For the study of this text, Erec and Enide, we will use the edition of Jean-Marie Fritz, according to the manuscript BN. En 1376, The book de Poche, « lettres gothiques » n° 4526, 1992. Voici la première partie de l’étude : le rôle des femmes.
The Lady demands respect and protection.
Whether virgin or "lady", the woman must be respected and protected: thus, the affront suffered by Queen Guinevere during the white deer hunt requires Erec to leave without delay to avenge her, that this affront was direct, or indirect (it was the "virgin", the next one, who was hit).
In the same way, the cries of a virgin in danger constitute for a knight an absolute obligation to help her, whatever the cost: this is how Erec will go in pursuit of two giants.
The Lady and the Knight: an inseparable couple.
Just as there can be no "knight" without a lady (thus Erec is not allowed to hunt as long as he has no lady), there can be no lady without a knight: before having met Erech, Énidus is only an anonymous virgin, subject to the authority of her father, and awaiting a husband. At most, she can fend off suitors who do not suit her - to a certain extent.
But it is not enough to be chosen by a knight to automatically become a lady: thus, the laudatory portrait of Enidus, c. 2409-2429, sums up the duties of a "Lady": she must be beautiful, wise, good, generous, and above all of irreproachable conduct. In short, his nobility of heart should be perfectly reflected in his appearance; she must do her knight honor. The cousin of Énidus, who locked her husband in a "prison of love" which prevents him from being fully a knight, could not be a lady, and is never designated except as a "virgin".
An ambiguous status.
The status of the Lady seems rather ambiguous: on the one hand, she exercises a certain moral authority, and can advise her husband: Guinevere thus obtains the postponement of the kissing ceremony until Erec's return; but at the same time, she remains in a subordinate status, which imposes obedience to her: when Erech demands that she tell him the cause of his tears, then when he orders her to ride in front of him in her finery, thus becoming a target that he will defend to regain his rank, it can only comply; and when she is led to disobey him, for example by warning him of a danger, she is severely blamed.
And if the first novel of Chrétien constitutes an exception, usually, the Lady remains confined to the castle, while the knight engages in the hunt, in the tournament, or goes on an adventure ...
We can see it with Queen Guinevere: she can intervene in matters concerning court life: she advises the King to postpone the "white deer kiss", welcomes Enidus and offers him his own clothes, and takes part in the organization of marriage, at least for women. But she does not play strictly any political role with Arthur, who reigns and decides alone.
In short, it is for his Lady, and thanks to her, that the knight acquires and retains his status; but for him she is hardly more than an end, and not a true companion. In the Middle Ages, heroism was not a woman's business.
Rather abused women
The woman as prey
If the role of the knight is to protect and help women, it is because they are often in great danger. Several episodes show it:
- Enid, forced to ride in front of Erech, plays a real bait role, so that her husband, by protecting her, regains his status as a knight. And in fact, during the meeting with the brigand knights, they will want to seize both the horses and the lady!
- On several occasions, when Erec is absent or in a situation of weakness, Énidus fails to be forcibly abducted: first by the Count Galoain, who does not hesitate to betray the laws of hospitality, then by the Count of Limors, who will want to take advantage of the supposed death of the knight to seize his Lady.
- It also sometimes happens that the young girl does not interest the brigands, and is then abandoned in the middle of the forest: this will be the case with the "virgin" rescued by Erec during his first adventures.
Worse still: the chivalrous ethic underlines, by contrast, the extreme brutality of medieval society, especially with regard to the weakest, therefore women.
- The novel begins with a lash hit full in the face of a young girl;
- Then, on two occasions, it is Enid herself who is threatened, and even struck, first by the Count Galoain, then by the Count of Limors.
Women are therefore never, or hardly ever, actors of their destiny. When one of them takes power (the virgin of the “Joy of the Court”), she is condemned, and ends up losing all influence: once Mabonagrain is released, she can only cry. Likewise, once the “recreation” of Erech has been revealed, Enidus will have no other choice but to follow his knight.
Even the proud virgin who accompanies Ydier hardly appears as a stake: whether he loses or wins the fight, she can only suffer ...
In short, Cervantes' Don Quixote will only prolong this situation to the point of absurdity: basically, does the “Lady of her thoughts” really need to really exist?