, which helped you to prepare for confession through identifying your sins and cultivating contrition, and lives of Christ, a genre which helped people envision the life of Jesus by encouraging loving meditation on the events of the gospels. Many of these genres had long existed in Latin versions, but to have them in English was a surprising new development. They—and their ideas—were accessible to literate people like never before.
Alongside this wave of English devotional and contemplative writers, a new, radically reforming theology sprung up, initiated by John Wycliffe. At the time, Wycliffe and his followers were called “Lollards.” Wycliffe began as a powerful critic of the English church’s corruption and wealth and as a proponent for translating the Bible itself into English. Eventually, many Lollards actively proclaimed that the wealth and property of the church should be stripped and given to the poor and to the government, that transubstantiation, the belief that Christ’s very blood and sinews were in the Eucharist, not bread or wine themselves, was not true, that the church’s hierarchy should be abandoned, that lay people should have total access to scripture in their own language, that women could preach publicly, and other questionable ideas. At first, many powerful lay people were drawn to this articulation of the church, some from authentic belief and others from the canny realization that they stood to profit from taking away the church’s property. In the Middle Ages, the church owned nearly a third of England. Wycliffe had some influential protectors, like the son of the King, John of Gaunt. But by the early fifteenth-century, the English church hierarchy went into a protective mode. Unlike Continental Europe, England had not burned heretics at the stake or killed people for heterodox beliefs in general. But this changed in 1400, when Archbishop Arundel, the head of the English church as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry IV, allowed heretics to be burnt at the stake for the first time in England. Ecclesiastical control also tightened over which books should be circulating and encouraging lay devotion. The devotion of people outside of the clerical professions was of course good, but the church understood it as needing to be carefully monitored and controlled. Otherwise, it could erupt into heretical Lollardy. So Arundel issued a set of proclamations, the Oxford Constitutions of 1407, then the Lambeth Constitutions of 1409. These proclamations heavily regulated preaching and writing, and especially the translation of scripture into English.
Into this fascinating historical moment came Nicholas Love’s book, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Nicholas Love was a Carthusian monk, who worked hard on reforming his brothers and monastic practice in England. Approved by the English church hierarchy, Mirror retold scenes from scripture in English, as food for “simple souls” to meditate upon. In other words, it fulfilled the need for English access to the stories of scripture, but the message was safely mediated by the authority of clerics. As Michael Sargent, Nicholas Love’s editor today, tells us, it is easy to float along with narratives of progress and believe that Love was a repressive, reactionary joy-killer. But Love was actually trying to reform the church in response to crisis. Let’s take a look at how he interprets scripture for the “simple souls,” especially women and the uneducated, of the English church.
We can look at an example. Matthew 4:11 reads, “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” Nicholas Love expands:
After Satan was reproved as a false tempter and utterly driven away, holy angels in great multitude came to our Lord Jesus after his victory…And then spoke the angels, “Our worthy Lord, you have long fasted, and it is now your time to eat. What should we obtain for you?” And then he said, “Go to my dear mother, and get what matter of meat she has ready. Bring it to me, for there is no bodily food that I like so much as her cooking.” And two angels went forth, and suddenly appeared before Mary, and with great reverence greeted her on behalf of her son. And so the angels took the simple food she had planned for herself and Joseph, with a loaf, and a napkin, and other necessities, and a few small fishes. And the angels came back and spread the towel on the ground and laid the bread thereon, and mildly stood and said grace with our Lord Jesus, awaiting his blessing, and he sat down.
Now, pay attention here, especially you that are solitary. Have in mind, when you eat your food alone without fellowship, the manner of this food, and how lowly our Lord Jesus sits down to his food on the bare ground, for there he had neither table or cushion. Take heed how courteously and how soberly he takes his food, despite his hunger after his long fast. The angels served him as their lord: one brings his bread, another his wine, another the fishes, and some sing as his entertainment a sweet song of heaven. And thus they comforted their lord, as belonged to their state as angels, with much joy mingled with compassion. This fellowship you have too, though you see it not, when you eat alone in your cell, if you are in charity and especially when you give your heart to God as you ought to, in the manner of the Apostle, who says to us that when we eat or drink or do any other thing, we should do it all in the name of our Lord.
pp. 73-74, my translation of The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ edited by Michael G. Sargent
I am rather fond of this section. It is quaint, and we gently smile at it. It feels authentically medieval. It connects us to a cultural moment of thinking about Jesus as a man with surpassingly excellent table manners, despite there being no table and no other guests, who is no gourmand but prefers his mother’s simple cookery. It ends with a comforting message that you too are accompanied by the angels when you eat or drink alone. I really like that. Yet, even in these charming moments of envisioning the good son Jesus who loves his mother’s food, we see a Jesus who is a good medieval Christian. He is domestic, he is a fan of the Virgin Mary’s cooking above all else, he would fit right in at any medieval court with his dainty eating habits.
Such cultural moments can be much uglier. We can look at Mary in the Annunciation. The Annunciation is the name for when Gabriel the angel comes to Mary to announce that she will bear Jesus. Nicholas Love draws some conclusions from Mary’s initial silence when Gabriel comes to her:
Here then you can take Mary as an example, first to love solitary prayer and departing from humankind so that you may be worthy of the presence of angels. Furthermore, you may take from this to love to hear wisdom, keep silence, and love little speech, for that is a profitable virtue. For Mary heard first the angels speak twice before she answered them. And therefore, it is an abominable thing, and great reproof to a maiden or virgin to be a “great jangler” (excessive talker)…
p. 25, my translation of Mirror, ed. Sargent.
This example is particularly ironic, given that the world-changing power of the Annunciation does not come from Mary’s feminine silence. Humankind’s participation in redemption emanates from Mary’s vocal consent as a woman to bearing the Messiah in her womb. But Nicholas Love cannot see past his cultural ideals of silent, assenting femininity.
Or we could turn to the Last Supper. In Nicholas Love’s portrayal of the night before Jesus’s death, he focuses on the initiation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He describes it with beauty and passion, and ends with conclusions for people to meditate upon. And, as he details the kinds of things we should draw from this episode in Jesus’s life, he turns specifically to the Lollards, the heterodox folks of his medieval English church. The true disciples
..left all their bodily reason and wit, and rested only in true belief in their lord’s words as said before, save Judas that was reproved for his falseness and unbelief, and therefore he received the blessed sacrament to his damnation.
And so do all that be of his party now, the which falsely believe and say that the holy sacrament of the altar is still bread and wine as it was before the consecration, because it seems so to their bodily feeling…they are more reprovable than Judas, for they do not see Jesus’s actual body next to the sacrament as he did, and therefore it is easier for them to believe, and more to their damnation…
p. 151, my translation of Mirror, ed. Sargent.
The gloss on the side of this text makes the aims of this section clear: “contra Lollardos,” against the Lollards. The Last Supper—the poignant beauty of a last shared meal, the introduction of the Sacrament, the uneasy calm before the storm and darkness of the crucifixion—has become watered down to become a controlling device of dissidents. When he depicts the Sacrament that unites the Body of Christ, Nicholas Love, working with religious authority and Archbishop Arundel, weaponizes it. In these particular moments, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ reveals to us an inability to envision Jesus as anything other than a very good, actually the best medieval Christian ever, and a common and devastating need to produce and control the “right” response to the gospels.
As usual, we cannot feel superior as we read. You and I are also incapable of fully interpreting Jesus outside of our own time and space and bodies. We all want to impose our version of Jesus on the world, with all our good intentions about it. Nicholas Love was a reformer of lax practices in the church; he was trying to make the church better and save it from what he saw as dangerous. We are all Nicholas Love. The real challenge is identifying when and where. We have all been guilty of fitting Jesus neatly into our culture and our concerns, instead of heeding the strangeness of his call. We domesticize him. We think of him like ourselves. He’s a nice American Christian. Depending on your own background, you probably think of him in your own terms. In my subconscious imagination of Jesus, which I am constantly trying to purge, he is like an open-minded Presbyterian or slightly conservative Episcopalian—probably educated at a good school though he eschews displays of wealth, doesn’t drink too much but certainly enjoys a glass of wine, he definitely votes, even in his local elections, has good table manners just like Nicholas Love suggests, subtly attentive to and avoidant of offending others. He used to hold some distasteful Calvinist doctrines but thankfully he’s outgrown them. In other words, he is a lot like me. And the point is, it’s not like I actually think these ideas or express them, as Nicholas Love does, yet it’s how I feel about Jesus. Maybe in your head, you have more of a Baptist Jesus (doesn’t dance, let alone drink) or a Roman Catholic Jesus (drinks a lot, especially in college) or Unitarian Jesus (is cool with smoking pot occasionally).
Alongside our domesticization of Jesus, we adapt him to the needs of our agendas—just like Nicholas Love. The Jesus with excellent table manners is cut from the same cloth as the silent Mary of the Annunciation, a lesson to loudmouthed women. The Jesus with excellent table manners leads to the Jesus whose Last Supper, instead of inviting even Judas to consume the Body of Christ, condemns Lollards to be burnt at the stake. The zealots of the New Testament, waiting for Jesus to violently seize the throne and create a new state cleansed from Roman oppression, faced bewildered disappointment when he died an ignominious death. Jesus was fully supportive of slavery, and not just any slavery, but a slavery predicated on the pseudoscience of Black people as inferior and thus fitting as slaves, according to antebellum slaveholders and religious leaders of the American South. And both Puritan English settlers of North America and Catholic Spanish explorers of South America shared the firm conviction despite their differing faith practices that Jesus was an ardent colonizer who supported their efforts to gain wealth and land by decimating indigenous people. Whatever institution is in power at that moment, and whatever counter-movement operates, left or right, medieval or modern, they find space for a convenient version of Jesus.
But if, as I mention above, we are incapable of seeing Jesus outside of our own bodies, times, and spaces, how are we to break the spell of our own persuasive voices and versions of Jesus? Moreover, interpretation and application of the Jesus of scripture to our current times is both necessary and unavoidable. How does one live with love for God and neighbor in the world today, the world of the pandemic, of the internet, of many different things not explicitly addressed in the New Testament? Interpretation, sometimes creative and often difficult, needs to happen. We have to use these time-bound brains and bodies to enter into life with Jesus. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can. We must acknowledge that to some extent we will always be unable to fully moving beyond our own viewpoints. But what we can do is listen to the voice of the Body of Christ also working on interpreting scripture and living in the world, in different times, places, and bodies than our own. We can pay attention to where they challenge us. I gave Nicholas Love short shrift today but listening to even Nicholas Love can teach us a lot about both the mistakes of the church of the past and how much his church and he himself did love Jesus. The voices of the past tell us of our own littleness and our limitations as we think about ourselves, our histories, our obsessions and our loves. Medieval Christians speak to us of the importance of self-examination, of contrition and confession. Self-examination may be especially called for if you find that Jesus agrees with you on everything. Jesus is a radical, but he is his own radical—he doesn’t belong to anyone’s platform.
With God’s grace, we can also consciously work to free ourselves from the need to control others through our versions of Jesus. So much of our adoption of different versions of Jesus can be traced back to our desire to get others back in line. Nicholas Love adapts his materials for Mirror out of the need in his time to control the Lollards, or control otherwise unruly women.
There is a fantastic recent interview in Plough Magazine with Stanley Hauerwas, the eminent theologian and Christian ethicist. The interviewer notes that many Christians are very concerned about the loss of Christian influence and power in today’s society. Hauerwas responds:
Well, I actually think that one of the good things that is happening today is precisely the loss as Christians of our status and power in the wider society. That loss makes us free. We as Christ’s disciples ain’t got nothing to lose anymore. That’s a great advantage because as a people with nothing to lose, we might as well go ahead and live the way Jesus wants us to. We don’t have to be in control or be tempted to use the means of control. We can once again, like the first Christians, be known as that people that don’t bullshit the world.
Welcome back to “The Many Faces of Jesus” series. This week we discover Jesus of the University. If you have missed them, be sure to check out Jesus the Judge, Jesus our Lover, and Jesus the Knight (or listen to the podcast). Of course, this doesn’t mean that medieval people thought of Jesus as a student going to classes! We meet this Jesus in the language of scholasticism, the university theology written and taught by men like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Ockham. I say men deliberately; scholasticism was an educated, male-dominated movement of thought because women could not go to university during the medieval era. Some women writers were certainly influenced by scholasticism—Julian of Norwich uses some fascinating, scholastic-inflected language—but it was primarily a boys’ club, propagated in the particular setting of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century university. The foundations of the modern university dwell in scholasticism, actually. Universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and the Universities of Padua, Paris, Bologna, and Salamanca were founded to teach the budding theologians, clerks, and priests of the medieval church.
If you’re a Protestant, or even if you’re a particular kind of Roman Catholic, the name scholasticism may cause you to grimace. Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers hated scholasticism; they viewed it as frivolous, needlessly arcane, uncaring of Christ in the world. In this view, Scholastics were the academics ensconced in their ivory tower, debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin while people in the streets below died in ignorance of the basic tenets of the Bible. This prejudice has roots in truth, despite its exaggeration of both scholasticism and the lack of knowledge of the Bible among ordinary medieval people. Scholasticism was—and is—not very accessible. Its debates and conclusions take place in precise medieval Latin, in an intricate and formidable vocabulary that takes years to understand, acquire, and deploy.
Test out a sample and see for yourself. Thomas Aquinas begins his meditations on Jesus in his masterpiece, Summa Theologiae, with the question, “was it fitting that God should become incarnate?” I use the modern English translation by Father Laurence Shapcote, published by The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.
To each thing, that is befitting which belongs to it by reason of its very nature; thus to reason befits man, since this belongs to him because he is of a rational nature. But the very nature of God is goodness, as is clear from Dionysus (Div. Nom. I). Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others, as is plain from Dionysus (Div. Nom. IV). Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three—the Word, a soul, and flesh, as Augustine says (De Trin. XIII). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.
From the third part of the Summa Theologiae, question 1, article 1, response.
Crystal clear? We are with Thomas in that it’s all “manifest” now? If I were teaching in front of you right now you would all likely be gazing at me with that special glass-eyed stare that undergrads have sometimes that means, “I have no clue what you are talking about but I don’t even know enough to ask a coherent question so I’m just going to helplessly and silently stare at you.” As a professor, you know class is going poorly when that stare comes out. And this is the first question of Thomas’s section devoted to Christ!
At this point, you may be wearily muttering to yourself that Luther and Calvin and all those sixteenth-century Reformers were right. Jesus of the University is too conceptual and demanding without a worthwhile payoff. And yet—I’m going to try to convince you otherwise, that scholasticism’s strange, specialized, abstract portrait of Jesus actually has a great deal of value for us today. I threw that quote at you as if we could approach it the way we approach a novel or poem, by simply reading it and expecting it to make sense as an isolated unit. After all, this is so often how we read. But it won’t work for reading Thomas Aquinas. We have to look outside of narrative and consider Thomas’s methodology and vocabulary. In fact, I’m doing something a little different today. I do not expect you to go out and buy a copy of the Summa Theologiae (though maybe you will!) as you might with a medieval poem. So in order to think about Jesus of the University, I’m going to focus on the manner that Thomas speaks about Jesus, rather than Thomas’s actual arguments.
Differing sharply from the modern-day (and to my mind, often artificial) distinction between the sciences and the humanities, Thomas and his fellow schoolmen describe theology as a “scientia.” Yes—a science, a body of knowledge pursued through arguments of human reason, limited though such reason may ultimately be. Their understanding of theology as scientia does not mean that they believe that everything about Christianity is ultimately shown through logical proof. Quite the contrary. Thomas strongly believes in the mystery of much of faith as well as the ultimate limitations of language to capture the Godhead. But this idea of theology as a scientia structures his teaching and his methods of seeking truth. How so?
The Summa is split into three large parts, called the Prima Pars, Secunda Pars, and the Tertia Pars. Then it is divided further, into a series of questions that naturally lead from one to the next. For example, the question I just included is this one, from the Tertia Pars:
Question 1: The Fitness of the Incarnation
Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?
Whether it was necessary for the restoration of the human race that the word of God should become incarnate?
Whether, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate?
Whether God became incarnate in order to take away actual sin, rather than to take away original sin?
Whether it was fitting that God should have become incarnate in the beginning of the human race?
Whether the Incarnation ought to have been put off till the end of the world?
Such individual questions are then broken down even further. For example, Thomas first asks the question (“whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?”). Then he presents potential answers to this question that he doesn’t agree with, before he presents his own examination. They often include quotes from highly regarded church fathers, like Augustine, or from esteemed pagan authorities like Cicero or Aristotle. These are not softball oppositional answers that he can then crush to smithereens, as we might see with a cheap political speech today. They present real challenges to his argument. He then answers the question with his answer, followed by objections to each of the preceding potential answers. This style of conversation in text is called “dialectic.” Dialectic argument is really important in scholasticism, and it’s here that I want to dwell for a minute.
We live in a time that chooses a provocative argumentative style that might be considered the total opposite of dialectic. What will grab attention? Make headlines? Who cares if it actually answers your opponent’s concerns, as long as it makes a splash. The result is a blunt axe of argument; the goal is to “own” your opponents, not actually to persuade them. When I read Thomas, I’m struck by his attention to his debate opponents, and his carefulness to characterize their arguments as strongly as he can. Some readers of Thomas have even noted that sometimes he states his opposition’s points better than they themselves do. Thomas believes in the power of rational discovery together. He believes that humankind’s reason in the pursuit of truth is how we most closely resemble God, where God’s image is found in our souls.
In dialectic modes of theology, an argument is never finally closed or concluded. Dialectic is open-ended; while you hopefully arrive at a “best” answer, it also means that eventually another, even better answer may emerge through your mutual rational conversation. The Summa remains fundamentally unfinished and open (albeit more in some places than in others).
These features of dialectic help us to understand why the language of scholasticism can be so hard for amateurs like ourselves. Although it may feel like they were deliberately excluding people (and many theologians thought that exclusion was a wonderful side effect rather than a detraction), the scholastics thought it critical to share a common vocabulary while employing a dialectical technique so that the debaters can actually debate on an even ground in their attempt to uncover truth. The debates will often be about that vocabulary itself. The scholastics believed that the more precise the vocabulary, the better they could understand one another and mutually pursue the questions they sought to answer.
The result of dialectic like Thomas’s is a theology both incredibly structured and free to discuss a strange and wide array of questions, many of which I would never have come to on my own. Should God have become a different kind of creature than a man? Is it fitting that Christ sits at the Right Hand of the Father? Should Christ have appeared to the disciples in another shape? Should Christ have been tempted in the desert? How did Christ work miracles?
There are a lot of negative things about scholastic theology. It is often misogynistic. It is closed to a small circle of educated male theologians. It has a highly specialized and technical vocabulary that makes it tricky to enter into as an untrained layperson. But it reminds us of some things we have largely forgotten in modernity that I want to highlight right now.
Jesus of the University and his translators, Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians, remind us that how we talk about Jesus is almost as important as what we say about Jesus. Form and matter are not easily separable. Matter—the subject, what you attempt to communicate about God, the message—actually does not exist without the form in which it is conveyed (unless you’re God, and you are the Word, and there’s no difference between form and content). Content ultimately matters more than form; that is, something abhorrent will always be abhorrent, though masked, if it is put into compelling and beautiful form (lies, racism, nationalist propaganda). But content too can become devoid of its meaning if truth is spoken without love and attention. Paul attests to the truth of both of these situations. “If I speak with the tongues of angels, but have not love, I’m only a resounding gong” (1 Cor. 13:1). Beautiful language without truthful and loving content, or incredible truth without any charity given to my would-be audience create the harsh clanging of meaningless noise. Paul’s words apply both ways. This argument is my main point of contention with many of my fellow Christians. Both left and right are guilty, but it has been particularly discouraging to watch the widespread turn of evangelicals to the idea that the ends justify the means. It doesn’t matter how right you are about something—say, abortion—if you are screaming your moral outrage absent of love and attention.
We are in a desperate situation (especially those of us who are Americans). We do not know how to disagree with one another. The Body of Christ is broken, rent with divisions of all kinds. I say “we” because I think literally every Christian I know (honestly probably every person, Christian or not) is in a muddle with friends, family members, other Christians, people who believe different things. For Christians, the final goal is not persuasion. The final goal is to love your God and love your neighbor, which looks different in its many contexts. And something else thing is clear: Jesus specifically tells us to love our enemies, even in argument. Thomas Aquinas provides a way for us into thinking about how to have meaningful and charitable argument without sacrificing rigor or truth. How can we imitate Jesus of the University?
I’m trying to practice these when I imitate scholastic theology and the Jesus discussed in the medieval university. In the spirit of the scholastics, I’ve numbered them.
Find a common vocabulary on which you can agree. Make sure others know what you mean when you use a particular word, especially words that have been thrown around indiscriminately or used intentionally to sow hatred. If you can find a common ground in your speech and agree on the definitions of some key words, that’s already a place from which you can both work to understand one another and moreover, constitutes an act of charity towards the other person.
Thomas is almost ludicrously intentional in his language. Scholastics believed in the power of particular words so strongly, they argued that disordered speech was the biggest path into heresy, into speaking lies about God. The same is true of people: careless, disordered speech causes pain and rifts beyond your control or intention. If someone is sensitive about a word or phrase you use, don’t scold, deride, or mock. Change your words if it does not affect the truth of what you are attempting to communicate. Give room. Think of this as an opportunity for loving attention: helping your enemy to understand you and loving them well.
Thomas does not waste time on bad arguments. Some people do not argue in good faith. They argue to provoke. They argue to ridicule. Or they argue to prove something about themselves and it has nothing to do with you or your debate. These are a waste of time to engage seriously. Thomas engages serious arguments in good faith as a journey in seeking truth together.
Thomas characterizes his opponents and their views with charity. Oof. We all know that we win arguments best if we don’t do that, if we cast aside the best parts of our opponents’ points to engage with the weakest. We must learn to engage with all of their points, strong and weak. Thomas shows us that if we are seeking truth in ourselves and our communities, it’s simply not enough to pounce on weakness. We must answer their strong points with honesty and clarity. But what would it look like to characterize, say, a sexist argument with charity? Here we must creatively use an updated version of scholastic thinking rather than Thomas himself, who certainly held misogynistic views. Don’t let that sexist point slide—characterizing with charity does not mean to let someone off the hook. It does mean that if they say something worth listening to alongside the sexism, you ought to take that one part seriously even while identifying and rejecting the sexism.
In a conversation with high stakes, do participate. Do state your opinions, clearly, firmly, humbly, carefully, and charitably. This one is actually the hardest one of all for me. I am so tempted to just slide by in conversations when I am uncomfortable. I do not like conflict, and honestly, I don’t really like taking a strong stance. Much to my shame, I have heard people say racist things and kept silent. I have been discriminated against as a woman, and simply faded away to nurse my anger alone. Outside of these more provocative moments, people have said things to me that would have been the jumping-off point for a great conversation and mutual seeking of truth. And I avoided it because I do not always like to talk about hard things even outside of conflict. Thomas Aquinas believes in the power of asking and seeking together. And he always, always states his thoughts on these difficult questions. He does so with care and attention, but he does not draw back when things get difficult. Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, wrote: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” You don’t need to constantly argue (please don’t, actually, that’s a whole new issue). But when your conscience is at stake, or justice, or love, or the safety and peace of others, speak.
Thanks for thinking with me on this challenging and interesting topic. And thank you Thomas Aquinas, for helping us to think through how we speak and engage difficult ideas and conversations.