A Seat At The Round Table: Patriarchal Propaganda
by Cathy Cupitt

… Yet we should not forget that it was the entire traditional appeal
of the Arthurian story that made effective its repeated use as … propaganda.1

The Round Table of Arthur’s court is a place of equals. A table with no head or foot, and therefore no seats of high or low status. A table around which all knights have equal honour. But as in Animal Farm “some are more equal than others”2. There is an unstated definition of who is equal enough to sit at the Round Table encoded within medieval Arthurian romance texts – noble born men who have proven themselves as knights. Women, peasants, merchants, Jews, and Moors (to list but a few alternative groups) are not equal enough to sit at the Round Table.

In fact, the texts never even mention most of these groups of people. They are not merelydenied a place at the Round Table, they are denied a place in the texts at all.

Noble women are the exception. They are the only group, other than noble knightly men, to have a major role in the Arthurian romances. But although they are present, they are denied a place at the Round Table. Why is this? Why are they portrayed as second class citizens? Is this an extension of societal preconceptions?

In my opinion, these texts can be read as propaganda – specifically class stratified patriarchal propaganda. They underpin one world view, and deny all others. Noble men who are knights are the only people who can wield power in these romances, and when they are not wielding it over each other, they are wielding it over women.

In this essay I will explore the portrayal of women within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight3, and Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney”4, and how these portrayals compare to what we know of noble women’s lives in their contemporary society.

I believe that by exploring the gap between fiction and non-fiction, it will become apparent that there is a bias in the depiction of women which enforces patriarchal concerns. The portrayal of women in these texts emphasises two facets of their character. They are generally either gentlewomen, needing and wanting men for protection and love; or else they are temptresses and bewitchers and not to be trusted. Often the same woman appears in both roles within the same text!

Scholars of the literature and history of the Middle Ages will be quick to tell us that the medieval attitude towards women was curiously but definably split: worship of Mary and the courtly love lady on the one hand and the clerical anti-feminist tradition … on the other.5

In short, women are depicted as innately `unfit’ to sit at the Round Table – their `place’ is to wait on the men who sit there.

The romances depict a world in which the place and role of both men and women are sharply and clearly defined. The world is a masculine one. … Women exist in this world as complements to men; they should adorn the establishment of the male to whom they belong and they should inspire, assist, and reward him. In an orderly Medieval world, man acts and woman endures.6

In both of these texts the women I will be discussing are overtly connected to their male kin. This in itself is significant – they are firmly enmeshed in patriarchal society. They are all `controlled’ by a man.

Each woman also has a main character trait within the texts under discussion. The limits of this essay dictate that I look only at this main characteristic of each of the women.

* * *

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or The Machinations of Morgan?

There are four significant women characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Queen Guenevere, wife of King Arthur; Mary, mother of Jesus Christ; Lady Bertilak, wife of the Green Knight; and Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half sister and Gawain’s aunt.


Queen Guenevere is an ornament; Arthur’s ornament.

“Queen Guenevere, brilliantly dressed, was set in the midst, placed on the dais of honour”7. She sits, above the Round Table, and looks glorious. Her beauty is the mark against which the knights of the Round Table judge all women. For example, later in the text Lady Bertilak is compared to her, to Guenevere’s detriment, emphasising the hugeness of the sexual temptation that will test Gawain.

If it were not for the brief revelations, at the very end of the text, of Morgan le Fay’s responsibility for the plot of this story, Guenevere would be entirely absent, except as ornament. Even with knowledge of the machinations of Morgan, all we discover is that it was Guenevere, not one of the men of the Round Table, that she was trying to kill. The text is strangely silent about Morgan’s motives, as it is about how Guenevere caused such enmity.

The only active thing Guenevere does in this text is negative – to not die of shock. But were many medieval noble women, especially Queens, really this divorced from the day to day concerns of running the home and kingdom?

Not according to Christine de Pisan, who allowed that it was acceptable for “a woman to defend her husband’s castle in his absence”8. Furthermore she wrote a book, called The Treasure of the City of Ladies, advising women of all stations on their responsibilities. Some of the issues she discusses include “how the wise princess”:

… will make every effort to restore peace between the prince and the barons if there is any discord…
… will keep the women of her court in good order…
… will keep a careful eye on her revenues and finances and on the state of her court… 9

Hardly the foremost occupations of ornaments. Women were not just ornaments according to the Paston letters either. Writes Margaret Paston to her husband, during a rivalry which had arisen with their neighbour Lord Moleyns:

Right worshipful husband, I recommend me to you, and pray you to get some crossbows, and
windases to bend them with, and quarrels … (1448)

… I have left the place that ye left me in … I was told that divers of the Lord Moleyns’ men said that if they might
get me they should steal me and keep me within the castle … I pray you send me word by the bringer of this how
ye wish that I act. (28 February 1449) 10

While it is true these letters hardly reveal a `liberated’ twentieth century woman, they do reveal a woman who could, and did, rescue herself! Where was Margaret Paston’s heroic knight when she needed him? And if it came to the crunch, could Guenevere rescue herself too? How did she really fill her days?

Alone of all Her Sex

The Virgin Mary is Gawain’s guide and source of fortitude. Ironically, Mary’s virtues, which make her the one women who is consistently portrayed in a positive light throughout the text, are unattainable by `real’ women. She is the mother of Christ, and a virgin. These acts are unrepeatable both spiritually, and physically. She has only “four recorded utterances … an ideal which even the most taciturn of women could hardly hope to emulate”11.

She … had no peer
Either in our first mother or in all women
Who were to come. But alone of all her sex
She please the Lord.

Caelius Sedulius12

How could someone so impossible be considered the perfect woman? Is it possible that “in the very
celebration of the perfect human woman, both humanity and women were subtly denigrated”?13


There is a temptress in each of the texts under discussion. Sir Persauntis daughter in “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney”, and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both of the temptresses are nameless. They bear only the name of their closest male kin. And in both instances these women are used by their closest male kin to tempt the knight hero. Was the idea of the sexually tempting woman so powerful that it had to be completely controlled by men for it to be acceptable, even within the otherworld of a romance text?

Interestingly, Lady Bertilak is more than a sexual temptress. While it is true that she is “lovelier than Guenevere”14 it is not her offers of sexual enticement alone that are used to test Gawain. She has something more powerful – a token representing Gawain’s heart’s desire, and the knowledge of how best to tempt him with it. She also successfully tempts Gawain into breaking his word to a fellow knight. Despite her failure in the sexual arena, Lady Bertilak proves a most effective temptress.

Were one in every four women really wreaking havoc on knightly honour? According to sources that outline the usual duties of noble women, it would hardly seem that as many as 25% of them would have time!

The women of the Paston and Stonor letters give some notion of their many chores. Christine de Pizan’s Livre des Trios Vertus … is a treatise on the duties of women … and indicates that a lady had to know all about hiring labourers, as well as the correct seasons for different operations on the farm. She had to know about crops and the suitability of different soils, the care of animals and the best markets for farm produce.15

Not to mention chores within the household, and the bearing and raising of children.

Furthermore, Christine de Pisan gives “examples of women’s constancy; male fickleness compared to female steadfastness” and “the faithfulness of women in love”16. She goes to great lengths to point out the “inconsistency of outlook” apparent in many of the misogynist texts of the era17. In her opinion at least, based on her personal observations, the epithet of temptress was not deserved by the average medieval woman.

To be fair, I have not come across any evidence that there was a widespread practice for noble men to ‘pimp’ for their wives as Lady Bertilak’s husband is portrayed as having done in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

However, this does raise the question – why does Sir Gawain rail against being “cleverly deceived” by the “wiles of women”18 when it was in fact Sir Bertilak who seems to have been responsible for his wife’s actions?


Men and women did engage in sorcery in the Middle Ages – they practised healing by magic, prepared various love potions, and shaped wax images of persons who were to be harmed.19

Why is Morgan le Fay a sorceress in the Arthurian romances? Why is she portrayed as connected to the supernatural – taught by her lover Merlin?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was probably written about 1400, a time when the charge of witchcraft was becoming common. Accusations were also predominantly being made against women:

It was … the Church which for hundreds of years cultivated in Christian society a certain image of the woman. When the doctrine of witches as Satan’s allies evolved, this image made possible and justified bringing such charges mainly against women.20

It is, I think, no accident that Morgan is described as “withered” with “rough, wrinkled cheeks” and a “swarthy chin”, “bleared eyes”, a “short and stout” body with “bulging and broad” hips21.

Morgan is a crone. She is as `bad’ inside as she looks outside. She is the perfect caricatured opposite of the Virgin Mary. From personality to physicality, there are overtones that she is Mary’s opposite. She may even represent an older female worshipping fertility based religion, with her short, round physique, and Bertilak’s description of her as “Morgan the goddess”22.

Morgan may have the `power’ in this story. She may be the person who has set off the chain of events. But there is a series of `buts’ writ large, though silent, within the text:

  • But she cannot be taken seriously as a power figure as she is almost completely absent;
  • But “the persons most apt to believe in the reality of witchcraft are foolish and mentally unstable old women”23; and most importantly of all,
  • But her plot doesn’t succeed.

Is Morgan controlling the events … or is the text controlling her?

A Case of Split Personality – Lynet and Lyones

In Malory’s “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney” there are three significant women characters: Lynet, sister to the knight Gryngamoure; Lyones, sister of Gryngamoure, and future wife of Gareth; and the Queen of Orkenay, Arthur’s sister, and Gawain’s and Gareth’s mother.

Guide and Goad

To become a knight a man must overcome perils, both physical and moral. He must display curtesy, chivalry, and honour. He must battle any knight who questions his honour. In “The Tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney”, Lynet’s discourtesy is one of the texts Gareth must endure.

Lynet is an interesting character in that she is a woman with a remarkable amount of freedom to move within the text. She rides through the countryside with a knight cum kitchen knave, who is totally unrelated to her by any ties of kinship, and all without batting an eyelash. She calls her companion names, refuses to eat at the same table with him, and tells every knight she meets that he is “kychyn knave”24. Later Lynet has a magical knight attack Sir Gareth, to prevent her sister Lyones from sleeping with him before their wedding.

Lynet may be one of Gareth’s tests when she goads him, but she is also his guide. It is by following her that Gareth meets his opponents and proves himself in battle. She is integral to his quest as both guide and goad.

Why is she allowed to do all of this? After all, medieval noble women would not commonly have done any of these things. It was only under extreme provocation that Margaret Paston moved any distance without her husband’s permission.

Perhaps the answer is within the tradition of the texts themselves. There are no servants in this world, and someone must play the part of goad and guide. But even if it was not against Arthurian romance tradition for a male servant to appear in the text, a male guide still could not have taken Lynet’s place. If a male servant said these goading things to a knight such as Gareth, Gareth would be required to kill him. For the tension of the test to work, Lynet must be a woman.25

However, Lynet cannot be quite real, quite believable. She is proven wrong to have goaded Gareth, and like Morgan le Fay, she has a strong element of otherworldliness in her character – she is “the damesell Saveaige”26. And in the test that truly matters – in finding a loyal knight to love and protect her – she fails. She is married off to Gareth’s brother to make the ending nice and symmetrical. No love speech is ever made to Lynet.

Is Lynet a human woman, or is she a complete fantasy? Or is she something else again? Perhaps the alter ego of her sister Lyones. They certainly seem to be opposite sides of the same coin.


Lyones characterises almost perfectly the lady who inspires, assists, and rewards, her hero. Her plight is what inspires Gareth to set off on his quest to prove himself a knight. She assists him with a magic ring, and by lying to Arthur about his whereabouts. And she is ready to reward him both with her sexual favours and her property.

The popular image of a medieval woman is a lady in a tower wearing a pointed headdress, a flowing cloak, and a sumptuous gown of silk, velvet, or cloth of gold; she is gazing out the window at knights riding to a tournament … This picture captures the popular imagination because it represents the romantic, chivalric ideas about women that developed during the middle ages. Nevertheless, it owes more to medieval romances than to the social life of the time …27

As has already been discussed, medieval women were able to rescue themselves, if they had to. Is the element of reward also more of a romance idea than a reality?

It would seem so. Although theoretically women could consent to marry whom they pleased, in reality noble families imposed harsh sanctions on any women (and men to a lesser extent) who did. Sanctions such as being cut off from inheritances, properties, society and family.

A girl from the Paston family married the bailiff of her father’s estate despite parental opposition. The family refused to recognise the marriage and the daughter was banished from the home, but the marriage could not be annulled.28

Disinheritance after an unadvantageous marriage would hardly equal a happy ending in an Arthurian text. And although there is some question as to the value of marriage to knights in these texts, it is only by marriage that the knight gets both his financial and sexual reward. Of course all marriages within these texts are advantageous – the fair unknown knight is never a fair unknown for long.

The fact remains that Lyones would not have been able to choose Gareth for herself in `real’ life. She is a token reward – like the bonus points in a computer game when you pass onto the next level of difficulty.

Finally, Lyones assists Gareth with her magic ring, as opposed to Lynet who both wounds and heals Gareth with her magic. It is this duality between the two sisters: the split in `good’ and `bad’ duties; worldly and cloistered experiences; goading and rewarding behaviour; and helpful and hindering magic; that leads me to wonder if they are the same person split down the middle. But why should this be so?

Would it be that if they were one and the same person, she would be a well rounded, almost real woman?


The Queen of Orkenay is a strange mother. Or perhaps it is her sons that are strange. In any case it has been “twelve yere before they had not sene hir”29. Her role is to appraise the court of Gareth’s identity, thus revealing that he was never a kitchen knave, but nobly born and honourable. She took a long time to do it. She did not get around to it until over a year after he had left for Arthur’s court.

Apart form this, she doesn’t seem to do much. She doesn’t get excited about Gareth’s wedding, and she shows no interest in her other sons. Was motherhood in the middle ages really so different to the ideal of today?

Not if Margaret Paston is a good example of a mother of this period. She often wrote to advise and question her sons when they were no longer living under the same roof.

For example she “wrote to her son John Paston II urging him to send men to his brother’s defence”, and “advised her sons against suing James Gresham, because he had been an extraordinarily faithful friend”. She also “wrote repeatedly to her elder son, warning him against overspending”30.

In the light of this, the indifference of the Queen of Orkenay to her sons seems most peculiar. But perhaps there is an explanation for it. It suits the purposes of the legend of the knights of the Round Table for their families to be absent. If Gawain was constantly being advised by his mother, he would appear less independent and heroic. The knights of the Round Table are more like “questing orphans” than integrated members of normal society31. It is only when knights need to be recognised, to increase their standing at court, that a relative is wheeled out to point the finger.

The Queen of Orkenay is not really a mother at all, she is a plot device masquerading as a woman.

* * *

We have seen, even in this brief exploration of women’s representations, that there is a divide between the viewpoint of these two Arthurian texts, and the evidence we have of medieval reality.

In my opinion this divide in women’s representation had an importance beyond the confines of the texts. It both reflected and enforced the contemporary society’s opinion of the place of women. It displayed them as important in helping men achieve their goals, and as powerless in the earthly arenas that mattered. It presented them as powerful, but sinful, when it came to sexual temptation and witchery.

These viewpoints were pervasive, but not a true representation of noble women’s lives in the middle ages. It is primarily the discrepancies between factual accounts of women’s lives, and the fictional portrayal of women, that makes me believe that there is a strong element of propaganda in medieval Arthurian romance texts.

I doubt that this portrayal of women as second rate citizens was a deliberate attempt at propaganda by the authors of these texts, however the result is that these romances confirm, rather than question or subvert, the societal status of medieval women within the contemporary patriarchal society.

Their place, however brilliant …

Queen Guenevere, brilliantly dressed, was set in the midst, placed on the dais of honour …32

… will always be on the periphery of the Round Table.


Amt, Emilie, ed.
Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1993.
Barron, W. J., ed.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974 (with trans).
Bornstein, Diane.
The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1983.
de Pisan, Christine.
The Book of the City of Ladies. New York: Persea Books, 1982 (trans Earl J. Richards).
de Pisan, Christine.
The Treasure of the City of Ladies. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986 (trans by Sarah Lawson).
Eckhardt, Caroline D.
“Prophecy and Nostalgia: Arthurian Symbolism at the Close of the English Middle Ages,” in The Arthurian Tradition: Essays in Convergence, eds. Mary F. Braswell and J. Bugge. Alabama: Alabama University Press, 1988, 109-126.
Gottlieb, Beatrice.
“The Problem of Feminism in the Fifteenth Century,” Women of the Medieval World. eds. Julius Kirshner & Suzanne F. Wemple. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 337-364.
Lucas, Angela M.
Women in the Middle Ages: Religion, Marriage and Letters. Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983.
Maddern, Philippa.
“Honour Among the Pastons: Gender and Integrity in Fifteenth-Century English Provincial Society,” Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988), 357-371.
Maddern, Philippa., et al.
Tutorial: English 294, 2 October 1995.
Marchalonis, Shirley.
“Above Rubies: Popular Views of Medieval Women,” Journal of Popular Culture 14 (1980), 87-93.
Morse, Ruth.
“Sterile Queens and Questing Orphans,” Quondam et Futurus: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations 2 (2), (1992), 41-53.
Orwell, George.
Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Nineteen Eightyfour. London: Martin Secker & Warburg with Octopus Books, 1983.
Shahar, Shulamith.
The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen, 1983 (trans Chaya Galai).
Vinaver, Eugene, ed.,
Malory: Works, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Warner, Marina.
Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. London, Fakenham and Reading: Cox & Wyman, 1976.


Alama, Pauline J.
“A Woman in King Arthur’s Court,” Quondam et Futurus: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations, 2 (2), (1992), 81-88.
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Fisher, Sheila.
“Leaving Morgan Aside: Women, History, and Revisionism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition, eds. Christopher Baswell & William Sharpe. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1988, 129-151.
Fisher, Sheila.
“Taken Men and Token Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism. Knoxville, 1989.
Fries, Maureen.
“How Many Roads to Camelot? The Married Knight in Malory’s Morte Darthur,” in Culture and the King: The Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend, eds. Martin B. Shichtman & James P. Carley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994, 196-207.
Moran, Virginia.
“Malory/Guenevere: Sexuality as Deconstruction,” Quondam et Futurus: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations, 1 (2), (1991), 70-77.
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End Notes

  1. Caroline D. Eckhardt, “Prophecy and Nostalgia: Arthurian Symbolism at the Close of the English Middle Ages,” in The Arthurian Tradition: Essays in Convergence, eds. Mary F. Braswell and J. Bugge (Alabama: Alabama University Press, 1988), p. 118.
  2. George Orwell, Animal Farm, Burmese Days, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Coming up for Air, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Nineteen Eightyfour (London: Martin Secker & Warburg with Octopus Books, 1983), p. 63.
  3. W. J. Barron, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974 [with trans]).
  4. Eugene Vinaver, ed., Malory: Works, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).
  5. Shirley Marchalonis, “Above Rubies: Popular Views of Medieval
    Women,” Journal of Popular Culture 14 (1980), p. 87.
  6. Marchalonis, p. 93.
  7. Barron, p. 31-33.
  8. Philippa Maddern, “Honour Among the Pastons: Gender and Integrity in Fifteenth-Century English Provincial Society,” Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988), p. 359.
  9. Christine de Pisan, (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986 [trans by Sarah Lawson]). Part One of this book is almost exclusively devoted to how a `good princess’ will act.
  10. Emilie Amt, ed., Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1993), p. 173.
  11. Angela M. Lucas, Women in the Middle Ages: Religion, Marriage and Letters (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1983), p. 123.
  12. Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (London, Fakenham and Reading: Cox & Wyman, 1976), p. xvii.
  13. Warner, p. xxi.
  14. Barron, p. 77.
  15. Lucas, p. 132.
  16. Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies (New York: Persea Books, 1982 [trans Earl J. Richards]), p. xxxix.
  17. Beatrice Gottlieb, “The Problem of Feminism in the Fifteenth Century,” Women of the Medieval World, eds. Julius Kirshner & Suzanne F. Wemple (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p. 342.
  18. Barron, p. 157.
  19. Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1983 [trans Chaya Galai]), p.272.
  20. Shahar, p. 274.
  21. Barron, p. 77-79.
  22. Barron, p. 159.
  23. Shahar, p. 280.
  24. Vinaver, p. 188.
  25. Philippa Maddern, et al., Tutorial: English 294, 2 October 1995. This tutorial proved extremely fruitful in fleshing out this train of thought.
  26. Vinaver, p. 226.
  27. Diane Bornstein, The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtesy Literature for Women (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1983), p. 9.
  28. Shahar, p. 86.
  29. Vinaver, p. 209.
  30. Maddern, “Honour”, p. 361.
  31. Ruth Morse, “Sterile Queens and Questing Orphans,” Quondam
    et Futurus: A Journal of Arthurian Interpretations
    2 (2). The title of this essay provoked more thought than the essay
    itself – it fits the ideals of Arthur’s court so exactly.
  32. W. J. Barron, p. 31-33.

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