A Sample Use of Structuralist Analysis in a Goucher English Literature Analysis (2006)

        This excerpt from Jessie Dixon's (Goucher '06) paper for English 240 illustrates how one big binary opposition in a culture, identified by a historian, can lead the researcher to a large set of other binaries within the text she is analyzing.  To read "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle," click here.  The tale resembles closely Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" (Canterbury Tales) in that it presents the knight with two difficult problems, determine "what women most desire" and decide whether he would rather have his wife ugly in public and beautiful in private or vice versa.  His solution to that second puzzle involves what he learned from the first. 

        The following excerpt from “'Nether in bowre ne in halle”': Reconciling Public and Private in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, remains the copyrighted property of Jessie Dixon, 2006.

[ The introduction discusses the public and private oaths which drive the tale's plot and then focuses on the broader implications of "public" and "private" in Medieval culture, seeking a scholarly opinion about the general significance of the two terms for historical Medieval people.]

            Joep Leerssen, quoting Jacques Le Goff, writes that “In the Middle Ages the great contrast was [...] between nature and culture, expressed in terms of the ‘opposition between what was built, cultivated, and inhabited [...] and what was essentially wild, [...] that is, between men who lived in groups and those who lived in solitude’” (25).  This divide is certainly pervasive in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.”  The public, group forces of Arthur and his court are set against the solitary inhabitants of Inglewood Forest, Sir Gromer Somer Joure and his sister Dame Ragnelle, whose associations with the forest world mark them as outsiders to Arthur’s ordered, civilized court as much as their behavior and the whiff of magic that surrounds them.  Sir Gromer and Dame Ragnelle seem devoid of a place of origin, whether because they are truly fairy creatures or because they have simply been exiled from their native home; although Sir Gromer accuses the king of appropriating his lands for a gift to Sir Gawain, he never identifies these territories by name, a striking omission, considering that the location of Arthur’s court and the forest itself are explicitly noted (ln16, 132).  The siblings can be found only by entering the forest, and they do not appear to even have each others’ company in that wilderness.  Arthur himself must be alone to meet either of them within the privacy of Inglewood.  This spatial solitude reflects medieval conceptions of the divide Leerssen sees between wildness and civility:  the natural world, separated from the highly public, cultured circle of court life, is a dangerously private force, threatening to overwhelm any single human, no matter how powerful, who might find himself alone there with powers that cannot be controlled by the chivalrous code of the court (27).  Only outlaws and magical beings reside beyond the reach of society.  “Chivalric virtues are those that ensure just and stable rule, the defense of the existing order, and the observance of social form and rank – the virtues of civilization” (Ramsey 4).  Society is a public construction, assuring the weal of the many by putting communal restrictions upon even the private aspects of life such as “the ingestion and digestion of food and [...] sexuality and procreation” (Leerssen 26).  The chivalric codes of medieval courts were highly formalized, ritualized attempts to control such behaviors, regulating what might be conducted in public and what must remain private, and imposing elaborate ceremony in order to distinguish the courts from the wilderness surrounding them.  “Table manners and courtly behavior [...], protocol and an elaborate hierarchical system of titles and artificial dignities,” as well as the “wholly desexualized, disembodied devotion” of courtly love are all public manifestations of this impulse (27).  Sir Gromer and his sister lead direct assaults upon the sense of order and civilization Arthur’s court tries to provide by contravening its traditions:  Sir Gromer, in full armor, confronts the relatively unprotected King, and hardly accords him the respect due to his feudal lord, violating rules of combat and rank (lns 49-120); Ragnelle demands to marry Gawain, which would certainly have been considered presumptuous behavior from a woman, especially among the nobility (here Ragnelle explicitly connects herself with the wilderness, rather than the court, pointing out that “Choyse for a make hathe an owlle”), and that presumptuousness would also indicate to the tale’s audience her unfamiliarity with the conventions of courtly love, for no woman as hideous as she could possibly hope to be the mate of such an exalted knight as Gawain, and the narrator even expresses his disgust that “so fowlle a creature withoute mesure” should “ryde so gayly” on a beautiful palfrey (310, 249-50); again showing her family’s disregard for the strict rules of precedence, Ragnelle rides past the king upon entering the castle courtyard (518-9); her table manners are considered deplorable, and the poet devotes some time to noting how her appearance and behavior offend all around her (590, 600-21).  The denizens of Inglewood operate independently of the rules of court, positioning themselves as outsiders, agents of wilderness and solitude.

            The binary Leerssen establishes between wilderness and civilization may be extended within the world of this text:

Wilderness/nature         vs.        Civilization

Forest/outlaw                           Court/law

Independence                           Obedience

Solitude                                    Society

Private                                      Public

(The confrontations between overt magic and Christianity are largely suppressed in this text, but one could imagine them also participating in the binary in another version of the tale, functioning at the level of forest/outlaw versus court/law.)  The conflicts of the tale are driven by this divide.  Most of the vows upon which the narrative turns are made in private, yet there is real fear of the repercussions for breaking those oaths.  As Arthur swears in secret to return with the answer to Sir Gromer’s riddle, he needs fear no loss of face before his knights if he fails to uphold his bargain.  Additionally, the vow is made outside of the court, the limits of civilization and law.  Arthur, as king, would be safe from Sir Gromer’s death threat even if Sir Gromer had to seek him out by coming to the court.  Gawain’s vow to marry Ragnelle is equally private.  Within the romance tradition, heroes are set apart “by the scrupulousness with which they obey rules even in the most compromised of circumstances” (Ramsey 84).  Both Arthur and Gawain hold themselves to public, courtly standards, even when dealing privately with those who are outside of the courts laws and customs.  Arthur and Gawain see no difference between public and private behavior, although the rest of the court does not always properly integrate the two, as demonstrated by the women’s disapproval of Ragnelle’s insistence on a public wedding (570-1).  Ragnelle follows the Church’s preferred procedure by marrying openly, ensuring that the legality of her marriage can never be challenged.  The public ceremony and feast which follows simultaneously tests the limits of her new husband’s courtesy.

            Ragnelle serves as the linking force in the tale.  [ . . . the argument goes on to describe how Ragnelle (acting like what Greimas or Todorov might call an "actant") supplies Gawain with what he lacks in order to pass the test of the bedchamber . . . ]   Her union with Gawain is a union of the opposing forces, balancing the demands of a courtier’s personal and social identities.  The dangers of failing to adequately negotiate this balance would be very familiar to the tale’s audience; even though the consequences of the king losing his head for failing to answer a riddle or the chief knight having to make a choice between having his wife as a gracious consort in the castle hall or a palatable lover in his private chamber are far outside of the actual courtier’s experience, all would recognize the need to reconcile their responsibilities and freedoms.  “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” reaffirms what any competent medieval courtier would have learned from birth:  successful maintenance of their highly public position in their society was entirely dependent upon their identification of public and private obligations and correctly separating and integrating their vows and actions in both bower and hall.

Works Cited

Leerssen, Joep.  “Wildness, Wilderness, and Ireland:  Medieval and Early-Modern Patterns in the Demarcation of Civility.”  Journal of the History of Ideas 56       (1995):  25-39.

Perry, John H.  “Opening the Secret:  Marriage, Narration, and Nascent Subjectivity in Middle English Romance.”  Philological Quarterly 76 (1997):  133-57.

Ramsey, Lee C.  Chivalric Romances:  Popular Literature in Medieval England.  Bloomington:  Indiana UP, 1983.

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.  In Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales.  Ed. Thomas Hahn.  Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute, 1995.  Available online at http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/ragnfrm.htm.  Viewed 3/29/06.