Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a medieval romance composed by an unknown poet, a mishmash of religious allegory and folklore that has survived through a single copy to become a keystone of English literature.
It is also, according to academics at the University of Cambridge, the source of one of the earliest known examples of a rape joke, which is why this tale of Arthurian Britain, unintelligible to those not conversant in Middle English, has been dragged into a very modern debate about the phenomenon known as “triggering”.
At Cambridge, students who attend lectures on the poem are now issued with a warning — accompanied with a small exclamation mark — that what they are about to read contains potentially sensitive or upsetting material.
“Trigger warnings” have long been a mainstay of feminist websites, used to alert readers to graphic descriptions of abuse or violence, the sort of things that might stir up traumatic memories for those who had suffered similarly. They’ve also made an impression on US campuses. But even though there is no obligation for lecturers to apply the warnings, their introduction at one of Britain’s oldest universities is proving to be a source of contention.
Advocates of content warnings see them as a simple means for students to make informed decisions. Critics, meanwhile, see the debate as emblematic of millennial over-sensitivity and censoriousness, in line with their neurotic preoccupation with “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions”. Academics have been caught in the middle: sympathetic to students who have had difficult personal experiences, but uneasy at the idea of warnings being imposed.