Duty, loyalty, and bravery are all ideas that have been taught by every society since the early civilizations of Mesopotamia to the societies around the world today. No time period relied on these ideas more than the Middle Ages period of Europe. The European societies of this period were based on a system of feudalism. Feudalism depended on each person in the society performing their duty and giving loyalty to those above them on the social latter. The backbone of the feudal society was the knight. The knight was the protector of their heavenly Lord, earthly lord, and their lady. The role and duties of a knight can be found in the writing from the story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the writer states,
“The most noble knights under Christ,
And the loveliest ladies that lived on earth ever,
And he the comeliest king, that the court holds.”
This poem allows its reader the opportunity to view life from the courtly aspect of European feudal society.
Training for knighthood began at an early age for most noble boys. By age seven they were sent to a nearby manor to learn to serve that lord, develop war strategies, and practice with the sword. During this period the young noble was known as a page. By age fourteen, the page became a squire. As a squire the young man severed one knight, which he care for his armor, weapons, and horse. In return he was taught how to use different weapons, fight, and followed the knight into battle. If the young nobleman completed this duty well, then around age twenty-one he went through a ceremony to become a knight. For Sit Gawain this process may have taken place in the court of King Arthur. The story tells that they were related and shows Gawain’s eagerness to serve his lord, Arthur.
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Once a nobleman became a knight he was expected to follow the Code of Chivalry. This code required the knight to fight bravely to defend three masters; his heavenly lord, his earthly lord, and his lady. Knights were also expected to help the weak and poor of the feudal society, which would include the peasants which cared for the manors of the feudal knights. An important part of the life of a knight was the participation in tournaments. These events allowed the knight to continue sharpening his fighting skills. A competitive spirit developed out of these activities. This spirit is displayed in the Green Knight as he issues the challenge for the “beheading game.” He offers an ax and a free blow upon himself to any challenger that will allow him to return the blow a year and a day later. The challenge is first accepted by King Arthur, who is considered by many the bravest of his time. As a service to his lord, Sir Gawain request to take the challenge, for Arthur. Another game played in the story was the “temptation game.” The lord (Green Knight) of the castle visited by Sir Gawain tempts Gawain with his wife. These events are examples of the competitive nature the knights lived under. Another aspect of knight’s competition was in the pride they took in their armor. Knights dressed to impress. Great detail went into the descriptions of the armor of the Green Knight and Sir Gawain.
Although this poem does not mention Gawain’s lady, readers are given indications of his respect for this belief of knighthood as he describes Guinevere as,
“Fair queen without a flaw,
She glanced with eyes of gray,
A seemlier that once he saw,
In truth, no man could say.”
Guinevere was not his lady, but she was the lady of Camelot and by being so it was his duty to protect her if need be. Sir Gawain also showed his respect of a knight’s duty towards ladies by not giving into the temptation of the wife of the noble whose castle he visited. He even tried to convince the wife that her husband was a better man than Gawain himself. In doing this he showed respect for his fellow knight and his love for his lady.
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The European feudal system of the Middle Ages was held together by mutual obligations between kings and nobles. Kings gave nobles land grants and in return the nobles provided military protection for the kings. These nobles were called vassals. A noble could be a lord and a vassal by dividing his land grants to other nobles. A part of the knighthood ceremony is for the lord who trained a knight to give him land in return for his continued service. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur is holding a Christmas and New Year’s Celebration for his vassals, the Knights of the Round Table. These types of gatherings helped to assure the loyalty of a vassal to the king or lord. Sir Gawain demonstrated his duty to his lord, King Arthur, by asking to take his place in the “beheading game.” Gawain saw himself as the weakest knight and felt the game did not befit his king. He believes the loss of his life would be nothing compared to the loss of Arthur. His actions actually made him one of the bravest knights in the court. No other knight offered to take the challenge and face the Green Knight. By taking the challenge Gawain proved to be one of Arthur’s loyalist vassals. Sir Gawain continued to honor Arthur’s court by holding true to his word and searching for the Green Knight to uphold his end of the game, knowing this meeting which could lead to Gawain’s death.
Under the Code of Chivalry the knight owed service to his heavenly Lord. During the Middle Ages this held true as several thousand of knights participated in the two hundred years of fighting in the Crusades. The Crusades began as an attempt to reclaim the Holy Lands from the Muslim powers. In the poem of Sir Gawain homage is paid to the heavenly Lord throughout the adventure. First, Arthur gives Gawain God’s blessings and prays for him in the challenge with the Green Knight. Next, when Gawain is preparing to leave Camelot and find the Green Knight he is given a shield that displays the Queen of heaven (Mary) and the five joys of Christ. On his search for the Green Chapel, Gawain prayed to the Lord and Mary for a place to hear mass. When this was presented to him, he gave thanks to Jesus and Saint Julian. Once at the noble’s (Green Knight) castle they took mass daily. Religion was a guiding force in the daily life of most Middle Ages individuals.
Great responsibility was placed on the Knights of the feudal system. They were the protectors of all those in society; the heavenly Lord, earthly lord, their chosen lady, and the weak and poor. In times of trouble he was called on to do his duty for all in need. To do so, a knight had to continually develop his skills, which was done at courtly tournaments. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight supported the ideas necessary for the feudal system to function. Each person must be loyal and carry out the duty of their position in society. For the common man, these stories allowed them to explore the lives of the nobility they were expected to server.
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