The twin demons of aristocraticsociety in Sir Gowther
Sir Gowther is a 700-line narrative probably originating (in its Middle
English form) about 1400 in the North Midlands. It is extant in two
mildly divergent manuscript texts, which will here be referred to as the
‘Advocates’ and ‘Royal’ versions.1 Sir Gowther is conspicuous for that
surface crankiness and drastic speed which are often found in medieval
English verse romances and which readily provoke a modern reader’s
suspicion that no very challenging contact with medieval society is
This is a study of noblewomen in twelfth-century England and Normandy, and of the ways in which they exercised power. It draws on a mix of evidence to offer a reconceptualization of women's role in aristocratic society, and in doing so suggests new ways of looking at lordship and the ruling elite in the high Middle Ages. The book considers a wide range of literary sources—such as chronicles, charters, seals and governmental records—to draw out a detailed picture of noblewomen in the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman realm. It asserts the importance of the life-cycle in determining the power of these aristocratic women, thereby demonstrating that the influence of gender on lordship was profound, complex and varied.
This collection and the romances it investigates are crucial to our understanding of the aesthetics of medieval narrative and to the ideologies of gender and sexuality, race, religion, political formations, social class, ethics, morality and national identity with which those narratives emerge.
organized, and the lower
rungs of these ladders may have reached or penetrated the realms both of
non-aristocraticsociety, and of vernacular speech. Highland Perthshire provides evidence for the mediating role of itinerants such as chapmen
(pacairean), and the minstrel bands known as Cliar Sheanchain, ‘as literary
receptors and disseminators, operating between the spheres of high and
popular culture, and across social classes’.11
Such brief contextualization may begin to explain the relevance of an
analysis of a written genre to a book about the spoken word. The bond
it facilitated the participation of women. The basis of Hawise’s power
was of course her marital status: as the wife of the earl of Gloucester,
Hawise’s social status at the pinnacle of aristocraticsociety was assured.
This explains the frequency of her attestations and her place above her
husband’s noble followers usually as head of the secular witnesses to his
charters. A model of female witnessing existed in the royal household,
where queenly witnessing was well established, and perhaps Earl William,
who was styled consul in his acta, a title which
’ (dear, precious one), ‘deorling’ (darling), ‘leof’ (beloved), and ‘lufsum’ (lovesome, lovable one).
Moreover, aristocraticsociety in early medieval England involved countless performances of intimacy well known to the student of Beowulf , from ring giving to the exchange of maxims.
Intimacy has long eluded critics of the poem, however, whether in localized textual cruces or in broader theoretical questions about the text and its world. Perhaps more than any other figure in the poem, we resemble