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Sarah Lindsay

Men, Emotion and King Arthur

Death of Arthur
John Garrick, The Death of King Arthur, 1862 | via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this summer, the New York Times ran an article titled “Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls.” This article examines how parents and caregivers tend to limit the emotional vocabulary of boys, sending the message that boys need to develop emotional distance and stoicism. As the title suggests, the piece ends with a call to engage boys as well as girls emotionally — to let them experience and talk through emotions.

The examples in the article, and its modest call to support young boys as they experience and process the whole array of human emotions, won’t be revelatory to anyone who has reservations about modern American notions of masculinity. I read the article, nodded in agreement, and then I made the cardinal mistake of the internet.

I read the comments.

Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, a number of commenters — perhaps as many as half — expressed concern or even outrage over their perception that this article aimed to turn boys into girls. Many of these concerned comments noted that boys and girls are different, and argued that feminizing boys would create vague social ills.

These comments, of course, rehash the denigration of anything labelled “feminine” (including emotions) while also misunderstanding the article — which simply pointed out that we should teach both boys and girls emotional literacy, rather than attempting to restrict or suppress boys’ emotions (the article also pointed out that boys experience emotions, which should be unexceptionable but apparently isn’t).

These critical comments about the article also tended to reflect the prominence of what I’ll call the “Clint Eastwood” model of masculinity. This model prizes emotional distance in relationships and a stoic acceptance of circumstances; emotional reactions (or at least, reactions other than anger) are for women, not for men who want to be accepted and successful.

This model of manhood is open to critique on many levels, but I want to take a slightly different angle by looking at historical ideas of masculinity. Many of the comments on the article seemed to assume that men are naturally unemotional; ideal manhood, then, must exclude most emotions. However, ideal manhood has shifted in different cultures and times, and I want to look at just one example from the European middle ages.

Think, for a moment, of an ideal medieval man: I’m guessing that you thought of a knight in armor, on horseback, perhaps slaying a dragon. Maybe you thought of a real person, like Richard I (the Lionheart); perhaps you thought of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

King Arthur and his knights are fantastic examples of medieval masculinity, since these characters were shaped to reflect idealized medieval manhood when stories about Arthur and his knights exploded into popularity across Europe in the twelfth century.1 These knights are strong in battle; pious towards God; and courteous in their interactions with women, priests, and their social peers.

This form of masculinity probably remains familiar to most people. The ideals of chivalry persist today, even if they has been significantly reshaped since they emerged in eleventh century Europe. But one characteristic of these ideal medieval knights may be surprising: the frequency with which Arthur and his knights exhibit strong emotions, particularly grief.

For example, when Arthur’s beloved nephew Gawain dies in battle, killed by the treacherous Mordred, one version of the story (the Alliterative Morte Arthureshows Arthur holding Gawain’s body in his arms as he weeps, eventually so overcome by sorrow that he faints. This does not lessen Arthur’s masculinity, but instead shows us how great a man Gawain was: his death deserves an emotional response.

In fact, in this version of the story, Gawain was such a great knight that his death even pierces the heart of Mordred. The worst of traitors himself retains enough humanity, enough chivalry, to be emotionally moved by Gawain’s death. Arthur and Mordred’s emotional responses to Gawain’s death do not undermine their chivalric masculinity but rather reinforce it, showing the depth of their respect for an ideal knight.

Lancelot also demonstrates a depth of emotion in Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, the fifteenth-century text that inspires many modern retellings of the Arthurian legends. Lancelot, for Malory, is the greatest example of medieval knighthood — despite his adulterous love for Guinevere. Malory’s Lancelot frequently demonstrates strong emotions, but one particular instance stands out to me.

One day, a wounded knight named Sir Urry arrives at Camelot. His wounds are severe and, under a curse, have persisted for seven years; they can only be healed by the best knight in the world. After all of the knights of the Round Table attempt to heal Sir Urry, Lancelot approaches the knight and, with only a touch, immediately heals him.

Rather than rejoice, however, at one more proof that he is the best, Lancelot weeps as if he were a child being beaten. Malory gives us ugly, complicated emotion: Lancelot has just failed in the quest for the grail and, against his resolve otherwise, has resumed his affair with Guinevere. And yet rather than being punished by God, he is allowed to work a miraculous healing. Is it any surprise that Lancelot exhibits strong emotion? And none of his companions say a word; his emotional reaction demonstrates his awareness of his sinful nature and his gratitude towards God that he is able to heal Sir Urry.

As with Arthur and Mordred in the other narrative, Lancelot’s emotion reinforces his status as a great knight. Were he not aware of his failings, were he not grateful that God still allowed him to work a miracle, were he not able to express his sorrow and gratitude, he would have been a lesser man.

These ideal medieval knights are hardly stoic; they publicly mourn as they experience loss or are confronted with their own sinful natures. And yet these emotions do not diminish their masculinity, do not lessen them in the eyes of medieval audiences.

Tracing the history of emotion and gender is, clearly, beyond the scope of a blog post. But I hope these two short examples — out of many more across time and culture — have demonstrated that idealized masculinity, even warrior masculinity, can certainly include space to experience and express emotion.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting a return to medieval chivalry. But it’s worth remembering that our current elevation of stoicism for men is cultural, not a reflection of biological reality. Models of manhood that we still admire, like the medieval knight, manage to incorporate emotion into masculinity.

Experiencing emotion is part of being human, whether male or female. Teaching boys emotional literacy can only erode their masculinity if we define masculinity in a way that excludes emotion. In reality, denying boys the opportunity to experience and express their full humanity, emotions included, denies their masculinity more profoundly than allowing them to be emotional beings does.

medieval #masculinity #emotions

  1. It’s worth noting that Christianity has always challenged the idea that ideal men are warriors; in the medieval church, priests and monks lived out an alternative masculinity based on prayer, study and piety rather than strength in battle or sexual virility. However, this never became the dominant model for masculinity and critiques of priests and monks sometimes focused on the alleged femininity of men in religious vocations.