The Wedding of Gawain: A Gruesome Love

The Loathly Lady Legend

The Ugly Duchess aka "A Grotesque old Woman", 1513 64.2 × 45.5 cm. National Gallery, London

The Ugly Duchess aka “A Grotesque old Woman”, 1513 64.2 × 45.5 cm. National Gallery, London

Introduction to the Loathly Lady Legend

For centuries, the story of the Loathly Lady has captivated audiences in medieval Britain, featuring a central character of such hideousness that she borders on the monstrous. Among the most celebrated renditions is “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” penned in the mid-fifteenth century.

The Encounter in the Forest

While hunting, King Arthur finds himself deep in the woods, where he is confronted by Sir Gromer Somer Joure. Enraged at losing his lands to Sir Gawain through Arthur’s decree, Sir Gromer threatens Arthur’s life. He spares the king on one condition: Arthur must discover within a year what women truly desire or face death.

Arthur’s Quest

Arthur accepts this peculiar challenge and confides only in Gawain upon his return to court. The year is spent in vain as they seek the elusive answer to Sir Gromer’s question: What do women want? Despite gathering numerous responses, none promise to save Arthur’s life.

Dame Ragnelle’s Appearance

During his quest, Arthur encounters Dame Ragnelle, a woman of unparalleled horror. With a red, snot-dripping face, boar-tusk-like yellow teeth, and massive, blurry eyes set in a barrel-shaped body, she epitomizes grotesqueness. Yet, her demeanor is that of a noblewoman: she rides gracefully, dressed in fine clothes, and speaks eloquently and intelligently, presenting a stark contrast to her frightful appearance.

Dame Ragnelle’s Bargain

Dame Ragnelle approached King Arthur with a life-saving offer: she would reveal the answer to Sir Gromer’s challenging question, but only if Sir Gawain would commit to marrying her. In a show of loyalty and honor, Gawain consented to the union.

The Answer That Saved a King

Ragnelle disclosed that what women desire most is to have sovereignty over their lives and decisions. Armed with this wisdom, Arthur confronted Sir Gromer Somer Joure, who, unable to deny the truth of the answer, furiously acknowledged its accuracy. It was then revealed that the insightful Dame Ragnelle was Sir Gromer’s sister, prompting him to begrudgingly let Arthur go free.

A Wedding Unlike Any Other

Despite Queen Guinevere’s suggestion for a discreet wedding, Dame Ragnelle insisted on a grand public ceremony, unabashedly showcasing her grotesque form. Her behavior at the feast further shocked the court with her voracious appetite and unconventional manners.

Transformation and Sovereignty

On their wedding night, Gawain witnessed a miraculous transformation: the loathly lady became a breathtakingly beautiful woman. Ragnelle offered Gawain a choice regarding her appearance, but he deferred the decision to her, granting her autonomy over their lives. This act of giving her sovereignty broke the enchantment placed on Ragnelle by her stepmother, revealing her true form and freeing her from the curse.

A Brief but Blissful Union

Freed from her curse, Ragnelle and Gawain enjoyed a short but joyful marriage on her ancestral lands, demonstrating the power of respect and autonomy in a relationship. Though Ragnelle passed away not long after their wedding, their legacy lived on through their son, who inherited the family estate.

The Roots of the Loathly Lady Legend

At the heart of numerous versions, the Loathly Lady narrative consistently features an exceptionally unattractive woman seeking marriage to a knight, aiming to gain sovereignty through the union. This peculiar story, however, has deep historical roots.

Neolithic and Celtic Beginnings

Scholars trace the origins of the Loathly Lady tale back to the Neolithic, evolving later into a Celtic fertility myth. This ancient story depicts the marriage between a sun god and an earth goddess, a symbolic act meant to secure the fertility of the land.

Irish Ancestry of the Legend

The oldest recorded instances of this myth emerge from Ireland, featuring a goddess in the guise of an unsightly hag. She engages in a transformative union with a hero destined for kingship. This union not only changes her appearance from grotesque to beautiful but also carries a significant political undertone. The hag symbolizes Ireland’s sovereignty, while the hero embodies the nation’s rightful leader, their union representing the harmonious governance of the land.

Evolution into a Widespread Legend

Over centuries, this foundational myth morphed into the legend known across medieval Britain. The narrative took on various forms as it spread, capturing the imaginations of notable English medieval authors such as John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. Both contributed their renditions of the story, enriching the tapestry of medieval literature with their interpretations of the Loathly Lady’s tale.

Documentary

Featured Image

The Ugly Duchess aka "A Grotesque old Woman", 1513 64.2 × 45.5 cm. National Gallery, London

The Ugly Duchess aka “A Grotesque old Woman”, 1513 64.2 × 45.5 cm. National Gallery, London

This arresting portrait, often referred to as “A Grotesque Old Woman,” is attributed to the Northern Renaissance artist Quentin Massys, dating back to approximately 1513. The painting resides in the National Gallery, London, and is recognized for its startling and unflinching representation of an elderly woman. Massys, a painter from Antwerp, was known for his detailed and sometimes exaggerated portrayal of human features, which is vividly depicted in this work. The woman in the painting is adorned with a headdress that was fashionable during the artist’s time, yet her face is rendered with such exaggerated and grotesque features that it borders on caricature. The countenance of the subject is marked by a stark contrast between her aged features and the youthful, almost comical attire, highlighting a possible satirical comment on vanity and the pretensions of dressing beyond one’s years.

The painting is often interpreted as a moral lesson on the folly of superficiality, a common theme in Renaissance art. The woman’s attire and her wizened visage create a visual discord that was likely intended to evoke both humor and a sense of moralizing repulsion in its audience. The large, ornate headdress and the remnants of beauty on her bosom are sharply at odds with her pronounced facial features, including a large, hooked nose and a chin that recedes into her neck. Matsys has masterfully captured the textures of her wrinkled skin and the fabric of her garments, inviting viewers to ponder the nature of beauty, the inevitability of aging, and the societal expectations placed upon women. This piece remains a powerful example of the artist’s skill in portraiture, as well as his ability to weave complex social commentary into his art.

Sources

  • Walton, K. (2023). The Legend of the Loathly Lady. Medieval World, 50–52.

  • Quinten Massys. (2024, February 24). An Old Woman (“The Ugly Duchess”). Nationalgallery.org.uk. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/quinten-massys-an-old-woman-the-ugly-duchess

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, December 26). Loathly lady. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loathly_lady

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2015, September 22). File:Quentin Matsys – A Grotesque old woman.jpg. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Quentin_Matsys_-_A_Grotesque_old_woman.jpg

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