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“Nether in bowre ne in halle:” Reconciling Public and Private in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle”

By Jessie Dixon

Nominated by Arnold Sanders, Associate Professor of English

From the Author: “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” is a variation of the “loathly lady” tale-type, which was explored by many medieval English authors, including John Gower (“The Tale of Florent”) and Geoffrey Chaucer. I first met with the tale-type through the lens of Chaucer’s unique creation, the Wife of Bath, whose Prologue nearly overshadows her Tale about an unnamed rapist knight who is sentenced to death if he cannot answer the question, “What do women want most in the world?” When a magical old hag offers him the answer in return for a request to be named later, the knight accepts, but later balks at her demand that he fulfill his end of the bargain by marrying her. The court of women who tried his case makes him honor his agreement, and on their wedding night, his repulsive new bride offers him a choice: she can be old and faithful or she can be young and beautiful, but without a guarantee of fidelity. The Wife of Bath uses the ending of her version to reinforce the central message of her lengthy Prologue: women want power over men, and life is better when they have it.

A year later, I had to give a class presentation on a different, anonymous version of the tale in English 240, Medieval Literature. Much of that presentation centered on the differences between the two versions. “Wedding” includes a frame story which actively involves King Arthur in the tale, and presents his knight, this time identified as Sir Gawain, with a far different choice. In this version, Gawain must decide if he would prefer his wife to be young and beautiful during the day, when his friends and fellow knights will see her, or at night, when they are alone. The inclusion of the frame story, and the way in which Ragnelle presents Gawain’s choice to him intrigued me. They seemed to indicate larger social and political concerns than the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” As I looked at the places where the two versions diverged, I noticed a pattern which stressed the social importance of oaths in both public and private behavior. I decided to concentrate on the particular anxieties surrounding oaths and noble behavior in this text. “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” uses the loathly lady motif as an examination of the ideal standard of nobility, which suggests that the culture of the time had reason to worry about the behavior of its ruling classes.

From the Faculty Nominator:  When I read the earliest draft of Jessie Dixon’s paper about “The Wedding of Sir Gawayne and Dame Ragnelle,” I was completely absorbed by the way her analysis got inside Ragnelle’s incredibly awkward situation as a disfigured borderland outsider negotiating with the most prestigious and powerful of Arthur’s knights. I was even more impressed that Jessie got there by close reading of the terms Ragnelle uses to control the setting of Gawayne’s wedding oath. The paper was a textbook exploration of the way precise nuances of poets’ word choices contain clues to their deepest intentions and anxieties. Only when discussing revision for publication did we discover that I was so captivated by the path of Jessie’s reasoning that I did not even notice the draft contained some enormous sentences and a paragraph that ran on for pages. The logic was so tight, and the evidence was so compelling, that I was carried blindly past those stylistic flaws, which Jessie, of course, had not noticed either. As a Writing Center tutor, she specializes in pointing out that kind of thing to other writers, but we both realized this was a classic case of the way style and format falter when higher order thinking makes great strides. Stylistic revision was effortless once we looked at the paper that way in preparation for publication. In a later Independent Study to research the social and legal conventions of the era, Jessie found striking support for the significance of public oaths and private performance to late-Medieval English readers, and we were able to confirm that no previous scholarship on “Wedding” has yet published this insight.

Read: “Nether in bowre ne in halle:” Reconciling Public and Private in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle”

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