Cultural Context and the Voice of Sir Lancelot’s Attire

Sir Lancelot has the identity and attire of a Knight, known famously throughout the kingdom for his strength, and lover, involved intimately with Queen Guinevere. After seeing the unsurpassed strength of the unknown knight at Camelot, King Arthur “realized straight away that it was Lancelot” (Death of King Arthur, 35). Similarly, all the other knights present at the tournament readily compared the strength and chivalry of the unknown knight to Lancelot (Death of King Arthur, 36). Even despite his attempts to stay hidden, people know the strength of Lancelot so much that changing the colors of his arms is not enough. Another component of Lancelot’s identity is his love for Guinevere. Of all the knights at Camelot, Lancelot is the only one willing to sacrifice his honor for the Queen’s sake. Because they witnessed the murder of Gaheris of Karahue’s at the Queens hands, the knights would be “dishonest…knowingly offer[ing] to defend an unjust cause” (Death of King Arthur, 99). Lancelot defends Guinevere not only because he did not witness the murder, but also because “of all the ladies in the world she is the one who has paid [him] the greatest honor” (Death of King Arthur, 100). After the trial, reunited in each other’s company, Lancelot “loved [Guinevere] more than he had ever done in the past, and so did she him” (Death of King Arthur, 108). The trial of Queen Guinevere bonds the lovers closer together and the chivalric loyalty of Lancelot affirms his identity as lover as well as knight. This identify is affirmed by the cultural and literal voice of Lancelot’s attire.

The historical context of Lancelot’s attire voices his identity as knight and lover. Beginning in the thirteenth century, specific heraldic symbols on shields and other arms signified the power and leadership of Knights (Ailes, 85). If Lancelot wore his regular arms at the tournament, he would be “recognized sooner than [he] would like” (Death of King Arthur, 29). Instead, Lancelot does what “was customary at that time for a newly-dubbed knight” (28) and wears “a shield of only one colour” (Death of King Arthur, 28). If the knights saw Lancelot in his regular attire, they would instantly recognize him. Lancelot conceals his identity as a powerful knight by changing his arms to those of a recently knighted squire. In addition, Lancelot’s attire speaks of his love for Guinevere. When he returns to Camelot to defend Guinevere “Lancelot arrive[s] fully armed, lacking nothing that a knight ought to have” (Death of King Arthur, 105). The rare occasion when Lancelot arrives in full and complete attire is at the service of his lady and lover. He wears “white arms and ha[s] a diagonal band of red on his shield” (Death of King Arthur, 105). This attire echoes the Prose Lancelot when Guinevere requests Lancelot to display a band of red cloth on his helmet and a diagonal white stripe on his shield (Burns, 9). The story of the courtly woman’s token of love attached to a knight’s arms so that he may fight valiantly in her name is common among medieval romances and, within the common frame, the token usually serves as an inspirational presence of the woman to lead the knight to extraordinary feats (Burns, 4). It is an understanding of early medieval cultural context that gives voice to Sir Lancelot’s attire. By concealing his arms, Lancelot is concealing his strength and status as a knight; by appearing to defend his lover in full armour, he is proclaiming his loyalty. The cultural importance of arms in the context of medieval knights is the reason Lancelot’s attire is able to reinforce his identity as lover and knight.

 

Works Cited

Ailes, Adrian. “Heraldy in Medieval England: Symbols of Politics and Propaganda.” Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England. Ed. Peter Coss and Maurice Keen. Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 2002. 83-104. Print.

Burns, Jane E.. Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Print.

The Death of King Arthur. Trans. James Cable. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971. Print.

 

 

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