‘For wa he wex al wilde and wode’: Exploring Emotional and Physical Disorientation Through the Concepts of Memory and Madness in the Middle English Romance Ywain and Gawain

Drew Danielle Maxwell, University of Edinburgh

While themes of madness were undoubtedly prevalent in popular, religious, and medical discourses of the late Middle Ages, the concept of madness itself was varied and complex, changing in meaning according to the text and author.1 Madness seems to have had an appeal to authors of medieval romance, as it appears in many romance texts.2 Ywain and Gawain is one such medieval romance that deals with the concept of madness which is depicted in the male hero, Ywain.3Ywain and Gawain is a Middle English romance text that is thought to have been composed during the early fourteenth century, and is widely acknowledged by scholars to be an anonymous adaptation of Chretien de Troyes’ twelfth century French romance Yvain. Ywain and Gawain is different from Yvain in many respects; in particular, it differs in its emphasis on certain themes and ideas, its tone, the relationships of its characters to one another, its style, and its vocabulary. However, though the texts differ, more attention has been paid to their relationship to one another than to the text of Ywain and Gawain independently. As Joanne Findon has noted, Ywain and Gawain is a widely overlooked text, and unfortunately, many scholars choose to exclusively examine Yvain.4 Arguably, the anonymous author uses his/her adaptation to reflect fourteenth century views in medieval England rather than just to copy the twelfth century views portrayed in its source. I agree with J.A. Burrow’s assertion that the Middle English author thought of the story in somewhat different terms.5 An example of this is its treatment of madness, which seems to be used for a different purpose in Yvain than it is in Ywain and Gawain. The cause of Ywain’s madness is arguably different from the madness of the Yvain in Chretien de Troyes text.6 The author of Ywain and Gawain puts more emphasis on Ywain’s forgotten oath and it is his poor memory of an important oath which shows his lack of troth and moral character. Unable to cope with the reality of the repercussions that ensue due to his lapse in memory, Ywain goes mad. I suggest that the difference between the two texts in regards to the cause of the hero’s madness only serves to further our need to discuss Ywain and Gawain as a text independent of its source. In an exploration of disorientation within Ywain and Gawain, I will argue that the concepts of memory and madness are closely linked in the text and both can cause emotional and physical disorientation. Scholars have not yet examined the relationship between emotional and physical examples of disorientation within this text and my discussion will contribute to the rather small collection of scholarly work done solely on Ywain and Gawain thus far.

As Ywain and Gawain can be viewed as on the ‘boundaries’ of academic scholarship, it is an ideal text to consider in terms of the concept of disorientation. Rosalind Field has pointed to the fact that ‘the anonymous nature of popular romance is in itself disorientating for modern readers, particularly perhaps in texts like these that deal with personal, familial and social relationships’.7 While Field of course is not discussing Ywain and Gawain in particular, she makes a good assertion about the study of Middle English romances. The texts can be disorientating for readers unfamiliar with the literary genre and its time period, but they also contain aspects that disorientate the characters themselves. The discussion will seek to show that disorientation in Ywain and Gawain can be both emotional and physical and that emotional disorientation can in fact cause physical disorientation. This discussion will focus on disorientation as shown through the link between the concepts of memory and madness which are displayed in the characters, in particular, Ywain.

  1. Stephen Harper, Insanity, Individuals and Society in Late-Medieval English Literature (Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd UK , 2003), p. 95. Laura Jose, Madness and Gender in Late Medieval English Literature (Durham: Durham University theses, 2010)]<> [accessed April 12, 2013], p. 25. []
  2. The theme of madness can be seen in Le Morte Darthur, Sir Orfeo, Amadas et Ydoine, Yvain, and Ywain and Gawain, to name just a few. Madness is depicted differently within each of these romances. []
  3. ‘Ywain and Gawain’, Middle English Romances, ed by Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1995), pp. 75-173. All references to this text will come from this edition and all Modern English translations of the Middle English lines cited are my own. Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 429. []
  4. Joanne Findon, ‘The Other Story: Female Friendship in the Middle English Ywain and Gawain’, Parergon, 22.1 (2005), 1-25. []
  5. J.A. Burrow, ‘The Fourteenth Century Arthur’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend, ed by Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 69-83 (p. 75). []
  6. Sylvia Huot examines madness only in Yvain and does not look at madness in Ywain and Gawain. Huot argues that Yvain’s madness is a reaction to the conflicting demands from Laudine and her court and from King Arthur’s court and his fellow knights. Huots says that in Yvain, the hero’s wife Laudine and her court have a dim view of his success on the tournament circuit which prompts him to accept Gawain’s proposal to go on quests and participate in tournaments. I have found no such passage in Ywain and Gawain, which leads me to assert that Ywain did not have a reason to go on quests and tournaments because there is no mention of Alundyne and her court having a dim view of Ywain’s success in tournaments. Ywain simply wanted to further his own reputation and was not concerned with his obligations to Alundyne and her court. Huot claims that Yvain’s madness is not simply due to public shame and a loss of love, ‘but also a more complex mapping of the pressures exerted on the male subject by contradictory cultural codes, creating a crisis of identity’. The author of Ywain and Gawain does not seem interested in portraying Ywain as going mad from conflicting pressures, but seems more concerned with the issue of troth and Ywain’s forgotten promise which calls into question his moral character causes him to go mad. Ywain’s madness does not seem to stem from any pressure to stay with Arthur and his court but it is the loss of his lady’s love and his loss of moral character due to his own selfish need to further his reputation as a knight. For Huot’s discussion of madness in Chretien de Troyes’ Yvain, see Sylvia Huot, Madness in Medieval French Literature: Identities Found and Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 98. []
  7. Rosalind Field, ‘The Material and its Problems’, in A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance, eds by Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2009), pp. 9-30 (p.11). []

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