She Gave Me of the Tree: Seduction in Medieval Literature

“Then the man said ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate (New King James Version, Gen. 3.12).’” From ancient times, women have been the scapegoat for the downfall of man. From this point on, due to their predisposed nature to tempt men to sin, Christians have justified subjugation of women, such as in Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. […] Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything (Eph. 5.22-24).” While the lineage of Jesus Christ is matriarchal, as evident by the Virgin Mary, and while modern Jewishness is considered by the mother’s descent, Old Testament lineage traditions are patriarchal (Freeman). As the male-dominated Christian religion leaked into Britain through Roman conquest, traditions such as patriarchal lineage and women’s lack of legal rights were established that oppressed and controlled women. Men’s fear of women’s seductive powers, and their supposed culpability, also became manifested in medieval and medievalism literature.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Borroff), Le Morte Darthur (Malory), The Crystal Cave (Stewart), and in The Mists of Avalon (Bradley), women are shown to be the cause of men’s downfall or failure, like to Eve in Genesis. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain’s quest to face the Green Knight, puppeteered by Morgan Le Fey, brings him to the house of Lord Bertilak. Sir Gawain is then tempted on three consecutive mornings by the Lady Bertilak, and although he refuses her sexual lurings, he accepts an enchanted girdle as a gift from her. As she attempts to seduce Sir Gawain into sin, the scenes of temptation paint Lady Bertilak as a temptress: “And she stepped stealthily, and stole to his bed, / Cast aside the curtain and came within (Borroff 32),” “The lady, with guile in her heart, / Came early where he lay; / She was at him with all her art / To turn his mind her way (39).”  His wager, his honor, and part of his quest, are lost because he fails to reveal the girdle to Lord Bertilak, and he continues to wear the girdle as a symbol of this defeat forever, even passing the habit on the to rest of the knights of the Round Table (64). Both women, Morgan Le Fey and Lady Bertilak, are shown to be the cause of his failure; Le Fey as the mastermind behind the quest and the creator of conflicting loyalties for Gawain, and Lady Bertilak as his sexual seducer.

A more complex example of women inflicting destruction is found in Le Morte Darthur. The legendary love affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenivere ends in a war between King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. The king chases Lancelot to France to fight him, leaving Sir Mordred in charge of Camelot. Upon his return, the king finds himself in battle against Mordred. The irony here is that the queen is not only adulterous, but also fails in her duty to provide King Arthur with a legitimate heir. The king’s only son is Mordred, born not only out of wedlock, but by the king’s half-sister Morgan Le Fey, a bastard twice over. The tradition of using the paternal line to mark legacy and inheritance causes King Arthur to be left with nothing due to Guenivere’s dalliance with Lancelot. In addition to leaving Arthur with no heir, Lancelot and Guenivere cause the destruction of all Camelot: Knight against knight, son against father. The brotherhood of the Round Table is destroyed because of Guenivere’s entanglements. Perhaps the Queen, being responsible for what the actions against her husband had caused, was confined to a nunnery to prevent her sexual appetite from wreaking any more carnage (Malory, ch. XX).

Merlin also appears as victim to women’s charms in The Crystal Cave. In this instance, Merlin is not the hunter but the prey of a woman from his hometown. Hearing that he is now a prince and a great magician, she attempts to seduce Merlin. In a field, Keri approaches with her hair loose and her feet bare. She is picking bluebells, with “the wide innocence of her look (Stewart 299).” She left the life of a nunnery behind, she says to Merlin. In a sweetly romantic scene, they lie together among the flowers (300-301). However, Merlin seems unable to “finish,” making Keri angry, revealing her true motivations. She dismisses him, tells him she never believed in his magic, and blames him for being judgemental about her prostitute mother. At once, Merlin’s manhood, magic, and even money is stolen from him. This seductress does not directly cause his doom, but his magic seems to be affected by the sexual activity (302), and her power to disrupt his magic and emasculate him warns of how susceptible he is to the temptation, which would be his downfall.

Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon explores the custom of patriarchal lineage explicitly: “These Romans counted their lineage through the male line, rather than sensibly through the mother; it was silly, for how could any man ever know precisely who had fathered any woman’s child (7)?” “These roman men considered it their divine right to have power of life and death over their children (8).” Igraine in Mists lives a controlled life under Roman tradition. She is kept in the castle Tintagel, busy with keeping the house and grounds, while her husband Gorlois is fighting battles with King Ambrosius and Uther. While her husband has other bastard sons, Igraine is expected only to bear children to Gorlois in order to preserve his legacy. Grateful that he allowed her to nurse her daughter, Igraine even feels indebted to Gorlois. She, and other women in Arthurian lore, were confined in castles, precisely to prevent what happens to Igraine next: Uther falls in love with her, steals her away from Gorlois, and it causes Gorlois’ lineage to fall. The near-adultery, generated by an enchantment, is yet another example of women’s seductive tendencies to provoke man’s failure.

The confinement of women appears in many Medieval texts, and the tradition continues into the 20th century, perhaps beyond. It is a countermeasure against the belief that, given freedom, women will cause downfall through manipulating the sexuality of men. Lady Bertilak’s seduction caused Sir Gawain’s failure, Keri’s sexuality causes Merlin’s magic powers to falter. Guenivere and Igraine’s lusty affairs spark wars and battles, cutting short the lineages of both King Arthur and Lord Gorlois. Even in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank’s wife Sandy and their child distract him from attending to important matters of state. While his attention is on woman and family, King Arthur dies and Camelot falls (Twain, ch. 41). For men to maintain a strong legacy, women must be made to be faithful, loyal to a husband, to bear him, and only him, male children to inherit their crown, title, land, and/or money. Women who are not loyal son-bearers are blamed for men’s failures. To restrict a woman’s sexuality is, perhaps, the most difficult battle of them all, and yet men continue to fall to the enticement of women.

One final, noteworthy instance of seduction is in Merlin’s downfall in Le Morte Darthur. Merlin “fell in a dotage on […] one of the damosels of the Lady of the Lake […] Nenive (Malory 58).” Merlin follows her around and, “ha[s] her privily away by his subtle crafts (58),” until she asked him to stop using enchantments on her. Nenive made the best of her stalker by having him teach her magic. She allows him to “have her maidenhood (59),” because she feared his power as a son of the devil. Finally, Nenive lures him into a cave and traps him there, causing his end. Merlin is harassing her, but Nenive allows it because she fears his masculinity. As a powerful man and magician, she must permit his authority, but she uses her feminine charms to tempt him to his death. A non-feminist reading of this story would say the woman’s cunning ways have brought down the greatest sorcerer, but Nenive is only practicing self-protection against a harasser. Interestingly, she wards off an adulterous woman from King Pelleas, marries him, and continues to protect him until she dies (79-80, 464, 517).  She saves, protects, and counsels King Arthur, carrying out Merlin’s duties once he is gone (65, 67, 73). As the seducer of the great Merlin she is written, but a powerful and loyal woman she also is. Nenive, out of all the afore-mentioned women, is the one to turn the tables on men. She is a counselor and protector of kings and advances Merlin’s diplomatic business, all while leaving Merlin trapped in a cave. She shuts down the harassment, stops adultery, and pursues peace, overcoming that which brought Merlin to his knees: Sexual temptation. Perhaps, then, it is not Nenive but Merlin that is to blame for accepting the fruit and eating of it, too.

Works Cited

  • Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. Ballantine Books, New York, 1982.
  • Borroff, Marie, translator. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Edited by Laura L. Howes, Norton Critical ed., W. W. Norton & Company Inc. New York, London, 2010.
  • Freeman, Tzvi, and Yehuda Shurpin. “Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal? – Maternal Descent In Judaism.”, Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center, Nov. 2017.
  • Holy Bible: New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2013.
  • Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Edited by Helen Cooper, Oxford University Press, 1998, 2008.
  • Stewart, Mary. The Crystal Cave. Fawcett Crest, 1971.
  • Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. Penguin Books Inc., Baltimore, 1971.

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