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'Largesse' in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

A good many years ago Professor John Burrow and I disagreed over Gawain's understanding of the fault he (Gawain) had committed in accepting the Chatelaine's girdle. A principal objection to my view that Gawain's confession to 'covetyse' (2380) was a confession, not merely to simple greed, but to the much wider sin covered by the term 'cupiditas', which included an inordinate love of life, was that Gawain saw his fault as a lapse against 'larges', which Burrow believed was used only in the literal sense of 'generosity': '"covetise" is set against "larges" ... and "larges" is the traditional opposite of "covetise" in its special sense, just as "charity" is its traditional opposite in the general sense'. Professor Burrow then asks: 'Can we say that "larges" is equivalent to Augustine's "caritas" here?'(1) I now think the answer to Burrow's rhetorical question is 'yes, we can', though the answer was not clear at the time and so his view obtained (and still obtains) widespread acceptance.(2) Considerably more has since been learnt about the semantic range of these terms in medieval usage, as also about what Gerald Morgan calls 'the moral principle ... That the virtues are interconnected'(3) as, indeed, are the vices that oppose them. Morgan points out that the poet's 'reading' of the pen-tangle on Gawain's shield demonstrates how each of the virtues interconnect and subsume one another.

The question at issue in Sir Gawain is whether 'larges' is confined to the narrow semantic range of 'generosity' or could extend to the wider Christian concept of 'caritas'. That 'cupiditas' ('covetise') had such a wide semantic range has now been generally conceded, and indeed was conceded by Professor Burrow, so the problem can be expressed as: could 'larges' be opposed to the wider meaning of 'cupiditas' (which includes being too concerned with preserving one's own life) to mean 'generosity of spirit' (being willing to sacrifice one's life)? Something of how the term could be extended, for instance, can be seen in the quotation from Trevisa in Kuhn, Middle English Dictionary: 'Wyn ... torneth the soule out of cruelnesse in to myldenesse, out of coveytyse in to largenesse'.

The term is as often used in religious, as in courtly, contexts. Burrow quotes the fourteenth century Book of Vices and Virtues as evidence for his view, though he gives no precise reference. In the following passage from that text, however, the writer is explicitly using the term 'larges' (here again 'largeness') as a synonym for mercifulness:

The ferthe thing that schal move men to mercye, that is the grete largenesse of oure lord, that gheveb largeliche to alle after that thei ben, as seynt Iame seith, and maketh his sonne schyne upon the goode and upon the schrewen, as he seith in the gospel. than sith he is so large to us, for he gheveth us alle the goodes that we have, we schulde be large and curteis eche of us to other and helpe eche other, for so hoteth he in be gospel whan he seith, 'Beth merciable, as ghoure fadre is merciable.'(4)

This passage shows very clearly the connection of the idea of generosity in a literal sense with the idea of 'caritas', charity seen as a manifestation of the love of God. The narrow and broad sense of 'charity' in both medieval and modern English (OED, charity la-c, 4, 5, 6) reflects a similar semantic range so that there are times when larges/largeness come to be synonymous with charity. A similar passage in the Ayenbite of Inwit, which quotes the same biblical text, makes it clear that 'largenesse' and 'larges' could be synonymous, as they often are (see Kuhn, Middle English Dictionary, where both 'larges' and 'largeness' are defined as 'liberality ... generosity, munificence'):

the greate largesse of our lhorde, thet yefth largeliche to allen be thet thet hy byeth ase zayth saint Iacob and maketh the zonne ssine ope the guode and ope the kueade ase he zayth ine his spelle ... byeth uol of merci ase youre uader is ...(5)

In Piers the Plowman Langland alters the A-text reading 'Largesse the ladi ledeth in ful monye' to B- and C-text 'Largeness the/that lady'.(6) In all three texts 'Largesse/Largenesse' is said to 'serve Treuthe evere': Gawain takes his lapse as evidence of his 'trecherye and untrawbe' (2383). In the B-text, as given by Skeat, Langland has added the line 'Heo [Largeness] hath hulpe a thousande oute of the develes ponfolde', which suggests a more extended meaning than the literal for 'generosity', indeed it suggests a meaning something like 'the grace of God', which is the essence of His charity.

It is sometimes assumed that the reading of the pentangle implies that Gawain possesses what Silverstein calls the 'gold-fined purity of the five virtues',(7) but the poet is in fact careful to explain that the pentangle virtues belong to Gawain's reputation: 'hit acordez to this knyght and his arms' (631), which must mean 'is accorded' or 'is associated with', because the virtues of the pentangle could not appertain to the arms. A little later (633-5) we are told that Gawain was 'for god knowen' and was 'funden fautles' (MED, Finden 10, 'to regard or consider'), that the virtues were bestowed on this knight, (656, MED, Fetlen b). Gawain comes to the Green Chapel to understand that men are born to sin and his confession of his lapse (2378-2384) recognizes his need for the absolution that his suffering brings him (2391-2394). The 'vylany' of cowardice (fear for his life) has led him to the vice of 'covetyse' (an inordinate desire to live), the vice against nature ('my kynde to forsake', 2380) of trusting to magic, (for we must all die and the Christian must learn to die well). As well as an offence against his host, this is therefore an offence both against that generosity of spirit ('larges') and the loyalty he owes to God ('lewte'), that requires a man to lay down his life willingly for his Lord. Like Zedekiah in Clannes (1172) 'of leute he watz lat to his Lorde hende'. He can now recognise both the chivalric 'vylany' and the Christian 'vyse' of his treachery and of his failure in truthfulness, for a knight is bound by both codes of conduct. The rejoicing at the Court of King Arthur on Gawain's return, celebrates the recognition that his sin evokes the promise of our salvation. The art of dying well (ars moriendi) was, of course, a repeated theme of medieval homilies such as the famous De miseria condiciones humane of Pope Innocent III, which Chaucer was fond of quoting;(8) few works, however, treat the theme with the wit and elegance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

DAVID FARLEY-HILLS University College of Lampeter

1 '"Cupidatas" in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a reply to D. F. Hills', RES, xv (1964), 56.

2 See for example Gerald Morgan, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Idea of Righteousness (Dublin, 1991), 142-3.

3 Morgan, op. cit., 128.

4 Book of Vices and Virtues, ed. W. N. Francis, EETS (London, 1942), 193.

5 Dan Michel's Ayenbite of Inwit or remorse of Conscience, ed. Richard Morris (London, 1896), 188, 4.

6 William Langland, Piers the Plowman, ed. W. W. Skeat (Oxford, 1886), 190 (A6, 112; B5, 632; C8, 275). George Kane's edition of the A-Text (London. 1960) reads 'Largenesse' at this point, but notes that 'Largesse/Larges' is found in various manuscripts.

7 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Theodore Silverstein (University of Chicago, 1974), 9-10, and see Morgan, op. cit., 81 ff.

8 For the work's diffusion see Lothario dei Segni, De miseria condicionis humane, ed. Robert E. Lewis (Athens, Georgia, 1978), 3-46.
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Author:Farley-Hills, David
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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