Courtesy of Our Lady: A Mediaeval View
Dr Avril Bruten
The medieval interest – even obsession – with the concept and active display of "Courtesy" may be seen as adumbrating our own weakened understanding of the word. Courtesy is now, in its behavioural dimension, generally considered to be, like "Philosophy," what the poet Abraham Cowley terms a "male virtue". It has to do with social politeness, a formal and easily ritualized pattern of action that "oils the wheels" of social intercourse. Levi-Strauss has noted that signs of Courtesy are often deeply instinctive, but shallowly acknowledged, forms of behaviour largely directed from those who feel secure toward those whom they believe (should) feel insecure. Not only is Courtesy a "male virtue," it is also an upper-class virtue. In literature, savages are often "noble," but are in general denied the quality of Courtesty.
To some extent it is correct to see such ideas as adumbrated in medieval literature. Everybody knows about King Arthur’s courteous knights dashing hither and thither pursuing acts of "derring-do", aiding maidens in distress, or at least wearing their favours in tournaments, and the like. However, many medievalists have identified in the concept and display of Courtesy more than just that attractive bravura. Courtesy has often come to be regarded as a corner-stone of a so-called "chivalric system of virtues". I want to suggest some ways in which the Romance, courtly concept of Courtesy, cortayse, - this secular behavioural concept, - was investigated in spiritual aspects with reference to Our Lady. As these suggestions in part depend upon a scepticism about Courtesy constituting a corner-stone of the "chivalric system of virtues", I now call into play on this point the great medieval scholar Ernst Curtius, who has this to say:
Bearing in mind those sensible words, I will get on with my theme. And for the sake of brevity, I shall keep to two texts, basically: Two very fine, even great, vernacular and popular medieval English poems, widely thought to be by the same author, Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight and The Pearl. These are both highly-stylized and finely-wrought works in the alliterative tradition of poetry, found in MS Cotton Nero A.x. This is probably to be dated in the end of the 14th century or the very beginning of the 15th century.
Here is a summary of Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight:
That summary is given in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, a work likely to be consulted by the person with a general, rather than a particular interest in the poem. That reader will not find, either in the summary of Gawain, or as we shall see, of Pearl, a single mention of Our Lady. Most readers who look up these poems in the Companion will never know that she features in them. Yet, Mary has a vital rôle in both poems: a rôle variously explicit and implicit, on both the level of narrative action and a dimension directing or affecting the spiritual progress of the poems’ protagonists.
In Gawain, for example, the venturing knight, Sir Gawain himself, leaves the sophisticated warmth and companionship of Camelot, where all is of the most excellent, the most courteous, to travel through "contrayez straunge" – unfamiliar regions. He has lots of (rather comic) Romance-type battles there with wild creatures, bulls and bears and boars and wood-creatures and giants, - a tongue-in-cheek reference back to Anglo-Saxon convention. But these fearsome foes are as nothing to the wretchedly freezing weather that Gawain has to endure, trying to sleep outdoors in his armour, his cold iron. The poet dwells on these most real miseries:
We note that Gawain prays to Mary that she would direct or guide him to safe dwelling, to a refuge. And we should, with a medieval mind and ear, note that the fearful weather he has endured is not only real fearful weather, but the "objective correlative" to his state of mind and spirit. Gawain’s prayer to Mary is re-inforced in the next stanza. And when these prayers are answered by the sudden appearance of "the fairest castle that ever a knight owned", Gawain gives fervent thanks for the gracious "courtesy" shown him in his relief. Courtesy has saved him.
Later, when Sir Gawain is in a physically joyful situation with the beautiful wife of the Lord of Castle Hautdesert, and in a deep sexual danger with her, the mindfulness of Our Lady is significantly introduced:
"Gret peril bitwene hem stod,
Nif Maré of hir knizt mynne."
These are not casual references to the care of Our Lady for Gawain. He is, in a special sense, her devoted knight. In the arming of this knight, as he prepares for his fateful journey, the poet describes at deliberate length the shield with which Gawain is armed. On the outside of the shield, presented to the world of friend and foe, is depicted the device of the Pentangle, - in English called "the endless knot", - a device emblematic of Gawain’s physical, moral and spiritual ideal of integrity.
On the inside face of Gawain’s shield is painted the image of Our Lady. This, then, is what confronts him continually, and this depiction intimately links the Virgin with the emblematic signification of the unbroken integrity of the Pentangle, - that spiritual and moral and physical integrity which Gawain takes upon himself as his standard, ruined in the smallest as the "endless knot" would be ruined if broken at any point of its structure.
The implied, but obviously implied connection between Our Lady’s "Courtesy" and a spiritual integrity in her devotee (or in him who should be her devotee), that we find in Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight, is treated more explicitly in the (as it were) companion poem, The Pearl. Here, again, is a summary:
In the Oxford Companion "gist", no mention is made of Our Lady. But her rôle is fundamental to the development, spiritually, of the father or Dreamer-figure in the poem. For convenience, I quote from the Introduction to E.V. Gordon’s edition:
This cortayseye of which Mary is Queen, is a quality possessed by all the members of that royal society, but it is more than earthly Courtesy transferred to heaven. It is the spirit uniting all Christians in one body:
The words of St. Paul she has in mind are 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, and she uses the term cortaysye to express the manifestations of this spirit of divine grace in Christian love and charity.
The Dreamer’s spiritual progress is from a wretched egoism that creates war and havoc within himself to an acceptance of the Will of God. The Dreamer, ethopoeic of any one of us, starts at the desperate point of admitting:
Though the very nature
of Christ made comfort known to me,
From this terrible state of active despair, and its corollary of spiritual dryness, the Dreamer’s progress is haltingly through instruction and debate with authority to a final acceptance and reconciliation. In sharp contrast to the initial state of angry, frustrated will-fulness, he can by the end of the vision and the poem affirm: "So as to please the prince (the Lord) or to be reconciled with him, it is very easy to be a good Christian." And: "I have found Him God, a Lord, a most excellent friend."
The foundation of this reconciliation is the relinquishing of egoism. It is the giving up of personal grief, of jealousy, of envy, of understandable but gross acceptance of limited human hierarchies in which self-regard and self-value loom large. And the Pearl Dreamer essentially learns of this relinquishing of Self through what he has learnt about the nature of Our Lady as "Quene of Courtayse" - Courtesy, that spiritual quality of virtue of which "al arn we membrez of Jesu Kryst".
Courtesy is that most high quality of acceptance, participating acceptance, which enables integrity and therefore enables the components of integrity; as the Gawain poet puts it, it enables the "pure pentaungle", which cannot be broken at any one point without total disaster.
We can see in these poems, popular by nature, a stringently conceived but exoterically and poetically expressed image of Our Lady’s enabling Courtesy. As Max Thurian has it, talking about Mary’s presence at the Miracle of Cana: "Mary here fulfils the ministry of communicating the faith, she gives birth to the faith of others." Courtesy has a "ministry". One vital aspect of that ministry is its enablement of Prudence Prudentia, - something, in our poems, Gawain has to struggle with, and a great lesson for the Dreamer in Pearl. On this, I should like to quote form Fr. Geoffrey Preston’s Hallowing the Time: 4
How well that sums up an essential aspect of Our Lady’s courtesy, in which the medieval poets showed such dedicated interest. But we cannot end without suggesting how deeply fascinating it would be to investigate some of these ideas in Dante, the greatest of poets. In the prayer of S. Bernard at the end of Paradiso, we have our obvious start. Here we have the great, the overwhelming Type of integrity. The particular term "cortesia" is not here included in Our Lady’s qualities, although "benignità", which is, often interchangeable in Italian with "cortesia". However, as I suggested earlier on, we are not in the world of systemized codes or tightly delineated lexicons. Rather, we are reading within a semantic field whose resonances are, if sometimes subliminal, immediate to the intellect and to the imagination. Not only "benignità", but also "misericordia", "pietate" and "magnificenza", partake of that resonance. I do not think it fanciful to suggest that the enabling grace that Dante finds in following Mary’s gaze to "un simplice lume", one simple light, may be defined as Courtesy.
I leave you with S. Bernard’s prayer to Our Lady:
Vergine Madre, figlia
del tuo figlio,
La tua benignità non