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2 - The Artistry of Malory’s Mercantile Metaphors: Goods, Generosity, and the Source of ‘The Tale of Sir Gareth’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2022

Megan G. Leitch
Affiliation:
Cardiff University
Kevin S. Whetter
Affiliation:
Acadia University, Canada
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Summary

As critics, we are well versed in applying mercantile metaphors to medieval romances such as Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur. The Morte is sometimes approached in terms of the ‘economy’ of chivalry, and it can be analysed in relation to ideas of exchange. My purpose in this essay, however, is to consider a not-dissimilar deployment of mercantile metaphors within Malory's text itself: metaphors that are voiced by Malory's knights, with interrogative implications. For instance, when Malory's Gareth is shut out of Lyonesse's castle despite doing battle on her behalf, and he complains to her that ‘well I am sure I have bought your love with parte of the beste bloode within my body’, his blood signifies his sense of what he and his chivalric endeavour ought to be worth. His blood is a ‘good’, in both senses: a virtue, and also a commodity. His blood is a synecdochal substance, a part representing the whole that he offers for exchange in the market of courtly love; his blood is also a metonymic stand-in for the fighting prowess he has displayed in winning the series of chivalric duels that have led him to Lyonesse's castle gates – prowess that is itself, of course, a symbol of devotion to the lady.\ In a similar turn of phrase, after a tournament, Launcelot thinks he has ‘sore bought’ the thanks he receives for his chivalric endeavour (811.13), because he is badly wounded. And, when he is cornered in Guenevere's bedchamber by Aggravayne, Mordred and their knights, Launcelot tells the queen, ‘I shall selle my lyff as dere as I may’ (875.22–23). Spoken here at this climactic moment, when Arthur's nephews cause the irreparable rift in the kingdom, this is the only instance of the verb ‘to sell’ in the ‘hoole book’ (940.17), and it joins six metaphorical utterances about ‘buying’ in the Morte that (with only one exception) likewise all occur in dialogue, in tense exchanges.

As these examples show, to speak of buying and selling in the Morte Darthur is to register disappointment and/or daring determination.

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Arthurian Literature XXXVII
Malory at 550: Old and New
, pp. 23 - 48
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2022

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