Sarah Fehrman ENG 471 Dr.

Kathy Carlson Due: 4/20/07 Chaucer’s Knight and the Shifting Role of Chivalry The fabric from which fantasy is woven is the little girl who dreams of being a princess, and the little boy who dreams of being her knight in shining armor: both offer examples of the idea of gallantry and knighthood that permeate our culture. It was no different in Chaucer’s day. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gives us glimpses into the lives of his pilgrims and the social spheres and cultural contexts in which they lived. Chaucer uses the knight, and by contrast, the Squire, to respond to the shifts in social expectations and the blurred lines of the disintegrating Estates General. Chaucer harnesses the turbulence of the Middle Ages and gives us a perspective on the changing definition of chivalry through the cultural and historical details in the portraits of the Knight and Squire. By the time that Chaucer was writing in the fourteenth Century, the medieval courtly culture was changing from one that exulted battle to one that held courtly love as the highest ideal. In his book Chivalry, Leon Gautier says that the Church still sent Knights out to fight against Infidels in foreign lands, but there was a tension that existed between the Christian Knight, and the Warrior Knight, leaving the Church in a precarious position. In the end, the Knight was outfitted as a Warrior of God, serving the Church, and spreading God’s Kingdom to the Infidels (1-23). The spiritual struggles were not all that plagued the would-be Knights of Chaucer’s era; there were more practical considerations as well. It was increasingly expensive to be outfitted as a knight. Laura Lambdin and Robert Lambdin write that many lords demanded a scutage or shield tax from their knights, as well as other fees. The technology surrounding warfare was also becoming more advanced, and with this, the price of armor and the necessary accoutrements. Armor was shifting


merchants and faithful craftsmen as its left arm. and the class of merchants and tradesmen to climb the social scale (2-4). and was the beginning of the middle class. Chaucer gives us one of the most enigmatic characters in his Canterbury Tales.from chain mail to plate. and some squires chose to forfeit their rights to knighthood because of the profligate expenditure associated with it (6-7). It fell somewhere in between the lords and the peasants. there was a fourth stratum of the social sphere that was accepted. but the poorer knights. and that a worthy man. and citizens and burgesses as its heart. Even for the knights who could afford to outfit themselves for battle. fredom and curteisie. Bishop Thomas Brinton. From the beginning of his portrait. Terry Jones writes in Chaucer’s Knight: A Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (7-9). / Trouthe and honour. even if they were able to provide themselves with the accessories of war.” (I. it was necessary for knights to be demoted. From this social and historical background. The description that Chaucer gives us paints this worthy man as a paradigm of chivalry in all of its glorious connotations. The knight “loved chivalrie. the Knight seems to uphold every ideal of chivalry.” In order for this shift to be achieved. By the thirteenth century. / 2 . The opening lines of his portrait inform us that “A Knyght ther was. This was not a problem for the wealthy knights. In addition to the cost of armor. Paul Strohm asserts in Social Chaucer that by the end of the fourteenth century. There were a great many poor knights throughout Europe. and this was much more expensive to produce than the previous styles. characterized knights as society’s “right arm. were frequently unable to afford to cease the management of their estates. 43). which could cost as much as ₤100 for a good steed. The strictly defined class system of the General Estates was becoming more and more blurred. There was an emerging middle class. the situation was dire. even those with land. a knight had to provide a horse for himself. and an increasing number of people who didn’t fit into social boxes. there was one further looming obstacle. in his fourteenth century sermons.

This glowing portrait continues. most specifically the siege of Alexandria in 1365. and admirable. as we are reminded in Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. in the twentieth century. gentil knyght” (I. a lengthy catalogue of the crusades in which the knight has participated. juxtaposed in the middle of this charming vignette.Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre. This brutal reality rips a jagged hole in the gentile and chivalrous ideal of the knight. and excesses that constitute that history. / And of his port as meeke as is a mayde / [. In Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales Laura Lambdin and Robert Lambdin argue that several of the campaigns that Chaucer mentions were horrific atrocities. . 74) and that Of fustian he wered a gypoun Al bismotered with his habergeoun. except that his horse was “goode. 45-7). parfit. It is somewhat unsettling to find. Very little is said of what he was wearing. as we are told “that he were worthy. Contemporary historians have compared that battle to the pillaging and plundering that went on in during the My Lai bloodbath of the Vietnam War. For he was late ycome from his viage. The knight shows us that his good character is more than just a facade.] He was a verray. And wente for to doon his pilgrymage. but he was nat gay (I. to admit the paradoxes. he was wys.” (I. Chaucer gives his readers a glimpse into the character of a man who is everything that is good. 75-8) Chaucer’s worthy knight was so anxious to go on a pilgrimage after his return from battle that he did not even stop to change his clothes. 67-73). However. “We need not be afraid. As long as we are ready to recognize the 3 . and that he truly is a devout man. Chaucer mentions eleven campaigns that the knight was involved in during his years of warfare. ironies. (I. .

The knight is wise. Chaucer tells us. or any accomplishments that are militaristic in nature. to read through the filter of a contemporary reader of Chaucer and free him from the strictures of a twenty-first century education and place the worthy knight firmly in the midst of a changing chivalric culture. embracing the second side of chivalry in the Middle Ages. While the knight is described as loving truth and honor. This particular line is significant because of what is left out. his son embraces the knightly tradition of courtly love.possibility that Chaucer may. as well as revealing his passionate nature. 47). Despite a shared bloodline. 95-6). 80-1). The portrayal that follows unveils a young man who is richly dressed in “sleves longe and wyde (I. through the Knight.” (I. a French poem about courting a beloved (233). the Squire and the knight are as different as night and day. There is no mention made of the battles the Squire has been at. It is important. we can understand the character as being ‘worthy”’ (9-11). a yong Squire (I. and very representative of the chivalric ideal. He has proven that “Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre. / with lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse (I. and being an accomplished warrior. The fact that each of the eleven crusades the knight fought at were all against Infidels. William George Dodd tells us that this description closely matches the requirements that are set forth in Roman de la Rose. Perhaps one of the best ways to grasp the paradox of the knight is to briefly examine the next generation of chivalrous individuals. 93). and hardened by battle. / Juste and eek daunce. This contrast serves to highlight one of the struggles of this era of history. 79). however inglorious they may now seem to us. “With [the knight] ther was his sone. and weel purtreye and write (I. Instead. as a student of the Middle Ages. and we are told that “He koude songes make and wel endite. These two lines divulge the tendencies the Squire has to be a bit foppish. He is introduced to us as “A lovyere and a lusty bacheler. 4 . be celebrating battles and ideals he saw as glorious. this young Squire embodies the medieval ideal of courtly love.

the role of the Estates General was changing during Chaucer’s life. this only serves as one more catalyst for uncertainty in their lives. 548). who also represented a chivalric ideal in the Middle Ages. 88). None of those claims could be made about the Squire. Bernard Huppe says that there is no mention of anything sacred in this portrait. the Squire embodies the courtesy and gallantry of courtly love. Gregory Semenza explores this idea by saying that this would have been significant to contemporary readers. as approved by the church. 55). because it is supposed that his own father was a merchant (956). a truly “Cristen man” (I.and the lack of presence of any earthly lord in the knight’s portrait indicate that Chaucer considered the knight a warrior for God. The knight and Squire are sharply contrasted with each other. The editor of The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer tells us that Chaucer would have been intimately familiar with this class. Rather than providing a framework that allows them to formulate their identities. because every knight and soldier would have been trained in wrestling. The exchange that takes place between the Knight and the Miller is most interesting when put in a cultural context. but both are bound together by their similarities. and both are in the highest strata of the Estates General. This awareness was not just felt in Chaucer’s life. They are both of noble blood. Chaucer intimates that many of the accomplishments of the Squire are because he is “In hope to stonden in his lady grace” (I. The middle class was beginning to rise to power. such as we see between 5 . or a mental or verbal sparring. Chaucer tells us “At wrastylynge he woulde have alwey the ram (I. It is also important to note that culturally speaking. He chose to acknowledge it in his literature. If the knight illustrates Christian chivalry by being a Warrior for God. and there can be little doubt that the lady referred to is not the Lady Mary of the Church (33). In his work A Reading of the Canterbury Tales. and it was creating disturbance for some members of the nobility. the word wrestling could refer to physical fighting. In the miller’s portrait. As I mentioned earlier.

6 . One of the more interesting revelations concerning the knight’s portrait is the decided lack of information regarding his property. and this does not seem to be a problem for Chaucer’s knight. With the overwhelming financial burden that came with being a knight. the verbal wrestling that occurs between these two seemingly different men becomes more significant in light of “The fact that the Miller and the Knight are engaged in what amounts ostensibly to a cross-class competition for a prize [that] serves paradoxically to efface the social differences between the two combatants by highlighting the single feature that they have in common: skill in one-on-one combat” (Semenza 77). as well as the apparent lack of peace during the knight’s illustrious career.” a marauding band of mercenaries that plagued England during Chaucer’s time (13-15). He had access to money in large amounts. as indicated by his retinue during the pilgrimage to Canterbury as well as the quality of the clothing his son the Squire wore. This unexpected comparison between the gentle knight. and the uncouth miller begins to make more sense once the mercenary culture of the Middle Ages is examined and it is understood why Chaucer would compare the Knight from the upper estate. and allowed the army to become much stronger and larger. This placed less burden on the knights.the knight and the miller during their tales (72-7). which led to the “Free Companies. This went against the code of chivalry. It has been clearly established how expensive it is to be a knight in the Middle Ages. Terry Jones reveals that the shift of the class system within the Estates General caused a great many kings to hire mercenaries during the fourteenth century. that commanded a knight to be loyal to the country where he was born. and the Miller from the lower estate. the arguments set forth by Jones seem to shed new light on the gentle knight. When placed in the historical context of the disintegrating social orders. Where did his money come from? In Chaucer’s Knight: A Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary.

and as meek as a maid. then engages in a brutal battle with Orgoglio and the great beast. it is imminently appropriate that what began with Chaucer’s portrait of the gentle knight trickled down through the process of defining what chivalry was in the midst of an age of turmoil. but he is also a knight who does battle. The idea that Chaucer presents here was not limited to the Knight of The Canterbury Tales.ii.(While Terry Jones is a somewhat controversial source. the ultimate expression of Christian belief. 7 .32). between the Christian and the warrior. Chaucer shows his mastery over literature by creating tension with this seemingly straightforward portrait. Spenser admired the works of Chaucer. Prince Arthure is the allegorical representation of Christ. There is tension between the knight who is a great warrior. It reveals a man who is gentle. while the question of how the knight was able to finance his career illuminates the friction within the social classes of Chaucer’s time. a Bible. and in The Faerie Queen called him “the well of English. The contrast between father and son reveals the struggle to adjust to a changing idea of what chivalry is. To borrow Spenser’s aquatic imagery. The knight of Chaucer’s prologue is the epitome of contradiction. well respected. and the new. While stating what seems to be obvious. This juxtaposition of sacred and profane is beautifully illustrated when the Prince gives the knight. Edmund Spenser grapples with many of the same questions. several other scholars seemed to concur with his findings) At first glance. vndefyled”(IV. the portrait of the knight seems to hold little opportunity for controversy. In his epic poem The Faerie Queene. It remained salient throughout literature. and wise. and a famed warrior. Redcrosse. In book I. an attempt to show the balancing act between the old generation.

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