Many would believe that women in the arthurian legend were passive in their function in the chivalric code. In my own opinion, I believe that the women’s primary role is that they act as catalysts for the action in the text. They are used to propel the text forward.
As modern readers when we read the Arthurian romances the one aspect that we always associate with it is the chivalric code, which is embedded within the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The stereotypical role in which we place women in the Arthurian romances was that of the ‘damsel in distress’ in order to accompany the ‘knight in shining armor’. As a result of this one would see the function of the female characters simply as motivation for the knights to carry out acts of bravery such as taking part in jousts and tournaments in order to win a maidens favor. While also taking on more extreme acts of courage like riding off into battles and wars in order to protect and often save a fair lady. These are common occurrences that are seen throughout the Arthurian romances, so it is understandable that this is the only role that we would associate with women. However, I believe that one must look deeper at the female characters and the chivalric code in order to understand their true role and how this in turn influences the plot of the text. I accept that women do motivate the knights’ actions in regard to chivalry but I am not convinced that it is their sole function. Women played a productive and necessary part in the development of the chivalric code. Of course Guinevere and the other ladies of the Arthurian romances did not ride off into battle, but that does not mean that they had no influence on the code other than simply being the motivation behind it. The knights in the legend are used to portray the functional side of chivalry. They are described as heading out around Camelot on quests upholding the law, doing good deeds, and defending the weak and innocent,
“…[Arthur] charged them never to do outrage nor murder,…and to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy,…and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen and widows succour; strengthen them in their rights, and never to enforce them, upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no love, nor worldly goods. So unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round”(Le Morte Darthur, pg 57).
They carry out the action, while the female characters can be seen to represent the intellectual side of the code. It is through them that both the knights and the reader are able to reflect upon the valiant acts that they have done.
It is through Guinevere that we truly see the active role that women play in the chivalric code. As Queen, Guinevere is often present when the knights are assembled at the Round Table and in turn she is privy to their successes and failures. She acts as a kind of moral compass for the knights and for Arthur, pointing them in the right direction when needed. It is her job to recognize and to create awareness to the brave and honourable acts that knights such as Sir Gawain, Sir Percival de Gales, Sir Bors de Ganis, and others have achieved in the search for the Sangrail. She understands that they must be praised for the just and gallant way in which they carried out the task that they were given despite not fulfilling it. Guinevere achieves this by rewarding knights who have upheld what the code instructs,
“So the Queen let make a privy dinner in London unto the knights of the round table, and all for to show outward that she had as great joy in all other knights of the round table as she had in Sir Lancelot.”(Le Morte Darthur, pg 405).
By rewarding their efforts and showing her joy for their use of the chivalric values, it helps her to guide them down the true path of chivalry. On the other hand, it is also her duty to scold those who have not conceded to the values that the code promotes. Guinevere intervenes when Sir Gawain in his battle against Sir Galeron takes things too far and not showing mercy when it is needed. As a result she addresses Arthur to put an end to the battle,
“As thou art Roye roial, richest of rent, And I thi wife wedded at thi owne wille- Thes burnes in the bataile so blede on the bent, They arn wery, iwis, and wounded full ille. Thorgh her shene sheldes, her shuldres ar shent; The grones of Sir Gawayn dos my hert grille. The grones of Sir Gawayn greven me sare. Wodest thou leve, lorde, make thes knights accorde, Hit were a grete conforde, For all that here ware.”(The Awntyrs off Arthure, lines 627-637).
By intervening in situations where the code is being disregarded she is keeping the knights from developing vices like pride, debauchery, and conceit. It is the female characters role to preserve and advance the chivalric code. Female characters step in when needed to prevent a knight from breaking from the code.
Malory, Thomas, Le Morte Darthur The Winchester Manuscript, Edited by Cooper Helen, Oxford University Press, 1998, pg 3-468.