Negotiating violence at the feast in medieval British texts

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Melissa Ridley Elmes (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Amy Vines

Abstract: The medieval period has been viewed historically as a time of excessive and senseless violence. This project participates in the ongoing field reassessment of violence in medieval literature as being culturally meaningful, rather than senseless and excessive, by advocating for greater attention to the ways in which medieval writers critiqued violence in their narratives and, by extension, their communities. While scholars readily read the tournaments and battles in medieval texts for such critique, I argue that feast scenes actually provide a clearer view of the ways in which violence is used narratively as a productive interventional force, particularly when latent conflicts that have been obscured by adherence to rigid social systems threaten to destabilize a community. Medieval chivalric and etiquette codes suggest that violence stems from those living outside of their jurisdiction; but the violence in feast halls, ungovernable by those codes, shows that conflict from within the community offers the greatest threat to its stability and must be redressed by meaningful action rather than through a prescribed ritualistic response. Making use of theoretical underpinnings from anthropology and history that characterize the feast as a culturally essential event and medieval violence as a rational and strategically-employed tool of constraint, coercion, and manipulation, I convert the essentially historical question of the cultural importance of feasts into a literary one by close reading feasting scenes and their aftermath in order to consider how the writers in medieval England used the motif of violence at or following the feast to illuminate, critique, and offer correction to social, political, and religious issues tied to the specific concerns of justice, loyalty, and treason within a community. Looking at texts ranging from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the Welsh Mabinogion, and Latin Historia Regum Britanniae to chronicle-based works by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower, the Middle English Arthurian romances Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the Old Norse Clari’s Saga, and outlaw tales of Robin Hood, Gamelyn, and Hereward the Wake, I demonstrate through a comparative approach centered on interpretation and analysis supported with contextual historical evidence that violence associated with the feast is typically presented according to genre expectations and mirrors cultural anxieties that are specific to the community in which and for which a given text was produced. The use of the feast for such a purpose is possible precisely because of its essential quality in a given culture; everyone reading the text knows what the feast is supposed to be, and this common understanding of what a feast is permits the disruptions and violent altercations, rather than the event, to become the narrative focus when they occur. Because medieval society viewed it as a tool to be used, rather than simply a passionate outburst, when violence erupts unexpectedly during or after a feast it is being intentionally performed; since the codes of conduct and etiquette that govern the feast make no accommodation for dealing with that violence, there is no communal sense of how to address it; and so, instances of violence at the feast must be handled in the immediate sense on an individual level. This unscripted response to the violence forces a community in its wake to consider what led to the violence, who was involved, how it was handled, and what to do in its aftermath to try to rectify the issues that led to the violent altercation and determine how to avoid or address further potentially violent conflicts. Ultimately, I argue that while all of the instances of violence at the feast examined in this study are differentiated by genre expectations and culturally specific anxieties, together they reveal a continuous preoccupation on the part of writers in medieval England with the limitations of behavioral standards like the chivalric and conduct codes to control violence effectively. I challenge the idea that simply upholding the standards of conduct set forth by prescriptive manuals is enough to stave off social unrest by demonstrating that in fact, social unrest comes not from misbehavior but from the limitations of codes of behavior to account for interpersonal strife. Since the codes of conduct that prescribe how to behave at events like the feast do not address how to deal with latent conflict, when violence does erupt it can become a productive force for meaningful change, because it reveals interpersonal issues that the codes seek to repress and forces the community to deal with them.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2016
Medieval Chronicles, Medieval Literature, Medieval Romance, Medieval Welsh Literature, Middle English literature, Old English Literature
Literature, Medieval $x History and criticism
Violence in literature
Food habits $z England $x History $y To 1500
England $x Social life and customs $y 1066-1485
Social history $y Medieval, 500-1500

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