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Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance in Malory's Morte Darthur

Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance in Malory's Morte Darthur

Karen Cherewatuk
Volume: 67
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 180
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  • Book Info
    Marriage, Adultery and Inheritance in Malory's Morte Darthur
    Book Description:

    Marriage in the middle ages encompassed two crucial but sometimes conflicting dimensions: a private companionate relationship, and a public social institution, the means whereby heirs were produced and land, wealth, power and political rule were transferred. This new study examines the concept of marriage as seen in the ‘Morte Darthur’, moving beyond it to look at `adulterous' and other male/female relationships, and their impact on the world of the Round Table in general. Key points addressed are the compromise achieved in the `Tale of Sir Gareth' between natural, youthful passion and the gentry's pragmatic view of marriage; the problems of King Arthur's marriage in light of both political need and the difficulty of the queen's infertility and adultery; and the repercussions of Lancelot's adultery in the tragedies of two marriageable daughters, Elaine of Astolat and Elaine of Corbin. Finally, the author reveals and considers in detail [focusing on dynastic dysfunction in three generations of Pendragon men: Uther, Arthur and Mordred] the myth of benevolent paternity by which men, whether born legitimate of bastard, were united through the Round Table. KAREN CHEREWATUK is Professor of English at St Olaf College, Minnesota.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-489-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxviii)

    Maloryʹs narrator is, for the most part, unobtrusive. His focus is solidly on the story, moving us forward in plot and time. When he does intrude upon the narrative, he does so typically with set phrases such as ʺNow leve we of this materʺ or ʺAnd so I leve here of this taleʺ (Works 769.1 and 1154.1).¹ Occasionally the narrator will break into the story, to address the audience in his own voice. At these points, the narratorʹs voice cannot be distinguished from Maloryʹs.² For example, the narrator praises the young Tristram with the comment ʺhe laboured in huntynge and...

  6. 1 Pledging Troth in Maloryʹs ʺTale of Sir Garethʺ
    (pp. 1-23)

    Married knights disappear from the Morte Darthur soon after their weddings, while the story follows unwed heroes, like Gawain or Launcelot, throughout the whole book. This general pattern might lead one to conclude that Malory sees marriage as an unnecessary part of chivalric society and even an impediment to knightly honor. Such is the view of Maureen Fries, who extrapolates from the ʺTale of Sir Gareth of Orkneyʺ to the Morte in its entirety: ʺBut if, in his whole book, Malory is saying anything about marriage and knighthood in general, and Garethʹs marriage in particular, it is that wedlock restrains...

  7. 2 The King and Queenʹs Marriage: Dowry, Infertility, and Adultery
    (pp. 24-55)

    Taking the young knight and his lady to the verge of matrimony, the ʺTale of Sir Gareth of Orkneyʺ explores how licit love proceeds in Malorian society. King Arthur and Queen Guenevereʹs story explores the onset and perils of matrimony itself, in this case leading to the ramifications of marital breakdown and the queenʹs illicit relationship with Launcelot. In his plans for marriage, the king takes into account private and public needs: He chooses a bride whom he loves and whose dowry serves his political ends, making possible the chivalric body, the Round Table. Eventually, however, King Arthur finds himself...

  8. 3 Marriageable Daughters: The Two Elaines
    (pp. 56-74)

    Adultery lies at the heart of the Arthurian tragedy. In discussing Guenevere in the previous chapter, I returned to the two dimensions of marriage that undergird this study: marriage as a private companionate relationship between a husband and wife, arising from the partnersʹ mutual affection; and marriage as a public social institution, the means through which heirs were produced and, for elite families, wealth and political power transferred. Pivotal to both the private and public aspects of Arthur and Guenevereʹs marriage is her dowry, a round table whose transfer makes possible the institution of the Round Table. It is this...

  9. 4 Fathers and Sons in Malory
    (pp. 75-108)

    As the previous chapter has demonstrated, both Elaines hope for companionable marriage with Launcelot, and, failing to secure his affection, they attempt to barter their bodies. Elaine of Ascolatʹs plight reveals patriarchal assumptions about the social necessity of virginity in a marriageable daughter while Elaine of Corbinʹs reveals the assumed value of producing children, particularly sons. In the Morte Darthur female sexuality is never simply about a womanʹs control of her body; familial and even public concerns intrude on her bodily destiny. Whereas for Maloryʹs women, maintaining chastity is required in order to bear a legitimate heir, for Maloryʹs men,...

  10. 5 Royal Bastardy, Incest, and a Failed Dynasty
    (pp. 109-126)

    This study concludes by considering the end of the Pendragon dynasty. Given the public failure of Arthur and Guenevereʹs marriage – that is, their inability to produce an heir and to ensure orderly succession – we might consider this simple question: why does Mordred have to usurp the throne; why canʹt he simply inherit it? The answer involves unmentionable private relations: not only was Mordred born out of wedlock, he was incestuously conceived. These matters, however obvious, deserve attention, for Malory has carefully woven into the opening of his text Mordredʹs birth and into its conclusion Mordredʹs looming threat to...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 127-128)

    In the Morte Darthur the collapse of the Round Table is not solely caused by Launcelot and the queenʹs adultery nor by the rebellion of the incestuous son. Instead, that society fails because of a variety of problems related to marriage. Arthurʹs fertile desire produces Mordred; Guenevereʹs infertile body fails to produce an heir; the queen and Launcelotʹs relationship leads to fissures in the body politic, irritated by Lottʹs sons, who are Arthurʹs heirs apparent. Guenevereʹs place at the center of chivalric society persists until the end of the Morte Darthur when Mordred attempts to seize not only the kingdom...

  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 129-142)
  13. Index
    (pp. 143-150)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 151-155)