Knightly Male Bodies and Violence in Middle English Romance

Steven Paul Woodcock Bruso, Fordham University


This dissertation examines representations of male physicality and its relation to violent subjectivity in Middle English romances of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. Scholars and historians working on medieval violence have shown how even legitimate violence wielded by the martial classes could produce social instability, while medieval gender theorists have stressed the linkage between discourse and materiality in medieval conceptions of masculinity. My project contributes to this scholarly terrain by examining how violent male subjectivity is embodied in the late Middle Ages, and the consequences of inhabiting violent subjectivity. I argue that in response to long periods of campaigning and the formation of soldiering as a profession, Middle English romances began to raise questions about what to do with militarized bodies when they come home. My first chapter theorizes violent subjectivity in two Middle English texts: Knyghthode and Bataile and Secrete of Secretes, revealing how knightly identity is constructed through a rhetoric of hardening, which makes the body larger, and more durable, while simultaneously suppressing 'soft' emotions like empathy, and pity, to make knights more productive in war. My second chapter then considers the implications of this hardening in the Middle English romance, Sir Gowther, showing how humoral theory provided medieval writers with a framework to consider how combat and the hardening process described in chapter one produces bodily and psychological changes in knights. My third chapter examines Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, showing that for hardened fighting men who have seen years of service in war, combat is always ‘real,’ and conduct learned in war cannot simply be switched off. Finally, my fourth chapter focuses on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, and shows how cultural discourses created an unstable semiotic system for reading injuries, which meant that for the injured fighting-man returning from war, defects on the body could both pose interpretive problems for viewers, producing social anxiety and threatening the livelihood of such fighting men. Throughout, I argue for a medieval awareness of the problems caused by militarization, since habits cultivated in war are lasting, and their effects on home communities gives rise to deep anxiety about social order.^

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Medieval history|English literature|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Bruso, Steven Paul Woodcock, "Knightly Male Bodies and Violence in Middle English Romance" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10281801.