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A common theme of medieval literature is the rigorously defined features of morality and virtue as set by society and the implications these definitions have on the people living in the time. This major emphasis put on society’s elevated expectations of men and women could be a direct result of the corrupt power assumed by the Catholic Church of the time. The Catholic Church’s main purpose seems to have been the gain of money and power at the expense of its followers. For example, one of the main methods of gaining revenue was the selling of indulgences, or pardons for sins. Obviously, it would be in the church’s best interest to hold high standards of morality and take a literal interpretation of the Bible in order to establish the maximum amount of acts as sins for which one would need to buy a pardon. Additionally, this literal interpretation of the Bible resulted in a very mechanical way of thought.

Another theme or aspect of medieval culture perhaps established by the Catholic Church is the patriarchal society which depicted men as honorable and women as disgraceful and rebellious to society’s definition of an honorable woman. Selected quotes from Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale will be used to exemplify the reactions to society’s definition of honor, women’s second class role in society, and the hierarchy designed by characters of these works which depicts levels of human achievement of virtue and perfection.

Honor in medieval society reflected the pressures to maintain a chivalric and virtuous display against all characteristics of human nature. For example, Beowulf says to a saddened Hrothgar who just lost his highest counselor to Grendel’s mother, “Grieve not, good man. It is better to go and avenge your friend than mourn overmuch.” Beowulf is clearly portraying society’s expectations for men to ignore their very human trait of grief in exchange for avenging one’s honor in battle, reflecting a very militaristic view of human emotion. Additionally, Hrothgar returns society’s emotional challenge to Beowulf when he reminds him, “Be mindful of fame; make your might known.” Hrothgar is reminding Beowulf to forget his human will to live and pursue first glory and fame, which will leave his legacy in honor. This theme can also be referenced to in Sir Gawain’s dilemma between being chivalrous to the lady and accepting her advances and gifts in secrecy versus maintaining his honor and virtue to the Lord in keeping his promise of exchanging the day’s winnings. The Green Knight reminds Sir Gawain that “True men pay what they owe,” upholding a very mechanical view of “all or nothing,” which ignores Gawain’s internal conflict of keeping society’s expectations. This internal conflict is documented in Gawain’s thoughts, “…either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse. His courtesy concerned him, lest crass he appear, but more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin and belie his loyal oath to the lord of that house. ‘God forbid!’ said the bold knight, ‘That shall not befall!’” Although less obvious, the pressure of maintaining honor is also present in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. In contrast to the male characters discussed thus far, the wife of Bath and the women depicted in her tale, however, ignore the pressure to be virtuous because they disagree with society’s definition of honor and virtue. For example, medieval society expected women to marry and be a servant to their husbands. In the wife of Bath’s tale, however, the knight reports, “Wommen desire to have sovereinetee as wel over hir housbonde as hir love, and for to been in maistrye him above. This is your moste desir, though ye me kille.” The women’s desire to remain sovereign over their husbands clearly opposes society’s definition of an honorable woman serving her husband. Additionally, the wife of Bath opposes society’s view of an honorable woman being chaste with her statement of promiscuity, “I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age in th’actes and in fruit of mariage.”

The males’ quest for societal honor and the females’ rebellion to it is a notable theme throughout medieval works.

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The contrast between male and female attributes of honor discussed from the previous quotations may reflect women as a second class in society rebelling to its captivity. This patriarchal society can be noted in each of the works discussed. For instance, in Beowulf, Grendel is given a name but his mother is not. Grendel’s mother is referred to in light of her son’s name, giving her minimal importance. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain blames women for his failing, “…and commend me to that comely one, your courteous wife, both herself and that other, my honored ladies, that have trapped their true knight in their trammels so quaint...and one and all fell prey to women that they had used; if I be led astray, methinks I may be excused.” Perhaps this quotation can be given direct reference to the story of Adam and Eve, in which Adam’s sin is explained through Eve’s cunningness rather than his fault. This leads thought to provoke that the Catholic Church’s teachings are at least partly responsible for women’s second place in society. Finally, in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, the wife of Bath is arguing against a society that leaves women to the susceptibility of their arranged husbands, as a twelve year old version of herself once was. She also tells of her marriages and how she used her “cunningness” to deceive her husbands and gain the power that society purposefully withheld from her. Ironically, the women of medieval culture were seen as mischievous and unimportant when in actuality they were strong and fighting an almost impossible battle against men, who regarded battle as honorable.

The characters portrayed in the selected medieval works seem to represent a hierarchy of human achievement of nobility and perfection as defined by medieval society. For example, Beowulf represents the top of the hierarchy, representing practically unachievable success as a brave hero. Sir Gawain, on the other hand, represents a more humane aspect of a hero, incorporating human fault, but remaining a member of the nobility. The Wife of Bath, however, represents a contrasting view of achieving society’s definition of honor and virtue. She is admittedly imperfect, but proud and regretless of her “faults,” at least as they are defined by society. Lastly, the Knight in the Wife of Bath’s tale represents the bottom of the hierarchy; he is a man seen as high society, but in all actuality is a criminal committing sexual crimes. It is through this hierarchy of virtue that the reader can relate to the characters, as well as realize their own strive to achievement in our society.

The medieval period is marked by its high standards of morality and honor which is conveyed through the quotations discussed, acknowledging the effects of these standards on everyday people. Although honor and virtue are important to human development and spirituality, perhaps the Catholic church put too much of an emphasis on it- to the effect of victimizing their followers by forcing them into fear of damnation and ignoring their very human nature.

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