Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Lady Bertilak Tries to Seduce Sir Gawain, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Creator:
  • Description: In the 14th century English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the renowned knight Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur, confronts various challenges to his reputation for chivalry. One of Gawain’s most risky trials comes when he seeks hospitality in the hall of Lord Bertilak, the Green Knight in disguise. Lord Bertilak proposes a wager; he will give whatever he catches while hunting outside the hall to Gawain, and Gawain must give whatever favors he wins while resting inside the hall back to Lord Bertilak. Lady Bertilak alone will keep Gawain company, thus Lord Bertilak’s wager is charged with sexual possibilities and perils. Lord Bertilak aims to test Gawain’s loyalty, yet the etiquette of courtly love dictates that Gawain must not refuse the Lady whatever she asks of him.
         This full page painted illustration from the sole surviving English manuscript of the tale depicts the moment when Lady Bertilak first attempts to seduce Gawain. A nude Gawain lies peacefully in a curtained bed while Lady Bertilak caresses him under the chin, a common medieval gesture of romantic intimacy. In the narrative, Gawain feigns sleep when he hears Lady Bertilak break with social convention and enter his curtained chamber. When he “wakes,” Lady Bertilak seductively tells him that she will tuck him in tightly to prevent him from leaving while they talk. Lady Bertilak in the illustration smiles coyly at the sleeping knight, who rests bound beneath his bedclothes. She slips a white pillow beneath his red one, signaling to the viewer that this scene represents the moment that the lady ensnares her prey and subversively mirrors her husband’s hunt. Gawain manages to dodge Lady Bertilak’s advances for three days, taking only kisses from her that he gladly gives to her husband. Ultimately the knight secretly accepts a girdle from Lady Bertilak, which he does not reveal nor return to Lord Bertilak, thus casting some doubt on his knightly reputation.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Arthurian Cycle Chivalry Courtly Love Gawain, Knight (Literary Figure) Lady Bertilak (Literary Figure) Romance, Literary Genre Seduction Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Middle English Poem
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1400
  • Related Work: A full page view of the entire manuscript is available through the University of Calgary: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/
  • Current Location: London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x f. 129v
  • Original Location: England, N.W., likely near Cheshire
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (Parchment); Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 17.1/12/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Boyd, David L. "Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" Arthuriana 8:2 (1998), pp. 77-113;
    Carter, Susan. "Trying Sir Gawain: The Shape-shifting Desire of Ragnelle and Bertilak." Reinandus 18 (2005), pp. 29-51;
    De Roo, Harvey. "Undressing Lady Bertilak: Guilt and Denial in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'." The Chaucer Review 27:3 (1993), pp. 305-24;
    Dinshaw, Carolyn. "A Kiss is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'" Diacritics 24 (1994), pp. 205-26;
    Estes, Heide. "Bertilak Reads Brut: History and the Complications of Sexuality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" Essays in Medieval Studies 17 (2000), pp. 65-79;
    Fisher, Sheila. "Taken Men and Token Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism. Ed. Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley. Tennessee University Press, 1989. pp.75-105;
    Gross, Gregory W. "Secret Rules: Sex, Confession, and Truth in 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'" Arthuriana 4:2 (1994), pp. 146-74;
    Heng, Geraldine. "Feminine Knots and the Other Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" PMLA 106:3 (1991), pp. 500-14.;
    Heng, Geraldine. "A Woman Wants: The Lady, "Gawain," and the Forms of Seduction" Yale Journal of Criticism 5:3 (1992), pp. 101-34.