This ubiquitous theme is represented first in Arthurian literature in Robert Biket’s Lai du Cor and the anonymous La Mantel mautaillié, two late twelfth-century French lays. In Biket’s romance, the object that tests chastity is a drinking horn, while in Mantel is a mantle or cloak. These two objects are the most frequently used in later texts, though a crown and a glove also appear.
In the Welsh Triads, a chastity mantle is owned by Tegau, a lady at Arthur’s court, and it is counted among the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. Tegau is also given a horn which may have the same properties as the mantle.
In Biket, a messenger from King Mangon of Moraine brings an enchanted horn, made by a fairy, to a feast at Arthur’s Caerleon court, where most of Arthur’s nobles are present. A note on the horn says that only a man whose wife is completely faithful in both mind and body can drink from the horn, and that a man with an unfaithful wife will have the contents of the horn spilled upon him. Arthur confidently fills the horn and raises it to his lips, but soon finds himself doused with wine. Furious, he whips out his dagger and lunges for Guinevere, but is held back by Owain (Ywaine), Gawain, and Cadain “who protest that no woman is utterly faithful in both mind and body” while Guinevere explains that the horn has unfairly faulted her for, many years ago, giving a ring to a young knight who had killed a giant.
Arthur calms down, forgives his wife, and passes the horn around to the other nobles so that he might not be alone in his embarrassment. Sure enough, the other knights are thoroughly drenched by the horn – except for Sir Caradoc, who manages to drink from the vessel without spilling any liquid, showing that his wife is, apparently, completely faithful. In recognition of his triumph, Arthur appoints Caradoc Earl of Cirenchester. A version of this same chastity test is inserted in the First Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval, with Caradoc again the hero.
Contemporary to Biket, an anonymous French author wrote Le Mantel Mautaillié, which follows the same structure as Biket’s romance, but the object that tests the women’s chastity is a mantle rather than a horn. While in Biket, the men drink from the horn, in Mantel, it is the women who must try on the mantle. Again, it is Caradoc’s wife alone who is proven faithful. The third late twelfth century chastity test tale occurs in Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet. It also involves a mantle, and Lancelot’s lady, Iblis, is the winner. Ulrich’s mantle has not only the power to determine chastity, but can also determine the manner in which the woman is unfaithful. The wife of King Guivret, for instance, is embarrassed by his dwarfishness, and the wife of Sir Kailet resented the way he dragged her around on his adventures.
Heinrich von dem Türlin’s Diu Crône includes two chastity tests, one involving a goblet, and the other a glove, which are obvious replacements for the horn and mantle. The goblet is given to both women and men, and spilling the contents reveals the drinker’s own falseness rather than his or her paramour’s. Only Arthur is able to drink from it without failure. Even Gawaine, the hero of the romance, fails. Kay makes great sport of all who fail, which leads to his embarrassment when his own lady, Galaida, can’t even touch the tankard. Guenevere spills only a little wine in her attempt. The glove, delivered to Arthur’s court in a later episode, showed worthiness by turning its wearer invisible. Any part of the body that remained visible bespoke a fault – infidelity or otherwise. Only Arthur and Gawaine were able to wear it honorably, though no one was shown to be completely guileless.
Chastity tests appear in dozens of other romances, including the Dutch Wrake von Raguisel (a mantle proves Guinevere’s infidelity; Lancelot therefore develops an irrational rage against all mantles and people who wear them, nearly killing his friend Yder when he sees Yder’s lady wearing a mantle); the German Der Mantel; the Norse Mottuls Saga (only Sir Karadin’s (Caradoc Briefbas) lady is faithful); the Shrovetide play Ain hupsches vasnachtspill und sagt von künig Arthus, wie er siben fursten mit iren weyben zuo seinem hoff geladen het und wie si durch ain horn geschendet worden gar hupsch zuo hören (the Queen of Zipper sends the horn to Arthur’s court and all are embarrassed); the German ‘Lanethen Mantel’ (Arthur’s niece Laneth sends a mantle to Arthur’s court as part of a rivalry with Guinevere); the English Romance of Sir Corneus; the German Dis ist frauw Tristerat horn von Saphoien (Tristerat of Savoy sends the horn to Arthur’s court, and only the wife of the King of Spain is faithful); the Shrovetide play Der Luneten Mantel (a lady named Lunet sends the mantle to Arthur’s court; again, only the King of Spain has a faithful wife); another Shrovetide play called Das Vasnachtspil mit der kron (a chastity crown sent to Arthur’s court by the King of Abian tests the men by having horns grow out of their heads if they are unfaithful to their wives; the crown is ultimately returned to its sender); and the English ballad ‘The Boy and the Mantle’ (Caradoc, again, is the hero).
In the Prose Tristan, Morgan le Fay sends a chastity horn to Arthur’s court to reveal the adultery of Guinevere, Morgan’s enemy. Sir Lamorat intercepts the horn en route and re-directs it to King Mark of Cornwall. (Lamorat previously had a fight with Tristan and wanted to embarrass Isolde.) When Isolde failed the test, Mark forced her into a second type of chastity test involving a hot iron. If anyone holding the iron told a lie, the iron would burn the person’s hand. Isolde was able to use a trick of language to avoid telling a lie while leaving the impression that she was chaste. This type of test occurs previously in Béroul’s Tristan. Morgan also sends the horn to Arthur’s court in La Tavola Ritonda and Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
In Hans Sachs’s Die Ehbrecherbuck, Arthur builds a magic chastity bridge that does not allow adulterers to cross. Though the other ladies at his court fall off the bridge, his wife, Guinevere, is able to pass. Finally, the German ballad “Die Ausgleichung” describes how the women at Arthur’s court are tested with a mantle, the men with a horn. All fail except the old knight and fairy who brought the items in the first place.
Without fail, each chastity test occurs in a public setting – generally a court gathering – and each knight’s or lady’s failure results in humiliation. Many of the romances that include chastity tests display an implicit or explicit critique of Arthurian chivalry.
Lai du Cor | Robert Biket, mid to late 12th century
Le Mantel Mautaillié | Late 12th century
Lanzelet | Ulrich von Zatzikhoven, c. 1200
First Continuation of Perceval | Attributed to Wauchier of Denain, c. 1200
De Wrake van Ragisel | Early to mid 13th century
Diu Crône | Heinrich von dem Türlin, c. 1230
Der Mantel | Possible Heinrich von dem Türlin, 13th century
Möttuls Saga | 13th century
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325-1350
Ain Hupsches Vasnachtspill und Sagt von Künig Artus | 15th century
Lanethen Mantel | 15th century
Dis Ist Frauw Tristerat Horn von Saphoien | 15th century
Der Luneten Mantel | 15th century
Das Vasnachtspil Mit der Kron | 15th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
The Boy and the Mantle | 16th century
Die Ausgleichung | 1806
Die Ehbrecherbruck | Hans Sachs, 1545