Jack’s Naughty Bits: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

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Jack's Naughty Bits

When most people think of medieval literature, they think of knights and damsels, shining armor and battles on horseback. It would probably surprise them to hear that for centuries there was more literature written about penitential sacraments than about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The French tradition has the most chivalric lit, from its appropriately famous Chansons de geste to Chrétien de Troyes to the prose Lancelot and beyond. Together, these tales are the Rambos of the Middle Ages, centered around bad-ass heroes who ride around and off a lot of chumps. In England, things were a little tamer. No chivalric cycle was penned in English until Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in the fifteenth century, and even that has a French name (meaning “the death of Arthur”). Our association of knights and England probably has as much to do with Monty Python as with the actual literary tradition.


Le Morte d’Arthur is, nonetheless, among the finest presentations of the medieval concept of chivalry (in its twilight). Knighthood in Malory’s Arthuriad is based on three principles: fighting well, speaking well and being good to women. If you’ve got those down, you’re pretty much in business. Lancelot is the über-stud in all these categories, not only kicking everybody’s butt (all the time), but cuckolding Arthur with Queen Guinevere (“Lancelot . . . wente to bedde with the quene . . . and toke hys plesaunce and hys lykynge untyll hit was the dawning of the day”). Which is all well and good, but the real sex in Le Morte d’Arthur happens in the pavilions (tents), set up here and there in the forests where the knights ride. And it rarely happens with the intended person. Somehow, by quirk of fate, lighting or narrative necessity, the errant knights stumble into pavilions where someone happens to be waiting for a midnight tryst. The knight beds down, a little hanky gets pankied, they realize the mistaken identity, and end up falling in love.


Sometimes. Not, as it turns out, if the bedmates are the same sex. Finding a beard on your unseen smoochee is a bit of a problem for these long-lanced cavaliers. And if the cavalier is Lancelot, look out. In the original French version of this tale, Lancelot confuses his bedmate for a woman; a fight ensues, and he kills the would-be amorist. Ouch. In Malory’s version below (in Middle and modern English), the error is discovered more quickly, and it ends more comically than tragically. The moral to the story? Look before you lip.

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From Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory

Than within an owre there com that knyght that ought the pavylyon. He wente that his lemman had layne in that bed, and so he leyde hym adowne by sir Launcelot and toke hym in his armys and began to kysse hym. And whan sir Launcelot felte a rough berde kyssyng hym he sterte oute of the bedde lyghtly, and the othir knyght after hym. And eythir of hem gate their swerdys in their hondis, and oute at the pavylyon dore wente the knyght of the pavylyon, and sir Launcelot folowed hym. And there by a lytyll slad sir Launcelot wounded hym sore nyghe unto the deth. And than he yelded hym to sir Launcelot, and so he graunted hym, so that he wolde telle hym why he com into the bed.


“Sir,” sayde the knyghte, “the pavylyon is myne owne. And as this nyght I had assigned my lady to have slept with hir, and now I am lykly to dye of this wounde.”


“That me repentyth.”


From Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory

Modernized, with modifications, by Jack Murnighan

Then within an hour there came to the pavilion the knight who owned it. He thought that his mistress would be lying in the bed, so he lay himself down alongside Sir Lancelot and took him in his arms and began to kiss him. When Lancelot felt a rough beard kissing him, he jumped quickly out of bed, and the other knight did the same. Both of them grabbed their swords, the first knight ran out of the pavilion and Lancelot followed him. And there by a little valley Lancelot wounded him right close to death. And so the knight surrendered to Lancelot, who accepted, so that he could tell him why he had come into the bed.


“Sir,” said the knight, “the tent is mine. And I had asked my mistress to have slept with me here tonight, and now instead I am likely to die of this wound.”


“Ah, yes. Sorry about that.”