Janet Knepper’s “A Bad Girl Will Love You to Death: Excessive Love in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory” presents an insightful analysis of chivalric love and the maid of Ascolot, specifically the maid’s inability to operate within a chivalric courtly love sign-system and the damage she therefore creates. Knepper clearly establishes the extent of gender normative expectations for the characters’ performances which were likely held by medieval audiences. It is the knight (male) who should be stricken by love or intense infatuation for a lady (female) due to his obsessive gazing and musing upon her fair qualities (229). While this excessive gazing and musing upon the object of love instils a deep wanting or desire that is deemed condemnable for male characters who, as the aggressor, should perform an active role in courtship, it is neither well-suited nor appropriate for female characters who must remain as the submissive object of the male’s desire. Knepper informs the reader that medieval attitudes towards women perceived them as excessive and undisciplined (230), so by reversing the courtly lovers gender performances the result is going to be bad. Within the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Lancelot becomes the passive object of desire who pities the love-struck maid of Ascolot who fervently and foolishly pursues him to no avail. By applying this gender performance reversal and inevitable negative outcome, Knepper claims that the maid transgresses societal and by extension genre expectations that lead to an “unholy communion between love and death” (229).
Knepper’s attention to how the text reinforces the maid’s transgression structurally is intriguing and insightful. She argues that the maid’s excessiveness in her infatuation is reinforced for audiences by the 11 lines in which it is described (230). The brevity showcases the intensity of the infatuation Lancelot stimulates for the maid, but the demure depictions of these feelings dismisses the noble and integral quality of such love. Furthermore, the maid initially lacks the traditional effictio granted to ladies of courtly romances, as well as any defining active agency granted to the male suitor. The maid is described solely as having a red face like a flower, but no other beauteous details like shining eyes or long golden hair—common tropes of many ladies within Arthurian romances (230). It is possible that the denial of these accoutrements speaks to the diminished integrity of her character: she is not the perfected courtly lady ideal, up to this point embodied if problematically by Queen Genevieve, and her manipulation of Lancelot to try attain and control his love are ignoble and constantly labeled as foolish. Even if we were to interpret her character with less sinister manipulation, it is clear through her actions and inability to adhere to the proper courtly sign-system that she does not truly belong and is out of her depths. Knepper further’s this idea by identifying how the maid is not named and appears only between the two male characters who control her: her uncle who is in charge of her (physical control) and Lancelot who distracts her (emotional control) (230). Given that the maid lacks active agency as the male suitor and fails to adhere to the submissive role of the desired lady, she is able to claim her role as a courtly lady only after her death. Knepper transitions her argument from the maid’s inability to adhere to the courtly romance sign-system to her fulfillment of it, but only after she had died and become a completely submissive body devoid of conscious agency.
While Knepper reads the boat episode as a highly sexualized and dangerous adventure for King Arthur and Sir Gawain, what I find most intriguing is her attention to the poem’s juxtaposition of this scene. Much like how the poet structurally reinforces the maid’s excessiveness and foolishness in the brevity of lines attributed to her, and the subdued descriptions of her within them, here we see the boat interrupting the serious trial of Guinevere. Here Knepper claims that because she could not acquire desire through recognition in life, she can control the gaze of the knights in death as the boat seduces both Arthur and Gawain with its adornments and mystery (232). The shift in focus form Guinevere is significant in that she has maintained position as the proper courtly lady and lover of Lancelot, whom the maid cannot acquire or overthrow. The direct competition is heightened by the maid’s death ploy but given the circumstances it does create disturbing insights. Knepper claims that through Arthur’s and Gawain’s exploration of the death bower, they are seduced by the beauty of the courtly culture materialism and ideals, but subjected to the ugliness and anxieties that exist deep within it (234). This creates a connection back to Guinevere and the problems her adulterous affair with Lancelot poses to the kingdom and Round Table’s alliances and morals. In death, the maid finally captures the male gaze she has sought fruitlessly with Lancelot and the poet finally bestows her with the effictio she was previously denied. But for what aim? As a corpse she should not be the object of desire and a knight cannot attain a noble love with her. Knepper concludes that the Round Table is thereby implicated in “an economy of excess, death, and necrophilia” (235) which demonstrates that the maid is not necessarily an outlier character failing to fit in a generic and cultural sign-system, but that the system itself breeds a corruption that leads to real consequences: death.