The 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:

"The so-called ‘system of the virtues’ of the knight was … hardly a system. It comprises ethico-aesthetic categories of a secular nature, which had in part developed long before the rise of chivalry – for example, the fealty of the vassal, or the ‘joy’ or other stereo-typed expressions of courtly love, which existed as early as c. 1100. To this we may add the praise of liberalitas (milte) which we find in countless Latin poems before 1150…. Perhaps the related virtue of clementia fused with it. That didactic elements of ecclesiastical origin should be added to these was only natural. To reduce this entire circle of virtues and ideals to a barren scheme … seems to me no gain."1

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:

On New Year’s Day Arthur and his knights sit feasting at Camelot. A giant knight, Bercilak de Hautdesert comes in clad in green. Gawain accepts his challenge to give him a stroke with his axe and takes one in return. Gawain beheads the knight at one blow, but the trunk picks up the head and rides off, appointing Gawain to meet him a year hence at the Green Chapel in North Wales.

On the next Christmas Eve, in a dreary forest, Gawain sees a great castle where he is welcomed by the lord and lady. Gawain and the lord agree to exchange what they get by hunting or otherwise. The lady tempts Gawain on three successive nights, he accepts only kisses and a girdle that makes him vulnerable. Gawain gives the lord the kisses but not the girdle. On New Year’s Day Gawain goes to the Green Chapel and meets the Green Knight. He is wounded, and the knight reveals that he is lord of the castle and that he and his wife had agreed to tempt Gawain. As the latter has emerged successfully from the trial, save in the matter of the girdle, he has saved his life but suffered a wound. Gawain tells his story to the court at Camelot and all the knights and ladies agree to wear like girdles of green.

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:

He clambered up many a cliff in strange regions; having wandered far from his friends, he rode as a stranger. At every ford or stream where the knight crossed over, it was a wonder if he did not find a foe facing him, and one so evil and so fierce that he was compelled to fight. The man encountered so many strange things there among the hills that it would be too difficult to recount the tenth part of them. Sometimes he fought with dragons, and with wolves also, sometimes with forest trolls, who lived in the rocks, with bulls and bears too, and at other times with boars, and ogres who pursued him from the fells above; had he not been bold and unflinching and served God, without doubt he would have been struck down and killed many a time.

Yet fighting did not so greatly trouble him, the winter weather was worse, when the cold, clear rain was shed from the clouds, and froze before it could fall on the faded earth. Almost slain by the sleet, he slept in his irons night after night amongst the naked rocks where the cold burn came crashing down from the cliff top, and hung above his head in hard icicles. So through pain and peril and the greatest hardships, this knight went riding across the country until Christmas Eve, all alone. Then the knight duly made his prayer to Mary, that she would direct his course and guide him to some dwelling. 2

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."

(There was great danger between this man and woman,
should Mary not keep her knight in her care.)

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:

Pearl is the author’s daughter, an only child, whom he has lost when she was less than two years old. Wandering disconsolate in the garden where she is buried, he has a vision of a river beyond which lies Paradise. Here he sees a maiden seated, in whom he recognises his daughter grown to maturity. She upbraids him for his excessive grief, and explains her blessed state. He strives to join her and plunges into the river, and awakens from is trance, comforted and resigned to his lot.

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:

In more chastened mood the father then begs her at least to tell him of herself, for great though his own loss has been, much greater have been his fears for her. The Pearl then tells him that the Lamb has taken her as His bride and crowned her queen in Heaven. She explains that each one who comes there is crowned king or queen, but that the Virgin Mary herself rules over them all:

For ho is Quen of cortayseye. (444)

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:

Of courtaysye, as saytz Saynt Poule,
All aren we membrez of Jesu Kryst. (457-8)

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 father accepts the cortaysye of heavenly society, but he cannot believe that the child who did not live two years on earth, and could never God nauper plese ne pray (484) would straightway be made queen in Heaven, when those that had endured in worlde stronge, and lived in penance all their lives, could receive no greater reward. The cortaysye which bestows so high an honour on one so unworthy is to fre of dede, ‘too generous in its operation’. 3

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,
My wretched will was continually pained in grief.

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

And what we want to learn from Wisdom, surprisingly enough at first sight, is the way of prudence. When we call on the Wisdom that is co-eternal with the Father, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, it seems banal to ask first of all for instruction in, of all things, prudence. Yet there is nothing we can more properly ask of Wisdom that how to be prudent. Only if we have prudence, that is discretion, discernment, a sense of the realities of things and persons and situations, can we give a welcome to Wisdom.

Catherine of Siena, meditating on the story of the Annunciation when Eternal Wisdom did come first, sees Mary as exercising the virtue of prudence in her conversation with the Angel. Prudence made her ask the right questions and prudence enabled her to give the appropriate reply. In classical Christian ethics it is said that you cannot be good at all unless you are prudent at the same time. No matter how good or holy what you do or say might be in the abstract, it is only really good if it is prudent, done at the right time, in the right situation, with the right person. It is not enough for us just to be sincere in what we do. If what we do is a silly thing to do in that situation, if we over-react, or under-react, or react inappropriately, then we are not being good.

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,
umile e alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,
tu se’colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sì, che il suo fattore
non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

La tua benignità non pur socorre
a chi domanda, ma molte fiate
liberamente al dimandar precorre.
In te misericordia, in te pietate,
in te magnificenza, in te s’aduna
quantunque in creatura è di bontate.



  1. Curtius, E.R. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, (English translation W.R. Trask, London 1953).
  2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. with Intro., trans., and notes, by W.R.J. Barron, Manchester University Press, 1974.
  3. Pearl, ed., with Introduction, notes and glossary, by E.V. Gordon, Clarendon Press, 1953.
  4. Preston, Geoffrey, OP, Hallowing the Time, London, 1980, p. 20