Screenreader Navigation - [ Skip to Content | Skip to Main Navigation ]
[FSU Seal Image] - Return to Home
Florida State University - Return to Home

English Department Writing Resources / First-Year Composition / Our Own Words / The James M. McCrimmon Award / Our Own Words 2003 - 2004 Edition / Research Writing / Beyond the Truth: Medieval Society in the Arthurian Legend by Stanley McMahon

Beyond the Truth: Medieval Society in the Arthurian Legend by Stanley McMahon

Beyond the Truth: Medieval Society in the Arthurian Legend by Stanley McMahon

In the fifteenth-century, as England suffered the effects of the plague and strained under the threat of war, Sir Thomas Malory, a knight of Newbold Revel, found himself in prison. One can imagine Malory-just years before his death in 1471-sitting alone in one of London's dark cells, contemplating not only his own crimes, but the society which had sentenced him. A man of passion, Malory was tantalized by the legend which he had heard from childhood; and so he began to dream of an older, more glorious society-the society of King Arthur and his legend-which, if revived, could erase the problems assailing fifteenth-century England. So Malory, disheveled by prison life, begins the work that would put him in a secure place in literary history: the writing of Le Morte D'Arthur, the first prose rendition of the Arthurian legend published in English. Using an extensive library of sources, Malory wrote Le Morte D'Arthur in an attempt to revive in the fifteenth-century the social codes of the Middle Ages. Evidence can be found in his book that affirms this purpose: the emphasis on the essentiality of loyalty, the embellishment of his sources, the blending of elements of fifteenth-century culture with the legend, and the emphasis on chivalric practice. The final product, however, did more to reveal the flaws of the medieval social code than promote its strengths; consequentially, due to the changing interests of society and the romanticized portrayal of the legend, many of the ideals fell.

Among the virtues upheld by Arthurian society, loyalty was the most valued: all citizens-particularly the Arthurian knights-were expected to offer their actions to the king and queen, to God, and to the Church. In the "Death of King Arthur," Lancelot, in exile after killing twenty-four fellow Knights of the Round Table, addresses King Arthur and his army from the walls of Joyous Gard, expressing his deep loyalty to Arthur and Guinevere:

'My most noble lord and king, ye may say what ye will, for ye wot well with yourself I will not strive…And as for my lady, Queen Guinevere, expect your person of your highness and my lord Sir Gawain, there is no knight under heaven that dare make it good upon me that ever I was traitor unto your person.' (Malory 177)

In this passage, Malory expresses through Lancelot-who was, in Malory's estimation, the most noble of the knights-his strong belief in the positive effect of loyalty to leadership on a society. Every able knight-endowed with a certain degree of "prowess"-was expected to be continually watchful, always prepared to defend the honor of his king and queen. In his book Sir Thomas Malory, Edmund Reiss further explores the importance Malory placed on loyalty in Le Morte D'Arthur: "A knight cannot relax; to keep honor and avoid shame, to be worthy of worshyp, he must constantly show his prowess and defend right causes" (88). What Reiss presents here is a brand of knighthood demanding a loyalty that goes beyond a mere profession: it is a way of life in which the knight's duties are his entire reason for being. This is the knighthood exemplified in Malory's portrayal of the Round Table-the circle to which Lancelot, Sir Bors, and King Arthur belong. And it is in this way-using the legends of these characters-that Malory attempted to reshape his society by reviving the social and moral virtues of the past.

Using a certain degree of embellishment in his rewriting of the centuries-old legend, Malory hoped to convince modern England of the potency of these past values in easing England's woes. Although Malory often directly translated his French sources, parts of Le Morte D'Arthur are completely of his own composition; these parts, which were often no more than additional description for battle scenes, were added by Malory primarily to illuminate the chivalric social code that he held in such high esteem. P.E. Tucker wrote of Malory's deeper exploration of certain elements of medieval society in his article on the portrayal of chivalric values:

He [Malory] tends to make additions and alterations which suggest, cumulatively, that his real interest was in the ideal he believed these stories exemplified. (65)

This evidence confirms that Malory did indeed write Le Morte D'Arthur with a definite purpose in mind-to revive the importance of knighthood in the society in which he lived. And Malory was not alone in this endeavor: other members of the upper class attempted to retain the power and influence that their ancestors had enjoyed for centuries. In the fourteenth-century, after the end of the Hundred Years' War, feudalism and the political structure of the Middle Ages began a sharp decline, deposing knighthood from its status as a coveted class. With the fall of the feudal system, the middle class began its emergence into the European social structure, and continued to grow during the rest of the century. The middle class filled the gap which had for centuries existed between the nobility and the peasants, thus decreasing the influence of the upper class and alleviating the oppression of the "lower" members of society. In his book, Malory's Morte Darthur, Larry Benson writes of this relationship between the fall of feudal society and the increasingly romanticized view of chivalry in the fifteenth-century:

Indeed, there seems to be an inverse relation between the weakening feudal ties and the rise of romance chivalry. One might speculate that as power shifted away from those with skills and money, the almost inevitable response of the nobility was an insistence upon those qualities that set them apart as a class and an emphasis on an ideal of noble conduct that defined the class. (143)

According to Benson, Malory wrote his book in response to feelings that were common in his day among the members of the upper class. Malory resorted to translating into English prose the literary work that glamorized the social structure of the Middle Ages. But this familiarity of feeling, though probable, would have helped very little in boosting the overall popularity of the book's themes: history tells that much of the efforts by the fifteenth-century upper class to regain positions of power and influence failed.

Working from the French Arthurian Romances and his own knowledge of medieval culture, Malory used fifteenth-century language and customs to deliver his message of past glory. Malory's nation, which was constantly under the threat of civil war, provided him with the additional material that he used to illustrate the necessity of loyalty in maintaining a strong society. England's inner tensions reached their highest point in 1461 when, during the War of the Roses, Edward IV imprisoned King Henry VI and took the throne. Without doubt, Malory and the other knights of his day had strong feelings about this change of kings; others, however, felt that the change would bring improvement to Britain. It is no surprise, then, that the knights of the day, living in a divided nation, wished to revive loyalty to the king. The ceremonial practices surrounding the power of the monarchy became important to the knights during this period: for Malory, they became literary devices which could be very easily disguised in his tales as part of the earlier Arthurian works, while still retaining appeal for the citizens of his day. He hoped that this emphasis on ceremony would repose the king to the revered position that he had held in the Middle Ages and, as an effect, that loyalty would again become a top priority. In an article on the symbolism of these fifteenth-century customs in Le Morte D'Arthur, Ann Elaine Bliss argues that "Malory's carefully formal presentation of ceremonies reflects both the fifteenth-century emphasis on ceremony as a stabilizing element and the importance of ceremonial display in maintaining the power of the medieval king" (75). Malory attempted to bring more weight to his proposition by blending elements of the old, ideal society with the familiar elements of his own modern society; with these elements placed together in the same text, the contrasts were hard to ignore.

Although the active practice of chivalry-including tournaments and courtly ceremonies-seems to have disappeared by the fifteenth-century, forms of chivalric idealism continued to exist. Exploring fifteenth-century chivalry, and particularly the way in which Malory employed it in his narratives, Benson writes:

Even Malory's Arthurian tales, more fantastic than many original fifteenth-century romances, reflect the real chivalry of the time, heightened and idealized but based firmly enough on reality that the gentlemen for whom Malory wrote could recognize the contours and many of the actual details of the chivalric life of their own day. (139)

In this passage, Benson confirms that certain chivalric ideals were familiar in the fifteenth-century and that Malory used them to underlie the themes that he was trying to emphasize. And historical evidence reveals that Malory was not alone in this endeavor: records suggest the efforts of other fifteenth-century knights to revive the practice of chivalry in Europe. On one occasion, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who was well-known as a knight of prowess and political influence, planned a three-day tournament and invited knights from Europe to compete. Three French knights accepted his offer and, according to historical record, Warwick defeated all three knights during the tournament, one on each day. (Benson 188, 189) This event is considered by many to have been an attempt to elevate the importance of chivalry during the period of ensuing British civil war. But what continued to exist of the chivalry of the past was not much more than mere idealism: the once esteemed practices of knighthood had all but completely faded; tournaments-once the test of the fiber of one's knighthood-continued to be held, albeit without much chivalric significance, for sport alone.

The failure of Le Morte D'Arthur to revive the medieval social structure was due in part to a flaw at the center of the social system itself: the human flaws of the citizens and those in power had not been accounted for; instead, it was assumed that everyone would submit to the system without regard for selfish interests. This premise is disproved several times in the legend, particularly in the case of Sir Lancelot du Lake, when the codes of loyalty and chivalry are challenged by the conflicting traits of his human nature; of which, his affair with Queen Guinevere is a prime example. Malory, through his recounting of their relationship, brings the virtues of the society through trial and, in the end, attempts to show them strong enough to emerge victorious and virtually unchanged. The results of the affair, however, reveal the truth about the consequences of human flaws: when the affair is discovered by King Arthur with help from a group of knights, the Arthurian kingdom begins to dissolve. What Malory attempts to portray is a social structure which supercedes human nature, a group of humans who together can overcome the effects of human weakness; but what is finally portrayed-because of its inevitability-is the frailty of human nature. Elizabeth T. Pochoda points out that the inability of Le Morte D'Arthur to achieve its purpose was the result of this major flaw:

Malory has tested the ideal [of chivalry] as a source of stable government and social relations, and in the last three tales it is clear that if its illusory world of romance is pressed too far into the service of actual needs, the ideal betrays itself…By the end Malory has shown so much about what makes Arthurian society operate that it can not be morally compelling for his own time. (109)

Because of the social system's flaws, Malory's presentation of it-with its abundance of romance and lack of real life-works the opposite result of what he had intended it to: instead of illuminating the strengths of the system, it uncovers its weaknesses.
Fifteenth-century England seemed to ignore his romanticized presentation of medieval ideals: after experiencing the rise and fall of multiple kingdoms-including the very society of chivalry which Malory portrayed as immortal-the nation had become well acquainted with the adverse effect of human flaws on government. But the results of Malory's efforts came long after his death, when, in the nineteenth-century, after Britain had entered the race of imperialism, the Arthurian legend experienced revival in literature and culture.

Works Cited

Benson, Larry D. Malory's Morte Darthur. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Bliss, Ann Elaine. "The Symbolic Importance of Processions in Malory's Morte Darhtur and in Fifteenth-Century England." The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory's Morte Darthur. Ed. D. Thomas Hanks, Jr. and Jessica G. Brogdon. Woodbridge, UK: St. Edmundsbury Press, 2000. 75-93.

Malory, Sir Thomas. King Arhtur and his Knights. Ed. Eugene Vinaver. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

McCarthy, Terence. "Old Worlds, New Worlds: King Arthur in England." The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory's Morte Darthur. Ed. D. Thomas Hanks, Jr. and Jessica G. Brogdon. Woodbridge, UK: St. Edmundsbury Press, 2000. 5-23

Pochoda, Elizabeth T. Arthurian Propaganda: Le Morte Darthur as an Historical Ideal of Life. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1971.

Reiss, Edmund. Sir Thomas Malory. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc, 1966.

Tucker, P.E. "Chivalry in the Morte." Essays on Malory. Ed. Bennett, J.A.W. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. 64-103.