Honour v Shame in Medieval Literature

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Feelings of shame and honour are intrinsic to human nature. They are also universal across cultures and eras. In the three select works of medieval literature we see expression of honour and shame in different contexts. They vary in relevance and intensity in each of the classic works. But what is common is that honour is universally perceived to be a desirable and cherished value. In the same vein, shame is looked down upon and condemned. The rest of this essay will depict how shame and honour are manifest in the three chosen medieval literary works.

In the Tristan and Iseult legend, there is no definitive version of the actual turn of events in the story. Since oral tradition and anonymous/multiple authorship was common to literature of this period, many interpretations and variations have been added over the years. Yet, some strong unifying themes bind the variants together. Notwithstanding the version, we find that shame and honour are recurrent themes in the Tristan and Iseult legend. A frequently cited version of it has how, after winning the battle against the Irish knight Morholt, the young prince Tristan is sent off on a mission to Ireland by his uncle King Mark. He is sent to bring back the beautiful Iseult whom King Mark is set to marry. But either due to destiny or wilful design (as different versions have it) Tristan and Iseult consume a love potion which makes them madly in love with one another. The power of the potion and the power of the actual love between the two is so strong that it lasts even after Iseult’s marriage to King Mark. One can claim that by continuing to be infatuated with another man in spite of being married, Iseult has lost her honour. The loss of honour should naturally lead to feeling shameful. But such is not the case with Iseult, for the nature of the potion is such that it abdicates the consumer of any responsibility for their actions resulting from it. This is not a conventional medieval way of looking at infidelity – either of thought or act. Indeed, the Arthurian era in which the story is set would have clearly marked Iseult’s behaviour as shameful. But the fact of the matter is that she is the least shameful. To the contrary she pulls off bold escapades to meet with Tristan even while claiming innocence to the suspecting king.

The moral dilemmas for Tristan are a little different. He is shown to be a man who honours his word. For example, it is to fulfil his commitment to King Mark that he sets forth to fetch Iseult from Ireland. He has a genuine affection toward King Mark whom he sees as a father figure. He keeps his honor intact by duly performing his princely duties. As for his love affair with Iseult, one cannot apportion shame on Tristan, for he has not committed infidelity. When we consider the fact that he may only have consumed the love potion by accident, one sees why he has reason to not feel shame.

If inter-personal trust and issues of honour relating to it were the focus in Tristan and Isuelt, the nature of honour changes hue in The Song of Roland. In this heroic poem cantered on the Battle of Roncevaux of 778 AD, the concept of honour is mostly applied in the military context. As statesmen and warriors and nobilities, various actors are expected to keep up their professional honour. And shame arises in those occasions where there is a failure in fulfilling this. The most shameful act in the story is that of Ganelon, who not only betrayed his step-son Roland to the ambushing Muslim warriors, but also the emperor Charlemagne himself by aiding the defeat of his army. Roland, on the other hand, comes out with his honour intact. He obeys the order of his king in leading the rearguard of their Christian army as they exited from Spain. Even when facing an uphill task in the resistance against Muslim soldiers, Roland scrupulously upholds all martial virtues. He blows his olifant only as a last resort. With the tremendous exertion of his lungs and throat, the valiant Roland blows his olifant so that Charlemagne can hear it and come to aid. But unfortunately, he dies a martyr’s death as his temples burst out of the sheer exhaustion of his efforts. Hence even in death Roland had retained his honour.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another classic medieval work that treats themes of honour and shame. One of the upright and bold knights in King Arthur’s Round Table is Gawain. One day he is invited to a feast organized by the King, when all of a sudden a Green Knight gallops onto the scene. The Green Knight poses a challenge to the assembled, whereby, anyone is allowed to strike him with his axe, on the condition that the act will be reciprocated in a year and a day. Perplexed by this strange game from this strange man, many in the King’s Round Table do not take up the challenge. Perhaps seeing the muscular Green Knight as some sort of threat to the king, Gawain decides to take up the challenge. He might have thought that a full blown beheading with the axe will finish off the Green Knight in one blow, with no possibility of another encounter a year down the line. But to his horror and to the shock and surprise of the assembled audience, the headless Green Knight swiftly picks up his separated head and puts it back in place. Upon his departure from the palace he reminds Gawain of the encounter that is to be honoured in a year’s time. Even based upon Gawain’s behaviour so far in the plot, one can see how honourable a character he is. He never thought about his own interest in the bargain but only that of the King. His action is also honourable insofar as he maintained chivalrous behaviour expected of knights. In the events that would unfold in the months leading up to the ordained meeting with the Green Knight, Gawain displays further exemplary conduct. Though tempted by Lady Bertilak in the castle of Bertilak de Hautdesert, Gawain stands firm to his principles and to the commitment he made earlier to Bertilak de Hautdesert. In these respects his conduct is highly honourable. When the story moves to a denouement and the real identities of Bertilak and the Green Knight are revealed, Gawain feels slightly embarrassed. But when all things are considered he had carried himself exceptionally well in the circumstances. The kisses and the girdle he receives from Lady Bertilak should not be treated as transgressions on his honour. If anything they only enhance his reputation for chivalry and deference. When enquired by Bertilak about the kisses and the girdle Gawain feels slightly ashamed. Sensing his embarrassment, Bertilak relieves the tension by talking light heartedly. But it was easy to reduce Gawain’s shame-consciousness. This is learnt from the fact that when he returns to Camelot, he arrives wearing the girdle as a symbol of shame. But the Knights of the Round Table are astute judges of character and rightly absolve their comrade of any guilt. Hence, Gawain’s honour stands enhanced through the negotiation of tricky, testing and morally challenging situations he had confronted through the Green Knight.

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