Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Tradition and Customs
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Tradition and Customs
- Part 1, Lines 250 - 490
The king spent that Christmas at Camelot
With many gracious lords, men of great worth,
Noble brothers-in-arms, worthy of the Round Table,
With rich revelry and carefree amusement, as was right.
(36 - 39)
Holiday celebrations are a time for the king to bring all his vassals together under one roof. The point of the gathering wasn’t all fun and games: it was an opportunity for the king to solidify the feudal bonds to his vassals, affirming their continued loyalty.
- Part 1, Lines 37 - 249
And another habit influenced him too,
Which he had made a point of honor: he would never eat
On such a special day until he had been told
A curious tale about some perilous thing,
Of some great wonder that he could believe,
Of princes, or battles, or other marvels.
(90 - 95)
The king has started a tradition of refusing to eat on a feast day until he has heard or witnessed a "wonder." In this, he’s fulfilling a duty as a host, for it’s up to him to make sure everyone under his roof has a good time during the celebration. He needs to provide entertainment, and his custom ensures that he will.
Loud cries were uttered by the clergy and others,
"Nowel" repeated again, constantly spoken;
And then the nobles hurried to hand out New Year’s gifts,
Cried their wares noisily, gave them by hand.
(65 - 68)
This passage demonstrates some of the holiday traditions enjoyed by fifteenth century revelers: the word "Noel" and the gift-giving are familiar to us. What we might not recognize is the exchange of New Year’s gifts, but at that time it was traditional for people to exchange gifts from the 25th of December until the 6th of January, during the twelve days of Christmas. Christmas was actually a time period in the church year that lasted for two weeks.
All this merry-making went on until feasting time.
When they had washed as was fir they took their places,
The noblest knight in a higher seat, as seemed proper.
(71 - 73)
We’re not very far into the poem and this is the second time the narrator has referred to people doing things "as seem[s] proper." This repetition betrays his concern with traditions and customs, and here, the proper hierarchy of people.
- Part 2, Lines 491 - 690
And in so many yesterdays the year wears away,
And winter comes round again, as custom requires,
(530 - 532)
This passage makes strange use of the word "custom," which we usually associate with traditions humans have instituted as part of culture. By contrast, here, custom is "requir[ing]"
nature to repeat its cycle of seasons, almost as though this cycle is something humans have instituted. In any case, this strange use mixes nature and culture in an interesting way.
- Part 3, Lines 1319 - 1411
Both the head and the neck they cut off next,
And then rapidly separate the sides from the chine;
And the raven’s fee in a thicket they threw.
Then they pierced both sides through the ribs,
Hanging each of them by the hocks of their legs,
For each man’s payment, as his proper reward.
(1353 - 1358)
Every person and animal who participated in a hunt (and in the raven’s case, who is just waiting nearby) receives a designated part of the prey as part of his "fee." Here, the raven’s fee seems to be some part of the animal’s face, while the hunters are rewarded with the animal’s sides.
So correctly they cut off all the offal in the spine
Right down to the haunches, in one unbroken piece,
And lifted it up whole, and cut it off there;
And to that they give the name of numbles, I believe,
as is right.
(1344 - 1348)
In keeping with hunting’s status as an art form, all of the different pieces of the animal had specific names that instruction-books could help the nobleman to learn. Here, the narrator gives us the correct name for the piece of meat or muscle torn from a deer’s spine, perhaps to show off his knowledge of hunting terminology.
Then they slit the base of the throat, took hold of the gullet,
Scraped it with a sharp knife and knotted it shut;
Next they cut off the four legs and ripped off the hide,
Then broke open the belly and took out the entrails
Carefully to avoid loosening the ligature of the knot.
(1330 - 1334)
This and many lines to follow describe in great detail the proper method of skinning and butchering a deer. So precise was this ritual that the exact order of cuts the butcher made was prescribed. Hunting is really an art form; to break with its rules is to betray yourself as ill-educated in the art.
The noblest pressed forward with many attendants,
Gathered together the fattest of the deer,
And neatly dismembered them as ritual requires.
(1324 - 1326)
This passage marks the beginning of the deer-butchering scene. Medieval hunting was an extremely complex ritual about which whole instruction manuals were written. There was a proper way of doing everything, from uncoupling the hounds to skinning the deer. Part of being a good nobleman was knowing how to perform the ritual precisely.
They put food for their hounds on a fine beast’s skin -
The liver and lights, the lining of the stomach,
And beak soaked in blood, mixed together.
(1359 - 1361)
One of the reasons the hounds enjoy hunting so much is that they know that they, too, will receive a portion of the butchered animal. In their case, it’s the animal’s guts, mixed with blood. The hunter lays this out on the deerskin, then calls the hounds to come eat it.
- Part 3, Lines 1561 - 1689
Next he cuts out the boar’s-meat in broad glistening slabs,
And takes out the haslets, as properly follows;
Yet he fastens the two sides together unbroken,
And then proudly hangs them together on a strong pole.
Now with this very boar they gallop towards home;
Carrying the boar’s head before the same man
Who had killed it in the stream by force of his own
(1611 - 1618)
The point of the boar-butchery ritual seems to be to create an object for display, with the two sides of boar fastened together so they can be "proudly" carried on a pole and the head kept intact as a trophy for the man who slaughters it.
Then a man who was expert in hunting practice
Skillfully begins to dismember the boar.
First he cuts off the head and sets it on high,
And then roughly open s him along the spine,
Throws out the entrails, grills them over embers,
And rewards his hounds with them, mixed with bread.
(1605 - 1610)
The order of butchery for every animal differed in medieval hunting manuals; here, the boar loses his head before any other part. The dogs are given their portion before the butchering has finished.
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