4.11. Moral Conflict

The Gawain-Poet in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is concerned with the imperatives of moral decisions between conflicting demands.  Although Sir Gawain never questioned the need to fulfil his contract with the Green Knight, even at the likely expense of his life he intends to appear at the green chapel on the right day, he is faced with the decision between two conflicting promises.  Either he keeps faith with his promise to Bertilak to deliver up all he has won in the day, or he keeps faith with his promise of secrecy to the lady of Hautdesert;  he cannot do both.  There is no question of breaking his trawþe in accepting the girdle to preserve his life, the Green Knight used “magic” to restore his head, why should Sir Gawain not do the same to preserve his life?  It is only in the agreement with his host at Hautdesert that he is prepared to break his trawþe, perhaps encouraged by the hope that the magical properties of the girdle might save his life.  This is his ultimate decision, he breaks the agreement with Bertilak (a failure) and keeps faith with the lady.  We might hope to find in the life of the Gawain-Poet some exposure to a similar conflict between opposing duties.

When the 1381 expedition of Edmund of Langley put in at Brest to escape the bad weather, they employed the time usefully in laying siege to the castle.  Edward of Woodstock (Prince of Wales and Gascony, Duke of Cornwall and Count of Chester, the Black Prince), the elder brother of both Edmund of Langley and John of Gaunt, had earlier laid siege to the castle in 1371, taking the son of the lord of the castle hostage and forcing a difficult moral decision on the lord.  The agreement was that unless help arrived for the besieged garrison before a certain date, the castle was to be surrendered, and as a token of the agreement, the Edward, the Black Prince held the lord's 13 year-old son as hostage.  Although a ship carrying provisions for the beleaguered castle did arrive four days before the dead-line, the Black Prince refused to accept this as help within the terms of the agreement and demanded the surrender of the castle.  The lord of the castle was thus faced with either the sacrifice of his son or the sacrifice of the castle and his dependents.  Antoine de la Sale [ANTOINE][18] recounts the story of the moral conflict facing the lord, his duty to his son and family as opposed to his duty to the residents of the castle.  The outcome of the conflict was that the lord sacrificed his son (and Antoine stresses the importance of the lord's wife in this decision,) preferring to uphold his knightly duties and be remembered as “le preudhomme et très loyal chevallier”.  The Seigneur du Chastel eventually defeated the Edward, the Black Prince and took many hostages.  He defaulted somewhat from true knightly chivalry in executing twelve of the highest ranking hostages (rather than agreeing to the normal ransom terms) and returning the others severely mutilated.  Revenge at this level is certainly not the action of a “preudhomme et très loyal chevallier”.  The Seigneur du Chastel failed in having to act in the face of conflicting responsibilities (the choice between sacrificing his son or his castle and its inhabitants) just as Sir Gawain failed by breaking his trawþe with Bertilak to fulfil his promise (“…discouer hit neuer / Bot to lelly laynefro hir lorde;  þe leude hym acordez / Þat neuer wyȝe schulde hit wyt” 1862-1863) of secrecy to the lady of Hautdesert.  Edmund would have been aware of the situation in which his brother, Edward, the Black Prince, had placed the lord of the castle, and would surely have told the story to his followers, including James Cottrell, during the period of the later siege.  In a strange quirk of fortune, Antoine de la Sale later attended a feast at the royal household in Portugal prior to the departure of an invading fleet to Ceuta in 1415 in which he took part.  He could well have met up with James Cottrell at that time, although that must have been well after the composition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and before the composition of the Réconfort.  Antoine de la Sale seemed to follow closely in the footsteps of James Cottrell by becoming tutor to the princes of Louis of Luxembourg in 1448, writing a collection of moral anecdotes, a poem of consolation for the death of a young prince. and a “Lettre sur les Tournois” on the formalities of armour and tournaments.

[18] Antoine de la Sale (or la Salle) was born around 1388 in Provence, probably at Arles. He was a natural son of Bernard de la Salle, a famous soldier of fortune, who served many masters, among others the Angevin dukes. In 1402 Antoine entered the court of Anjou and in 1407 he was at Messina with Duke Louis II, who had gone there to claim the kingdom of Sicily.  He later accompanied the Portuguese expedition of 1415 against the Moors when Ceuta was taken.  René, successor to Louis de Luxembourg, made La Sale tutor to his son, Jean d'Anjou, the duc de Calabre, for whom he created a book of instruction, La Salade.  Among the many works attributed to La Sale is “l'Hystoyre et plaisante Cronique du Petit Jehan de Saintré” (1456), “le Réconfort du Madame de Fresne” (1457, consolation on the death of her young son); and a Lettre sur les Tournois (1459).  It is in the Réconfort that Antoine recounts the story of the Seigneur du Chastel.