22 June 2015

Medieval Monday: Lanval's Sugar Momma

Written by the most awesome Marie de France in the 12th century, The Lay of Lanval takes us through the strange romance of an Arthurian Knight, Lanval, and a mysterious woman, presumably a faerie queen, on to his imprisonment for insulting Queen Guinevere, and to his eventual vindication. A much longer summary follows...

Lanval is not favored by Arthur and the men may “feign the appearance of love” (24) but apparently they “would not have been at all disturbed” (26) “if something unpleasant happened to him” (25). He is a rich man from a foreign household who, since Arthur is not giving him gifts, is in rather dire straits. That is, until he begins an affair with a beautiful rich woman who provides him with more than he needs so long as he tells no one of their affair. If he speaks of their love, she will desert him forever.

Unfortunately, Queen Guinevere takes a liking to Lanval and propositions him. He rejects her, and instead of taking it like a lady, Guinevere shockingly insults Lanval, insinuating that he is gay, a “base coward”, and a “lousy cripple”, who is so horrid that God may abandon Arthur because he associates with Lanval (280-286). Lanval loses it and tells Guinevere that he is in love with a woman whose servants are “better than [Guinevere] / in body, face, and beauty” (300-301). The queen, royally ticked off (pun intended) tells Arthur that Lanval tried to seduce her and when she rejected him he “insulted and offended her” (319).

Arthur has Lanval arrested for his offense against Guinevere. Knowing he broke his promise to his mistress and that, true to her word, she will no longer be with him, Lanval does not care about the charges against him: “they could have killed him, for all he cared” (358). Lanval denies the charges against him, saying that he did not proposition the queen and that, while he did say his love was more beautiful, he was speaking the truth in that matter. Arthur puts Lanval on trial, and the court begs Lanval to bring forth his lady love as if he can prove she is more beauteous than Guinevere, then he will have spoken the truth and be vindicated. He, of course, can't get in touch with his mistress since he broke the rules and told someone about her. Eventually she does show up, and as everyone can see she's like the cat's meow and hotter than hot, Lanval is set free. He rides off into the sunset with his love.

I find the relationship between Lanval and the mystery woman fascinating. This woman seems to be the one in control of the relationship. She approaches Lanval, she sets the terms of their relationship, she’s the one with the money. She is, in effect, Lanval’s sugar momma. Now the poem states that “she was completely at his command” (218), but I can’t quite figure out how that is so. While she does ‘make herself available’ to him sexually, I’m inclined to believe that their sexual relationship is not only to her liking, but her idea in the first place.

I’m trying to figure out if this woman, who is so in control, so sexual, is a hero or villain in this tale, and how she relates to the gender expectations of her time. If anyone knows or has any ideas, please share.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is interesting. I had not heard that story before. Sounds extremely progressive for the 12th Century!


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