Study Guide

Le Morte D'Arthur Tradition and Customs

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Tradition and Customs

They dud nothynge but the olde custom of thys castell; and tolde hym that hir lady was syke and had leyne many yeres, and she myght nat be hole but yf she had bloode in a sylver dysshe full, of a clene mayde and a kynges doughter – "and therefore the custom of thys castell ys that there shall no damesell passe thys way but she shall blede of hir bloode a sylver dysshe full." (54.20-26)

This reminds us of a much later episode during the Grail Quest when Percivale's sister <em>volunteers </em>to be bled for the same reason – to save the lady of the castle – and then dies. In this earlier incident, however, we're not quite in the same world of Christian sacrifice of the Grail quest, and Balyn's damsel has to be forced.

Thenne the chyef lady of the castel said, "Knyghte with the Two Suerdys, ye must have adoo and juste with a knyght hereby that kepeth an iland, for ther may no man passe this way but he must juste or he passe." "That is an unhappy customme," said Balyn, "that a knyght may not passe this wey but yf he juste." (58.35-39)

Balyn's calls this gruesome custom "unhappy," or ill-fated. That seems like an understatement to Shmoop, especially when you think about the fact that this custom him to kill and be killed by his own brother the process. Unhappy indeed.

"The hyghe and myghty Emperour Lucyus sendeth to the Kynge of Bretayne gretyng, commaundyng the to knouleche hym for they lord and to sende hym the truage due of this royamme unto th'Empyre, which thy fader and other tofore, thy precessours, have paid – as is of record – and thou, as rebelle, not knowynge hym as thy soverayne, withholdest and reteynest, contrary to the statutes and decrees maade by the noble and worthy Julius Cesar, conqueror of the royame and fyrst Emperour of Rome." (113.17-114.4)

One way in which tradition rears its head in <em>Le</em> <em>Morte D'Arthur </em>is when kings like Arthur or Mark have to pay tribute to another lord only because their forefathers have always done so. Sometimes the only reason a character does something is simply because everyone else has been doing the same thing for ages.

"For this muche have I founde in the cronycles of this londe: that Sir Belyne and Sir Bryne, of my bloode elders, that borne were in Bretayne, and they hath ocupyed the empyreship eyght score wyntyrs;

"And aftir, Constantyne our kynnesman conquerd hit – and dame Elyneys son, of Ingelonde, was emperoure of Roome – and he recoverde the crosse that Cryste dyed uppon;

"And thus was the Empyre kepte be my kynde elders, and thus have we evydence inowghe to the empyre of hole Rome." (115.18-26)

Arthur fights fire with fire here by using the history of his ancestors' conquests to refuse Lucius's request for tribute. How 'bout that, Lucius? In the end, this is really about two conflicting versions of history -- one in which England is dominant, the other in which Rome is. And, as usual, the version that wins out will be determined by whoever has     the stronger army.

So evir the Kynge had a custom that at the feste of Pentecoste in especiall, afore other festys in the yere, he wolde nat gho that day to mete unto that he had herde other sawe of a grete mervayle.

And for that custom, all maner of strange adventures com byfore Arthure, as at that feste before all other festes. (177.21-26)

Arthur's refusal to sit down before he's seen or heard a marvel is basically an open invitation to wonders in his court. This custom is perfect for the situation. Arthur has got a lot of knights who need to prove themselves, and what better opportunity to do so than when a supernatural being shows up in court.

The custom of that castell was suche that who that rode by the castell and brought ony lady wyth hym, he muste nedys fyght with the lorde that hyght Brewnour. And yf hit so were that Brewnor wan the fylde, than sholde the knyght straunger and his lady be put to deth, what that ever they were; and yf hit were so that the straunge knyght wan the fylde of Sir Brewnor, than sholde he dye and hys lady bothe. So this custom was used many wyntyrs, wherefore hit was called the Castell Plewre – that is to sey, "the wepynge castell." (257.12-20)

When Trystram and Isode get stranded at the Castell Plewre, Trystram has to defend himself against Brewnour. He wins the fight, and in doing so brings the "custom" of this particular castle to an end. This turns out to be quite a relief to Brewnour's sons, who don't like the custom in the first place.

"This is the olde custom of this castell, that when a knyght commyth here, he must nedis fyght with oure lorde, and he that is the wayker must lose his hede. And whan that is done, if his lady that he bryngyth be fowler than is our lordys wyff, she muste lose hir hede; and yf she be fayrer preved than ys oure lady, than shall the lady of this castell lose her hede." (257.30-35)

Trystram learns of another twist to the "custom" of the Castell Plewre. Isode, too, must meet a challenge. Uh oh. Unlike Trystram, though, her survival is dependent only upon the way she looks, not upon anything she actively does. Good thing she's so gorgeous. On a deeper level, though, this custom reflects its society's beliefs about the most desirable attributes in a knight and a lady: a good knight is strong on the battlefield, whereas a good lady is beautiful.

So there came in a damesell, passynge fayre and yonge, and she bare a vessell of gold betwyxt her hondis; and thereto the kynge kneled devoutly and seyde his prayers, and so ded all that were there. (464.14-17)

Launcelot witnesses the Grail ritual in King Pelles' Castle of Carbonek, which has probably been going on for hundreds of years. After all, the Grail has been in Pelles' family for hundreds of years, too. The whole reason they have it in the first place is because they are descended from Joseph of Arimathea. This family history comes to its proper culmination when Elayne, Pelles' daughter, gives birth to Galahad, who turns out to be the best Christian knight the world has ever seen.

So thus as she cam to and fro she was so hote in love that she besought Sir Launcelot to were uppon hym at the justis a tokyn of hers. "Damesell," seyde Sir Launcelot, "and if I graunte you that, ye may sey that I do more for youre love than ever Y ded for lady or jantillwoman." (600.19-22)

Here, Launcelot willingly takes part in the custom of wearing a lady's favor in a joust as good luck and a sign of loyalty to her. Unfortunately this means that Launcelot has broken with his own personal custom, because he usually never wears a lady's favors. He also provokes Gwenyvere's ire, since she thinks that if Launcelot wears anyone's favor, it should be hers. Well there goes the secret.

So hit befelle in the moneth of May, Quene Gwenyvere called unto her ten knyghtes of the Table Rounde, and she gaff them warnynge that erly uppon the morn she wolde ryde on mayynge into woodis and fyldis besydes Westemenster: "And I warne you that there e none of you by the be well horsed, and that ye all be clothed all in gryne, othir in sylke othir in clothe; and I shall brynge with me ten ladyes, and every knyght shall have a lady be hym." (625.18-25)

"Maying" is a traditional practice in medieval England. Ladies and knights celebrate the first day of May by riding out in special costumes paired up in couples. It's supposed to be all about celebrating love, which people thought blossomed in the spring. It's a bit ironic, then, that Gwenyvere is kidnapped during her Maying because of Mellyagaunce's great love-sickness for her. Gwenyvere is celebrating love, but Mellyagaunce's love leads to terrible things for her.

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