To the Pain

I’ve not been able to blog recently due to a variety of reasons–the most significant being a neck injury that led to surgery. The recovery has gone well, but I’m exhausted from the experience. Prior to the surgery, I had excruciating pain–significantly worse than the pain I experienced while in labor years ago pending the arrival of my daughter. Any movement sent waves of pain through my neck, across my upper back, and down my arms. All I could do for two weeks was to lay on a couch, trying to remain as still as possible. I couldn’t function from the pain.

Now that surgery has removed the pain, I’m curious about the experience of pain in the Middle Ages–a time long before drugs such as percocet and procedures such as spinal fusion could bring relief. How did they deal with perpetual and severe pain? Extant manuscripts such as MS. Ashmole 1462 (check out the gorgeous scans of 12th-century herbal remedies at show that they had some means at hand to alleviate their symptoms.


But how is pain depicted in medieval romance? It seems to me that physical pain is rarely dwelt upon, although surely the occupation of the knight would provide many opportunities to experience pain of varying severities and durations. I can recall reading many a passage discoursing of the pain suffered by the lover . . . but rarely of the pain suffered by the  knight as a result of a corporeal wound.

One romance that immediately comes to mind is the 14th-century Stanzaic Morte Arthur. This details the final moments of the Arthurian world: Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere has come to light, forcing Arthur and Gawain to wage war upon the former paragon of knighthood. Gawain demands single combat with the reluctant Lancelot, who

   gave Gawain a wounde wide;
The blood all covered his colour
And he fell down upon his side. (2815-17)

This is a wound which will haunt Gawain for the remainder of his (admittedly short) life. Yet neither Gawain nor the narrator comment upon the pain that he must be experiencing from such an injury. Instead, Gawain continues to hurl challenges at Lancelot:

Sir Gawain cried loud on high:
“Traitour and coward, come again,
When I am hole and going on high;
Then will I prove with might and main; (2828-31)

We are privy to Gawain’s medical care–his wounds are washed and he is placed on bed rest for two weeks:

A fourtenight, the sooth to say,
Full passing seke and unsound
There Sir Gawain on leching lay
Ere he were hole all of his wound. (2858-61)

One word here is all that is spared to touch upon Gawain’s experience of pain: he is “unsound.” Now, this word might suggest to the modern ear that Gawain is dealing with some mental issues–similar to the word “insane”–but that’s not the case, for during the Middle English period, “unsound” meant that one is “not free from grief, suffering emotional distress; of sighing: full of suffering, pained” (Middle English Dictionary, def. 1b). But yet this injury does not seem to slow him down any, for he is soon in the saddle again, charging at Lancelot, ready to go through the entire experience again, with the result that

[Lancelot] hit [Gawain] upon the olde wound
That over the saddle down he went,
And grisly groned upon the ground,
And there was good Gawain shent. (2910-13)

Here is much more evidence of Gawain’s physical suffering, but I’m struck by Gawain’s attitude towards his pain. He continues to verbally challenge Lancelot, and once he has healed sufficiently, he will be once more standing before Lancelot’s gate, hurling his challenge to the unbeatable knight (the only thing that stops Gawain is the news of Mordred’s usurpation of Arthur’s throne back in England). Gawain ignores his pain.


(actually, this is Yvain fighting Gawain)

So why do we feel pain? That is, what is its purpose? To stop a certain behavior, right? To slow us down or to get us to back away from something dangerous. That’s certainly the message that I’m trying to take away from my recent experience. But Gawain does not seem to learn; instead, he insists on engaging in destructive behavior. Over the years, I’ve heard a variety of conference papers explore this moment in the Arthurian legend, and some of the arguments have been quite compelling; some have commented on the obligation of the oath, while others have suggested that Gawain has a death wish.

Following the death of two of his brothers (they are killed when Lancelot rescues Guinevere from the fire), Gawain swears an oath:

“Betwix me and Launcelot du Lake,
Nis man on erthe, for sooth to sayn,
Shall trewes set and pees make
Ere either of us have other slain!” (2010-13)

Warning: I’m going to nerd out on the language here for just a moment. If you find your eyes glazing over, just skip down a paragraph or two. Gawain does not say that he will not rest until he’s killed Lancelot–just that one of them must die. Syntactically, Gawain and Lancelot are interchangeable through the use of the conjunction “and.” The word order in the final sentence is interesting, too–it’s not a passive construction of course, but there’s a suggestion that neither one of them are performing the action of potential killing. By placing the grammatical object between the auxiliary and the past participle, Gawain and Lancelot are further coupled in that they are placed before the action. In addition, the pronoun “us” also suggests the pairing, and by placing the pronoun referring to Lancelot and Gawain into a prepositional phrase requiring the object form rather than the subject form–coupled with the perfect aspect–there is an interesting loss of agency for both knights. It’s as if they are compelled to act by forces greater than themselves.

And indeed, Lancelot is obligated by his role as the Queen’s champion to rescue her from the fire (especially since Arthur denies her any sort of due process), and Gawain’s oath–possibly uttered in a moment of extreme emotion, or as something expected of him as Arthur’s nephew–obligates him to act or die trying. Lingering on the pain of Gawain’s wound would detract from Gawain’s adherence to his oath. It would diminish his nobility. The pain does not matter. Perhaps, given his dedication to his oath, Gawain has achieved a sort of mind-over-matter control over his pain. After all, we do not have any mystery maidens suddenly appearing on the scene with a magical ointment that miraculously heals his wounds (as in the stories of Yvain or Malory’s Gareth). After all, Gawain has been a knight for some time now, having experienced war as well as the tournament, and no doubt he has survived other wounds. Perhaps he has become numb to the pain–it is merely something that he must live with.

But then there’s the Fisher King of the Grail legend. The most familiar version is that of Chretien de Troyes in the 12th century (and I’m working from memory here), where the king has been wounded in the thighs as a result of a sexual indiscretion. He has suffered from this wound for a significantly long time. Hope comes to the Fisher King in the guise of the naive Percival, but his suffering is only increased when Percival fails to ask about the wonders observed while at the Fisher King’s court.

The Fisher King is obviously in pain, and both he, while in conversation with Perceval, and the narrator draw attention to his physical pain and how it limits him. When Perceval leaves the next day, he is accosted by a woman who also comments on the physical suffering of the Fisher King.

Why is so much more attention drawn to the pain of the Fisher King than that of Gawain? I think one reason may be the religious context of the former. Gawain is fighting for a secular king, whereas the Fisher King (sometimes called Anfortas) is the guardian of a holy relic. The pain suffered by the Fisher King may be parallel to that of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion, for as the Fisher King suffers, so too does his land.

Another possibility is the manner in which attention is drawn to the pain. The Fisher King does not try to draw much attention to his suffering. He first mentions it only because he must, due to the code of hospitality, explain his failure to rise to greet Percival. Having the narrator and other characters be the primary commentators on the king’s pain perhaps helps to prove the severity of his condition–there is less possibility of hyperbole for personal reasons.

And his age and position may also be a factor. Gawain is a young knight, and as such, is expected to receive (and give!) wounds. To show pain is to show weakness, and severe pain may prevent a knight from fully performing his knightly duties. The Fisher King, on the other hand, is a static figure, fixed in the center of his realm while his knights and other officials circle about him. His days as a knight errant are long past, and so to suffer from the wounds of knightly combat are no longer appropriate to either his age or place in society. His pain serves to remind him of his indiscretion, but his stoic stance towards his pain only causes those around him to admire him more. His pain, while limiting him physically, may actually be an asset rather than something to be ignored, as in the case of Gawain.

Many more knights and their injuries are coming to mind now–Malory’s Perceval who purposefully stabs himself in the thigh, Sir Urry who seeks the greatest knight to heal his wound and end his suffering. Even King Arthur as he is slowly carried to the water’s edge to await the barge which will convey him to Avalon. Now that I think on it, pain is more prevalent within the pages of medieval romance, playing a wide variety of roles–just as I imagine it does today.

As always, thanks for reading.





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