Deviance and the Medieval Woman


When Morgan learns of the death of Sir Accolon, schemes of her revenge and enchants the magic mantle

The sharp, hollow sounds of hooves striking the cobblestoned path pry Morgan’s focus away from the altar. Fearing the discovery of her escape,1 she rushes to take ahold of her mirror so that she may glance at the courtyard without being discovered by her pursuers. She may have secured her freedom from King Uriens, but he is not yet dead. In the periphery marches forward a small cavalry, no more than six men – knights from Camelot, no doubt – a riderless horse in their midst. Not riderless, a closer look determines. Something – someone­ – lies draped across the saddle, bound hand and foot. A cape bearing the seal of Pendragon engulfs the body, dyed a red far deeper than the proud colours of the knights of Camelot, she would soon discover. Though unrecognisable from a distance, the visage is home to a head of dark hair, far too familiar. Warm memories of fingers threading through dark locks surge – the fondness slowly replaced with an unsettling dread. Morgan locks them away, the memories bubbling beneath the surface, threatening to spill. She focuses instead on the scene unfolding before her eyes.

The abbess rushes out to the courtyard to receive the unwelcome guests. The knights come to a halt; the two parties attentively eying each other. A knight at the fore, the leader, breaks formation advancing towards the abbess while the rest remain, awaiting orders. He beckons her. He seems to explain their arrival, pointing towards the window from which Morgan observes. The abbess nods hurriedly, instructing one of the younger nuns to head into the nunnery. Within seconds Morgan hears a knock at her door. There is a ringing in her ears – the shrill sound getting louder by the second. In a daze, she follows the nun out to the courtyard, eyes nearly glazed over. The realization is there, straining to emerge – but she keeps a hold on it like doors of iron welded shut with no opportunities of escape. She cannot. She must not.2 She now knows that the knights are here for her – just not for her treachery. She is free, but what good is this freedom? Liberation is a spurious concept.3 She will never be free.  Each step feels torturous – her apprehension, an ankle weight dragging deeper and deeper. Time moves slowly. She can feel its passage, she can nearly touch it.

She approaches the cavalry, her eyes darting towards the lifeless figure that the knights so fervently protect. Each glance reveals something familiar – a ring on the index engraved with the phases of the moon, a nose crooked from an encounter with the hilt of a sword, the faded aura of a protection spell. Drop by drop, the pit in her stomach fills with anguish. Her heart is molten. She vaguely hears the knight addressing her, but his words are obscured by the insurmountable dread that strickens her. It is though her consciousness has left her body. She sees her head lifelessly nod in response to the knight, but it feels as though it is not her doing the nodding.

– died from his wounds.
Excalibur is in its rightful hands.
treasonous acts were in vain.

The knights seem to know not of her love for Sir Accolon2 – solely gloating over the failure of her plan. Her heart burns with anguish but her face does not betray her, keeping her countenance inscrutable and indifferent. The secret is hers and hers alone. She protects these vestiges of her liberation3 within herself. With a haughty expression, she dismisses the knights ordering them to leave the body at the church, He will be given the last rites he deserves4. They do not try to capture her – it is apparent that Arthur has plans to punish her treason himself. Instructing the nuns to begin the process of his last rites, she gives her lover a final glance before she slips back into her chambers. Only when she is far enough from everyone, locked in her quarters, does she allow her body to feel the visceral pain the news brought her. She lets out a piercing wail5. A dam breaks loose – tears streaming; her pain – insurmountable. And when they run out, all she is left with is a lingering numbness – at its core a tiny flame flickering angrily waiting to be stoked. A coldness creeps over her body, her mind starts calculating6.

Morgan forces herself to remember – each memory more painful than the last. She thinks of his smile. She thinks of stolen moments in the castle corridors. She thinks of her loveless marriage and how he liberated her3 – slowly breathing life into her. She thinks of his lifeless corpse, his cape stained with his blood. With each memory the flame becomes stronger, hotter, angrier. She is livid and she allows herself to feel every bit of her rage. She harnesses it but leaves it unrestrained5. It fuels her. They called her clever6, they called her conniving, they called her a treasonous witch. She decides to embody those very  qualities. If it was treason they wanted, treason they would get. She will have her revenge. A life for a life. A bitter plan starts to formulate. All she knows is that the price for her pain is complete and utter agony.  Her wrath is a dangerous thing and Arthur decided to test it. A wicked smile slowly begins to spread across Morgan’s face – the likes of which would terrify the bravest of men. Her fingers start buzzing with energy – magic seeping through her bones, coursing through her veins right alongside her fury. Soon it is not just her pulsating with energy. Every single stone in the walls vibrates with her anger – Nature supporting her through every step of the way. She was never one for animal sacrifice, but the situation warrants the use of the strongest of magic. A lamb would do – pure and white – a symbol of her love7. The sun has begun to set. She lights a candle as an offering. She lets out another wailing cry. Then kneeling at the foot of the altar, she begins to pray:

8O Night, pray heal my sorrowful heart;
The stars, moon and sky bear witness to my craft;
The power of the silenced, the hurt and the wronged
May you aid me to avenge the loss of what to me once belonged 
The strength of the lady comes alive
Hecate, Circe- come, your presence by my side
Be here; the spirits of the Earth, Water, Wind and Fire
You who dictate the success of what we desire
Unravel O Storms, disrupt the calm
Awaken O Earth, the source of herbs I grasp in my palm
The wisdom of Nature, your guiding hand
Aid me now, by my side You stand
The rivers, the streams, the grandeur of the seas
The mountains, the trees, the valley, and the breeze
Unite your forces, this injustice you will relieve
Grant me your will so I may conceive
A curse so strong that reckons the power of the King
Praises of Your wonders the world will tomorrow sing
I speak of a tragedy done to me, your daughter
Love, has been broken in the name of courtly order
He who thwarts my freedom must pay
In the name of justice, I want him to be slain.
Be here, Gods of the Land, Moon and the dark Skies
Aid my quest to vanquish the one I despise
With this incantation I surrender- I harness my pain and fury
This shall not be in vain; I will avenge what he has done unto me.

The soft glow of the moon spills into her chambers, illuminating her poised yet stoic frame. A strange power glows in the core of Morgan’s body. Her deep dark tresses unravel into a wild mane, spilling over her porcelain shoulder like creepers on a marble wall. Morgan stands up, eyes blazing, and walks into the moonlight. She stares straight into the whiteness of the moon, engulfed in the intensity of the breeze. The howl of a wolf slices through the silence of the nunnery, and suddenly, she knows what she must do.

Cloaking herself in a mantle, she disappears into the darkness of the forest. Trudging deep into the woods, Morgan feels the power of the soil seeping into her. Her eyes flit from side to side and her nimble fingers gather herbs, plants, and fauna around her. Her heart wrings in pain as she conceives the nature of her curse – but it must be done. She stops and ponders over what she is about to do, finding the last few herbs that she needs to concoct her revenge. She soon arrives at a clearing – a large empty circle bathed in the light of the moon. She positions herself in the middle of the clearing. Digging her staff into the ground, she wreaths it with the sacred boughs of wildwood, drenches it in honey and milk and she begins.

He who has burned my heart must suffer the price. Let Arthur face my wrath. Let him burn under the weight of this injustice. He is foolish. Let him be tricked by the beauty of this mantle. For the price of killing Accolon, he must pay in its equal right. He shall burn through this mantle.

Morgan glances at the ingredients around her and begins methodically. She murmurs her incantation once more, harnessing the energy of Nature around her as her guide9. Her cauldron bubbles as she prepares the necessary sacrifice. The flames rise from the firewood and lick the cauldron’s sides. She uncloaks herself and lays the mantle on the dried grass. Grabbing the young lamb, she places it at the heart of the clearing. She prays for the mercy of Nature and slices its abdomen open watching as its body falls limp. She wrenches the heart of the lamb out in one swift movement and lets out a cry of anguish as she drops it into the greedy claws of her cauldron.

Her cries tear through the trees, and a violent breeze passes through the clearing. The forest becomes silent in anticipation, and the stars hide behind the clouds, peeking out intermittently to witness the increasingly violent ritual. Morgan is fixated; she moves with precision, one that is easily mistakable for the grace and poise of a lady. She picks poisonous berries, newts, rocks and begins to throw each ingredient into the cauldron. A claw of a brown bear, the horns of a pig, the heart of a horse, three lizard tails and nine nails of a traitor – she takes each step with the utmost passion and intent. This is a curse that was unheard of, not even the most powerful sorcerers have dared to attempt it in the name of magic. But a woman’s wrath is dangerous. Determined, Morgan begins to perform the curse.

Once the potion is brewed, she circles the altar, reciting powerful incantations. She immerses the mantle into the cauldron three times. She stirs the mix with a long branch from an acacia tree – three times clockwise and counter-clockwise. A low rumble of thunder accompanies her stance, getting louder with every chant. Her robes shake under the frenzy of her movement, slipping off her frame with every step. Her rage is murderous, it awakens the spirit of vengeance. Her hair falls loose in the wind, blending with the darkness of the forest. A flash of lightning shatters the serenity of the night sky. She chants feverishly, stretching her arms towards the moon and nine times spinning herself about before falling at the foot of her cauldron in a stupor.10

The rain begins to fall, and Morgan composes herself. She pulls the mantle out of the cauldron. It glows with an eerie hue. The richness of its silk shines like the coat of a black cat, and its stones glitter with a deceiving clarity. She caresses it, breathing heavily. The deed is done.

She holds the mantle, her aura flickering with pride and triumph. Upon her return to the nunnery, Morgan summons a chambermaid. Bring this to King Arthur, she instructs, as a token of my regret and shame for my actions. The maid bows her head and leaves her quarters. The plan is set. She will be avenged.


1 The following scene occurs right after Morgan Le Fay attempts to slay King Uriens and is stopped by her son Uwaine who lets her escape in exchange for never returning to Camelot. She returns to the nunnery, where she was trained in sorcery and discovers Sir Accolon’s death when Arthur sends his body to her on a horse as a “present.” We wanted to explore her anguish and use it as an explanation for her subsequent deviance and antagonism of the Arthurian court – especially through magic.

2 In Le Morte D’Arthur, it is hinted that Arthur was not actually aware of the extent of love between Morgan Le Fay and Sir Accolon, because of which she refuses to express overt sadness at his death. This serves to make her seem cold and emotionless to an extent which may contribute to her perceived deviance.

3 The theme of liberation is presented again on the next page. In its essence, we wanted to look at her adultery with Sir Accolon as a form of liberation for her, through the act of choosing a partner, despite being married off to King Uriens against her will. This idea of romantic adultery as a form of freedom is something we have seen throughout the various medieval texts this semester. We wanted to illustrate deviance in two aspects – the act of adultery itself, and a more nuanced form of deviance in her making a choice and not conforming to the choices made for her by the patriarchy. By trying to create her own liberation, she is being deviant and defying all norms.

4 We do not put any of the dialogues in quotations marks to follow the style used by Thomas Mallory in Le Morte D’Arthur.

5 In exploring her anguish, we wanted to illustrate the excesses of emotion. In the Book of Margery Kempe, every vision she has is accompanied by an experience of intense emotions where she cries uncontrollably akin to hysteria. These extreme episodes served to make Margery notorious all throughout Europe and is characterised as a form of deviance. Therefore, we wanted to imbibe such emotions in Morgan Le Fay to mimic what we have learned about deviance through Margery Kempe. The wailing is also a reference to the wildness of Medea’s magic in Ovid’s Metamorphoses just before she begins her prayer to the gods. We also wanted to portray a tinge of madness within her excesses.

6 Despite her intense emotions, we wanted to ensure we portray Morgan Le Fay as cold and calculating, especially calculating, especially demonstrating the characteristic cleverness we noticed was prescribed to deviant women. Deviant women such as those in the Fabliaux were always characters as clever and conniving with clear negative connotations instead of intelligent.

7 We decided to choose a lamb as a sacrificial animal to illustrate the killing of an animal extremely innocent and pure to make the process of her magic doubly horrifying. We wanted to display a distinction between the normal Morgan Le Fay and the Morgan Le Fay driven to hysteria due to grief to provide a possible explanation for her deviance (the constant antagonizing of her). Essentially, we wanted to give the impression that she has been pushed/driven to deviance.

8 The invocation that Morgan recites was inspired by the invocation that Medea recites in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We wanted to merge the structure of witchcraft and use it as a mouthpiece to rationalize Morgan’s use of sorcery. In as much as it invokes the elements of magic (i.e nature and invoking other female sorceresses/goddesses) we wanted to explore the processing of anger and anguish that Morgan feels as a response to Arthur’s murder of Sir Accolon. This would become a way for us to point out the motivations for Morgan’s harnessing of magic.

9 As part of the specific methods that medieval witches used during necromancy, we included not just the intellectual prowess of natural knowledge that Morgan has, we also attempted to include elements of trickery and logic that was ascribed to the “cleverness” of the deviant woman. This is akin to her description of her profound knowledge of the natural world in Vita Merlini. Her ability to conjure the knowledge she has about the natural world in line with her scheme to enact her revenge against Arthur, manifests in the way she chooses to orchestrate the conjuring of the curse. 

10 The inclusion of violence in the magic that Morgan is about to perform becomes telling of the role of female emotion (such as anger, despair, love, and hatred) in the intensification of magic. Arguably, emotions do have a more negative construct in the way female magic is perceived – mostly ascribing it as irrational and uncontrollable. However, we found it interesting to note the complicated nature of the magic that Morgan would perform alongside her emotional state – whereby the more complicated and violent the gesture, the more revealing it is of her ability to harness the nuances of magic to enact the worst possible curse.

 IMAGE CREDITS,Frederick-_Morgan_le_Fay.JPG