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"Addressing Social Violence in Dame Ragnell and Carlisle through Sports"

by Prof. Maia Farrar, University of Michigan

(December 2018 Issue / PDF)

Teaching medieval literature (and medieval romance maybe in particular) to undergraduates within the current political climate of nationalism, racial politics, and international conflict, can fruitfully spark critical discussion of these topics. Middle English Arthuriana speaks to insecurities of regional communities, class, race and gender just as the immediate social moment does. While many undergraduates have had little exposure to medieval or early literature, this unfamiliarity and “strangeness” (as one student phrased it) can prove productive. In an effort to bridge that linguistic and political gap, I seek to utilize their unfamiliarity as a strength. While teaching Arthuran texts—The Weddyng of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell  and Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle—I have found that drawing connections to contemporary culture (in particular sport culture) illuminating. By embracing the unfamiliar in the familiar, and vice versa, diverse meanings become available to students while also connecting medieval literature’s social anxieties to those of the students. In this essay, I unpack some of the tensions within the two medieval texts before turning to an assignment that proved fruitful for the students’ critical discussion of both the poems and contemporary sporting culture.

Almost because of their status outside the medieval canon, the early fifteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle and The Weddyng of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell both offer intriguing potential within the undergraduate classroom. Carlisle both satirizes the Arthurian trope of chivalric adventure while also critiquing social hierarchy and prejudice—which introduces students to the long chivalric tradition while at the same time inviting critical engagement. The mocked Carl successfully dominates Arthur’s knights through physical and diplomatic means, demonstrating multiple avenues towards political change before the text re-imposes the traditional hierarchy. Dame Ragnell similarly offers rhetorical conflict between genders and class to implicitly up-end gender roles and socio-economic status. The unarmed king is accosted by a knight whom he has “misused” and revoked land from, and in order to escape death must answer what women desire. The “loathly” Ragnell bids the king to “speke with me…For thy lyfe is in my hand, I warn the soo”(266). Yet because she is “foule” and “ungentyl” the king has “great dispyte” and “no nede” for her (271). This raises questions not only about the gendered power of the text, but also issues of ableism and ethical politics. The lady’s status as an unknown and common female is only one of the reasons Arthur dismisses her. Her aesthetic ugliness and imperfect physical body also allows him to feel secure in his rejection. Nonetheless, Ragnell confidently assert her intellectual superiority, claiming the king’s “lyfe” depends on her. Surprisingly, the dame is most authoritative when scorned and cursed by the court, whereas after conforming to their aesthetic values, she similarly conforms to social expectations for feminine docility. Sarah Lindsay notes the “narrative pattern of ignoring women” in relation to The Jeaste of Sir Gawain, in which Gawain’s lover is consistently silenced or overlooked so that the men may achieve a chivalric resolution (35). Here, Ragnell refuses to be silenced or disregarded.

However, this interaction is also predicated on the king’s initial political “greatt wrong” towards Sir Gromer, where he misuses his sovereignty to confiscate land. Thus political favoritism is also raised as a problem even before the text critiques Arthur’s court prejudice against Ragnell’s disability, gender, age, and presumed low class. Scholarship of this text notes Gromer’s presence and Arthur’s initial failure as a distinct feature of this “loathly lady” narrative (Norris, 85). Thomas Hahn suggests that this narrative trope was specifically referenced to appeal to Edward I for similar complaints against feudal hierarchy and classism in 1299: “a loathly lady, with foot-long nose, donkey ears, neck sores, a gaping mouth, and blackened teeth, rode into the hall and demanded of Sir Perceval and Sir Gawain (Edward's knights had assumed Arthurian identities for the occasion) that they recover lost territory and end the strife between commons and lords”(41). The lady is ostracized as entirely outside the social community, and even humanity. Part of this rejection stems from her aesthetic quality that distances her from expected norms (donkey ears etc.), but it also arises from her aggression, intellect, and non-conformity to gendered actions. Her insatiability at the wedding feast and in the bedroom both is reminiscent of monsters and animals, but also confirms her status outside the community and the aristocracy. Louise O. Fradenburg points towards this aspect of Ragnell (or the loathly lady in general) as an issue, as she is “identified with a regressive, fantastic subjectivity alienated from the everyday reality which constitutes the phenomenal world of the bourgeoisie”(40). Fradenburg highlights the lady’s sexuality and aggression as not only putting pressure on gendered constructs, but also on the economic system and rising class tensions between the old feudal model and the emerging middle (merchant) class of the fifteenth-century.

Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle picks up these same economic and class conflicts. While some Gawain tales, such as Ragnell, offer the knightly pursuit of chivalry as in tension with local authority, Thomas Hahn argues that the Carlisle “shapes its plot so that such issues are not defined in terms of lordship, territorial control, or individual knightly prowess, but rather within a peculiar framework of personal or even domestic chivalry.” Posing chivalry as a personal pursuit available to those outside the aristocracy reframes the ideal and destabilizes the traditional social value placed on members of the lower castes. Gawain maintains his traditional courtesy throughout his interactions with the Carl (and the Carl’s wife) while Kay and Baldwin recognize his markings as outside the chivalric structure, discourteously kicking his cattle and reject his lordship within his own domain. Kay and Baldwin’s insolent characterization suggests that they see the oath of chivalry and courtesy as only valid between knights of the Round Table—inaccessible to those outside that caste. Gawain’s reward of marriage to the Carl’s daughter demonstrates the text’s endorsement of social and economic mobility amongst and even outside the knightly class.

Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Carlisle poses a beheading as the means by which the Carle may regain his knightly status (lost in this text, but present in The Carle of Carlisle and therefore supplied in many editions). But like Bertilak in the Green Knight, the Carle’s staged beheading also calls attentions to Arthur’s knights’ often failed pursuit of chivalry. Gawain may act honorably in this text, but Kay and Baldwin provide counter examples of Round Table prejudice, discourtesy, and weakness. Kay’s ridicule that he “count hym [the Carle] not worthe an har”(156) proves false, as the Carle “buffets” him and chastises him for “desiring” his wife. By desiring the Carle’s wife and failing in the simple test of chivalry (such as kicking his horse), Kay demonstrates his inferiority to the Carle, despite the Round Table’s reputation: “And I, Syr Kynge,” sayd Syr Kay agayne,/ “That ever I scapid away unslayne/ My hert was never so light”(586-8). To leave the Carle’s “hospitality,” the guest must demonstrate absolute obedience and courtesy, according to the Carl—which Kay and Balwin fail to do. Moreover, their physical failure against or fear of the Carle is at odds to their mockery of his insignificance as a churl. The text’s opening list of Arthurian heroic knights, such that “a hardyer knygght myght not be fonde”(92), imagines them to be more chivalric and “hardy” than any other, yet the Carle bests them—which implies such honor is superficial or inauthentic in the face of the Carle’s stoic authority. The contrast between the knights’ claims of ultimate chivalry and the Carle’s humility—while the churl in fact successfully demonstrates command over his domain and physical superiority just as the knights display incivility and weakness—shows Arthur’s court to disadvantage. The political and economic structure which governs the court is therefore similarly critiqued.

I have found that Dame Ragnell and Carlisle’s satirical takes on socio-economic status and racial/gendered prejudice generates compelling discussion amongst my undergraduates about medieval tensions, but translating these conversations onto issues outside the immediate text more difficult. In order to enable this conversion, I ask my students to find moments of cultural fluidity in contemporary issues and popular culture. Coming from a state University with a large athletic department, I have found that students are well trained in translating sports culture and commentary into their views on wider issues (a common trend amongst other institutes, I am convinced). As a low stakes assignment, I asked students to make a “March Madness” bracket filled with figures from the class’s various Arthurian texts. Students “seed” the figures similar to the Collegiate basketball championships, where competing teams are ranked based on previous success and then advance through the competition by beating each individual opposing team. The first task students complete is “seeding” or ranking the literary figures based on the text’s depiction of their “strength”—which the student must categorize and support based on various metrics (physical strength, cunning, political intelligence, manipulation, prejudice, etc.). Students are typically well versed in this method of critically analyzing multiple classifications and values. Pairing narratives allowing them to engage with various questions posed by different texts and arrive at new insights.

This is one example where the student ranked Ragnell’s Gawain as a dominant contestant (along with the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) with Ragnell herself just behind them as a second seed:
I ask the students to write an analysis of the relative seeding they assign based on evidence from the text, but also the implications of this new reading. How might comparing Ragnell’s authority with that of Morgan Le Fay (typically read as a villain) alter the class’s impression of Arthurian social systems? In this student’s vision, Ragnell had less relative authority or power than Gawain, but the Green Knight had higher efficacy based on his combined political cunning and physical force. Here, this student asserts Morgan Le Fay controls less power than Ragnell because of her need to work from the sidelines, which helped highlight methods of resistance in other texts as well. The Carle is absent from this student’s bracket because (according to their framework) his ultimate submission to Arthur erases some of his efficacy. Other students read the narrative imposition of class structure as an after-thought that readers might be invited to disregard or push against. In both cases the class engaged with difficult questions of privilege and dominant culture across medieval texts as a result of the assignment’s familiar parameters.

Dislocating Ragnell’s questions of systematic political prejudice onto a familiar genre (the bracket), which actively invites conversation on cultural values, helps put pressure on the medieval text and sports culture. This encouraged the students to consider and question their interpretive approaches at the same time. The “chivalric bracket” my students created imagined various metrics for analyzing figures in medieval and Early Modern texts and enabled students’ to enter into some of medieval literature’s difficult or unsettling questions—and thereby to evaluate critically both the text and their own cultural assumptions. Using it, students considered the similarities in discourse between popular culture and early literature. Transferring basketball competitions onto Arthuriana defamiliarized both ideas for the students, which helped them learn it anew and transfer it to other contexts. Pairing medieval romance with contemporary sports culture productively challenges students’ assumptions about historical, social, and political distance.

Work Cited

Fradenburg, Louise O. “The Wife of Bath’s Passing Fancy.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 8 (1986): 31-58.

Hahn, Thomas. Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995.

Lindsay, Sarah. “Chivalric Failure in the ‘Jeaste of Sir Gawain’.” Arthuriana 21.4 (2011): 23-41.

McCloud, Larry M. The Pen and the Pennon: Political and Social Comment Inscribed within Chivalric Romance, University of Missouri - Kansas City, Ann Arbor, 2016.

Norris, Ralph. “Sir Thomas Malory and ‘the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’ Reconsidered.” Arthuriana 19.2 (Summer 2009): 82-102

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