Essay on The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The Role of Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

In the Fourteenth Century, Feudalism and its offspring, chivalry, were in decline due to drastic social and economic changes. In this light, _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_ presents both a nostalgic support of the feudal hierarchies and an implicit criticism of changes, which, if left unchecked will lead to its ultimate destruction. I would suggest that the women in the story are the Gawain poet's primary instruments in this critique and reinforcement of Feudalism. By positioning The Virgin Mary (as the singular female archetype representing spiritual love, obedience, chastity, and life) against Morgan and Bertilak's wife (who represent the traditional female archetypes of courtly
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Given the Church's mistrust of women and the flesh, the contradiction seems clear. Hamilton tells us there was a mass of clerical writings in the Fourteenth Century that were critical of chivalry and show the split between chivalry and the church during that time.

Given this mistrust of women by the church, the placement of the women in the story must be a critical medium for delivering this message. Interestingly, the women appear to wield great power. Bertilak's wife is operating unassisted against Gawain in the bedroom as the hunter and aggressor. Morgan is the instigator of the plot which begins the story, and she is strong enough to move into Bertilak's castle, turn him green and order him to walk and talk with a severed head. However, the poet never intends to present a world where women are powerful; rather, these women constitute a metaphor for other anti-social forces and dangers outside the control of feudalism and chivalry which a medieval world genders female because of a set of biblical and classical models which establish anything subversive as feminine.

Much of the identification of women with subversion is accomplished through the operation of the major medieval archetypes. Lady Bertilak is clearly seen in the Biblical role of temptress. The Biblical archetype began with Eve and as Maureen Fries shows "Eve became
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