Fellowship from Sir Gawain to Malory and the Rise of ‘Civic’ Culture

Colin Davey examines the meaning of medieval fellowship across chivalric poems, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He charts the evolution of citizenship and identity in both the production and consumption of Arthurian literature. [MP3 version]

This lecture provides links between key texts by introducing a bridging concept – that of fellowship – touched on but underexplored in the lectures as they stand. It further introduces students to a little-studied English text produced between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte Darthur which serves to suggest a particular insular tradition and to develop the concept of fellowship in chivalric literature. It provides a context for this concept by briefly reviewing the use of ‘fellowship’ in an array of London chronicles and gentry and merchant letters. The aim is to encourage students to see at once the similarities and changes through time in roughly a century of chivalric material, and to present a fresh reading of these texts which charts the growth of a ‘civic’ understanding in both the production and consumption of Arthurian literature.

At the end of the fourteenth century, Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is lauded for his ‘felaȝschyp forbe al þyng’ yet remains intrinsically alone: indeed, it is precisely a problematic relation to fellowship – e.g. his dealings with Bertilak in (failed) hospitable reciprocation – that forces the crisis of the poem. The poet’s choice of the word – with its Old English connotations of fee-laying, or business partnership – has perhaps been under-examined: interestingly it frequently poses a challenge to modern translators. In fifteenth century documents such as the chronicles of London, and letters of the gentry and merchant Paston and Cely families (themselves variously associated with the world of chivalry), a wealth of contexts emerges for the word perhaps now unfamiliar to us. Between them these documents chart a movement from a martial band or cohort of men, often carrying a level of threat, to a body of civic authority and sworn brotherhood. In around 1425 Henry Lovelich, citizen and member of the ‘Worshipful Fellowship of Skinners’ of London, translates Robert de Borron’s Merlin, apparently commissioned by his fellow Skinners. In it he coins the phrase ‘the Feleschepe of the Rownde table’, and further imagines a conflation of Logres and London – a distinctly civic take on chivalry. Whether Malory knew Lovelich’s work or not remains a moot point (probably not), but famously he uses ‘fellowship’ to a near-obsessive degree. The lecture reads Malory’s usage in tandem with these earlier documents and urges students to consider contexts for the word that may not be apparent at first sight. In 1485 William Caxton, ‘citizen and conjury of London’ and Fellow of the Mercery, prints Malory’s text for ‘al noble lordes and ladyes, with al other estates, of what estate or degree they been of’ calling on them to follow its examples of ‘frendlynesse’ and ‘frendshyp’, so bequeathing the canonical version of the Arthurian legend for 450 years – enshrining a concept of ‘civic chivalry’ which arguably remains with us.

This lecture was recorded as part of Easter Lectures Day 2015, when postgraduate researchers delivered fresh insights into key undergraduate exam topics. Easter Lectures Day was organised by Dr Simon Grimble.

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