Romancing the family in the Middle English Breton lays

Date of Completion

January 2001


Literature, Medieval|Literature, English




This dissertation employs Lacanian psychoanalysis and feminist theory to consider five of the Middle English Breton lays, Sir Gowther, Sir Degaré Sir Launfal, Sir Orfeo, and Chaucer's Franklin's Tale, all of which express a concern with the fragility of paternal authority. Using the family as a model through which to explore authority, these poems suggest first that family roles, maternal and paternal, are functions rather than gender determined roles. They go on to identify failings in the paternal function, gender paternal authority as male, and validate it by yoking it to an external source of power. ^ These poems are deeply concerned with the dissonance between he who is named the father and his actual capacity to govern the family, to represent the law that controls its behavior. The first two chapters, on Sir Gowther and Sir Degaré respectively, consider these poems' representation of paternity as split between its status as “law” and as “name.” Both poems show that the father is not inevitably the bearer of the law but resolve this bifurcation in the son. Chapter three is on Sir Launfal, a poem that also identifies this paternal split, but resolves it through Launfal's access to a fairy lover, a woman whose other-worldly powers and position as stand-in for the king enable Launfal to usurp the failing king's status. Chapters four and five, addressing Sir Orfeo and the Franklin's Tale respectively, consider their representations of female agency within this struggle to consolidate paternal authority. ^ As a genre, the Middle English Breton lays scrutinize the father, as symbolic function and as person, both as the site of social failings and as the promise of their resolution. They seek to stabilize patriarchal power, but they also insist that paternal authority is not by itself enough to guarantee its own existence. Rather, these poems suggest that paternal authority can only be maintained through vigilance, through yoking it to external, less fallible sources of power. ^