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Historical Context in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Historical Context Examples in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Fytte the First

🔒 8

"With a wild rush he turned the reins, and flew out at the hall door—his head in his hand..."   (Fytte the First)

Arthurian legends, which originated with the Celtic people, are filled with magic and strange supernatural events; through the centuries, writers created more stories with these elements. The Green Knight’s riding away carrying his own head illustrates this tradition in the tales.

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"a holly twig..."   (Fytte the First)

Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries, has had symbolic meaning throughout the ages. In Celtic mythology, the holly was magical and ruled the winter months; Celtic chieftains often wore crowns of holly to bring good luck. During the Middle Ages, holly became a symbol of Christmas.

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"precious cloth of Toulouse..."   (Fytte the First)

Toulouse was an ancient settlement in southern France once occupied by the Romans; by the 14th century, Toulouse was a prosperous city engaged in textile trade with England, exporting soft, finely woven fabrics that were quite expensive.

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"the most famous knights save only Christ..."   (Fytte the First)

The presence and influence of Christianity is evident throughout the text, as it is in other tales of King Arthur. Besides swearing allegiance to their king, knights also swore allegiance to Christ and vowed to defend the Christian church.

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"tourneyed betimes, jousted full gaily..."   (Fytte the First)

Jousting tournaments or contests were popular entertainment in the Middle Ages. Mounted on horses and armed with blunted lances, two contestants would ride directly at each another; each would attempt to unseat his opponent by using his lance to push the other off his horse. In context, the word “betimes” means early in the day. Arthur’s knights jousting “full gaily” implies that they jousted in the spirit of fun and comradeship.

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"far over the French flood, Felix Brutus establishes Britain..."   (Fytte the First)

The “French flood” refers to the English Channel, a narrow body of the Atlantic Ocean that lies between France and Great Britain. In writing a 9th-century narrative of King Arthur’s life, a monk named Nennius created the story of Britain’s having been founded by a descendant of Aeneas named Felix Brutus. In the 12th -century, Geoffrey of Monmouth included the story in his largely fictionalized history of British kings, in which he cast Arthur as a descendant of Aeneas.

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"and became patrons of well nigh all the wealth in the West Isles...."   (Fytte the First)

As Arthurian legends took shape, fictional links were forged between the descendants of Aeneas and Britain; the intent was to burnish the history of Britain by connecting it to the ancient world.

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"Aeneas the noble..."   (Fytte the First)

In Greek and Roman mythology, Aeneas was a high-born Trojan warrior who survived the fall of Troy, safely exiting the city with his family and possessions. Throughout the ages, writers interpreted the character of Aeneas from different perspectives. In the 13th century, Guido delle Colonne, an Italian judge and author, wrote a narrative of the Trojan war suggesting that Aeneas betrayed Troy to the Greeks in exchange for safe passage from the city. Thise idea is reflected in the beginning of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

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"Much delight was taken there that day, and the second; and the third followed as pleasantly. The joy of St. John’s day was gentle to hear of; and it was the last of the festival, the people considered...."   (Fytte the Second)

In the Christian calendar, three feast days are observed following Christmas Day: St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), St. John’s Day (December 27), and Holy Innocents’ Day (December 28). St. Stephen’s Day commemorates the first Christian martyr. St. John’s Day commemorates John the Evangelist, one of Christ’s twelve apostles. Holy Innocents’ Day commemorates the execution of male children in Bethlehem, as recounted in Mathew 2:16 in the Bible. Christmas celebrations at the castle included observing Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day, and St. John’s Day but not Holy Innocents’ Day.

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"The bridge was securely lifted, the gates locked fast..."   (Fytte the Second)

Bridges were constructed over moats to provide access to the castles they encircled. The bridges could be raised or lowered, as needed; raising or lifting a bridge and locking it in place essentially secured a castle against invaders.

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"the Holy Head..."   (Fytte the Second)

“Holy Head” most likely refers to Holywell, a market town in the Middle Ages that lies east of Anglesey.

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"North Wales..."   (Fytte the Second)

Wales, an ancient land immediately adjacent to western England, has two geographic areas: North Wales and Mid Wales. With the end of Roman rule, numerous individual kingdoms existed throughout Wales.

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"the realm of Logres..."   (Fytte the Second)

“The realm of Logres” refers to Arthur’s realm or kingdom, consisting of all the land in the south and the east in England.

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"he heard his mass..."   (Fytte the Second)

In the Catholic church, a Mass is a solemn religious rite with a priest leading congregants in prayer and communion with God. Before Gawain departs, a Mass is held for him with prayers for his safe return.

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"Mador de la Port..."   (Fytte the Second)

Mador de la Port translates from the French as “Mador of the Gate,” suggesting that he secured the entrance to Camelot; he is portrayed as being exceptionally tall and strong.

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"Sir Bors and Sir Bedever..."   (Fytte the Second)

Sir Bors is Lyonel’s brother, who grew up with him and Lancelot under Vivien’s protection; reaching adulthood, Bors, Lyonel, and Lancelot became Knights of the Round Table together. Sir Bedever, one of Arthur’s first and most loyal knights, stays with him after the destruction of Camelot; when Arthur is mortally wounded, Bedever follows his orders and casts Excalibur into the lake where the Lady of the Lake reclaims it.

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"Sir Dodinel de Sauvage, the Duke of Clarence, Lancelot and Lyonel and Lucan the Good..."   (Fytte the Second)

After Sir Dodinel de Sauvage fought with Arthur in the Saxon Wars, King Arthur knighted him for his services; Dodinel became one of the Queen's Knights, charged with protecting her. The Duke of Clarence refers to Galaeschin, one of Arthur’s nephews. Lancelot, a central figure in Arthurian legend, is often considered the greatest of Arthur’s knights; he is called Lancelot of the Lake because he was reared by Vivien, the mysterious Lady of the Lake, who gave King Arthur his magical sword Excalibur. Lyonel, a double cousin of Lancelot, grew up with him under Vivien’s care. Lucan the Good, Sir Bedever’s brother and one King Arthur’s earliest allies, remained Arthur’s loyal lifelong companion.

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"Ywain and Erec, and others full many..."   (Fytte the Second)

The reference to Ywain and Erec begins a catalogue of some of Arthur’s knights. The character of Ywain was derived from a historical figure, Owain, the son of Urien, who ruled a 6th-century British kingdom. Erec, the son of King Lac in early Britain, appears in numerous tales, once going on a quest to defeat a knight who had mistreated one of Queen Guinevere’s servants.

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"the crabbed Lent, that tries the flesh with fish..."   (Fytte the Second)

In the Christian faith, Lent is a period of personal sacrifice in preparation for the observance of Easter, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion. In context, “crabbed” describes Lent as a miserable time. In the Roman Catholic church, the predominant religion in England at the time, eating meat during Lent was forbidden; the faithful ate fish instead.

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"Here about midnight the devil might tell his matins.”..."   (Fytte the Fourth)

Canonical hours are part of Christian liturgy or practice; they are specific hours set aside for prayer each day. “Matins” are prayers said in the very early hours of the morning, beginning at midnight. Associating the devil with Christian prayers is ironic, and suggesting that the green chapel would be an appropriate place to find the devil emphasizes its eerie and sinister atmosphere.

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"the light of a lamp..."   (Fytte the Fourth)

In medieval England, candle lamps and oil lamps were often used to light small, enclosed spaces. A lamp consisted of fuel, fire, a wick, and a chamber to hold the fuel. Oil lamps burned fish oil or vegetable oil.

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