The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, The Knight

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The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, The Knight


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"A knyght ther was and that a worthy man
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom, and curteisie.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthynesse;
At Alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruce;
In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce;
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.
In Grenade at the seege eek hadde he be
Of Algezir, and riden in Belmarye.
At Lyeys was he and at Satalye,
Whan they were wonne, and in the Grete See
At many a noble armee hadde he be.
At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
And foughten for oure feith at Tramyssene
In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo.
This ilke worthy kyght hadde been also
Somtyme with the lord of Palatye
Agayn another hethen in Turkye;
And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys.
And though that he were worthy he was wys,
And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.
He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght."
(General Prologue, 43-72)


Analysis


Of all of the figures in the Canterbury Tales (both tale-tellers and characters in the individual narratives), the Knight is the most obvious of crusading figures. According to the General Prologue, he warred many times for the Christian faith, fought in numerous battles against pagans, and stands as the epitome of a worthy and virtuous holy warrior. As Thomas Hatton has observed, however,

Combining the virtues of worthiness and wisdom in the character of the ideal knight is, of course, hardly unique with Chaucer. What particularizes the Knight's portrait is the list of battles Chaucer uses to demonstrate the Knight's worthiness. (80)
Hatton rightly notes that the battles themselves (ll. 53-66) must invite interpretation and careful consideration given that they take up nearly half of the Knight's portrait (80). Considering these campaisngs in their historical context, he argues, offers even further insight into significance. To facilitate a close-reading of these battles, Hatton groups them into three distinct categories:
1. Battles versus the Spanish Moors (Gernade, Algezir, Belmarye, and Tramyssense)
2. Battles versus the Saracens (Alisaundre, Lyeys, and Satalye)
3. Those against Eastern European Pagans (Pruce, Lettow, and Ruce)
He argues that "all of them have one obvious characteristic in common: they are all struggles between Christians and pagans. Those we know about with certainty are all among the few victories obtained by European chivalry over the heathen in the fourteenth century" (80). Given the vast array of successful battles in which English knights fought, it seems likely that Chaucer wanted to deliberately and positively configure the Knight as a worthy crusader due the battles in which he chose to place the Knight (80-81).


Terry Jones, however, disagrees with Hatton's reading and argues that the portrait provided by Chaucer is a satirical one. The Knight, he observes, should be read as a cold-blooded mercenary, not as the epitome of the chivalric ideal. Jones brings each of the Knight's battles and his motives for joining them into question, criticizing at one point the Knight's involvement in the Alexandrian crusade due to the intensely negative reception that crusade garnered across late medieval Europe. Based on this reception, Jones argues that the Knight is cast as a gold-seeking mercenary rather than as a pious crusader. As Jones notes: "Even the Coptic churches of their fellow-Christians in the East were looted by the crusaders. Finally, having perpetrated this holocaust, the knights deserted en masse with their booty, leaving Alexandria to fall back into the hands of the infidel" (44). Jones dissects the knight's portrait line by line in his book, Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, concluding that
... by the end of Chaucer's description of the Knight no contemporary reader would have been left in any doubt as to what sort of a fellow this was. They would not have seen a militant Christian idealist but a shabby mercenary without morals or scruples—the typical product of an age which saw war turned into a business. (140).

More recent scholarship has sought a middle ground between these two perspectives. Maurice Keen, for instance, credits Jones's reading of Chaucer's Knight for its underscoring "the need to relate [the Knight] to the contemporary scene of Chaucer's lifetime," but disagrees with Jones's wholesale denigration of the character (47). He argues for a reading of the Knight as a "figure drawn very definitely from the contemporary scene whose [life] indicate[s] patterns of virtuous living that are not outmoded, but which too few, in Chaucer's opinion, made a sufficiently serious effort to follow" (47). Keen also suggests that Chaucer "may have credited to his Knight a wider and longer crusading experience than any known individual of his time could boast, but there is nothing to occasion surprise in his emphasis on the part of his Knight had taken in wars against the heathen" (57). While many more English soldiers would have ventured out on campaigns in the Anglo-French conflict, crusading was not—even in the late 14th century—an uncommon occupation. Keen concludes by arguing that
whatever Chaucer intended by his description of the Knight in the General Prologue, there seems to me no doubt, in the light of the English response to the call of the crusade, that in his day the knight who was not only worthy in his 'lordes werre' but had also fought far afield for the faith could be held up to the secular aristocracy as a model of virtuous activity in his estate" (60).
Keeping this in mind, it seems wise to consider the knight as a figure straddling both religious and secular martial obligations. Some of the campaigns in which he participated may be fraught in nature (the Alexandrian crusade, for instance), but the problems associated with those campaigns do not necessarily suggest that his portrait in the General Prologue is a subversive one.
Bibliography

Hatton, Thomas. "Chaucer's Crusading Knight: A Slanted Ideal." Chaucer Review 3 (1968-69): 77-87.

Jones, Terry. Chaucer's Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Keen, Maurice. "Chaucer's Knight, the English Aristocracy, and the Crusades." English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages. Ed. V. J. Scattergood and J. W. Sherborne. New York: St. Martin's, 1983. Pp. 45-61.