From The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle

The long romances by Chrétien de Troyes, the interlaced romances of the Vulgate Cycle, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Knight's Tale are often referred to as "chivalric," indicating that they concern aristocratic characters and address aristocratic or upper-middle-class audiences with claims to literary, social, and intellectual refinement. Chrétien differentiates his art from what he regards as the hackwork of his sources. He begins his first romance telling his audience, "This is the tale of Erec, the son of Lac, which those who wish to make their living by storytelling in the presence of counts and kings usually mutilate and spoil." Instead, he "maintains it is right that all always aspire and endeavor to speak eloquently and to teach well." Like Marie de France, Chrétien often speaks directly to his audience of noblemen and noblewomen. Ironically, Chrétien's own romances were sometimes retold in simplified form by less refined storytellers whose object was less "to speak eloquently and to teach well" than to entertain their audiences with plenty of action. Such romances are often referred to as "popular" in distinction from the "chivalric." The versification is usually somewhat crude, monotonous, and irregular. The pilgrim Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas is a brilliant parody of such performances. After some 200 lines, the Host cuts Chaucer short in the middle of a verse: "Namore of this, for Goddes dignitee!"

Yet it is too easy to differentiate sharply between the audiences of "chivalric" and "popular" romances and to dismiss the latter as poor stuff made up for simple, uneducated folk. Although it displeases the Host, Chaucer's parody not only reveals an intimate familiarity but also a deep affection for stories of that kind. These "popular" tales must have appealed to a broad social spectrum primarily because they are entertaining but also because they deliberately make fun of the pretentiousness of "chivalric" romances. They enable humble people to laugh at their "betters" and knights and ladies to laugh at themselves and their own literary tastes. If there is condescension to anyone in Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas, it is to the Host.

The most popular hero in these popular romances was Sir Gawain, who is the protagonist in eleven such tales. One of the best of these is The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, which survives in a unique sixteenth-century manuscript. It is one of several versions of a tale in which a knight is obliged to marry a hideously ugly woman (called by folklorists "the loathly lady") in order to keep a promise he has given in return for the correct answer to a life or death question.

The Wedding is one of several analogues of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale.

In this version, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain comes to Arthur's rescue after the king has got himself into trouble. The story is told in a stanzaic form known as tail-rhyme. The stanza rhymes aabccb, with b having a short line (the tail), although often the poet or the scribe follow that scheme erratically. Just a few stanzas of the text are given here, linked by summary. However, the entire poem of 852 lines on Ragnelle are easily available. All the Gawain romances and many other Middle English texts can be accessed on the Web site of TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages).

The text of Ragnelle is taken, with some normalization of spelling, from the TEAMS edition by Thomas Hahn (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995).


Lytheº and listenytheº the lif of a lord riche,º >> note 1
The while that he lyvid was none hym liche,º >> note 2
Nether in bowre neº in halle. >> note 3
In the time of Arthoure thys adventure betyd,º >> note 4
And ofº the great adventure that he himself dyd, >> note 5
That Kyng curteys and royalle.

[King Arthur, who is out hunting by himself in Ynglewood, kills a deer on the property of a formidable knight who introduces himself as Sir Gromer Somer Jour. Sir Gromer, who is fully armed, threatens to kill the unarmed king Arthur has wrongfully given away lands belonging to Gromer to Sir Gawain. To save his life, Arthur swears on his sword to find out "What women like best" and return to the same spot in a year with the right answer. Arthur finds Gawain who reassures him.]

"Ye, Sir, make good chere.
Let makeº your hors redyº >> note 6
To ryde into straunge contrey;
And evere wheras ye mete owtherº man or woman, in faye,º >> note 7
Ask of theym what thay thertoº saye, >> note 8
And I shall also ryde anoder waye
And enquereº of every man and woman and getº what I may >> note 9
Of every man and womans answere;
And in a bokeº I shalle theym wryte." >> note 10

[Both set out on the survey. They obtain many different answers, and Arthur is getting desperate.]

Kyng Arthoure rode forthe on the otherº day >> note 11
Into Yngleswod as hys gateº laye, >> note 12
And ther he mett with a Lady.
She was as ungodlyº a creature >> note 13
As evere man sawe, withoute mesureº >> note 14
Kyng Arthure mervayled securlyº >> note 15

Her face was red, her nose snotyd withalle,º >> note 16
Her mowtheº wyde, her tethe yaloweº overe alle, >> note 17
With bleryd eyenº gretter than a balle. >> note 18
Her mowthe was not to lak:º >> note 19
Her tethe hyngº overe her lyppes, >> note 20
Her chekys sydeº as wemens hippes.º >> note 21
A luteº she bar upon her bak; >> note 22
Her nek long and therto great;º >> note 23
Her here cloterydº on an hepe;º >> note 24
In the sholders she was a yard brode.
Hangyng pappysº to be an hors lode,º >> note 25
And lyke a barelle she was made.
And to reherseº the fowlnesse of that Lady, >> note 26
Ther is no tung may telle, securly;º >> note 27
Of lothynesse inowgheº she had. >> note 28

[The loathly lady already knows what the king needs and promises to help him on one condition. Whatever it is, Arthur tells her, her wish will be granted.]

"Forsothe," sayd the Lady, I am no qued.º >> note 29
Thou must graunt me a knight to wed:
His name is Sir Gawen."

[Arthur protests he can't possibly ask Gawain to do that.]

"Alas! He sayd; "Nowe woo is me
That I shold cause Gawen to wed the,
For he wol be lothe to saye naye.
So foulle a Lady as ye are now one
Sawe I nevere in my lyfe on ground gone;º >> note 30
I nott whate I do may.º >> note 31
"No force,º Sir Kyng, thoughe I be foulle; >> note 32
Choyce for a make hathe an owlle.º >> note 33
Thou getest of me no more.
When thou comyst agayn to thyneº answere >> note 34
Ryghte in this place I shalle mete the here,
Or elles I wotº thou art lore."º >> note 35

[Arthur meets Gawain and tells him about the lady and her wish.]

"Ys this alle?" then sayd Gawen;
"I shalle wed her and wed her agayn
Thowghe she were a fend;º >> note 36
Thowghe she were as foulle as Belsabub,
Her shalle I wed, by the Rood,º >> note 37
Or elles were not I your frende."

[Arthur returns to the forest to meet the lady.]

"Syr," quod Dame Ragnelle, "nowe shalt thou knowe
Whate wemen desyren moste of highe and lowe;º >> note 38
From this I wolle not varaye:º >> note 39

"Summe men sayn we desire to be fayre;
Also we desire to have repayreº >> note 40
Of diverse straunge men;º >> note 41
Also we love to have lustº in bed; >> note 42
And often we desire to wed.
Thus ye men not ken.º >> note 43
Yet we desire anoder maner thing;
To be holdenº not old, but fresshe and yong, >> note 44
With flatryng and glosyng and quaint gyn—º >> note 45
So ye men may us wemen evere wyn
Of whate ye wolle crave.º >> note 46

"Ye go fulle nyse,º I wolle not lye; >> note 47
But there is one thyng is alle our fantasye,
And that nowe shalle ye knowe.
We desyren of men above alle maner thing
To have the sovereynté,º without lesyngº >> note 48
Of alle, bothe hyghe and lowe."

[Arthur presents this answer to Sir Gromer, who angrily tells him that Arthur got it from Sir Gromer's sister Dame Ragnelle. May the old nag be burned. Arthur escorts Ragnelle to his castle at Carlisle. The Queen proposes a private wedding, but Ragnelle won't hear of it.]

"I wol be weddyd alle openly,
For with the Kyng suche covenaunt made I.
I put you oute of dowte,
I wolle not to churche till Highe Masse tyme
And in the open halle I wolle dyne,
In myddysº of alle the rowte."º >> note 49

[After a large church wedding at which Ragnelle is more sumptuously dressed than the Queen — "Her arayment was worthe thre thowsand mark / Of good red nobles styff and stark" — the wedding feast takes place.]

For to make a short conclusion,
When she was weddyd, they hyedº hem home; >> note 50
To meteº alle they went. >> note 51
This fowlle Lady bygan the highe dese;º >> note 52
She was fulle foulle and not curteys,
So sayd they alle verament.º >> note 53
When the service cam her before,
She ete as moche as six that ther wore;º >> note 54
Thatº mervaylyd many a man. >> note 55

[The wedding night begins on a leaf missing from the manuscript, but apparently Gawain has displayed some reluctance.]

"A, Sir Gawen, synº I have you wed, >> note 56
Shewe me your cortesy in bed;
With ryghte it may not be denyed.

"Iwyse,º Sir Gawen," that Lady sayd, >> note 57
"Andº I were fayre ye wold do anoder brayd,º >> note 58
But of wedlock ye take no hed.º >> note 59
Yet for Arthours sake kysse me at the leste;
I pray you do this at my request.
Let se howe ye can spede."º >> note 60
Sir Gawen sayd, "I wolle do more
Then for to kysse, and God before!"
He turnyd hym her untille.º >> note 61
He sawe her the fairest creature
That every he sawe, withoute mesure.º >> note 62

[Surprised and overjoyed, Gawain embraces and kisses her.]

"Syr," she sayd, "thus shalle ye me have:
Cheseº of the one, so God me save, >> note 63
My beawty wolle not hold —
Whederº ye wolle have me fayre on nyghtes >> note 64
And as foulle on days to alle men sightes,
Or els to have me fayre on days
And on nyghtes on the fowlyst wife — º >> note 65
The one ye must nedesº have." >> note 66

"Alas!" sayd Gawen; "The choyse is hard.
To chese the best, it is forward,º >> note 67
Whederº choyse that I chese: >> note 68
To have you fayre on nyghtes and no more,
That wold greve my hart ryghte sore,
And my worship shold I lese.
And yf I desire on days to have you fayre,
Then on nyghtes I shold have a simple repayre.º >> note 69
Now faynº wold I chose the best: >> note 70
I ne wottº in this world what I shalle saye, >> note 71
But do as ye lystº nowe, my Lady gaye. >> note 72
The choyse I put in your fyst."º . . . . >> note 73

"Gramercy, corteys Knyght," sayd the Lady;
"Of alle erthly knyghtes blyssyd mote thou be,
For now am I worshyppyd.
Thou shalle have me fayre bothe day and nyghte
And evere whyle I lyve as fayre and bryghte;
Therfore be not grevyd.º >> note 74

"For I was shapenº by nygramancy,º >> note 75
Withº my stepdame, God have on her mercy, >> note 76
And by enchauntement. . . .

"Kysse me, Sir Knyght, evyn now here;
I pray the, be glad and make good chere,
For well is me begon."º >> note 77
Ther they made joye oute of mynde,º >> note 78
So was it reason and course of kynde,º >> note 79
They two theymself alone.
She thankyd God and Mary mylde
She was recovered of that that she was defylde;º >> note 80
So dyd Sir Gawen.
He made myrthe alle in her boure
And thankyd of alleº Oure Savyoure, >> note 81
I telle you, in certeyn. . . .

This adventure befelle in Ingleswod
As good Kyn Arthoure on huntyng yod;º >> note 82
Thus have I herd men telle.
Nowe God, as thou were in Bethleme born,
Suffer nevere herº soules be forlorneº >> note 83
In the brynnyngº fyre of helle! >> note 84

And, Jhesu, as thou were borne of a virgyn,
Help hym oute of sorrowe that this tale dyd devyne,º >> note 85
And thatº nowe in alle haste, >> note 86
For he is beset with gayloursº many >> note 87
That kepen hym fulle sewerly,º >> note 88
With wylesº wrong and wraste.º >> note 89
Nowe God, as thou art verayº Kyng Royale >> note 90
Help hym oute of daunger thatº made this tale. >> note 91

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