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.