Very little is known about the author of the Anturs – indeed, it is even possible that there was more than one author – but much can be surmised. There is evidence that the anonymous poet was orthodox in religion, and particularly keen to promote the value of masses for the dead, but also that he – or very possibly she – had access to a vernacular translation of the Gospel of John. She – let us be decisive – believed in purgatory, and subscribed to the typical mediaeval notion that ghosts were the spirits of sinners who desired release. She had a spiritual point to make: too many knights succumb to the sins of pride and luxury, and their violent ways are not as laudable as they are made to seem in other romances – but at the same time, she delighted in describing regal costumes and occasions, and revelled in her portrayals of the bloodthirstiness of hand-to-hand combat. She had little time for kings, and preferred to model her Arthur on the chronicles rather than on other romances. She had almost certainly read the better-known Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and her own Gawain is equally conscientious, and equally prone to acts of violence inspired by his sense of duty towards his king.
Most importantly, whilst she chose to write in a genre which traditionally celebrated the deeds of men, she was clearly more interested in the minds of women. Her Gwinevere (Gaynore) is a sympathetic character: sensitive, prepared to admit her own weaknesses, seemingly more devoted to Sir Gawaine than to her husband, and most importantly, capable of manipulating the latter into making merciful decisions which he would never have made on his own. Her attitude seems to be mirrored by that of the unnamed woman who is described as the “lover” of Gawaine’s foe in battle: a woman prepared to humble herself at Gaynore’s feet in order to save the life of the man she loves. Only Gawaine himself can compete with the complexity of these female characters: he is a knight who is prepared to admit that deeds of arms often bring misery, and yet, when his king requires someone to bear arms in his name, Gawaine is the only knight to volunteer.
Yet none of these characters are so memorable as the ghost of Gaynore’s mother: a half-decomposed corpse with a message from Purgatory. She comes to convict Gaynore of her pride, but also to plead with her daughters to arrange for propitiatory masses to be said in chantry chapels across the land, so that her soul can be released. Of all of the characters, she is the only one whose own utterances dominate a significant section of the poem, and the description of her decaying corpse – which is not without its comic element – is deliberately juxtaposed with the descriptions of the pomp and finery of Arthur’s courtiers. Nor is it accidental that she makes her appearance at the time of the hunt, when the pretensions of the rich are most blatantly displayed. She is a mini-masterpiece: self-consistent, compelling, and described with an economy which spurs the imagination. She is also the vehicle of the poet’s own opinions about chivalry: its knights are mostly self-serving, its rituals are vanity, its obsession with riches and beauty is a diversion from the path of sanctity, and the supposedly ideal Christian king is a brutal conqueror whose pride will be subject to the worst judgement of all: he will die at the hands of his own bastard son.
Critics have charged the author of the Anturs with a lack of originality. The whole second half of the poem, wrote F.J. Amours, is “nothing but one of the stock stories so common in the Round Table cycle. An unknown knight, often with a companion, enters the hall where the king is seated in state, declares that he has a grievance, and offers to settle the matter with the bravest knight present. The challenge is accepted... often by Gawain himself... the stranger is usually defeated, and receives afterwards some compensating reward from Arthur.” Amours is right: this part of the romance draws on a “stock story” – but he entirely misses its satirical purpose. The unknown knight has been robbed of his lands because of King Arthur’s rapaciousness, and the direct beneficiary of this injustice is Gawaine himself. The unknown knight’s companion is the woman whose voice of humility and mercy will save a life. Gawaine, who was so quick to admit the faults of knighthood in the presence of the ghost, only comes to admit that he himself has benefited from injustice after he has brought his victim to within an inch of his life, and has been shamed into relenting by the pleadings of two women. The victim of this lapse in judgement is Gawaine’s own horse, slain in the heat of the battle. At the beginning and the end of the poem, animals are the incidental sufferers as knights resolutely pursue the ideals and assumptions condemned by the ghost.
The Anturs of Arther is an anti-romance. Even its name is satirical, for Arthur’s “adventures” consist of hunting some harmless does, deputising one of his most gifted courtiers to do some fighting for him, and eventually, giving in to his wife’s plea for mercy when all of this brutality becomes too hard to bear. In the late fifteenth century, chivalry was often satirised in marginal decorations in manuscripts, and on misericords. Men and women joust with household implements, riding astride geese and chickens. The author of the Anturs is more serious in her approach, and her motivations are very likely more spiritual, but her purpose is not entirely didactic. She has a gift for characterisation, and for a fast-moving narrative. She may be scornful of chivalry, but she knows how to use rhythm and alliteration in order to bring a joust to life on a page, just as she knows how to adapt it in order to bring a corpse convincingly back from the dead. Perhaps she was a nun, keen to raise funds for a chantry chapel at which she offered prayers – but her poem has an originality and an internal consistency which critics have been too hasty to deny.
The picture shows a window at Ashbury church, on the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border.
The whole of the poem, with critical apparatus, is available for download here:
... or here: