In an era of frequent violence between knights and kingdoms, there had to be an order for which the sword-wielders could follow so that there would not be uncontrollable bloodshed. In order for there to be a set of laws established for the knights of the Anglo-Saxon era, the law of chevalrie was created. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has some insight into the rules of chivalry concerning one specifically: courtly love. The rules of “courtly love” require wit and deceit with an intention of good behind it. The chivalric rules in this aspect require a good and clever battle with words rather than swords.
Smiling gently and courteously they made playful speech,
So that all that passed between them was happiness, joy, and delight.
Gracious words they spoke,
And pleasure reached its height.
Great peril threated should
Mary not mind her knight.
For that noble lady so constantly pressed,
Pushed him so close to the verge, that either he must
Take her love there and then or churlishly reject it.
He felt concerned for good manners lest he behaved like a boor,
And still more lest he shame himself by an act of sin,
And treacherously betray the lord of the castle.” With smothe smylyng and smolt thay smeten into merthe,
That al watz blis and bonchef that breke hem bitwene, And wynne.
Thay lanced words gode,
Much wele then watz therinne;
Gret perile bitwene hem stod,
Nif Mare of hir knight mynne.
Fo that prynces of pris depressed hym so thikke,
Nurned hym so neghe the thred, that need hym bihoved
Other lach ther hir luf other lodly refuse.
He cared for his cortaysye, lest crathayn he were,
And more for his meschef yif he schulde make synne,
And be traytor to that tolke that that telde aght.
The “noble lady” is described as a “prynces of pris” in Middle English. Pris is used to describe her high position in rank rather than personality. It is her “worth” and “value” in status that is important rather than her person. This is the reason for Gawain’s careful address toward her. She is someone to whom one would not wish to disrespect or disappoint, because she was to be treated as though she were worth much (even though her actions makes her lack value in personality).
Cortaysye, or corteisie, is what the knight is worrying about how to apply to his awkward situation. This is a word to describe the essence of courtliness: courtly ceremony, refinement, and courtesy. His struggle is to apply this courtesy, while turning down a lady of “high worth”, which would be considered disrespectful.
He knows that what the lady is requesting of him is wrong, and he fears that he would “shame himself” by committing this crime. The word that they used to translate into this is meschef. This word, which happens to be similar to our modern word, “mischief”, means a number of things that could be used to apply to this situation. Not only would he bring “ill-fortune, hardship; suffering, woe” upon himself, but also...