“she wants you to be her prisoner”

becoming prisoner of love

“She wants you to be her prisoner.
She wants to have your body
For herself, not even your heart
To be free.” “Surely,” he answered,
“I agree. I’ve no objections.
I want to be her prisoner.” [1]

So said the knight Yvain in the late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Yvain: The Knight with the Lion. Yvain had killed the lady’s husband in a foolish bid for knightly glory. He then fell madly in love with the grieving lady.

At great risk to himself, Yvain sought out a meeting with the lady. He surrendered himself completely to her:

“Lady! Rather than beg
For your mercy, I’ll thank you for anything
You wish to do with me.
Nothing you do could displease me.”
“Really? And what if I kill you?”
“Lady! Your will be done.
You’ll never hear me complain.” [2]

The repeated, exclamatory address “Lady!” emphasizes Yvain’s desperate desire to serve the lady. The phrase “your will be done” echoes the prayer Jesus taught his disciples in the context of warning them about heaping up empty phrases in their prayers.[3] Yvain intended his prayer to the lady to be taken seriously. He explained:

No power on earth could be
As strong as this which orders
Me to consent to your will,
Completely and in every regard.
Nothing could make me hesitate
To do whatever you wish. [4]

In the Christian context of this text, Yvain proclaimed outrageous idolatry.

Men today for whom idolatry means nothing still practice it in relation to women by following Yvain’s chivalric model. Such men are fundamentally deluded about how to please women. More importantly, such men deprive themselves of human dignity and support social injustices of men’s subordination.[5]

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain: The Knight with the Lion, ll. 1922-7, from Old French trans. Raffel (1987) p. 59. The lady was Laudine, called also the lady of Landuc. Yvain became a prisoner in Laudine’s palace after pursuing her husband there to get evidence of his victory. After falling in love with the widowed Laudine, Yvain declined an opportunity to escape from imprisonment in her palace.

[2] Id. ll. 1975-81. Killing Yvain is plausible punishment for his killing of Laudine’s husband. Men of the palace had earlier unsuccessfully sought to find and kill the perpetrator. Laudine’s interest in using Yvain in battle helped to motivate her not just to spare him, but to marry him.

[3] Matthew 6:9-13.

[4] The phrase “no power on earth” suggests conscious authorial flirting with idolatry. With respect to idolatry, the question is how Laudine’s power over Yvain compared to God’s power over Yvain. Since Yvain indicated his willingness to consent even to her will going against the law of God, he made her superior to God to him. Yvain went on to marry Laudine.

[5] Men vastly predominate among prisoners. That gender inequality is directly related to anti-men sex discrimination in criminal justice. Lack of public concern about this fundamental injustice makes it seem as if men want to be prisoners, and women want men to be imprisoned. Men and women of good will should strongly oppose imprisonment of men in any form unless unavoidably necessary for strictly scrutinized reasons.

[image] Knight pledging service to lady. The knight depicted is Der Schenk von Limpurg (either Walther I, fl. 1230s-1240s, or one of his sons, Walther II or Konrad I). Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 82v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Raffel, Burton, trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

monk, naval chaplain & financial journalist review Gesta Romanorum

monk caricature

Like benighted elites today, leading nineteenth-century English public figures lacked appropriate respect for medieval Latin literature. Gesta Romanorum, a Latin story-collection probably compiled in England late in the thirteenth century, was one of the most popular texts in the Middle Ages. Yet modern scholars have largely ignored it. Charles Swan, who served as chaplain on a British naval warship, translated nearly fully Gesta Romanorum for the first time from Latin into English in 1824.[1] Wynnard Hooper, who went on to a career as an eminent financial journalist, revised and corrected Swan’s translation in 1877. Both Swan and Hooper treated Gesta Romanorum with comical bias.

Swan’s alternate title for Gesta Romanorum suggests the interest of a naval chaplain in entertaining sailors on a long voyage. Swan was no crude boathand. He received an elite education at Catharine Hall, Cambridge, and acquired the title of Reverend. In 1823, nine of his sermons accompanied with learned references and notes were published with a flowery prefatory dedication to  “George, Lord Bishop of Lincoln.”[2] Swan’s sermons emphasized “moral preaching.” Swan’s alternate title for Gesta Romanorum likewise indicated moral instruction, along with literary learning and an imagined casual setting:

Entertaining Moral Stories; invented by the Monks as a fire-side Recreation; and commonly applied in their discourses from the Pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own Poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots.

Swan dedicated his book to the Right Honorable Lord Viscount Palmerston (Henry John Temple), Secretary at War and Member of Parliament. Swan’s dedication, written in London, is dated June 9, 1824. On October 12, 1824, Swan departed on a long voyage on the HMS Cambrian, a Royal Navy 40-gun frigate.[3] The ship spent nearly a year battling pirates in the eastern Mediterranean. Swan may have preached stories from Gesta Romanorum to sailors on the HMS Cambrian.

Swan, however, had contempt for medieval clerics and Catholics in general. He described Gesta Romanorum as stories “invented by the Monks”; its writer or writers were in Swan’s words “the Monk,” “the monks,” and “an ascetic.” To Swan, the stories of the Gesta Romanorum were “monastic romances.” What that meant to him can be inferred in part from his characterizing one passage as being “far beyond the common strain of monkish imagination.”[4] Swan’s monks were insular:

Ignorance is always credulous …. Comparatively secluded as the monks at all times were, their views of life must necessarily have been confined also: and their simplicity would easily be duped by those who were interested in deceiving them. [5]

To a reference to Gervase, Swan added the footnote:

Gervase of Tilbury, (county of Essex,) a monkish historian. He flourished about the year 1200. [6]

Gervase of Tilbury was a canon lawyer who taught at law at the University of Bologna, advised princes and kings, and served as a judge and in other eminent positions of authority. Gervase traveled widely and wrote learned works. The medieval men that Swan called monks were highly educated religious men of broad learning and much worldly experience. They had a more liberal and tolerant approach to describing sex, violence, immorality, and defecation than Swan did.[7]

Swan was strongly anti-Catholic. To a reference to the sacrament of confession in Gesta Romanorum, Swan added the footnote:

Here we trace the Roman Catholic; and here the fountain of gross licentiousness and unrepented iniquity may be fixed. [8]

To his abridgement of the application (moralization) of a tale, Swan added the footnote:

The latter part of this moralization recommends “fideliter viris ecclesiasticis decimas dare. Si haec feceritis nos viri religiosi tenemur vobis viam salutis ostendere quomodo poteritis ad vitam eternam pervenire.” {Faithful men of the church pay tithes. If you have done this for our religious men, we are obligated to show you the way of salvation so that you will be able to come to eternal life.} The monks never forgot this — “If you pay us, we will show you the way; else, find it out yourself.” Such was the burden {repeated theme} of their song.

When the HMS Cambrian stopped at Cadiz, Spain, on the way to the Aegean Sea, Swan went ashore. There he entered a Catholic church. He recorded in his published journal:

Like all the buildings of Roman Catholic worship, the one in question (which is the chapel of the Augustine monastery) is adorned with a bewildering profusion of gold and silver — “wax, stone, wood,” &c.: and unquestionably is “wondrous fine.” But the impression left upon my mind was, that their devotion had converted the temple of the Deity into a toyshop — the women into arrant coquettes, not to say worse; and the men into bigots. The mummery, so universally practised here, was disgusting enough; and seems to me the very last stage of a confirmed idiotcy. [9]

For Swan, the Middle Ages was a time when the “tenants of Popery” prevailed.[10] The absurdities Swan perceived in Gesta Romanorum were just what he expected. Swan was an intellectual willing to serve as chaplain among sailors on a Royal Navy warship. His interest in Gesta Romanorum is best understood in the context of his anticipating such service in the Mediterranean in the area of Greece and Rome.

Wynnard Hooper revised and corrected Swan’s translation of Gesta Romanorum for a new edition published in 1877. Hooper read the Classical Tripos and Moral Science Tripos at Clare College, Cambridge. He was graduated from Cambridge in 1875 at age 22. His work on Swan’s translation probably was done in conjunction with his studies at Cambridge.[11] Although a young man, Hooper showed self-confidence in dealing with Swan’s book. Hooper in his preface declared:

Mr. Swan’s notes are sometimes erroneous and occasionally pointless. With regard to the former class, I have generally allowed them to stand, and added a correction of the mistakes. Notes of the latter class I have sometimes omitted, and those so treated will not, I think, be missed by the reader. [12]

No other extensive English translation of Gesta Romanorum was published until January, 2016. What Hooper said about the footnotes he omitted sadly applies in general to Gesta Romanorum among modern scholars and the public.

Hooper shared Swan’s biases but pursued a much different professional career. In Gesta Romanorum’s tale “Of Riches,” a king admonished rich persons for their greed. The king said to them:

I will give you counsel. Whosoever of you has enough to support life, let him bestow his superfluity upon these poor people.

Hooper added to that tale this footnote:

It may be doubted whether the author of this remarkable fable had any intention of putting forward a political theory by means of it. Nevertheless a communistic ideal was by no means contrary to the spirit of the Church in the Middle Ages. The Church of Rome being, so to speak, a theocratized Caesarism, has always had considerable sympathy with the mass of the people. It was until the Reformation a despotism with democratic leanings and republican institutions; for any priest, however poor, might become pope, if an able man. But it certainly sounds strange to find a 14th century monk at one with Dr. Karl Marx. [13]

The above footnote shows Hooper’s interest in Moral Science (political economy). Hooper began his professional career writing for The Statist (“a weekly journal for economics and men of business”) from its beginning in London in 1878. In 1882, he joined the Financial and City Department of The Times of London. He became that newspaper’s Financial Editor.[14] As a financial journalist in London, Hooper surely wasn’t serving an audience that wanted to hear “give to the poor whatever you have above subsistence needs.” He seems to have omitted from his professional direction his study of medieval Latin literature.

Medieval Latin literature has been widely misrepresented for centuries. The situation is no longer comical. The way to enlightenment today is through medieval Latin literature.

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[1] In 1473, Ulrich Zell at Cologne printed an edition of Gesta Romanorum with 181 chapters (tales). That became known as the Vulgate. Swan translated the edition that Henry Gran printed at Hagenau in 1508. The difference between Gran’s edition and the Vulgate is very small. Swan & Hooper (1877) p. xiv. After Tale 11, Swan (1824) abbreviated the applications (applicatio / moralizacio) that generally accompany each tale. Ziolkowski (2012) reviews translations from medieval Latin to modern English from the nineteenth century, but doesn’t mention Swan and Hooper.

Manuscripts of Gesta Romanorum vary considerably. Analysis of the manuscript corpus suggests that no root, “original” work ever existed. In England, a smaller set of stories (about 50) appeared in manuscripts identified as Gesta Romanorum. Wynkyn de Worde printed an English translation of Gesta Romanorum of 43 chapters about 1510. English translations of the shorter “English” Gesta Romanorum were subsequently reprinted many times before 1824.

The ordering of tales in Swan (1824) and Swan & Hooper (1877) differs significantly. Swan & Hooper (1877), which is widely available, provides the usual tale number references. To avoid confusion, I cite by book and page number.

Oesterley (1872) provides the best available printed Latin text for the Vulgate Gesta Romanorum.

[2] Swan (1823). Swan earlier had published a book of poems (Swan (1819)) and a book containing a two-act drama and additional poems (Swan (1822)). An 1823 instance of Swan (1819) at the University of California Los Angeles includes a handwritten dedication: “For Uifs {?} Wright with the Author’s affectionate regards. March 1819.”

[3] Swan (1826) p. 1.

[4] For use of monk, “the Monk,” or monks as a description of the author or authors of Gesta Romanorum, Swan (1824) vol. 1, pp. xxxiii, xlii, xlvi, xci, 76, 250, 351; vol. 2, pp. 159, 168, 169, 183. For “monastic romances,” vol. 2, p. 250. For “ascetic,” vol. 1, p. 64. The reference to “monkish imagination” concerns Gesta Romanorum’s description of the beautiful Princess Lucina in its version of Apollonius of Tyre. See vol. 2, p. 263. Swan used the the adjective “monkish” in additional ways: “monkish Latin verses” (vol. 1, p. 268) and “monkish holydays” (vol. 2, p. 10). Swan’s references to monks were carried over into Swan & Hooper (1877).

Clerics probably didn’t invented many of the stories in Gesta Romanorum. Twelve of the stories come from surviving work of the ancient Roman writer Seneca the Elder. Swan himself recognized other stories with ancient Roman sources. See, e.g. Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 404, citing Warton on Pliny, Natural History 10.84, 20.13, as a source. Wright’s introduction to the 1871 edition of Swan’s translation emphasized the tales’ ancient origins.

[5] Swan (1824) vol. 1, p. cxxxvi, Swan & Hooper (1877) p. lxi.

[6] Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 303.

[7] In abbreviating the moralization of the tale “Of Reconciliation through Christ,” Swan stopped after Mary was carrying a sword. He declared:

The reader is desired to frame the rest of the moralization himself, the original being too delicate to handle.

Id. vol. 2, p. 130. He declined to translate literally the man claiming to have crapped a crow. Id. vol. 2, p. 169. He similarly abstracted from the bodily shock of commota sunt omnia viscera ejus (“was agitated through all his bowels”) with the translation “grieved him.” Id. vol. 2, p. 158. He increased the frequency that the emperor had his feet washed. Swan & Hooper (1877) p. 42. Swan refused to translate aphorisms of men’s sex protest included in the application of tale “Of the Game of Schaci {Chess}”:

Among many other matters in dispraise of the fair sex, which are found in this application (and which I blush to translate!), the writer observes after Seneca, “Quod mulieres quae malam faciem habent, leves et impudicae sunt.” {Those women that have an ugly appearance are shallow and lewd.} But this is a Platonic tenet. Again, “Quidius” (or Ovidius) very learnedly remarks, “Casta est quam nemo rogavit.” {The only chaste woman is one who hasn’t been propositioned.}

Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 506, my English translations. Cf. Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 2.24; Ovid, Amores 1.8.43. He suggested that such protest indicates “impotence of mind”:

Whether the fact of the monks leveling so much of their satire against the fair sex is also corroborative {of a bad moral state of society}; or whether it proceeds from that impotence of mind, which being itself fretted by circumstance, would gladly efface or deteriorate whatever is the object of its unavailing wishes, I do not take upon me to decide.

Id. vol. 1, p. cxl. Questioning men’s sexual behavior remains a common form of ad hominem attack on men. In Gesta Romanorum’s version of the ancient weeping dog adultery tale (“Of the execrable devices of old women”), Swan changed the ending so that the husband came home and killed his adulterous wife and the old go-between. Id. vol. 1, pp. 120-4. Swan explained, “The catastrophe in the text I have added, as affording a better moral.” Id. vol. 1, p. 347. Cf. Swan & Hooper (1877) p. 62. The Amazon blurb for Stace (2016) declares:

The first full English translation was produced by the Revd Charles Swan in 1824, but it amounted to little more than a bowdlerization, and the moralizations were treated in cavalier fashion.

In contrast to bowdlerization, Swan wasn’t seeking to make Gesta Romanorum suitable for women and children. Swan was making it suitable for early nineteenth-century sermons to English men.

[8] Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 128. The subsequent quote is from id. vol. 1, p. 250 (my translation from the Latin).

[9] Swan (1826) pp. 6-7. Swan quotes “The Pilgrim and the Peas” by Peter Pindar (John Wolcot). See, e.g. Elegant Extracts (1805) p. 876. Some lines from that poem:

The priest had order’d peas into their shoes:
A nostrum famous in old Popish times
For purifying souls that stunk with crimes;
A sort of apostolic salt,
That Popish parsons for its pow’rs exalt.


[10] Swan (1824) vol. 1, p. 313.

[11] Information on Wynnard Hooper is from the entry for him in Who’s Who, Men and Women of the Time, 1926. Hooper was born on 14 March 1853 and attended St. Paul’s School before Cambridge. He earned a M.A. degree, probably as a result of his work correcting and revising Swan’s translation.

[12] Swan & Hooper (1877) p. vi.

[13] Id. pp. 235-6 (including previous quote). Hooper apparently shared Swan’s contempt for medieval learning. He preserved Swan’s disparaging references to monks. To Tale 19, Hooper added the footnote:

The mixture of romance and history throughout this tale is wonderful, not to say ludicrous. The belief that “Pompey the Great” was a sovereign Prince of Rome is only one of the strange delusions which existed during the period somewhat loosely known as “the Middle Ages.”

Id. pp. 48-9.

[14] Apparently recognized as a financial authority, Hooper wrote entries for the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica on “Stock Exchange” and “Statistics.” The contributor information (p. xiv) describes him as “Financial Editor of The Times, London.” Hooper died on August 24, 1935.

[image] Caricature of a monk. From front page of Swan & Wright (1871) (both volumes).


Elegant Extracts. 1805. Elegant extracts, or, Useful and entertaining pieces of poetry: selected for the improvement of young persons ; being similar in design to Elegant extracts in prose. London: J. Johnson and many others.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann.

Stace, Christopher, trans. 2016. Gesta Romanorum: a new translation. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.

Swan, Charles. 1819. The counterfeit saints; or, Female fanaticism: in two cantos With other poems. London: Longman.

Swan, Charles. 1822. The heir of Foiz; a dramatic sketch, in two acts. The false one, and other poems. With notes, illustrative and explanatory. London: Chapple.

Swan, Charles. 1823. Sermons on several subjects: with notes, critical historical and explanantory and an appendix. London: C. and I. Rivington.

Swan, Charles, trans. 1824. Gesta Romanorum: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; invented by the Monks as a fire-side Recreation; and commonly applied in their discourses from the Pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own Poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots. Translated from the Latin, with preliminary observations and copious notes, by the Rev. Charles Swan, late of Catherine Hall, Cambridge. In Two Volumes. London: Printed for C. and J. Rivington, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, and Waterloo-Place, Pall-Mall. Volume 1. Volume 2.

Swan, Charles. 1826. Journal of a voyage up the Mediterranean: principally among the islands of the Archipelago, and in Asia Minor; including many interesting particulars relative to The Greek Revolution, especially a journey through Maina to the camp of Ibrahim Pacha; together with observations on the antiquities, opinions, and usages of Greece, as they now exist ; to which is added, an essay on the Fanariotes. London: Rivington. Volume 1. Volume 2.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Thomas Wright, intro. 1871. Gesta Romanorum: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; invented by the Monks as a fire-side Recreation; and commonly applied in their discourses from the Pulpit. New edition, with an introduction by Thomas Wright, Esq. M.A. F.S.A. London: John Camden Hotten. Volume 1. Volume 2.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Wynnard Hooper, ed. 1877. Gesta Romanorum; or, Entertaining moral stories; invented by the monks as a fireside recreation, and commonly applied in their discourses from the pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots. Bohn’s Antiquarian Library. London: George Bell & Sons. Dover Publications produced a reprint edition of 1969. That edition describes itself as an “unabridged and unaltered republication of the Bohn Library Edition of 1876.” The date apparently should have been 1877.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2012. “Medieval Latin in Modern English: Translations from the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day.” In Hexter, Ralph J., and David Townsend, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

girl revived naked, sleeping Yvain with non-consensual full body massage

man lost in fog

Yvain became insane with grief when his wife rejected him. He fell to sleeping naked in the woods. One day, a girl passing by in the woods saw him. She didn’t merely gaze at him (that’s a violent, dominating act according to some literary scholars). She stared at him. Moreover, she didn’t just sexually assault him. She responded to the naked, sleeping Yvain with a complex, ambiguous mix of emotions and motives represented in subtle, highly literary poetry.

In a traveling party of two girls and their lady, only one girl saw Yvain sleeping naked in the woods. She didn’t immediately turn away or notify her companions. His body powerfully attracted her:

As soon as she saw the naked
Man, {she} dismounted and ran
and stared at him hard, trying
To find something about him
From which she might know his name.

Looking at a person’s face is typical means of recognition. Her focus was to “find something about him”:

And she stared and stared until,
At last, she became aware
Of a scar on his face, just such
A scar as she’d seen on the face
Of my lord Yvain, and she knew it,
For she’d seen it often. And the scar
Made it all clear: it was him,
She had no doubt.

Staring at a naked, sleeping man isn’t necessary to discern a distinguishing scar on his face. Her consciousness apparently was elsewhere, and then shifted. Yvain was a knight, “the most famous knight in the world, and the best,” powerfully skilled with his lance. Something was mind-absorbingly amiss about Yvain’s body:

A wondrous thing to behold
What he’d come to, to find him in the woods,
Naked and poor. She watched him,
Amazed, crossing herself,
But neither touched nor awoke him

The girl returned to her companions and told them that the naked sleeping man was the famous knight Yvain.

The lady needed Yvain to fight for her. She was at war with a count. The count had launched a bitter attack on her realm. Yvain could turn the war in her favor. She needed his body to be strong, firm, and active. She needed his mind fully awake in service to her.

Without Yvain’s affirmative consent, the girl took peculiar action to revive him. The lady gave the girl magic ointment to cure fever of the brain. The lady give the girl specific, emphatic instructions:

{she} gave it {the magic ointment} to the girl, warning her
Not to use it too freely.
His temples and his forehead should be rubbed:
There was no need to use it elsewhere.
Only his temples required
The ointment; the rest should be kept.
There was nothing wrong with any
Part of him except his brain.

The girl seems to have perceived something wrong with his body below the brain. Disregarding the lady’s instructions, the girl, “meaning to touch and handle him,” rubbed ointment on all parts of the sleeping Yvain’s naked body. She took:

The ointment and rubbed him with it
Until none was left in the box,
So anxious to cure him that she rubbed him
Everywhere, till she used it all,
Paying no attention to her lady’s
Warning — indeed, completely
Forgetting it. She rubbed in more
Than could ever be needed, but hardly
Enough, in her opinion.
She rubbed from his temples and his forehead
Right down to his toes. She rubbed
His temples and all his body
So well, in that bright warm sun,
That all his frenzy and his sadness
Slipped right out of his brain.

Persons today well-instructed about rape would say that she sexually assaulted the sleeping man, except few acknowledge men being sexually assaulted. Yvain awoke no longer feeling sad, but ashamed:

His mind and his memory recovered,
And seeing himself naked
As ivory, he was terribly ashamed,
But it would have been worse had he known
Everything he’d done. But all
He knew was his nakedness.

Suppose he had known everything she had done. Would he have been even more ashamed? Angry? Would he have sought to have her expelled from campus and locked up in prison for a long sentence? Even if she had acted from her own carnal desire, he might have been grateful for her treatment of his mind and body. That, however, isn’t permissible to imagine today.

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All the quotes above are from Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain: The Knight with the Lion, ll. 2888-3130, from Old French trans. Raffel (1987) pp. 88-95. The magic ointment was from Morgan le Fay. She harshly exploited and abused the magician Merlin. Nothing in the above post should be interpreted as condoning women raping men.

[image] Mt. Penanggungan, Mojekerto, Indonesia. Thanks to Harman Abiwardani for photo under Creative Commons Zero license at unsplash.com


Raffel, Burton, trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Yvain & Gawain: men fighting for women should talk with each other

Like Yvain and Gawain, men knights fight, women watch

In Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Yvain: The Knight with the Lion, two sisters disputed their inheritance. The older sister sought to keep everything from their deceased father. To settle their dispute, the sisters induced Yvain and Gawain to fight each other in deadly combat. Yvain and Gawain had no stake whatsoever in the sisters’ dispute. They were merely benighted knights serving women. Underscoring the folly of their combat, Yvain and Gawain seriously injured each other physically and then recognized each other as dear friends. They subsequently shifted to verbal combat, each seeking to declare himself defeated. The underlying cause of the debacle was men not talking with each other before fighting for women.

Just as did Lucretia at the founding of the Roman Republic and the choleric lover in the account of the Archpriest of Talavera, the older sister easily enlisted Gawain to fight for her. The older sister outraced the younger sister to King Arthur’s court. The sisters’ race to court emphasizes that the facts of the case, like in filing for ex parte domestic violence restraining orders, matters less than who shows up at court first. At King Arthur’s court, the older sister argued her case to the eminent knight Gawain. He apparently didn’t question or investigate her claims. He merely “bound himself to do as she wished.” In short, Gawain acted like the manlet Lancelot.

Yvain, on the other hand, agreed to fight for the younger sister in response to a pretty messenger-girl’s masterfully rhetorical speech. The girl rode for no more than a week on her quest to find Yvain for her lady. When she found him, she amalgamated her lady’s searching with her searching in her address to him:

My lord! I’ve sought you
All over. The fame you’ve earned
Has led me to hunt you, all wearily,
Over many, many countries.
I’ve sought you so long that, God
Be thanked, I’ve finally found you. [1]

A celebrity probably wouldn’t thank God for some crazed fan finally catching up with him. The messenger-girl told Yvain:

I come to you from a woman
Better than myself, nobler
And braver. And if you fail her,
It will be your fame that betrayed her,
For she has no one else to help.

The messenger-girl constructed an obligation upon Yvain merely from his fame. Yvain was likewise obliged to help all women. That’s an enormous burden that some men today imagine that they carry. The messenger-girl further elaborated:

This lady, deprived of her entire
Inheritance by her sister, hopes
To win her suit through you.

Her hopes imply Yvain’s responsibilities. To make that relation more palatable, the messenger-girl emphasized that Yvain is special:

You’re the only one she wants.
Nothing could ever persuade her
That anyone else could help.

The messenger-girl, a heartfelt friend to the lady, made a strong case for her:

You’ll win the love of this friendless,
Cheated woman, and vastly
Increase your renown, if you win her
Back what is rightfully hers!

Now tell me, please, if you dare
To come as she asks, or if
You’ll choose to say no and do nothing.

Given that appeal to fame and justice, with backing references to cowardice and laziness, what man wouldn’t respond favorably to a pretty girl that he didn’t know? To the girl’s guile, Yvain responded with ironic no’s and the earnest straight-forwardness of a woman-serving man:

“No,” he answered, “saying
No wins no man fame.
No more will I say no,
But follow you, sweet friend!
Gladly, wherever you please.
And if she for whom you’ve sought me
Truly needs me, have
No fear. Anything I’m able
To do for her, I’ll do.”

More enlightened knights would tell women to fight their own battles. They would simply say, “No.”

King Arthur did nothing stop Yvain and Gawin from brutally assaulting each other. Arthur was formally king of both women and men. He judged that “justice and right” favored the younger sister. Yet he merely begged the older sister to let her younger sister have what was rightfully hers.[2] After stating that Yvain agreed to fight for her because he pitied her and felt sorry for her, the younger sister declared:

“Surely,” she said, “it saddens me
That two knights the likes of these
Should fight because of us,
And because of so slight a quarrel.
But I can’t give up my rights;
My need is far too great.

She didn’t know Yvain. She didn’t even know his name.[3] She didn’t pity him enough not to have him fight for her.

And now they went at it for real.

And they hacked so hard at the other’s
Neck, and nose-guard, and forehead,
And cheeks, that both were purple
And discolored, there under
The skin where the blood had clotted.
And their long coats of mail were torn,
And their shields so broken up
That both of them were wounded.
And they fought so hard, and so fiercely,
That both were panting and short
Of breath, as the battle went on.
Every jewel set
In their helmets was crushed to powder,
Smashed to bits, as the blows
Crashed on their heads, both of them
Stunned, their brains nearly beaten

Yvain and Gawain were like two fighting dogs on whom the sisters had placed bets and set at each other. Amid the brutal violence between the two men, the crowd exclaimed:

This is no game.
These two are fighting in earnest.
But how could they ever be paid
What they’re worth, and what they deserve?

A start would be to respect men’s human dignity and not treat men as tools for women. Courtiers vainly sought to arrange peace between the two sisters, the principals of the fight:

the older sister wanted
No part of any peace.
The younger one said she’d leave it
To the king, and accept his judgment,
Not quibbling whatever he decided,
But the older was so malicious
That even Queen Guinevere
And all the knights and the king
And the ladies and all the townsfolk
Began to favor the younger,
And went to the king, and begged him
To give her at least a third
Or a fourth of their father’s estate,
In spite of the older one’s claim,
And asked him to part the two knights,
Who had shown such wonderful courage.
What a shame it would be, they declared,
If either were seriously hurt
Or deprived of any honor.
But the king said that peace
Was not for him to establish;
The older sister spurned it,
For her spirit was mean.

Men rule societies with contempt for men’s lives and on behalf of women’s narrow interests.

The brutal violence ended through Yvain speaking to Gawain. With blood boiling out of their many wounds and running down their mail-coats, the knights separated to rest for awhile. Yvain spoke in a hoarse and feeble voice to the other knight:

Night approaches.
No one, I think, will blame
Or reproach us if darkness keeps us
Apart. And I will admit
That I fear and value you immensely.
Never in all my life
Have I fought so painful a battle,
Nor have I ever seen
A knight I so much wanted
To know. You know how to strike
Your blows, and you use them well.
No knight I’ve ever known
Can fight so punishingly. I had no
Desire to spend this day
Experiencing the blows you’ve given me.
You’ve half addled my head.

Gawain responded:

You’re no more exhausted and stunned
Than I am, and perhaps even less.
And if I knew you, knight,
I hope you’d not be displeased.
And indeed, if I’ve given you anything
You’ve paid me back in full,
Principal and interest too.
You were readier to pay me in kind
Than I was anxious to receive it.
But let that be as it will.
And since you’ve asked me to tell you
The name I go by, I’ll not
Keep it hidden. My name
Is Gawain, son of King Lot.

Yvain had said that he wanted to know the other knight. The other knight in turn spoke only his name. That was enough. Yvain knew Gawain well:

Wild with rage, he threw
his blood-covered sword to the ground,
And then his cracked and shattered
Shield after it, and dismounted
From his horse, and approaching on foot
He cried: “Dear God! What bad luck!
What kind of stupid mistake
Brought on this battle, neither
Of us knowing the other.
Had I known who you were, nothing
Could have made me fight with you. [4]

If men know each other, they are much less likely to fight with each other. Or at least less likely to fight with each other in seriously damaging ways. After they stopped mortally fighting, Yvain and Gawain began verbally jousting about who would claim defeat and give honor to the other. Finally showing some administrative skills, King Arthur then settled the sisters’ dispute by guile — “fairly and also in good faith.”[5]

Yvain and Gawain engaging in mortal combat to settle the sisters’ dispute indicates social devaluation of men’s lives. Earlier in the romance, a father agonized over choosing between his daughter being continually raped or four of his sons being killed.[6] Losing four persons’ lives is obviously worse than losing one person’s life. Agency — making the choice that causes terrible harm — complicates the choice. Yet gender is also relevant. In the U.S. today, about four men are killed through violence for every women so killed. The U.S. has special, billion-dollar programs addressing violence against women, while the much greater violence against men passes with scarcely any public notice.[7] Men need to talk with each other about violence against men. If men lack the courage to say no to fighting for women, they should just fight verbally to see which man can prevail in claiming self-defeat.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain: The Knight with the Lion, ll. 5059-64, from Old French trans. Raffel (1987) p. 151. All subsequent quotes from Yvain are from id. cited by line number. The sisters’ father was Lord of Blackthorn. l. 4705.

The younger sister “traveled through many countries” in search of Yvain. ll. 4821-3. Then the younger sister became ill and “another young woman” (also referred to as a girl, e.g. l. 5813) carried on her quest. The account of the girl’s travel suggests that she spent two days riding to find Yvain. ll. 4832-5040. The return trip apparently took seven days. l. 5814.

Here’s an Old French text of Yvain. W.W. Comfort’s English translation (1914) is available online here and here. Jocelin of Furness’s twelfth-century Life of Kentigern is thought to have been a source for Chrétien’s Yvain.

Subsequent quotes above are from ll. 5072-6 (I come to you…), ll. 5077-9 (This lady…), ll. 5080-2 (You’re the only one…), ll. 5083-6, 5092-4 (You’ll win the love…), ll. 5095-103 (“No,” he answered…), ll. 5968-73 (“Surely,” she said…), ll. 6117, 6125-42 (And now they…), ll 6162-5 (This is no game…), ll. 6170-92 (The older sister…), ll. 6238-52 (Night approaches…), ll. 6253-67 (You’re no more exhausted…), ll. 6270-80 (Wild with rage…).

[2] Speaking of King Arthur, the narrator declares:

for he held
Her side {the younger sister’s side} of the quarrel, because
He respected justice and right.

ll. 5928-30. That wasn’t a difficult judgment. Before Yvain and Gawain fought, the younger sister stated that she sought nothing that was rightfully the older sister’s. The older sister responded:

“And I,” said the other, “want nothing
That’s yours, for that’s what you have
And will have. No preaching will do it,
For preaching will get you nothing.
May your sadness dry you to dust.

ll. 5960-6. The older sister subsequently declared:

Who listened to you would be stupid.
May I burn in the fires of hell
If I give you anything for your comfort!
The banks of the Seine will come
Together, and morning will be noon,
If I don’t make you do battle.”

ll. 5976-5982. Of course, she was making Yvain and Gawain do battle. On King Arthur begging the older sister, ll. 4787-9.

[3] The younger sister described Yvain as he:

Who for charity and noble generosity
Has put himself at my service,
Though he does not know me and I
Know neither his name nor him.

ll. 6987-90. Scholars have described Yvain’s action as “courtly.” Courtliness was a horrendous ideology that devalued and oppressed men.

[4] In the Iliad, Glaucus son of Hippolochus and Diomedes son of Tydeus met on the battlefield. Before attacking each other, they talked. They thus recognized that their grandfathers Bellerophon and Oeneus were good friends. Glaucus and Diomedes then swore friendship to each other and exchanged armor. Iliad 6.115-240. Chrétien de Troyes probably knew the story of Glaucus and Diomedes from a Latin source.

[5] With appreciation for the value of guile:

The king said he’d settle the quarrel
Fairly and also in good faith.

ll. 6382-3. King Arthur craftily induced the older sister to admit that she:

forcefully drove her sister
From her lands, and disinherited her
By force and evil intent

ll. 6385-7. Arthur then with a tactical ploy coerced the older sister to give back her younger sister’s inheritance. ll. 6405-46. Men are typically inferior to women in guile. The older sister was unusually obtuse.

Like King Arthur in this particular instance, the lion who became Yvain’s loyal friend acted with practical savvy to help Yvain. The story of a man winning the friendship of a lion by helping the lion was well known. Early versions were the story of Androcles in Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 5.14 and Aesop’s fable, “The lion and the shepherd.” Stories of this type are classified as Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 156. In Jerome’s Life of Paul, a lion helped to dig the grave for Paul.

[6] ll 3851-76. Harpin of the Mountain is the monster that offers the father the horrible choice. The father gives no indication of what his choice would be.

[7] Considering violence in Yvain, Ovens ignored gender and concluded:

Violence, in either its presence or its absence, is not the primary phenomenological category in Yvain, and neither (perhaps) is it in medieval literature in general. Violence – physical violence – functions instead as a representation, the sign of a deeper conflict between virtue and vice, the righteous and the repugnant, the divine and the devilish.

Ovens (2015) p. 76. Violence against men caused medieval men to have a much shorter life expectancy than medieval women’s life expectancy.

[image] Violent combat between Herr Walther von Klingen (f. 1240s–1280s) and another knight. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 52r. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Ovens, Michael. 2015. “Violence and Transgression in Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, le Chevalier au Lion.” Parergon. 32 (1): 53-76.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. New Haven: Yale University Press.