Development of gender equality in English medieval society fixed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Original article

Rosamond Eileen O’Néill,

PhD, Journalist, Galway Chronicle, Galway, Republic of Ireland

Address: 4 John Coogan Park, Newcastle, Galway H91 X5RP, Ireland


Article ID: 010110110

Published online: 18 February 2019




Quoting (Chicago style): O’Néill, Rosamond Eileen. 2019. “Development of gender equality in English medieval society fixed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.Beacon J Stud Ideol Ment Dimens 2, 010110110.

Language: Russian

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In the work, the author studies the ideological use of Celtic symbolism in the chivalric poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" to depict the gender equality. It is demonstrated that "Sir Gawain" can be considered not only a novel, but a social work coining gender equality in medieval society. In "Sir Gawain" different signs play an important role, form the reader's attitude to the idea of gender equality. They also build a certain Christian ideological view of the world, communicate the religious maxims and ideological attitudes, within which the equality narration is built.

Key words: secular homiletics, religious ideology, non-canonical preaching of Christianity, Celtic symbolism, semiotics, chivalric epic, courtly romance, medieval English literature, Sir Gawain, the Green Knight, Arthurian cycle, Matter of Britain, King Arthur, Morgan Le Fay, Lady Bertilak, gender equality

Extended summary in English


Courtly poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written in the late Middle Ages (about 1330-1400) in Northwest Midlands, England, is an excellent example of developing ideology of gender equality in anthology of Roman Catholic ideological stories.


In the semiotic space of Sir Gawain, the signs form a story about female emancipation. This story reflects major shifts in English society of the late fourteenth century from patriarchate to female importance in social and political life. The symbols of Sir Gawain are not only plot markers, and even not only plot-forming milestones, but core elements of visual and lingual dimensions of ideological apparatus of gender equality. The symbols used by the Pearl Poet (the conditional name under which we know the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) build a semiotic and semantic ‘springs’, which, gradually unwinding, make the ideological narrative of female dominance move in several directions.


A separate semiotic dimension of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be represented as the following logical-semiotic chain of characters:  {Part I} → the Green Knight → the Green Knight’s first axe / beheading → Headless Horseman → {part II} → Gawain’s shield with a five-pointed star (pentangle, “the endless knot”) → Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle → the quasi-pagan altar in the castle of Bertilak → exchange of looks with Bertilak → {part III} → [seduction / chase] → Lady Bertilak’s gold ring with ruby → Lady Bertilak’s green girdle → three kisses → {part IV} → fog → Green Chapel → grindstone → the Green Knight’s second axe / attempted beheading → green girdle / nick on the neck → replicated green girdles of knights of the Round Table → {the end of the poem}.


I argue that this is a powerful technique of literary ideological influence. In the time of the Black Death in England, social roles of women became exceptionally important as they were connected with birth and death much more than men’s roles. These were occult and magical rituals, invocation of spirits and divination. They began to spread throughout the country. The Pearl Poet may have written his work with the ideological purpose of strengthening the position of Roman Catholicism in Northwest England during the Hundred Years War and depicting weaknesses of the Celtic pagan worldview. But he came, voluntarily or unintentionally, to strong argumentation in favour of importance of female social roles.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight appears in a rather unexpected light, if we assume that, perhaps, the gender ideological meanings contained in it, play a crucial role in building a completed ideological story about female dominance in Northwest Midlands in the fourteenth century. Female emancipation is opposed to Roman Catholic ideology. Using the example of Sir Gawain, we may find ourselves closer to explaining the evolution of the English medieval society. The analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may be particularly useful for our understanding the ideological tools and instruments of overturning traditional hierarchy of gender social roles in English society of the late Middle Ages.

© 2019 Rosamond Eileen O’Néill.
Licensee The Beacon: Journal for Studying Ideologies and Mental Dimensions.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( that permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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