Knightly Chivalry And Male Submission

One idea floating around in BDSM circles is that men who submit to women are like medieval knights, or at least that the knightly ideal defines one mode of submissive masculinity.

Think of King Arthur’s knights, bustling round the country with odd bits of feminine apparel waving from their lances – either running errands for some lady or questing for the Holy Grail (a transparent sex-symbol in itself). Twelfth century troubadours and Victorian pornographers worked with different imagery, but the emotions and archetypes are akin. Courtly love is transparent submissive fantasy:

Noble Lady, nothing do I ask of thee

But that thou shouldst take me for thy servant.

I would serve as one serves a good lord,

Whatever reward I might gain.

Behold, I am at thy command:

Sincere and humble, gay and courteous.

Neither bear nor lion art thou,

To kill me, as I here to thee surrender.

 

Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. c. 1150-1200?)

Creative Mythology, Vol.IV, p. 179

Joseph Campbell

That poem is very sweet, and echoes a good part of my feelings towards My Lady (I’m particularly glad that she isn’t a bear or lion). However, the surrender that knights traditionally offered to women seems incomplete to me, or even insincere. A knight was supposed to uphold his lady’s honour, undertake quests and perform glorious deeds in her name, and if necessary defend her to the death – but listening to her and doing what she said appeared to be a low priority. Guinevere didn’t get to tell Lancelot to stay home and muck out the stables of Camelot rather than going off to joust with yet another black knight. She didn’t even get to make him fight the people she considered enemies, as opposed to the ones he thought she needed to be protected from. She certainly didn’t tie him up and torture him for her pleasure, a point that doesn’t necessarily detract any further from her authority (perhaps Guinevere just wasn’t sadistic enough to be interested in doing any such thing) but does show that this “courtly love” business left out a facet of D/s that’s pretty important to some of us.

If I were going to dress up in armour and offer my sword to a queen or baroness, I’d want her to be more than a passive object of adoration and provider of a scarf to tie around my lance. Devotion and willingness to fight her battles would be important, but far from the whole story. I’d want the bejewelled lady in question to also be a firm and assertive taskmistress, prepared to decide whether I was going to spend a given weekend besieging Lot of Orkney, jousting with Uriens of Gore, looking for the Holy Grail, or indeed mucking out the stables. If I ignored her instructions or carried them out poorly, I’d expect to be taken out behind those same stables for a good thrashing, something else I don’t think ever happened to Lancelot. Ideally the bejewelled lady would have a wicked streak, like the enchantress Morgan le Fay, and would occasionally have me spend one of those weekends writhing in a torture chamber deep below the halls of Camelot.

As it happens, I’m not the only one who finds the idea of chivalry a bit lacking as a template for male submission.

Chivalry (and romance, which always seems to be monogamous) puts Woman, The Object of Desire, shiny, “pure,” “virginal,” and “good,” on a pedestal, only to be taken out by a man to sing odes to, to lay flowers at the feet of, to make promises to, until he no longer needs her and locks her back in her bower.

When described in those terms, chivalry doesn’t sound very submissive at all. I’m not surprised that there are dominant men, such as one Sir Real, who find the ideal of chivalry inspiring:

Second, I pride myself on being the consumate gentleman. I ascribe to the knightly principles of chivalry which include bravery, truth, honor, integrity, courtesy, and gallantry. In this context, the “Sir” aspect of the name appeals to me.

Bravery, truth, honour, integrity, courtesy and gallantry are great, but I’m sure Sir Real would agree that they don’t make a person submissive. Neither, really, does putting a woman on a pedestal and writing odes to her beauty. Submission is what might happen at the end of a long day’s ride, when the shadows were growing long and a brave knight errant was looking around for a likely place to pitch his tent. Seeing a faint light in the distance, he might spur his mount towards it, finding himself outside a little cottage with a thatched roof and a heathen rune scratched into the door. A hard-looking woman in a tattered cloak would appear when he knocked.

“Madam, kindly ask your husband if I might spend the night here before riding on at first light.”

She would look him up and down, eyes glinting.

“I have no husband, but you may share my bed if you do exactly as you are told and stay long enough to make breakfast.”

Part of him would be infuriated, of course. How dare a woman of low birth, some peasant slattern, presume to even contemplate taking him to her bed as an obedient plaything? It would hardly be unchivalrous to clamber back into the saddle and ride off to pitch his tent in some convenient clearing. But if I were writing the story, the knight would thank the woman for her hospitality, bow to her in all humility, and ask if he might take the time to see to his horse’s needs before going inside to see to hers.