As I wrote in What is the blue pill? chivalry is a mockery of Christian sexual morality. What was pure was portrayed as perverse, and what was bawdy was portrayed as pure. It was a truly devious joke. We can’t see its wickedness because we have mistaken the parody of Christianity for the real deal.
Whenever I read chivalrous tales the two target audiences are painfully in the room. Each scene is carefully tailored to provide pure delight to both lovesick adolescent boys and the strong independent women who devour romance novels like 50 Shades of Grey.
Today I’ll share a small episode from Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, the epic that not only introduced Lancelot but is generally seen as launching the genre that we call chivalry. In today’s episode Lancelot meets a slutty maiden, and Chrétien de Troyes uses this encounter to teach chivalry’s view of sexual morality. The slutty maiden offers Lancelot information he badly needs if he is going to rescue King Arthur’s slutty wife, Queen Guinevere. But in return the slutty maiden insists that the studly Lancelot have sex with her. Lancelot declines the offer, not because of Christian sexual morality, but because of the morality of romantic love. As chivalry demands he takes great pains not to slut shame her or otherwise judge the sexual immorality she wears on her sleeve:
Then the damsel said to him: “Sire, my house is prepared for you, if you will accept my hospitality, but you shall find shelter there only on condition that you will lie with me; upon these terms I propose and make the offer.” Not a few there are who would have thanked her five hundred times for such a gift; but he is much displeased, and made a very different answer: “Damsel, I thank you for the offer of your house, and esteem it highly, but, if you please, I should be very sorry to lie with you.”
The slutty damsel then declares that she will not give the studly Lancelot the information he needs, so Lancelot relents. However, he is distressed at the thought of fornicating without the sanctification of romantic love, and he also fears that the slutty maiden will become an alpha widow in the process:
“By my eyes,” the damsel says, “then I retract my offer.” And he, since it is unavoidable, lets her have her way, though his heart grieves to give consent. He feels only reluctance now; but greater distress will be his when it is time to go to bed. The damsel, too, who leads him away, will pass through sorrow and heaviness. For it is possible that she will love him so that she will not wish to part with him.
It is here that we learn that the slutty maiden is a strong independent woman. She leads studly Lancelot into the magnificent castle she has built, a place without men:
As soon as he had granted her wish and desire, she escorts him to a fortified place, than which there was none fairer in Thessaly; for it was entirely enclosed by a high wall and a deep moat, and there was no man within except him whom she brought with her.
(Vv. 983-1042.) Here she had constructed for her residence a quantity of handsome rooms, and a large and roomy hall.
When the time comes to dismount their horses, we are again reminded that the slutty damsel is a strong independent woman. Her moxie greatly pleases Lancelot!
Then he dismounts from his horse, as does the damsel from hers. The knight, for his part, was pleased that she did not care to wait for him to help her to dismount.
Lancelot removes his armor and stows his weapons, and they have a meal. Next the slutty damsel tells Lancelot to wait outside a bit while she gets into bed, and then come join her in bed. But when Lancelot returns, suddenly the strong independent damsel is at imminent risk of being raped. What follows is a bodice ripping scene where Lancelot is called upon to rescue the slutty damsel from a group of armed knights:
Entering one of the rooms, he hears a damsel cry aloud, and it was the very one with whom he was about to lie. At the same time, he sees the door of another room standing open, and stepping toward it, he sees right before his eyes a knight who had thrown her down, and was holding her naked and prostrate upon the bed. She, thinking that he had come of course to help her, cried aloud: “Help, help, thou knight, who art my guest. If thou dost not take this man away from me, I shall find no one to do so; if thou dost not succour me speedily, he will wrong me before thy eyes. Thou art the one to lie with me, in accordance with thy promise; and shall this man by force accomplish his wish before thy eyes? Gentle knight, exert thyself, and make haste to bear me aid.” He sees that the other man held the damsel brutally uncovered to the waist, and he is ashamed and angered to see him assault her so;
Here we are assured that Lancelot’s motivation for rescuing the slutty damsel is purely noble. She is a strong independent woman after all, and he doesn’t own her:
yet it is not jealousy he feels, nor will he be made a cuckold by him. At the door there stood as guards two knights completely armed and with swords drawn. Behind them there stood four men-at-arms, each armed with an axe the sort with which you could split a cow down the back as easily as a root of juniper or broom.
Lancelot briefly considers whether he should intervene against such odds, and quickly conquers his fears. Being a white knight isn’t easy, after all:
The knight hesitated at the door, and thought: “God, what can I do? I am engaged in no less an affair than the quest of Queen Guinevere. I ought not to have the heart of a hare, when for her sake I have engaged in such a quest. If cowardice puts its heart in me, and if I follow its dictates, I shall never attain what I seek. I am disgraced, if I stand here; indeed, I am ashamed even to have thought of holding back. My heart is very sad and oppressed: now I am so ashamed and distressed that I would gladly die for having hesitated here so long. I say it not in pride: but may God have mercy on me if I do not prefer to die honourably rather than live a life of shame! If my path were unobstructed, and if these men gave me leave to pass through without restraint, what honour would I gain? Truly, in that case the greatest coward alive would pass through; and all the while I hear this poor creature calling for help constantly, and reminding me of my promise, and reproaching me with bitter taunts.”
Except, for Lancelot, being a white knight really is easy. Although unarmed and unarmored, he handily defeats the room full of armed knights! He is wounded in the process, but that only makes him fiercer. Lancelot declares that he can easily take them all in battle, and as many others as they might bring:
Then the knight seizes the axe, wresting it quickly from him who holds it; then he lets go the knight whom he still held, and looks to his own defence; for the knights from the door, and the three men with axes are all attacking him fiercely. So he leaped quickly between the bed and the wall, and called to them: “Come on now, all of you. If there were thirty- seven of you, you would have all the fight you wish, with me so favourably placed; I shall never be overcome by you.”
This proves to the slutty damsel that Lancelot is indeed the studliest alpha of them all! She calls off the hoax, for she is a strong independent woman who doesn’t need a man to save her. She was just testing Lancelot, to see if he was chivalrous.
And the damsel watching him, exclaimed: “By my eyes, you need have no thought of that henceforth where I am.” Then at once she dismisses the knights and the men-at-arms, who retire from there at once, without delay or objection. And the damsel continues: “Sire you have well defended me against the men of my household. Come now, and I’ll lead you on.” Hand in hand they enter the hall, but he was not at all pleased, and would have willingly dispensed with her.
Then the slutty damsel calls studly Lancelot into bed with her. He complies, but since the fornication would not be sanctified by romantic love he lays on the bed with no sexual desire for her. The sexual morality lesson of courtly love is heavy handed and unmistakable. Lancelot loves another man’s wife, so adultery is perfectly moral. But he doesn’t love the slutty maiden, and besides he would be cheating on Arthur’s wife:
Not once does he look at her, nor show her any courtesy. Why not? Because his heart does not go out to her. She was certainly very fair and winsome, but not every one is pleased and touched by what is fair and winsome. The knight has only one heart, and this one is really no longer his, but has been entrusted to some one else, so that he cannot bestow it elsewhere. Love, which holds all hearts beneath its sway, requires it to be lodged in a single place. All hearts? No, only those which it esteems. And he whom love deigns to control ought to prize himself the more. Love prized his heart so highly that it constrained it in a special manner, and made him so proud of this distinction that I am not inclined to find fault with him, if he lets alone what love forbids, and remains fixed where it desires.
This of course proves to the slutty damsel that Lancelot is the greatest of knights, having first demonstrated his prowess in battle, and then demonstrated his perfect devotion to the holy entity that is romantic love.
The maiden clearly sees and knows that he dislikes her company and would gladly dispense with it, and that, having no desire to win her love, he would not attempt to woo her. So she said: “My lord, if you will not feel hurt, I will leave and return to bed in my own room, and you will be more comfortable. I do not believe that you are pleased with my company and society. Do not esteem me less if I tell you what I think. Now take your rest all night, for you have so well kept your promise that I have no right to make further request of you. So I commend you to God; and shall go away.” Thereupon she arises: the knight does not object, but rather gladly lets her go, like one who is the devoted lover of some one else; the damsel clearly perceived this, and went to her room, where she undressed completely and retired, saying to herself: “Of all the knights I have ever known, I never knew a single knight whom I would value the third part of an angevin in comparison with this one. As I understand the case, he has on hand a more perilous and grave affair than any ever undertaken by a knight; and may God grant that he succeed in it.”