Mechtild of Hackeborn, who rolled in broken glass, saw a vision of the celebrating priest in which his vestments were covered with every blade and twig, every hair and scale, of the flora and fauna of the universe. As she looked in surprise, she saw that the smallest details of creation are reflected in the holy Trinity by means of the humanity of Christ, because it is from the same earth that produced them that Christ drew his humanity.
from; Holy Feast and Holy Fast
by Carolyn Walker Bynum1
The forbidden fruit, its properties, and its affects, has vast ramifications within the ethics of the women in Holy Feast and Holy Fast. as well as those of the characters portrayed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 2. Perhaps the connection is less obvious with Gawain. It must be realized that this story contains multi-leveled metaphors which approach modern literature in their complexity. Argument will be made that Gawain betrays an isomorphism with Eden's tale. The author's attitude toward the fruit and perhaps toward fasting will become evident. Bynum's incisive argument has been extremely helpful in this analysis of Gawain; but, with respect to medieval women she has surprisingly little to say about Eve and the Tree. Although this neglect is regrettable, it is not fatal. This paper will tend to support the major theses of Holy Fast. The people described by these authors did not dwell inordinately on any essential weakness of women. It is hoped that this refocusing on the forbidden fruit will help us to see more clearly their perspectives.
The isomorphism of Gawain with the story of Eden can be demonstrated only after the stage is set. It may be helpful to think of this isomorphism as a kind of image or reflection. This puts it squarely within the realm of neoplatonic forms. Medieval nobility, often well versed in neoplatonic thought, would be quick to point out that Arthur, the king is a lesser image of God and that his court is a reflection of the heavenly host. This assertion is not without textual support.
Happiest of mortal kind
King noblest famed of will
You would now go far to find
So hardy a host on a hill. (2)
Presently, the Green Knight rides in. He mirrors Lucifer in God's court, and more; He is full of slander (7:315). He is described in titanic imagery (4:140, 9:390), which was commonly attributed to the anti-christ. The Round Table cannot abide this affront to the King so Gawain, with Guenevere's permission, steps in to intercede. Here Gawain is like Christ or Michael, going out to battle the dragon. He severs his head.
Gawain is full of reversals and inversions. This is consistent with the neoplatonic model since Arthur's court is a lesser image. Later, we will present Bynum's views on this point. Suffice it to say that the giant offered freely his neck to the blow and bound Gawain by oath to come to the Green Chapel and do likewise one year later.
Before we continue we must deal with the nature of Gawain's journey. Some have said that this is the story of Gawain's quest. It is not a quest but rather a fall. Though Bercilak's court is a lesser image of God's court it is also a lesser image of Arthur's. Gawain travels down the hierarchy, not up. He himself calls the whole affair "folly" (8:355) while his friends bemoan the tragedy and "ill fortune" (15:670).
In Gawain, transitions are consistently signified by certain warning flags or signposts, as it were. Among these signposts are; invocation or mention of the Virgin, mentions of the cross, recurrence of the number three, and inversion or reversal in Bynum's sense of the words. She tells us;
Thus, the male writers, artists, worshipers, and priests
in the later middle ages make use of sharp symbolic
dichotomies, and many of their most profound and moving
images were symbolic reversals. (285)
Men's stories are tales of "crisis and conversion." Likewise, these transitions are often times of personal transformation; ultimately, instruction, wisening, and initiation for Gawain. While this is more evident at the Green Chapel, it is also apparent at Bercilak's castle.
Bercilak's court can be shown to be a lesser image of God's as well as Arthur's court but also of Eden. As Gawain searches for a place to celebrate the Christmas mass and fails to find it on his own, he prays to Mary and God that he might find a dwelling. He crosses himself three times and immediately Bercilak's castle appears, as if out of nowhere. The signpost of reversal is also present since he enters the court at Christmastide, mirroring the action of the Green Knight at Arthur's court one year before. (16:750) The obvious point that this court is a reflection of God's is made clear by the Peter/the porter quip. (17:810) That this is a lesser image of Arthur's court is a point requiring elucidation. First of all, Bercilak is said to be a relative of Arthur along the maternal line. (51:2445-65) This point would not be lost on medieval nobility. Second, Bercilak's wives are a divided image of Guenevere. Many have wondered why Guenevere's eyes are gray. For the author, gray represents winter and death, (12:525) yet she is clearly Mary's image. This bifurcation, proceeding to full division in a lesser court would be right at home in classical cosmologies. The isomorphism with Eden is even more difficult to show.
Gawain, though he is "God's archangel" at Arthur's court, is "Adam in Eden" at Bercilak's court. It must be remembered that the castle was provided by God for Gawain almost out of nowhere. Bercilak, who has already been shown to be a reflection of God, shows Gawain around, makes him feel at home, and finally introduces him to the women. (18-20) All of this is highly suggestive of Eden and it will be shown that the isomorphism holds out to the end. That Gawain should reflect both God's archangel and Adam in Eden is not as unusual as might be thought. Many classically influenced christians have insisted that God bestowed more than atoms of air when he breathed into Adam's clay image. Christ himself is said to indwell Bynum's women, entering through the mouth. (133)
If Gawain is a reflection of Adam, then who represents Eve? The author refers to the old lady and the young as "the crone and the coquette" respectively. (28:1315) Our crone plays little role in the happenings at the castle. Though her very integral role is revealed later, she is thus rendered an unlikely candidate for the role of Eve. However, the coquette, who is is central to Gawain's temptation, shows herself to be very much like Adam's lady.
As the story unfolds, Gawain, like Adam, is frequently left alone with the coquette. Bercilak, who like Arthur is both gamesman and huntsman, leaves periodically, mirroring God's notable comings and goings at Eden. On the third day, while hunting, Bercilak comes upon a curious red fox. The crafty beast thinks himself to have thrown off the hounds through his running, circling, and hiding. As he comes out from hiding he is spied by three gray hounds. As the huntsmen close in he is decried as a "thief". (36-1710) Evidently, he had been poaching in the king's garden's. This fox, who presages Gawain's actions, will also give us a possible clue as to the author's perception of Adam's sin. While Bercilak is away the coquette slips into Gawain's room and begins her routine of trying to get him to "teach by some tokens the true craft of love." (32:1525) However, Gawain artfully rebuffs all of her sexual advances, thus showing that the nature of the sin is not sexual at all. Yet, he is clearly in some danger.
Great peril attends that meeting
Should Mary forget her knight. (37:1765)
The signposts of the third day and the mention of Mary alert the reader that Gawain is at a moment of crux. When the coquette sees that all of her advances are refused she tries to get Gawain to accept a pngt. The green sash is first presented as a love token, which Gawain refuses with the utmost courtesy. She then tries a different tack.
For the man who possesses this piece of silk
If he bore it on his body, belted about,
There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,
For he could not be killed by any craft on earth. (39:1850)
This protection from death, this "pearl for his plight"
to come at the Green Chapel is what he accepts from the coquette.
Adam bites the berry. Clearly, it is the contention of this paper that Gawain, in accepting the sash, is mirroring Adam taking the fruit. Yet, what does a green piece of silk have to do with a piece of fruit? Firstly, the sash is green. This color is associated by the author with spring and things that grow. (11:505) It is the color of the enigmatic knight, who, as we shall see, is very much implicated with earthiness. Secondly, the sash, like the fruit, is given by a woman. Thirdly, death avoidance is integral to a any thought of the sash or the fruit. When the coquette says "he could not be killed" (above) it is both reflection and inversion of the saying of the serpent, "Ye shall not surely die." (Gen 3:4) Fourthly, the sin is temporarily hidden. Gawain, when he receives the embroidered silk, is bidden to "conceal it well". (39:1860) Likewise, Adam and Eve sew green aprons but conceal themselves. (Gen 3:7,8) Finally, both cases are seen as robbery or poaching in God's garden. Gawain, who has covenanted to give over all of his gains to the king (23:1105-10), hides the sash in his chamber. (39:1875) When Bercilak returns from his fox hunting, Gawain greets him thus, "Never trouble about the terms, since all that I owe here is openly about the terms, since all that I owe here is openly paid." The king replies,
"Marry!" said the other man, "mine is much
For I have hunted all day and nought have I got
But this foul fox pelt, the fiend take the goods!
Which but poorly repays those precious things
That you have cordially conferred, those kisses
three so good."
It is not surprising that as Gawain here commits to his robbery that signposts should lie about; Marry, and the number three. But, the cross is also here since Gawain replies, "Thank you, by the rood!" Gawain's rudeness will now be revealed.
Gawain rides forth from Bercilak's castle and Adam is "sent forth" from Eden into the earth. Gawain too finds himself in a very earthy place. The Green Chapel is described as a "mound" with a hole and "grass in clumps all without". (45:2175-85)
As Gawain has come full circle, transition is close at hand with all the signposts. Mary is mentioned (45:2140), but also eluded to in Gawain's comment on his "five wits". (46:2190) This harks back to his shield (14:619), with its star (Solomon's Knot) and its occulted image of the Virgin. The "Fiend", the Green Knight, who is Bercilak in disguise, gives Gawain three "taps" with his ax. It is notable that this act, along with the giving of the sash renders Gawain Bercilak's vassal by knightly custom. The whole scene is rich with reversals of the Green Knight's visit of the Green Knight's visit to Arthur's castle . Gawain rides in, now to his own beheading, wearing the bright green sash "against the gay red" (43:2035) mirroring the giants blood "bright on the green" (10:426). After exposing Gawain's fault Bercilak gives him the sash as a token of remembrance. Though Gawain compares his fall to woman to Adam's (50:2415) this is not his final point. He gives the sash a place of honor, hanging from his right shoulder and tied at his left side. (52:2485) It will serve, not only to lower his pride, (51:2437) but also to remind him of past "cowardice and coveting." (52:2505) Thus it is shown that Gawain's, and perhaps Adam's sin was not merely overlove of life, but also thievery. Be that as it may, it seems that each gleaned a certain wisdom from the experience.
Gawain, though convicted of robbery, is allowed to re-enter Arthur's, and by implication, God's court. To eat the fruit is not merely to rob God, but also to gain wisdom. As Bynum pointed out, "to taste is to know." (151) Biting the berry is partially, but not totally, evil. There was something left of Gawain that was still worth saving. One wonders if the author of Gawain would agree with Aquinas that;
"To starve the body" would be to steal from what it should be and offer God only "stolen goods". To fast into ill-health would destroy one's "dignity" as a person. (239)
Thus, the implications of this assessment of Gawain are within the realms of medieval thought as elucidated in Holy Fast. However, they by no means encompass that thought.
Many of Bynum's women saw gluttony rather than robbery as central to Adam's (and Eve's) sin. The omni-present Aquinas examined this notion. (32) Medieval women were taught that food was dangerous, that gluttony was the root cause of other sins. (82,109) The point that Bynum fails to make is that medieval women's piety can be seen within this context, to be a response to Eve's transgression. In this sense, fasting would be a retreat, in general, from gluttony, and eucharistic piety would be a retreat, in particular, from the fruit. This is not a return to the misogyny which Bynum shunned, but rather, a re-focusing on the fruit and its implications which Bynum neglected.
Bynum's women did not dwell inordinately on any essential weakness of Eve, or of women in general. Perhaps they were familiar with the implication of I Timothy 2:14-15 that Eve was saved. It seems that Eve was equated with physical humanity as often as Mary or the body of Christ. (263) Hildegard treats this same subject with lanquage that makes Christ more of a New Eve than a New Adam. (264)
Some have seen the middle ages as a time of hatred for women, and for humanity in general. In that this paper joins with Bynum in rebuttal, it is at least a partial success. However, though it began as an analysis of a piece medieval poetry, it has evolved into a consideration of Adam and Eve and the state of their souls. Perhaps this calls doubt upon its conclusions. I don't think so. Rather, I think this speaks volumes to the thesis that the middle ages, that phenomena in general, will forever remain more complex than anything we can say about them, This realization has resulted in what Bynum calls "the impoverishment of twentieth century images." (299,302) I would not treat it so negatively. We have undone "Solomon's Knot". Yet, the star did not fall from heaven. It still burns in every one of us.
1. Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Carolyn Walker Bynum, University of California Press, 1987. References are given as; (page number)
2. I used Marie Baroff's verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. References are given as; (page number: line number)
If you want to discuss this essay, please let me know.
Back up to
Back to Gawain Links