Because I didn’t have enough on my plate this Spring and Summer with potential paleography, the impending PhD exam, and a prospectus defense, I decided to return to the question of those curious angels in Chretien de Troyes’ La Conte du Graal. For other monstrous MEARCSTAPA offerings for Leeds 2010, visit the MEARCSTAPA blog. (Yes, we have t-shirts.)
“The Angels Men Complain Of”: Monstrous Masculinity in La Conte du Graal
While traveling through a forest one day, Chretien de Troyes’ young hero, Perceval, encounters a group of knights for the first time, and is nearly overwhelmed by the sight of their shining, armored bodies. He recounts the experience to his horrified mother, who exclaims, “Tu as veu, si com je croi, / Les enges don la gent se plaignent, / Qui ocient quan qu’il ataignent” [You have seen, I believe, the angels men complain of, who kill whatever they come upon].
In examining Chretien de Troyes’ elusive and previously unexplored reference to “the angels men complain of,” this paper will argue that the romance diverges from the dominant chivalric narrative to imagine a masculinity susceptible to the ravages of affect. Critics such as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Leo Braudy have suggested that the chivalric body in medieval romance is built from the outside in; in this articulation, the armor really does make the man. When Perceval sets out on his journey towards knighthood, it is this construction which drives him. Spurred on by a vision of the shining and beautiful knights he at first takes to be angels and filled with a burning desire to possess the armor and other accoutrements of knighthood, Perceval conceives of knightly identity as entirely composed of surfaces. He pursues a construction of chivalric masculinity in which the knight’s body is seamless, static, immune to affect, and impenetrable. But this ideal melding of body and armor, of identity and accoutrement, removes the knight from the category of what is recognizably human. The courtly violence of death-dealing knights renders them as beautiful, cold, and deadly as “the angels men complain of, who kill whatever they come upon.” In figuring the angel-knight as physically and morally monstrous, La Conte du Graal suggests a new masculine subject position emerging from the paradoxes of twelfth-century chivalric romance, and creates a heroic trajectory which dismantles the traditional hero/monster binary.