Honour v Shame in Medieval Literature

Feelings of shame and honour are intrinsic to human nature. They are also universal across cultures and eras. In the three select works of medieval literature we see expression of honour and shame in different contexts. They vary in relevance and intensity in each of the classic works. But what is common is that honour is universally perceived to be a desirable and cherished value. In the same vein, shame is looked down upon and condemned. The rest of this essay will depict how shame and honour are manifest in the three chosen medieval literary works.

In the Tristan and Iseult legend, there is no definitive version of the actual turn of events in the story. Since oral tradition and anonymous/multiple authorship was common to literature of this period, many interpretations and variations have been added over the years. Yet, some strong unifying themes bind the variants together. Notwithstanding the version, we find that shame and honour are recurrent themes in the Tristan and Iseult legend. A frequently cited version of it has how, after winning the battle against the Irish knight Morholt, the young prince Tristan is sent off on a mission to Ireland by his uncle King Mark. He is sent to bring back the beautiful Iseult whom King Mark is set to marry. But either due to destiny or wilful design (as different versions have it) Tristan and Iseult consume a love potion which makes them madly in love with one another. The power of the potion and the power of the actual love between the two is so strong that it lasts even after Iseult’s marriage to King Mark. One can claim that by continuing to be infatuated with another man in spite of being married, Iseult has lost her honour. The loss of honour should naturally lead to feeling shameful. But such is not the case with Iseult, for the nature of the potion is such that it abdicates the consumer of any responsibility for their actions resulting from it. This is not a conventional medieval way of looking at infidelity – either of thought or act. Indeed, the Arthurian era in which the story is set would have clearly marked Iseult’s behaviour as shameful. But the fact of the matter is that she is the least shameful. To the contrary she pulls off bold escapades to meet with Tristan even while claiming innocence to the suspecting king.

The moral dilemmas for Tristan are a little different. He is shown to be a man who honours his word. For example, it is to fulfil his commitment to King Mark that he sets forth to fetch Iseult from Ireland. He has a genuine affection toward King Mark whom he sees as a father figure. He keeps his honor intact by duly performing his princely duties. As for his love affair with Iseult, one cannot apportion shame on Tristan, for he has not committed infidelity. When we consider the fact that he may only have consumed the love potion by accident, one sees why he has reason to not feel shame.

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