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Gawain's Girdle as Traditional Symbol

Author(s): Albert B. Friedman and Richard H. Osberg


Source: The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 90, No. 357 (Jul. - Sep., 1977), pp. 301-315
Published by: American Folklore Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539521
Accessed: 17-02-2017 19:12 UTC

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ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN
and RICHARD H. OSBERG

Gawain's Girdle as Traditional Sym

THE INGENIOUS SYMMETRY OF SIR GAWAIN AND THE GR


major point in appreciations of the poem, and p
balanced pairs is the symbolic polarity between th
the knight's shield (and perhaps embroidered on h
the green girdle the tempting Lady bestows on Gawai
supposed to save his life but which in fact costs him
her husband's hands. The pentangle, the "endl
Gawain's virtuous perfection; the girdle, employed
becomes in the final scene a token of the knight's l
tion. Englehardt plots the trajectory of the action
symbols: "The endless knot has been superseded b
silk" (p. 225). "For Gawain," says Ackerman, "th
symbol of his falling away, however momentarily, fr

symbol of his 'trawhe'


truth-girdle:untruth," .... truth
with "' Themeaning
neatnesssomething
of the formula "pentangle:
like fidelity,
obscures a peculiar imbalance in the symmetrical opposition of pentangle
and girdle. For though the poet spends forty-three verses (623-665)
carefully, almost pedantically, expounding the symbolism of the

1 Lines 636-637 and 2025-2029 would seem to say that the pentangle was embroidered as a
badge on the surcoat as well as being painted on the shield; note the translation of these lines in
John Gardner, Complete Works of the Gawain Poet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965),
pp. 249, 304; and see Stoddard Malarkey and J. B. Toelken, "Gawain and the Green Girdle,"
Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 63 (1964), 19. The pentangle on the surcoat is quite
generally neglected, as for example in G. J. Englehardt, "The Predicament of Gawain," Modern
Language Quarterly, 16 (1955), 218; Robert W. Ackerman, "Gawain's Shield: Penitential Doctrine
in Gawain and the Green Knight," Anglia, 76 (1958), 254-265; and R. H. Green, "Gawain's
Shield and the Quest for Perfection," ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, 29 (1962),
127-128, 135.

2P. 265; see also Green, pp. 137-138 and J. A. Burrow, A Reading of Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), pp. 42-46, 187-189.

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302 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

pentangle, he says nothing explicitly about the s


Its symbolic value is simply what Gawain assign
humiliation at the Green Knight's castle and chap
Rightly called "the thematic and symbolic nex
girdle is the tangible object upon which the vit
climax of the Temptation section, in the encoun
and in the return scene at Camelot.4 Also of cou
poem's two major narrative strands, the Tempt
Game. For all that, the girdle remains something
poet's reticence has allowed more latitude to
girdle what they will. Loomis (p. 154) and Benso
a "love-token"; Markman, however, feels "w
reminded that it is not a love token . . . " (p.
girdle as a "sexual symbol" or "sexual trophy" a
who believes such descriptions arise from confu
("a belt worn around the waist, used for fastening
sword, purse, etc."-Middle English Dictionar
undergarment."5 And, indeed, in the ever more
exegetical interpretations of the poem that keep
print, the meaning and symbolism of the girdle ha
distended as to make it almost seem the elasticized item of modern
lingerie with which critics are alleged to be confusing Gawain's girdle.
Considering the girdle's importance in the poem, it may be useful to fix
the nature and meaning of the girdle more precisely and to suggest how a
better conception of what the girdle really was and what it connoted and
symbolized affects the way one should read the poem.
Despite Stevens' suspicions, it is hard to think that any critic of Sir
Gawain is so unworldly as not to realize that the girdle is a belt of some
sort, whether worn externally or concealed, and not the modern

3Jan Solomon, "The Lesson of Sir Gawain," in Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight, ed. D.R. Howard and C. K. Zacher (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968),
p. 274.
4It has been argued that the girdle was also present during the challenge scene at Camelot, but
if so, its presence was inert. The girdle does not become operative in the poem until properly
introduced in the bedchamber, nor is anything ever said retrospectively about its being worn by
Bertilak when he confronts Arthur. Roger Sherman Loomis, "More Celtic Elements in Gawain and
the Green Knight," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 42 (1943), 149, asserts that
Bertilak was wearing the lace about his waist during his appearance at court, "for some magic
influence enabled him to come through the beheading alive." Loomis would like the girdle on the
challenger in order to make the scene at Camelot accord with the Irish story he is attempting to
make into an informative analogue. Similarly Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain
and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965), pp. 40, 264,
associates the green lace of the Temptation with the ornament added by the author of Caradoc to
the challenger's weapon. Allen M. Markman, "The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,"
PMLA, 72 (1957), 580, n. 8, disputes Loomis: Morgan's power was sufficient to see that Bertilak
survived Gawain's blow. If indeed Bertilak took the girdle to Arthur's hall "it was wrapped around
his ax helve, not about himself." Markman seems to have forgotten that the ax and its
garnishments were left behind at Camelot.

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 303

shape-shifting cor
think of a gird
therefore, to lear
were probably m
however, it was n
either as protecti
tion into a social g
modesty's sake. I
came as much fro
with the demoni
richly illustrates,
and champion be
corona of tonsur
magically promo
(Schutzmittel) an
as the toga, wh
developed specie
twice-born, with
event in the Brah
Roman Mithras c
initiation rite (co
(teleios), "the ini
called his 'garmen
Templars as culm
that had earlier b
worn ever afte
detectable in such
(XIII.1-11) carry
girdle clingeth t
whole house of J
and with gladnes
these passages an

Martin Stevens, "Laug


(1972), 77-78. Earlier M
the modern meaning of
girdle over his armor
Albert B. Friedman, "M
266; "sexual symbol"
Appraisal," PMLA, 76
Robert Briffault, The

VWilliam Graham Sum


vol. 3, pp. 260 ff.

8Wilhelm Wundt, Ele


86; R. B. Onians, The
1954), pp. 448 ff.

9Onians, pp. 453 ff.;


1901), p. 263. One migh
apron of freemasons.

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304 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

be the girdle of his loins and faithfulness the


have been analyzed to show that "God and med
means and no less in blessing than in cursing."'0'
The archaic magical force of girdling persist
Thor's strength doubled when he put on his magic
their wearers' strength as much as twentyfold
the gem-encrusted belts worn to gather tunics at
movement or over surcoats to support dagger
sovereignty, authority, power. To get someone
meant to conquer him. A vassal was supposed t
presence of his suzerain; a Duke of Brittany's f
to Charles VII precipitated a feud." 2 From Rom
Wars of Alexander,1 3 foot soldiers surrendered
around the hips which held their undergarment
period and fashion, which held their tunic
blessed"-from Persius to John Aubrey it was
and dissolute for a man to goe without his
preserves the fearful notion that the devilish li
will invade the higher functions unless dem
inspires Lear's condemnation of women: "But t
inherit,/Beneath is all the fiend's."
The girdles of women involve a somewhat dif
symbolic associations. The great legendary girdl
seem to have originated as symbols of cosmic sove
narrower jurisdictions. The girdle of Ishtar, w
Jewish high priest, represented the periph
universe, became a girdle of fertility. When s
underworld, reproduction ceased on earth. The
Herakles wrested from Hippolyta as his ninth la
Ares' numen, and the most famous of all gird
Aphrodite-Urania, at one stage a symbol of lif
early as Homer a "gurdul of lecherie," exudin
lust.' s It figures frequently as such in mediev
and is imitated in the girdle of Tasso's Armida

10Onians, p. 367.
11Wilhelm Mannhardt, Germanische Mythen (Berlin, 1858), p.
Deutsche Sagen, ed. Reinhold Steig (Berlin, 1903), No. 29;
deutschen Aberglaubens, ed. E. Hoffmann-Krayer and Hanns B
1927 ff.), s. v. "Giirtel".
12John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, ed.
Publication No. 4 (London, 1881), p. 43; Briffault, vol. 3, p. 288
13Ed. W. W. Skeat. Early English Text Society extra ser. 47 (1
14Aubrey, pp. 43, 60, 112.
1 50n these girdles, see Onians, Origins, pp. 368 ff.; Ernst Siec
(Jena, 1909), par. 217; and Robert Eisler, Weltenmantel und Hi
p. 161.

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 305

with Venus' licen


upon doubting T
symbol, an attri
Byzantium, at Pr
Christendom, and
women in difficult childbirth. Elizabeth of York had the Bruton relic
itself wound around her during one lying-in.' 6
But the prepotent girdle of course was the maiden's sash or belt whose
classical models were the Greek parthenin zone and the woolen girdle of
the Vestal Virgins tied with Hercules' knot. Basically an amulet to
preserve by advertising the virginity of the wearer, it was credited with,
among other things, holding wolves at bay' 7 and a wide range of healing
powers, all of which Luther denied and denounced. 8 Spenser, in having
Sir Satyrane capture the monster using Florimel's girdle (11.7; IV.5), was
refurbishing a romance commonplace-and one found in religious legends
as well: the maiden rescued by Lydgate's St. George was able to lead the
dragon into the city by her girdle.' 9 The untying of this virgin girdle
climaxed the thalamic part of the marriage ceremony. The girdle was the
husband's trophy; bridesmen fought for the bride's garters (later for
ribbons given out from her bosom-"a delicate substitution"), a custom
lasting into the nineteenth century in rural England.2 0 The succeeding
matron's girdle, suggestive of the sexual act and fertility and a pledge of
marital chastity, was sometimes embroidered with erotic mottoes, such as
"Minne ist stieziu Arbeit" inscribed on one in the thirteenth-century
German Arthurian romance Meleranz (1. 689). In medieval France
prostitutes were for long periods forbidden to wear girdles of any sort.2 1
The accessory to which all this magic and glamor attached was in
everyday use in England from the reign of William Rufus to George II.
Peasants had to make do with cords or leather thongs; ecclesiastics girt
themselves with rope as an earnest of poverty or the cingulum as a sign of
chastity. The basic girdle for men was a waist belt; in the upper classes this
was combined with, or superseded altogether by an ornamented girdle,

16W. C. Hazlitt, Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles (London, 1905), s. v. "lying-in."
1 7aul Sebillot, Folklore de France, vol. 3 (Paris, 1904-1907), p. 34.
18Alwin Schultz, Deutsches Leben im XIVten und XVten Jahrhundert (Vienna, 1892), p. 283;
Erich Klingner, Luther und der deutsche Volksaberglaube (Berlin, 1912; Palaestra LVI), p. 125.
19Minor Poems, ed. H. N. MacCracken, Early English Text Society, extra ser. 107 (London,
1911), p. 149, 11. 110 ff.
20Edward Westermarck, The History of Human Marriage, vol. 2 (New York: Allerton, 1922),
pp. 441 ff.; Onians, pp. 447 ff.; Handworterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, vol. 3, pp. 1216ff.
For rural customs, see County Folklore IV (Northumberland), Publications of the Folk-Lore
Society, 53 (1903), 92 ff. and P. H. Ditchfield, Old English Customs (London: Methuen, 1896), p.
199. On the fetishistic use of the Strumpfband, see Freud's comment on Faust, 1.7, in Three
Essays on Sexuality, tr. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1962), p. 20.
21Augustin Challamel, The History of Fashion in France (London: Sampson Low, 1882), p.
48; Franz Falk, Die Ehe am Ausgang des Mittelalters (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1908), p. 9.

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306 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

usually of leather, worn either low and s


from one hip to the opposite thigh, and
dagger and often a purse. But for the ar
tended to overwhelm the functional, to suc
century for a couple of generations gird
in the fourteenth century, women's surc
allow the richly worked girdles to b
noblewoman's girdle was usually silk, oft
gold or silver thread, perhaps studded wi
metal or jewels, and either encircled the
and went around again across the hips, t
hooked or tied with a symbolic knot
abdomen. In the late fourteenth century
with hooks and hangers on which were
books, or the like; to the girdle of a chat
keys, prayerbeads and a purse.2 2
We are now prepared to ask what fashio
received from Bertilak's lady? Howard
cincture from which one hung objects lik
function it was a convenient symbol of w
poem, however, "has the added lure of bein
has "magical properties to save the weare
to set the worldly and magical girdle agains
adjudges Gawain guilty because "he use
way."2 3 Unfortunately, this interpretat
worldliness, of "pride of life," though based
in the Oxford English Dictionary (wh
erroneous in defining Gawain's girdle2 4)
the girdle in the poem. This girdle is not
gear attached. It is a fancy sash of gr
embroidered. It has ornamental pendan
hooks or keyrings, for a girdle equipped
around the waist once, whereas Gawain w
his waist twice when setting out for th
without attachments other than tassels co
a diagonally-across-the-chest baldric or
knotted at the hip. A girdle with keys an

22The account is based mainly on Nancy Bradfield, H


the Twentieth Century (New York: Barnes and Nobl
Figure 1 is adapted), and F. W. Fairholt, Costume in
slashed surcoat and the late fourteenth-century "fittin
Histoire du costume en Occident (Paris: Flammarion, 19
23D. R. Howard, The Three Temptations (Princeton, N
pp. 222, 228-230; compare Englehardt, p. 224.
24The citation from Sir Gawain and the Green Kni
"string or cord serving to draw together opposite edges

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 307

worldliness, thoug
was being given d
garment, to be sure
When Gawain acce
do so:

... as a deliberate violation of the Exchange agreement. Those who overlook this
fact may do so because they mistake the term "girdle" with its modern meaning of
undergarment and thus, see Gawain as bound by discretion not to deliver it to the
lady's husband. Modernized versions of the poem are particularly deceptive about
this matter, as witness the following translation by Brian Stone:

She gracefully grasped the girdle of her gown


Which went round her waist under the wonderful mantle,
A girdle of green silk with a golden hem
Embroidered only at the edges, with hand-stitched ornament.2"

Actually Stone's translation of the critical lines (1830-1831)-


Ho la3t a lace ly3tly Oat leke vmbe hir sydez,
Knit vpon hir kyrtel vnder he clere mantyle-

is quite faithful. Stevens apparently thinks that Stone has implied the
girdle is an undergarment when Stone has conveyed the correct idea that
the lady was wearing a light mantle or indoor cloak that fell from her
shoulders (see Figure 1) and covered the girdle around the waist of her
gown (kyrtel) at the back and sides.
But what Stevens must especially challenge is the assertion that the
girdle connoted a "sexual trophy" which would cause Bertilak to "draw
damaging inferences" if it were handed over in the Exchange agreement.
That notion might tell against the "fact" that Gawain's withholding the
girdle was not a deliberate violation of the agreement. General reasons for
regarding the magic girdle as a "sexual trophy" or "sexual symbol"-
indeed putatively magical because sexual-have already been suggested in
our hurried sweep of girdle lore. Pointed evidence is to be found in the
text itself. Twice (11. 1874, 2438) the girdle is called a "luf-lace," once
(2033) a "drurye," glossed by the editors as a "love-token," the same
word later applied by the poet to the illicit dalliance of Merlin and
Morgan. What the girdle meant to the poet's hearers and how they would
understand it to be operating in the poem is best learned, however, by
looking at the romance conventions and narrative patterns which would
have conditioned their reaction to the events of the poem. A knight on a
perilous adventure encounters a young matron who offers him her body.
He politely resists her advances, but though frustrated, she offers him a
costly ring, which he refuses, then a girdle, which he accepts because it
will magically protect him in the ordeal he must undergo. Hearing this
scenario a medieval courtly audience would have running vaguely in the

25Stevens, "Laughter and Game," pp. 77-78.

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308 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

ri"5

1II l~;i I111 11IIILb~l\ JL

Figure 1. Twelfth-century noblewoman wearing indoor


girdle which goes twice around her gown (kyrtel) at the wa
from Nancy Bradfield), Historical Costumes from the Elev
Twentieth Century (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1958), p.

back of its mind the common pattern of a questing hero


Gawain, has a fulfilled amorous encounter with a goddess, n
princess, or mere lady. On parting after as little as a night or,
Ogier the Dane,2 6 as long as 200 years, the hero receives from
mistress (here acting the same role as the grateful dead or
animal) a magical aid, usually a ring or girdle, both of whic

26L. A. Paton, Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance


Franklin, 1960), pp. 77-78.

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 309

one aspect, uni


binding magic.
girdle is not a re
reward for virtu
Gawain, to be sure, but neither Gawain nor we know this until the
denouement. These off-pattern variations, ambiguities, contradictions are
what give the poem's plot its subtlety and distinction; yet despite these
specific differences, the phantom generic narrative in the background, we
would argue, shows through to give objects like the girdle their effective
meaning in the plot and their symbolic valence.
Since the sea-nymph Ino had Odysseus tie her headband around his
waist to sustain magically his three-day swim to evade Poseidon
(V.333-350), "one of the most widespread motifs in fairy stories" has
been "the gift by the fairy to some mortal favorite of an article with
magic properties."27 Intent on proving Sir Gawain derived from a fairy
mistress tale, Hulbert gathered a sheaf of references to such gifts, and
Loomis adduced further examples in the course of trying to prove the
green lace an integral part of the Celtic donneie. 8 Here he was opposing
Kittredge, who thought the lace "not an old feature of the legend": the
English poet or his French predecessor simply picked a tried motif out of
"his own stock of traditional story."2 9 And in truth in only one analogue,
the Gasozein episode in Diu Crone is there a girdle with impressive
resemblances to the green lace: it is a girdle that makes its wearer
invincible which was won by Gawain from a fairy as a gift for Guinevere.
In the same poem, incidentally, Gawain and Gasozein receive girdles as
love-tokens from their wives. Our business, however, is not with when the
green girdle was incorporated in the story but rather with the immediate
audience's perception of it, and all this evidence assembled for quite
another purpose confirms that the girdle had clear sexual connotations.
Indeed, the connotations were so strong that refined romance writers
attempt to veil them. In the romance of Fierabras, which exists in three
English versions, the French heroes are besieged by the sultan. They
cannot be starved out because the sultan's daughter Floripas is with them
and lending them the help of her girdle, which magically satisfies the
hunger of anyone who puts it on, or looks on it, no matter how briefly.
(The paynim princess who, out of love for a Christian hero, betrays her
family and correligionists has here and elsewhere replaced the fairy
mistress who betrays faerie to help her lover.) The sultan sends a thief,
one Maupin (OF. Maubrun), to scale the walls at night and make off with
the girdle. But no sooner has Maupin taken the girdle from the sleeping
Floripas than, heedless of his mission, he attempts to rape her. The

27J. R. Hulbert, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Modern Philology, 13 (1916), 707.
28Ibid., pp. 707-718; Loomis, pp. 149-155.
29George Lyman Kittredge, A Study of Gawain and the Green Knight (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1916), p. 140.

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310 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

English versions suppress the attempted rape o


French chanson de geste is quite graphic (Par l
acole)31' and the Old Irish Stair Fortibrais al
uime e do togaibh cos na hingine, & dob ail l
denum ria).2 One suspects Maupin's prize w
virginity and concomitant invincibility; once he
was vulnerable to his advances and the castle to th
alleviates hunger by sight or donning does not
folkloric precedent; even if it did, it would be str
off hunger (in one version it is trivialized to prot
tangled hair!)33 should provoke violent lust.
But the story complex that best illustrates th
archaic girdle magic and resoundingly confirms th
the tragic Brunhilde-Siegfried-Kriemhilde trian
Brunhilde refuses herself to Gunther on their wed
end to his importunities, she subdues him, bind
and hangs him from a nail on the wall until th
asks the assistance of his brother-in-law and v
night Siegfried enters the chamber with th
Tarnkappe, a cloak of invisibility. There he wre
attempts to bind him with her girdle but he fi
When Siegfried turns aside, ostensibly to undre
in bed. At the end of the struggle, Siegfried h
Brunhilde's finger and also made off with her
Volsunga Saga version of the affair (Chap. 27),
wall of fire to Brynhild's hall and the bridal be
horse, he cannot get through, but Sigurd, assum
does get through and sleeps with Brynhild for
chastely between them, and he receives as a love
called Andvari's Loom.
How the romance and late saga writers have euphemized the incident
becomes apparent when one looks up the primitive form of the story in
the Thidriks Saga.34 On the wedding night, Brynhild binds Gunnar with
his and her girdle and hangs him on the wall. The disheartened king calls
upon Sigurd for help. So long as Brynhild retains her maidenhood (and,
understood, the girdle that guarantees it), no man can control her, he tells

30Firumbras and Otuel and Roland, ed. M. I. O'Sullivan, Early English Text Society, 198
(London, 1935), p. 7, 11. 136 ff.; Sir Ferumbras, ed. S. J. Herrtage, Early English Text Society
extra ser. 34 (London, 1879), pp. 79-80, 11. 2413 ff. Suppressed in The Romance of the Sowdone
of Babylone, ed. Emil Hausknecht, Early English Text Society, extra ser. 38 (London, 1881), pp.
67-68, 11. 2350 ff.

31Fierabras, ed. Auguste Kroeber and G. M. J. Servois (Paris, F. Vieweg, 1860), p. 93, 1. 3080.
32Ed. Whitley Stokes, Revue Celtique, 19 (1898), 154; politely translated "And as he put the
girdle around him, he lifted the damsel's leg and desired to deflower her... "
33Fierabras, p. 62, 11. 2021-2022.
34Ed. H. Bertelsen (Copenhagen, 1909), vol. 2, pp. 37 ff.

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 311

his brother-in-
the room in Sig
gratuitous roma
takes her maid
the morning h
another.
The ring and g
Brunhilde sets
between Brunh
latter taunts Br
beautiful body
maidenhead (m
brought it to m
lac)." Actually i
with Brunhilde,
does not convi
Kriemhilde wil
erziuge'z mit de
silk with its la
convinced; she
Siegfried (Str.
version Siegfrie
lying? Had Siegf
that saves their
hatte geschwiit
have to be told.
coy poet was wil
The girdle in S
eloquent for th
why the lady
Gawain finds h
loyally to her,
would feel justi
girdle to her hu
just as Orilus of
on the hero, assumes that she had taken him for a lover. Of course
Gawain's overriding reason for keeping the girdle was his desire to save his
life, to even the odds in his ordeal with a fairy monster; that being so, the
connotations of the girdle strengthen his rationalizations. By devious but
understandable processes the girdle has come to be exclusively associated
in Gawain's mind with the adventure of the Green Chapel not as a relevant

35Hans Naumann, "Briinhilds Giirtel," Zeitschriftfiir deutches Altertum, 70 (1933), 47. There
is an English analogue to Brunhilde's treatment of Gunther in Josian's use of her girdle on Earl
Miles, her undesired husband, in Sir Beues of Hampton, ed. Eugen Kolbing, Early English Text
Society, extra ser., 46, 48, 65 (1885-1894), 11. 2863 ff.

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312 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

item in the exchange agreement, which is after all


while away the time before his moment of dead
of thinking-and the poet gives us more than e
formation-permits Gawain to make his confessio
And just as the girdle ingeniously complicates
in this passage, elsewhere in the poem it has a sim
purity, refracting lines of moral action. Its acc
were, says Kittredge, "felicitous touches, for Gawa
the unnatural category of schematic perfection
reach of human understanding" (p. 140). His
lady's wiles to the extent of accepting the girdl
resolute but polite skill with which he had par
that event. And in the eyes of some critics, the
even though it is left ambiguous how much Ga
protective magic, undercuts his bravery in present
Chapel. But this last judgment betrays an illeg
with clear-cut moral motives. An audience t
trained to regard Horn's ring of invincibility
invincibility as no reflection on their possesso
Gawain's resorting to an amulet, even one of fa
cowardly than his wearing of the pentangle and
armor.

The fashion in which Gawain wears the girdle as he


meet his doom may need further explanation. Overl
explicit statements, many readers fall into the error of
left the castle with the girdle concealed under his armo
perhaps by the fact that Gawain had initially concealed
the modern undergarment theory; perhaps, too, our hin
that Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same person
forget that Gawain had no idea of their identity." And
wear it on the outside? The surcoat was emblazoned w
"over this surcoat he wraps the girdle, which is th
defection from the virtues of the pentangle. Hence, ph
spiritually, the girdle superseded the pentangle, a

externalized
makes hismoral
a colorful moraltableau,
condition ... does
but it ",3 6not
Alltouch
this on
is gracefully put, and
the real reason,
in our opinion, for Gawain wearing the girdle over his surcoat. Magical
objects do not constantly exert their magical force; it is potential, and it
must be conjured up at need by some such device as reciting a formula,
sprinkling with water, waving a wand, rubbing or handling according to

36Malarkey and Toelken, pp. 17, 19-20. Compare the Jungian explanation of Stephen Manning,
"A Psychological Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," in Howard-Zacher, p. 290:
"The girdle is the circle of the womb, of what Neumann calls the uroboros, of regression, of
conquest by the unconscious, and it is worn hidden. It is, however, potentially the mandala, the
circle of individuation, and it is worn externally. It thus symbolizes both Gawain's shame and his
self-knowledge."

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 313

some other proto


the time he will ne
girdle's magical in
commonest mean
That Gawain does
does have some fait
The way the gir
returns with it to
it were indeed a g
with it.3 8 Bertil
reference to the g
unloosed from h
Gawain chooses to
chest from right s
way the knights
commemorate th
uncommon in the
strapped their horn
which the Knight
surely Gawain's ch
of shame": could
heraldic differen
teenth-century no
was simply follo
practical object i
employed in a non
Worn around th

37The girdle's greennes


with the threatening im
wearing the girdle, Gaw
meet, employing thus
protecting oneself homeo
38Critics, says Markma
magic talisman never p
haemony, which Herm
immediately forgotten a
parallels the evolution o
charm passes into the m
39MS Rosenbach 156; s
Tales A 116. On belt as b
and France (London: M
costume, pp. 162-163. G
military hanger for a sw
nor should it be confu
fifteenth century, whi
Beard, "Girdles, Shoulde
Costume Throughout th
40Compare the objets
Bachelors (New York: V

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314 ALBERT B. FRIEDMAN and RICHARD H. OSBERG

functional by holding a tunic in place, or if


taken as a favor worn by a knight in hon
baldric, no horn attached and a decorative
clearly read as ceremonial and commemor
chance of he grene chapel" (2398-2399).
The first reader of Sir Gawain who recor
the scribe of Cotton Nero A x or a correct
confirms the main point we have been
comment was brief: the legend at the end of
pence, the motto, slightly altered, of the Ord
Gawain is a poem about the founding
problematic, but it is relevant to inquire w
should have thought it was about the foundin
Clearly the associating link was the girdle.
Polydore Vergil about the founding of the O
is dancing with the Countess of Salisbury w
The king stoops and recovers it, the cour
action," the king makes his famous retort
sportive humour" because the garter was a
the seventeenth century when gallants wore
nineteenth century when rural bridesmen
favor from the legs of the new bride and
fetish from the legs of music hall artistes.
girdle, and the fourteenth-century hand a
was drawing the same inferences about th
had done. And not only do garter and g
heraldry, but pentangle and girdle as wel
originated not in insignia on shields to flau
to identify him but in devices like the penta
as amulets against the evil eye.4 2
It only remains to ask why, if the girdle is
the poem, the poet painstakingly laid out
angle, guiltily delaying the narrative to d
for the meaning of the girdle. Exegetical crit

rack of the kind then in use for drying bottles-it had fi


name to it. By the mere act of signing, he removed the rac
(derisively) in the context of a 'work of art.' "

41Historia Anglica (Basel, 1555), pp. 378 ff. The English


Ashmole, The Institution ... of the Order of the Garte
Polydore Vergil uses the word "cingulum," girdle, belt, in t
F. T. Elworthy, The Evil Eye (New York: Julian
Hulbert, "Sir Gawain" pp. 145 ff. Another unremarked h
out: the three blows of the Green Knight's ax parody th
accolade, a parody made all the more interesting if we re
the form of light coldes ("coups sur le col") instead of t
s. v. "colee" and R. W. Barber, The Knight and Chival
1970), p. 27.

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GAWIN'S GIRDLE 315

the paradigmatic
language, but in
pentangle "the e
England, but in co
knot has ever been
here is known any
Gawain's virtues t
and incongruencie
dubious necroma
Christianized it, ela
his hero's perfec
fabricated ad hoc
meticulously becau
to meet it.4 4 With
"natural" psychic
and, in certain rea

Claremont Graduate School


Claremont, California
Barat College
Lake Forest, Illinois

43Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, 2nd edn. ed.
Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 93.

Here we are partly contradicting Burrow, p. 189: "There is in Sir Gawain an interesting
contrast between the pentangle, so considered as a naturally 'entitled' sign, and the green girdle
which the hero later adopts in its place, as a 'token of vntrawke'. The latter has no natural title to
any particular moral signification: Gawain institutes it as a sign of untruth for purely personal
reasons." But even Burrow, pp. 45 ff., concedes the artificiality of the poet's exposition of the
pentangle's symbolism and questions the arguments of R. W. Ackerman and R. H. Green to the
contrary.

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