"There was meat, there was mirth, there was much joy:" The Manipulative Sotilte of Middle English Romance
The Middle English sotilte and its Middle French counterpart, the entremet, refer to the elements during a feast that conjure wonder. Like “feast” and “banquet,” both terms have been used interchangeably, with the entremet coming to signify a sweet dessert at the end of a meal in modern usage of the term. In Middle English romance, the sotilte of the feast builds upon the connotations that “subtlety” carry—guile, artifice, craft, even deceit.
Perhaps the most well-known of all Middle English sotiltes is the sudden intrusion of the Green Knight during the Christmastide feast in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Arthur awaits a marvel and receives one in the form of a giant green man who mocks the court, challenges Arthur, and brings Gawain into a deadly beheading game. The court is shocked, and their mirth turns to silent astonishment, with rumblings of their disquietude reverberating long after the feast and its sotilte conclude. Not all sotiltes are so literal, and my research turns to both the material and literal depictions of the sotilte as well as more figurative or metaphorical representations thereof the festal element. I ultimately argue that the sotilte lingers long after the trestle tables have been cleared from the great hall—that is, the emotionally manipulative effects of the sotilte in Middle English romance are lasting and sometimes remain unresolved in the narratives.
My dissertation traces the affective manipulation that such sotiltes enact on gathered communities in three Middle English romances: Richard Coer de Lyon, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I argue that the sotilte is a key feature of medieval romance that offers insight into the constellations of power that are ever in flux, and that the sotilte complicates rather than clarifies any tensions that may be present in the midst of communities. My approach to the Middle English feast builds upon art historian Christina Normore’s study of performativity at the late medieval banquet. While I model my approach to the English sotilte on Normore’s treatment of historical and fictional feasts from the Western European late medieval corpus, I delve more deeply into the affective aspects of the interlude and how such feelings influence a community. My dissertation is particularly concerned with how these groups of characters recover from a disruptive interlude—if they do at all.
Because my work concerns how both groups of people and individuals therein navigate emotional manipulation, I draw from three key scholars of the history of emotions to illuminate the relational dynamics that the sotilte influences: Barbara Rosenwein’s notion of emotional communities and their shared values and judgments illustrates how groups cohere and maintain bonds in the midst of beguilement and even treachery; William Reddy’s concepts of emotional regimes and emotives offer insight on the ways in which people do (and do not) express emotion; and finally, Mark Seymour’s figuration of emotional arenas explains how people condition their emotional displays depending upon the social spaces they inhabit. All three of these scholars of emotions’ history offer useful frameworks for illuminating social emotions as they appear textually.
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Evans, Kelly, "“Þer watz mete, þer watz myrþe, þer watz much ioye”: The Manipulative Sotilte of Middle English Romance" (2023). English Theses and Dissertations. 18.