Chapter 9: Chaucer's Knight, the Tale
of Melibee, and the SocioHistorical Implications of
Chaucer's Tale of Melibee, like all his other work in Canterbury, serves a multiple purpose in the work as a whole and takes more than one track toward its orientation in the ideological horizon. At the end of the story, for instance, Melibee decides to forgive the people who have wronged him, to spare their lives, as it were, but to seize ("disherite") all their property and exile them from the kingdom for life (VII.1835). Prudence argues against that judgment by stating that he does not need other people's property and the act of seizing it for himself will damage his reputation because "in this wise gete yow a coveitous name" (VII.1837-1838). She also notes that such behavior against his enemies will increase the conflict "and thanne were it likly to retourne to the werre as it was biforn" (VII.1853). One historical event this context may encompass is the dispute that arose between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray in 1398.
Chaucer's decision, not to translate the Melibee necessarily, but to include it in his Canterbury project as his own contribution to the story-telling contest, may have been prompted by Richard II's judgment against Bolingbroke to exile him for ten years and seize control of his extensive property throughout England. J. J. N. Palmer, in his comments about the final days of Richard's reign, notes that Charles VI, Richard's father-in-law, when he became aware of the problem between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and that Richard had ordered a duel between them to settle the dispute, sent an "imposing embassy headed by the count of St. Pol" in August 1398 to persuade Richard to cancel the combat (217). Richard did so and decided instead to exile both men. After he seized the Lancaster estates, of course, Richard was confronted with Bolingbroke's invasion of England from France where he had taken up residence at Charles's court (Palmer, 220-222). There is no evidence to suggest that Charles VI ever supported Bolingbroke's rebellion against his son-in-law, but it is fairly certain that the duke of Orléans did support Henry against Richard (Palmer, 222-223).
These historical events generally coincide with the judgment proposed by Melibee against his enemies and the fact that he changes his decision because of Prudence's wise counsel spares his kingdom the kind of strife that ultimately destroyed Richard's reign. Had Richard refrained from exiling Bolingbroke, had he not seized the Lancaster estates, which is precisely what Prudence advises Melibee to avoid, there is reason enough to believe that England might have been spared the Lancastrian usupation. The point here is not that Chaucer invented the Tale of Melibee to comment on the sociohistorical reality of Richard's fall but that he found it among existing source material and included it in his Canterbury Tales precisely because it parallels the events at court which Chaucer witnessed. According to Palmer, the problems that broke out between Richard and Bolingbroke effectively ended for the time England's support for the via cessionis. He notes that Richard "had clearly become hesitant about following the course taken by France [in 1398], but his hesitancy may well have been a tactical, diplomatic one" (222). Palmer asserts that Richard "had maintained all along that an Anglo-French peace must precede, or at least accompany a solution to the Schism, and he may therefore have been holding back in the hopes of extracting concessions on this point" from the French negotiators (222). Palmer reasons that France would not have attempted to subtract obedience from Benedict XIII if Charles had not been convinced that Richard was sincere in his support of via cessionis (222). Finally, Palmer maintains that Charles's hope for a solution to the Schism ended with Bolingbroke's invasion of England (222).
In a slightly different context, and in one that points toward Chaucer's material depiction of the aristocracy in the Canterbury project as a whole, many of these same issues were significant, if for different reasons, to Philip de Mézières, the founder and head of the Order of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Several of Chaucer's friends at court were members of the Order and Chaucer's knowledge of the organization can be assumed from that fact. Palmer notes, in this regard, that the Lancastrian revolution, coupled with the disasterous events at Nicopolis in 1396, forced Philip to abandon his plans for a concerted European resistance to the expansion of the Turks in the Balkans and he spent the final six years of his life in a "disillusioned silence" (225). Philip's Order was the primary motivating force behind the crusade against the Turks at Nicopolis. At the same time, the complicity of the duke of Orléans in Bolingbroke's seizure of the English crown, and the fact that Henry IV had his cousin Richard murdered, created a profound split between Charles VI and the English crown in the year preceding Chaucer's death. Any possibility of a true and stable peace between England and France became virtually impossible and any "mutual co-operation 'for the good of Christendom' vanished" (Palmer, 225). With nearly all hope of peace shattered, and the solution to the Schism held hostage to that prior condition, Chaucer's final year of life would have appeared to him to be bleak indeed; since, without a healing in the church's disunity, there was very little reason for him to expect, or hope for, salvation on any personal level.
The Melibee's obvious pro-peace, anti-war standpoint, then, speaks to the issues involved in creating the stable and lasting peace between England and France that was, in Richard's mind at the time, a necessary pre-condition to finding a solution to the Schism. By advocating one in the Melibee, Chaucer certainly advocated the other simultaneously. When Prudence says to her husband that
ye knowen wel that oon of the gretteste and moost sovereyn thyng that is in this world is unytee and pees. And therfore sayde oure Lord Jhesu Crist to his apostles in this wise: "Wel happy and blessed been they that loves and purchacen pees, for they been called children of God" (VII.1677-1679);
she places the two concepts side by side in the same sentence. Chaucer must have been referring to the idea outlined above when he decided to incorporate the Tale of Melibee into his Canterbury Tales. This is not to say, of course, that there were no other ideas motivating his choices at the same time.
The most significant point to take away from this brief account of the activities of Europe's knightly class at the close of the fourteenth century is that many of its members were pursuing actions profoundly detrimental to the cause of peace among kingdoms, stability in the social realm, and unity in the church, at the end of Chaucer's life. To argue that he was ignorant of John of Gaunt's crusades against Castile, using money collected by pardoners to finance his war-machine, and probably making little attempt to conceal his personal ambition under the guise of pursuing a via facti against Avignon for Urban VI and Boniface IX, is the same as asserting that Chaucer had no sense at all. Chaucer may not have been as familiar with the exploits of the duke of Orléans in his efforts to seize control of the Italian papal states loyal to Urban VI and Boniface IX, which may have been the reason he supported Bolingbroke against Richard in 1398, because Richard always opposed French military action against the Roman papacy, but Chaucer was perfectly capable of connecting one false-semblant to another. What he saw, as often as not, was an aristocracy intent on using the Schism for its own purposes and those purposes rarely, if ever, held the interest of the commons closest to its heart. Perhaps pity does "renneth soone in gentil herte," but based on the actions of the real aristocracy in Chaucer's day, it only gets there well after greed and avarice do, if the dukes of Lancaster and Orléans are taken as examples of Chaucer's knowledge of how those of "hyer degree" behaved.
In reading the Tale of Melibee, one cannot help but be struck, squarely between the eyes, as it were, by the towering optimism of its closing passage where Melibee addresses his adversaries at court:
Al be it so that of youre pride and heigh presumpcioun and folie, and of youre necligence and unkonnynge, ye han mysborn yow and trespassed unto me, yet for as muche as I see and biholde youre grete humylitee and that ye been sory and repenant of youre giltes, it constreyneth to doon yow grace and mercy. Wherfore I receyve yow to my grace and foryeve yow outrely alle the offenses, injuries, and wronges that ye han doon agayn me and myne, to this effect and to this ende, that God of his endelees mercy wol at the tyme of oure diynge foryeven us oure giltes that we han trespassed to hym in this wrecched world. For doutelees, if we be sory and repenant of the synnes and giltes which we han trespassed in the sighte of oure Lord God, he is so free and so merciable that he wol foryeven us oure giltes and bryngen us to the bliss that never hath ende. (VII.1876-1887)
Melibee's is a fine and wonderful speech, of course, and Christian to the core in its expression of fourteenth century perceptions of God's grace and mercy as they work to forgive sinful man his trespasses against his neighbors in every social realm and his enemies in a political and historical context. It is also important to note that these words were added by Chaucer to his known sources to the Melibee. The problem, however, with assuming that Chaucer's words here stand for what he believed about the nature of his social world is that absolutely nothing Melibee envisions, represents, or advocates ever came to pass in Chaucer's real sociohistorical milieu. In fact, the opposite occurred with a routine consistency that condemned England to a marginal role in foreign policy throughout Europe that persisted for generations, condemned the church and all its believers to seventeen more years of schismatic heresy, made the hope that Christian Europe could ever expel the Turks from the Balkans completely evaporate, caused the death by homicide of England's king, and left its greatest poet wondering if he had any hope of salvation at all. Anyone reading this passage after 1399 who believed it expresses Chaucer's perception of the real terms of his sociohistorical milieu condemns him to the status of an idiot who has not a single clue about the nature of the world in which he lived. This passage is more than just ironic or mildly sardonic, it is an absolute contradiction in terms of the events that occurred in the real world because not a single word of it accords with any deed Geoffrey Chaucer ever experienced or observed in his life. There is a single exception: that the world is "wrecched" no one can dispute.
The fact that Chaucer predicates God's willingness to forgive those who trespass against Him on Melibee's act of mercy and compassion toward his enemies, making one dependent upon the prior accomplishment of the other, suggests that, if the first one does not occur in its due course and rhythm, then we cannot expect to see the other come to pass in reality either. In order to make the point absolutely explicit, Chaucer puts the Prioress and her anti-Semitic diatribe on one side of the Melibee and the Monk's endless string of de casibus tragedies on the other. The highest ranking female member of the clergy on Chaucer's pilgrimage is not just passively oblivious to her own bigotry but is actively engaged in refusing to forgive the "Jews" who murdered little Huge of Lincoln two hundred years before she was born. She does not have the capacity to forgive anyone for anything if she can hold on to a hatred condemned by her church which is directed at a people who have not set foot on English soil in two hundred years. She wants to have her "jews" drawn and quartered in the streets of London in perpetuity, even though they would have to be imported for that purpose. The Monk, on the other side, who is the highest ranking male member of the clergy on the pilgrimage, tells a series of tragedies in which no one is ever forgiven for anything, a group of stories, in fact, that even deny the existence of God's grace and mercy in the face of reversals of fortune in human history and experience. Chaucer's point between one and the other is that no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness, can be found in England at the end of the century.
Out of this context, then, it seems appropriate to re-examine Chaucer's perception of the aristocracy, since most critics traditionally have assumed Chaucer was an apologist for the excesses so many of them practiced during his life at Richard's court. One can find a contrary point of view working clearly at the beginning of the Manciple's fragment. Hence, when Chaucer, as the Canterbury frame's narrator, remarks, "This was a fair chyvachee of a cook!" (IX.50), describing what happens to Roger of Hogge when he falls from his horse while trying to attack the Manciple in the Prologue to the Manciple's Tale, he draws together a broad range of social concerns and interactions that have been unfolding among his pilgrims as they have traveled from the Tabard Inn in Southwerk to Bobbe-up-and-down near Canterbury. With journey's end near at hand, and only two Tales yet to be told, the Manciple's Tale of the earth-bound pagan deity, Phebus, and his crow, and the Parson's Tale sermonizing the necessity of contrition, penitence, and satisfaction for man's salvation, the "chyvachee of a cook" points a long, contradictory, and ironic finger at the fact that Phebus, in the Manciple's Tale, is characterized as "fulfild of gentillesse,/ Of honour, and of parfit worthynesse" (IX.123-124). With those words, and in light of other elements in his description, Chaucer casts Phebus in the traditional language of an idealized romantic champion of chivalry and knighthood. In contradistinction to that depiction, however, Phebus is also presented as a figure who "Was wont to beren in his hond a bowe" (IX.129). He carries the traditional weapon of the yeoman, according to the Manciple, in his role as a
flour of bachilrie,
As well in fredom as in chivalrie,
For his desport, in signe eek of victorie
Of Phitoun, (IX.125-128)
who was killed by Phebus with an arrow while the giant serpent was asleep and backlighted against the sun. As an act of heroic nobility, however, that seems a bit conflicted. The contradiction in terms here, or, if slightly more appropriate, the incongruity, that feeds the irony of the depiction of Phebus, concerns the fact that knights perform feats of "chyvachee"; whereas, cooks never do. At the same time, a cook would have been much more likely "to beren in his hond a bowe" than a knight would have been to do the same thing. Knights, in fact, are the single most unlikely group of people in the latter half of the fourteenth century ever to be found in possession of a bow and arrows.
The purpose in pointing to the inconsistency in Chaucer's portrayal of the Manciple's godly knight, and to stretch those terms of description to the widest possible dialectic here, without distorting the text itself, is to draw attention to the fact that Chaucer was indeed capable of perceiving a member of the highest secular caste of fourteenth century society in terms that are considerably less than flattering, on the one hand, and of doing so in such a way, on the other, that may suggest he held little or no respect at all for members of the aristocracy. No more certain evidence of Chaucer's willingness to parody the knightly estate exists in his work than the Tale of Sir Thopas, which he assigns to himself as a pilgrim-narrator on the road to Canterbury. Several elements of his nursery rhyme are relevant here. As Alan T. Gaylord has pointed out, Chaucer's Thopas is a fragmentary work of poetry, suspended by Harry Bailly's impatience with its "drasty rymyng" (VII. 930), which does not fulfill its hero's adventures in precisely the same way that the tale-telling contest does not succeed in carrying the pilgrims all the way to Canterbury and to Jerusalem celestial (84). Lee Patterson, in discussing Thopas and Melibee as thematically linked speech performances meant to define Chaucer's authorial self-identity, notes that "Chaucerian incompletions in general . . . are governed by some larger plan, that from a cosmic perspective [they show that] even the ostentatously incomplete is . . . perfect" (126). Patterson goes on to argue that the linked tales support critical evaluations that see Thopas as "a critique of chivalry and specifically of the French wars, a critique that is carried on more directly in Melibee" (156).
The actual point of Chaucer's critique of the knightly class in his portrayal of Sir Thopas may suface in the text when the elf-inspired knight returns to town to re-arm himself for his deferred battle with Sir Olifaunt, the three-headed giant he encounters during his initial search for his lemman, the "elf-queene." As he refits himself for battle, Thopas calls his minstrels together to
Anon in myn armynge,
Of romances that been roiales
Of popes and of cardinales.
And eek of love-likynge. (VII.846-850)
There is always more than one way to read any of Chaucer's double-voiced texts but here it seems most pertinent to ask what stories he means to foreground by asserting that some circulating at the time take their subjects from "popes and cardinales." In the sociohistorical milieu of the Great Schism, of course, there would be any number of tales one could tell about the behavior of Urban/Boniface, Clement/Benedict, and their respective colleges of cardinals. The Physician has already told one. The point of the parody, while it may not actually extend as far as including symbolically the three popes who ruled the church after the First Council of Pisa in the three heads of Olifaunt, shows us that Thopas only seeks a sexual union with the "elf-queene" even as he reduces the profound disunity of the church to a demand for romances told by minstrels. The same can be said of Chaucer himself, of course, since he is the one who has written the most notable "romances" and stories of popes and cardinals. Thopas, as a representative of the fourteenth century aristocracy, as a knight, should be out fulfilling his first duty to defend the church against those who would destroy it (schismatic popes and cardinals) and not "prikynge" about the countryside "as he were wood" in search of the Queen of Fairy. The fact that Olifaunt shows up as an impediment to Thopas's pursuit of sexual delight, forcing an armed conflict with is never resolved in the Tale, because of it termination by Harry Bailly, expresses the facts of how the aristocracy often behaved in Chaucer's real sociohistorical milieu during the Schism. If it is safe to argue that Thopas represents Chaucer's view of the fourteenth century aristocracy, his opinion of its character is hardly one filled with praise. One can also argue as well that the Thopas expresses a clear assessment of Chaucer's intent in the Canterbury project to tell tales about popes and cardinals, an intention, furthermore, spoken by his own fictionalize persona--Chaucer, the pilgrim.
In choosing to make the hero of his Manciple's Tale an earth-bound god, who murders his wife with a bow after he discovers her infidelity, a god characterized as the "flour" of knighthood, unsurpassed in worthynesse and gentillesse, Chaucer must surely have had in mind a strategy meant to emphasize the condition to which the knightly classes in his day had come to comport themselves in relation to the rest of society while undercutting a more traditional, if not nostalgic, view which had held them in much higher esteem. Using Phebus as an example of "parfit worthynesse" raises the stakes of his depiction well beyond a more neutral or realistic level, since stating what just an ordinary person might be expected to do in similar circumstances would have created an expectation considerably reduced over what one would expect from a god. Ordinary men are expected to behave as ordinary men; gods are expected to behave better than ordinary people. Making the Manciple's knight a god demonstrates how far from an ideal of human behavior Phebus has fallen. The fact that Phebus punishes the crow for telling the truth when he reveals Coronis's predilection for a man "of litel reputacioun" (IX.253) makes any other reading of the author's intent difficult to sustain.
That Chaucer's eye is cut toward the issues of class structure and the interrelationships that exist between and among them in the Canterbury Tales is an argument long settled in the criticism and to overlook its terms and implications here is to miss the very reasons Chaucer told the story in the first place. Those terms are definitive and bound to the distinctions the Manciple draws between Phebus, as an idealized knight, and Coronis's man "of litel reputacioun," her "lemman," a word refracted self-consciously by the narrator as "knavyssh speche" (IX.205); between a "povre wenche" (IX.215) and a "wyf that is of heigh degree" (IX.213); and finally, if not most importantly, by his contrast between a "titlelees tiraunt" (IX.223), "cleped a capitayn" (IX.230), and a common "outlawe or a theef erraunt" (IX.224). The digression which contains those distinctions and comparisons (IX.204-236) has often been dismissed by critics as meaningless rhetorical padding in support of a Tale poorly told.
The point of foregrounding these Chaucerian distinctions between high and low born individuals, between knights and churls and the kinds of weapons that are, and are not, perceived as appropriate to their respective estates classes in the fourteenth century speaks directly to the issue of the nature and evolution of chivalric warfare during Chaucer's lifetime. After the battle of Crécy, in 1346, in which Edward III defeated a considerably larger French army through the wise deployment and use of English archers in defensive positions, the participation of knightly warriors in armed conflicts was substantially altered, if not considerably reduced. May McKisack notes that
The day of the feudal horseman was over, for the longbow had shown itself capable of neutralizing the danger from cavalry charges. At this particular period in the history of warfare, the scales were so heavily weighted in favour of the defense that to take offensive action against well-supported archers was to court almost certain disaster. This was an unpalatable truth for the heroes of chivalry to digest and many years were to pass before the implications of the battle of Crécy were fully understood. (135)
One illustration of this point is the fact that the disaster at Nicopolis may have occurred precisely because the Christian army was led by John de Nevers against Turkish archers in a traditional cavalry assault, perhaps even for reasons connected to the idea that knights could win honor and glory for their chivalric bravery in the field. Such tactics proved the undoing of the effort against the Turks. Hence, when Chaucer draws attention to the cook in the context of a "chyvachee," which Scott Waugh has defined as a "small, aristocratically dominated" band of knights operating under contractual agreement with the king in a foreign campaign, he does so in order to ridicule the notion that such activities were necessarily and always heroic. Waugh also notes that many "[m]ilitary commanders were often reluctant to fight because of the risks involved and preferred the chevauchee, a raid for plunder and spoils" (130). A cook, of course, could be a member of such a group but his duties would probably be restricted to his occupational expertise. He would function as a cook not as a warrior. There can be no doubt, in the context of the Manciple's Prologue, what Chaucer means when he describes Roger of Hogge's fall from his horse as a "fair chyvachee of a cook." At the same time, Chaucer places the longbow in the hands of the Manciple's "hero of chivalry," which Phebus then uses to murder his wife, an act and a circumstance that becomes doubly inappropriate because, as McKisack points out, "common men" were the ones who "wielded the longbows" in fourteenth century conflicts (150).
In the Manciple's Prologue and Tale, then, Chaucer has very deliberately inverted the traditional ideals that define the status of members of estates classes in the conduct of their occupational activities. He has elevated a cook, in ridiculous fashion, out of his real state of churlish drunkenness, where he cannot even speak at all, to the level of a knightly warrior. He has transformed Phebus, on the other hand, from a "flour of bachilrie," into a rash, ire-inspired, wife-murderer who confronts his own churlishness only momentarily when he admits "Allas, a thousand folk hath rakel ire/ Fully fordoon, and brought him in the mire" (IX.289-290). Ire is never a valorized motive in fourteenth century perceptions of human behavior. The Parson, in fact, condemns ire as one of the seven deadly sins in terms that seem to be specifically directed at Chaucer's depiction of Phebus in the Manciple's Tale. He notes that
Another Ire is ful wikked, that cometh of felonies of herte avysed and cast biforn, with wikked wil to do vengeance, and therto his resoun consenteth; and soothly this is deedly synne. This Ire is so displesant to God that it troubleth his hous and chaceth the Hooly Goost out of mannes soule, and wasteth and destroyeth the liknesse of God--that is to seyn, the virtu that is in mannes soule--and put in hym the liknesse of the devel, and bynymeth the man fro God, that is his rightful lord. (X.943-945)
Phebus turns the flow of his self-accusation, which only makes his churlishness more obvious and unforgivable, when he arbitrarily decides that the crow has lied about his wife's infidelity and announces that he will "quite anon [the crow's] false tale" (IX.293) by punishing him as a "false theef" (IX.295). As Phebus turns his wrath against the crow, after briefly lamenting Coronis's death, in a "well-reasoned" argument meant to prove that she was essentially guiltless and that the crow therefore lied about her behavior with the "lemman," the Manciple confirms the fact that Phebus's ire is precisely the kind mentioned by the Parson, the kind that reduces a man's natural state of "virtu" in the presence of the Holy Ghost to one bereft of that influence and more akin to what we expect from someone caught in the "liknesse of the devel." It is obvious that Phebus's "deity" has been wasted and destroyed by his ire, and that his unique "liknesse of God," in all the full flower of that image's supreme irony, since he actually is one, has been converted into the Parson's image of the devil.
Chaucer's motivation in pursuing this strategy of inverting idealized or expected class characteristics in the presentation of his characters in the Manciple's fragment can be traced back through the Canterbury sequence to several other places where he employs questionable qualifications to create conflicted valorizations in the portraits of his narrators. In his description of the Squire in the General Prologue, for instance, where Chaucer's only other use of the word "chyvachee" in the Canterbury Tales can be found, he notes that the Squire has performed "in chyvachie"/ In Flanders, in Artoys, and Pycardie" (I.85-86). The Squire, of course, belongs to the social class from which the "chyvachee" drew its members. The fact that his motivation for joining a military expedition to Flanders only in order to impress his "lady" (I.88) with feats of military glory, which is not an uncommon practice in courtly romance, nevertheless must have turned into a bitter disappointment for a man of so young an age. One can also observe that Chaucer plays through an explicit irony in his portrait of the Squire with a relatively heavy hand by noting that he has performed his duty "weel" in "so litel space." (I.87).
The adventure in northern France was promoted as a religious war, a status conferred on it by Urban VI when he named it a "crusade" in 1382, when in fact it may not have been one. This is true because many of its objectives were connected to problems associated with the wool-staple located in Flanders. England pursued that status so that the incursion into France could be "financed by the alms of the people and at small cost to the government" (McKisack, 430). This came to be one significant reason the action occurred at all, since there was considerable resistance to taxation for the purpose of military activity at the time. The designation as a crusade, furthermore, opened the financing of the war to the activities of pardoners and one inducement used by them, as they collected money for their causes, according to McKisack's account, was that "angels from heaven . . . would descend at their bidding to bring souls out of purgatory and waft them forthwith to the skies" (431). Chaucer's decision to include a pardoner in his Canterbury project demonstrates his intent to exploit the direct tie between the Squire's connection to the Norwich campaign and the avaricious character of the Pardoner he depicts. Given the terms of this general background, and recognizing the fact that the military activity itself failed so miserably to produce any positive benefit to England in its protracted war with France, the end result of the Squire's campaign to Flanders was that "[t]he bishop of Norwich, the Urbanist cause, and, indeed, the whole church had been gravely discredited by the gross abuse of indulgences and by the exploits of an army of marauders masquerading as soldiers of the Cross" (McKisack, 433). Reaction at home to the military debacle led to the impeachment of the bishop of Norwich by the Parliament of 1383, an action in which many of his captains were "accused of taking bribes from the French and [who] defended themselves on the curious grounds that they had given value for money, in the shape of good horses sold to the enemy" (433). McKisack notes that the bishop's temporalities were seized initially but were restored to him two years later and that "most of the captains suffered only a short term of imprisonment" for their actions during the campaign (433). Chaucer's knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the Norwich debacle cannot be doubted and his response to it can be read in several places, most notably in the Pardoner's Tale itself, since the Pardoner is clearly the kind of man who makes outrageous claims about the value of his indulgences.
What becomes clear from even a brief survey of the historical record is that the Squire could not possibly have achieved his minimal goal "to stonden in his lady grace" (I.88) from his participation in the Norwich crusade. Mention of his involvement in the debacle, in fact, probably stimulated a response of derision from Chaucer's audience as soon as the lines reporting it were heard or read. Even more significant, however, is the response that would have been generated by the passage in the Manciple's Tale which contains his distinction between captains and thieves. One can presume that Phebus would have been perceived as a captain and the Manciple makes it clear that the crow is the "theef":
Right so bitwixe a titlelees tiraunt
And an outlawe or a theef erraunt,
The same I seye: ther is no difference.
To Alisaundre was toold this sentence,
That, for the tirant is of gretter myght
By force of meynee for to sleen dounright,
And brennen hous and hoom, and make al playn,
Lo, therfore is he cleped a capitayn;
And for the outlawe hath but smal maynee,
And may nat doon so greet an harm as he,
Ne brynge a contree to so greet mescheef,
Men clepen hym an outlawe or a theef. (IX.223-234)
In light of the Norwich crusade and its aftermath, the Manciple's assessment of the difference between captains and thieves, that there is no difference at all, except by degree in identifying the amount of harm they do, is played out to a different conclusion in Phebus's revenge on the crow, whose only crime was in telling the "worthy" knight the truth of what he had seen his lord's wife do with her lemman. In spite of the fact that the crow is essentially loyal to his lord, Phebus refers to him twice as a "false theef" (IX.293, 295) and notes that "Thus shal men on a traytour been awreke" (IX.298) before he plucks his white feathers, deprives him of speech, turns him black forever more, and "out at dore him slong/ Unto the devel" (IX.306-307). In Phebus's perception, or delusion, of reality, the earth-bound god believes of the crow that "thurgh thee my wyf is slayne" (IX.302). Phebus effectively avoids his own responsibility for a murder he is clearly guilty of having committed.
The fact that Phebus is not punished for his crime of homicide against his wife, but the crow is cast out to the devil for only speaking the truth, points to one very significant difference between the way captains and thieves were judged and punished in medieval England, a distinction the Manciple does not make explicit. While there is no evidence in the text to link the Manciple's statement directly to the events of 1383, except through the Squire's portrait in the General Prologue, the captains of the Norwich crusade, whose activities in armed conflicts are clearly reflected in the Manciple's description of a normal "chyvachee" on foreign soil, as a raid conducted to acquire "plunder and spoils," and who were tried for treason against the crown on the grounds of aiding and abetting the enemy by selling horses to them, were hardly punished at all by the Parliament of 1383. One can presume that an ordinary thief, like the crow, would have been hanged for crimes much less damaging to the common good than the ones the Norwich captains had been accused of committing. After describing the punishment meted out to the crow, the Manciple provides an additional 53 lines of "moral" exposition in which he cautions his audience to resist the temptation of telling tales against, about, or to members of the aristocracy, even if those tales are true. This is accomplished by implication since the Manciple speaks from a class status considerably lower than that of a lord.
Another productive approach to questions of this kind can be taken by examining words and sentences that Chaucer wrote himself in the actual context of the Knight's behavior. Kurt Olsson, in a recent study concerning the issue of a knight's responsibility to protect society, notes that "the order of knighthood was instituted for the 'safeguard' of God's people" and defines that by quoting from The Book of the Order of Chyvalry, by Raymund Lull, who says that knights are supposed to "vaynquysshe the mescreauntes whiche daily laboure for to destroye holy chirche." In the Parson's Tale, a statement almost identical to this one is made:
What seye we thanne of hem that pilen and doon extorcions to hooly chirche? Certes, the swerd that man yeven first to a knyght, whan he is newe dubbed, signifieth that he sholde deffenden hooly chirche, and nat robben it ne pilen it; and whoso dooth is traitour to Crist. (X.766)
The terms here are just different enough from Lull's more direct statement to suggest that Chaucer has a purpose in having the Parson mention the role of knights in fourteenth century life as defenders of the church. The Parson goes on to assert that knights who "pilen" the goods of "hooly chirche" are compared by St. Augustine to wolves and that they "doon worse than wolves" (X.767) because wolves sleep when they are full, "But soothly, the pilours and destroyours of the godes of hooly chirche ne do nat so, for they ne stynte nevere to pile" (X.768). In this context, and only a few lines later, the Parson compares a pope, who does not protect the material and spiritual goods of his subjects from being wasted, to other lords of the realm "that been lyk wolves" (X.772-774). This statement, and its context, plays a significant role in Chaucer's development of the theme of schismatic heresy in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, as we shall see shortly.
Olsson's discussion is concerned here with the Knight's interruption of the Monk's sequence of human tragedy in which the Knight displays a sincere "commitment to discovering and expressing what is right for 'muche folk'" (127). Olsson's point seems to be that tragedies of the kind related by the Monk are not appropriate for Christian audiences because they are too pessimistic, deal only with the negative effects of Fortune, and tend to ignore completely the availability of God's grace as a remedy to mischance, accident, or suffering in human life. By interrupting the Monk, the Knight protects the other pilgrims from the ill-effects of his recitation of tragedy. One can just as easily argue, however, that the Knight engages in censorship in his commitment to secure (as in securitas) his own fortune against the influence of dangerous ideas. As we shall see later, moreover, the Knight's actual objection to the Monk's Tale is not based on any expression of concern for the absence of God's grace and mercy in the Monk's discourse.
While Olsson's argument is not literally problematic, he does fail to address, in similar terms, the earlier instance in which the Knight attempts to restore order and civility between Harry Bailly and the Pardoner at the conclusion of his speech performance in Fragment VI. When Olsson does finally speak to that issue, he notes that the Knight's speech of reconciliation, "most remarkable for its proposal of the unlikeliest of kisses, is also significant in pointing once again to the Knight's sense of what is 'right ynough'" for most people and that "he himself avoids introducing controversy, the principal threat to the communal peace [his philosophical position] envisions" (146). On safe enough ground, perhaps, when discussing the Knight's interruption of the Monk, Olsson's view of the dispute between Harry Bailly and the Pardoner, refracted through the Knight's intervention, which is read as a simple attempt to preserve peace and orderliness, runs fully aground on the prescription that knightly duties must involve the vanquishing of those individuals who "daily laboure for to destroye holy chirche."
In all of Chaucer's work, and most especially in the Canterbury Tales, there is no other character who so much embodies a threat to "hooly chirche" as does his Pardoner. Chaucer's self-confessed and unrepentant "ful vicious man" (VI.459), whose only "entente" is for his own profit, "And nothyng for correccioun of synne" (VI.403-404), draws together in a single voice, a single personality and performance, all the worst abuses of the fourteenth century church that plagued honest churchmen and ordinary citizens everywhere in the realm he was permitted to work. As McKisack points out, the abuses of the pardoners, who were collecting alms in support of Hugh Despenser's (Bishop of Norwich) crusade to Flanders and northern France in 1383, had done terrible damage to the reputation of the whole church through their rash, and inherently ridiculous, claims of what their indulgences could accomplish for people who donated money to the cause. Chaucer's Pardoner does the same thing when he attempts to collect his due from the other pilgrims: A significant point here, in light of what Olsson has said about the role of securitas in defining the role of the Knight in fourteenth century life, is that the false-seeming Pardoner usurps that function and draws it to himself as a kind of traveling shrine for the cure of souls along the road to Canterbury.
To say that the Pardoner's offer to "assoille" the pilgrims of their sin is false, a view made obvious by his claim to have no interest in the "correccioun of synne," is to obscure the point that such claims were also illegal in ecclesiastical terms because pardoners were not always priests and did not possess the priestly power to absolve anyone of their sins. Such claims were blatant heresy and when Harry Bailly attacks the Pardoner and rejects his suggestion that the Host venerate his "relikes" by kissing them (VI.944), Harry is simply responding to that falseness as any person of good conscience ought to do. There is also obvious reason to believe that the Pardoner of Rouncivale, coming as he is straight from the court at Rome, is a schismatic heretic, since he also holds an indulgence from the Avignon obedience. It is also true, of course, that this Pardoner does not pass his collections on to the agency for which he collects, which may nullify the good work of the penitent donor, but keeps and uses that money for his own entertainment and sustenance. Harry's terms of condemnation may be harsh, and are certainly crude, but the stand he takes against the Pardoner's abuse of his "patente" to offer indulgences is perfectly legitimate, even courageous, since the Pardoner also confesses that he defames anyone who offends him or his brethren:
For whan I dar noon oother weyes debate,
Thanne wol I stynge hym with my tonge smerte
In prechyng, so that he shal nat asterte
To been defamed falsly, if that he
Hath trespased to my bretheren or to me. (VI.412-416)
An innkeeper who is "defamed falsly," then as well as now, could very well lose a considerable portion of his livelihood by standing up against a man who brags of such blantant intent to harm others with false and slanderous venom. The Knight seems oblivious to the issues involved in Harry's response to the Pardoner's speech performance, one that provides him with more than enough reason to be aware of the man's social and civil duplicity, more than enough reason to defend "hooly chirche." He says, however,
"Namoore of this, for it is right ynough!
Sire Pardoner, be glad and myrie of cheere;
And ye, sire Hoost, that been to me so deere,
I prey yow that ye kisse the Pardoner.
And Pardoner, I prey thee, drawe thee neer,
And, as we diden, lat us laughe and pleye." (VI.962-967)
If the progress of Chaucer's pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem depends on the Knight's defense of "hooly chirche," his response to the Pardoner's abusive cupidity surely fails to accomplish that end. Clearly, after Harry Bailly refuses, on pain of "Cristes curs" (VI.946), to kiss the Pardoner's relics, then being forced by the Knight, who exercises his superior class status in the company, to kiss the Pardoner himself is something more than just an improbable event--it becomes more like a kiss from Judas when one takes Harry Bailly's attempt to defend "hooly chirche" seriously.
The Knight's betrayal of his duty to protect the church from those who would destroy it must be the result either of moral blindness or of an abject stupidity in failing to recognize the Pardoner's threat to the church's dependence on genuine alms-giving as a source of money that funded so much of its charitable work. One can just as easily argue, of course, that the Knight's motive in "defending" or "shielding" the Pardoner from Harry's assault comes from an avaricious desire to protect one of his own most certain sources of income, since pardoners in general, as McKisack notes, were often engaged in collecting alms to finance military adventures abroad. The Knight depends on such money to secure his wages for services rendered in crusades like the one mounted by the bishop of Norwich. In this regard one can take note of the fact that the church relinquished its right to solve its own problems to the aristocracy during the Schism. Howard Kaminsky notes, for instance, that
Benedict was required to give his unconditional assent to a via cessionis whose only condition was that the other contender had to resign also; it would be up to the king of France to obtain this condition by direct dealing with the princes of the other obedience, and it would be up to the secular powers of both sides to program and protect the actual process of the double renunciation, which the Paris formulation of the via cessionis laid out in some detail. It was a scenario that assigned the two popes the role of puppets whose every move was prescribed by the agents of secular government. (137)
What ever cause for the Knight's actions one chooses to accept, his behavior at the close of Fragment VI cannot be read out of any laudable context. He has clearly violated any oath he may have taken to defend the church from people intent on destroying it and that circumstance generally reflects the actions of most fourteenth century knights in relation to the problems of schismatic heresy, since many of the more powerful members of the aristocracy took advantage of the church's abdication of responsibility in solving the Schism as a sign of their own right to "pilen" and exploit its perceived and real weaknesses. It is also true that Chaucer may have intended us to perceive the Pardoner as the Antichrist, although it may be more reasonable to assume he is the agent of the arch-deceiver, and in that context there is no defense for the Knight's behavior as mediator between the Host and the Pardoner.
Chaucer is not the only fourteenth century poet to express concern about this kind of abuse in the church. William Langland, in the B-text of Piers Plowman, recounts a dispute in Passus III between Conscience and Meed over the honor acquired by individuals who donate gifts to worthy causes. Conscience points out the fact that the giver to a false collector also "steals the spirit of those who accept" (B.III.350). The rancorous debate, Meed is as angry as the wind (B.III.331), comes to an end at the beginning of Passus IV when,
"Cesseth!" seide the Kyng, "I suffre yow no lenger.
Ye shul saughtne, forsothe, and serve me bothe.
Kis hire," quod the Kyng, "Conscience I hote!"
"Nay, by Crist!" quod Conscience, "congeye me rather!.
But Reson rede me therto, rather wol I deye." (B.IV.1-5)
The parallel between Chaucer and Langland here is virtually self-evident. The only real difference is that Langland wrote prior to the Schism and is not commenting specifically about schismatic heresy in the debate. Conscience in Langland becomes Harry Bailly in Chaucer, since he rejects the Pardoner's greed. The King is reduced to the status of the Knight because it would be unrealistic to have a king on Chaucer's pilgrimage. The Knight does have the social authority to command Harry Bailly but probably does not exercise any more moral right to do so than Langland's King does, since Conscience can refuse to accept the King's command. Meed and the Pardoner are not interchangeable but the issue of alms-giving and receiving is maintained without any essential change. The King's objective in marrying Meed to Conscience is to prevent the act of gift-giving and receiving from degenerating into an act of bribery, where alms-giving was seen as a good work meant to assist the effort to achieve the cure of one's soul. Chaucer's Knight has no similar motivation. He is simply intent on silencing a quarrel between two churls, men who are disturbing his peace and his peace of mind, if one believes he has a sense of social responsibility at all. His failure to defend the church suggests he has none whatsoever.
In the historical context of the fourteenth century, where Chaucer deliberately introduces the subject of the Norwich crusade in the Squire's portrait, a subject which in turn draws our attention to the Great Schism, it is difficult to argue that the Knight's behavior, with respect to the conflict between Harry Bailly's conscience and the Pardoner's blatant greed, is somehow idealized and exemplary. Howard Kaminsky, in summarizing his view of the Schism on the eve of its long and protracted resolution, notes that
The action of the cardinals in 1378, the political interests determining the choice of allegiance by this or that prince, the intensified territorialization of the churches at the expense of papal power, the anti-papal sentiments of the territorial clergies as expressed in ideologies like Gallicanism and the programs of reform--all of these were reactions against papal centralization or papal absolutism; all of them can be brought down to a crude issue of how the revenues from ecclesiastical property and offices should be divided. The French program for ending the Schism. . . . presupposed the reduction of the papacy to an object of secular interest, to the status of presidency of a corporation, to a complex of property rights. (29)
When Chaucer informs us that his Pardoner has a "walet, biforn hym in his lappe,/ Bretful of pardoun comen from Rome al hoot" (I.686-687), and then shows us in his Tale precisely how he uses and abuses his "patente" (VI.337), Kaminsky's observations tell us as well as anything can precisely what kinds of issues Chaucer is confronting in the Pardoner's Tale. That the aristocracy was the only social class in Europe that could effectively end the Schism goes without saying, since the highest levels of the ecclesiastical estate had created it in the first place. That Chaucer's Knight sides with the Pardoner, forcing Harry Bailly to kiss him, hangs him out not as a defender of the faith but as one of its destroyers, since his actions and his words depict him, not as a selfless Christian hero, but only as a mercenary soldier bent on securing his own future profit. As a member of the aristocracy, the Knight helps to decide how "ecclesiastical property" will be divided and by choosing to support the Pardoner he precisely and effectively prolongs the abuses inherent in schismatic heresy.
In assessing Chaucer's strategy in the second frame appearance of the Knight, where he interrupts the Monk's Tale, two different aspects of the dramatic scene Chaucer creates to encompass his intention of defining the Knight's character down from the idealized perception most critics favor come into play directly as a result of the discrepancy between what medieval society expects knights to do and what Chaucer has shown us his Knight does when confronted with a dispute between two people of lower social status. In effect, Chaucer moves from a general circumstance of behavior, the Knight's intervention between Harry Bailly and the Pardoner, to a specific cause for that action, which is exemplified by his proclivity to violate a sworn oath, one taken by the entire company of pilgrims, when they, and he, elect Harry Bailly as sole and absolute governor of the story-telling contest. The Knight violates the terms of that oath when he interrupts the Monk. An evaluation of the Knight's literary opinion, which he articulates as an excuse to suspend the Monk's Tale, uncovers, on the one hand, the fact that his words do not accord well with his deeds, making him out to be a hypocrite, and creates, on the other, the material context used by the Nun's Priest in his story of Chauntecleer and Pertelote to mock and ridicule both the Monk's vision of tragedy and the material grounds upon which the Knight bases his objections to it.
Turning specifically to the Knight's interference in the progress of the story-telling contest, we find him interrupting the Monk's Tale with a claim that it has created "a greet disese" for him to hear of the "sodeyn fall" of wealthy and powerful men (VII.2771-2773). It is both possible, and probably appropriate, to argue that the Knight has exceeded his authority when he suspends the Monk's series of "an hundred" human tragedies which he keeps in his "celle" (VII.1972), even if his action saves both us and the pilgrims from several more hours of repetitious gloom. Looking back at the Knight's reaction to the Pardoner, we can observe that he is the kind of man one hopes to see suffer a fall but the Knight's intervention on his behalf restores him to the company's grace on a superficially figurative level symbolized by the governor's (Harry Bailly's) kiss of peace. The Monk's Tale sets that incongruity in perspective, especially when the Knight suspends it. At the same time, and for the same reasons, Chaucer draws our attention to the fact that the Knight feels no "disese" at all as a result of the Pardoner's speech performance, wherein he and the other pilgrims are regaled with the "ful vicious" man's ability to gull Christians for the sake of his own profit and gain, but is curiously unsettled by stories that describe the most likely result of his own activity as a soldier when he directs his energies toward destroying the wealth and high estate of powerful rulers in foreign kingdoms.
In slightly different terms, then, one can argue that the Knight's intervention between the Host and the Pardoner has resulted in Harry's being humiliated publicly, when he is forced to kiss the Pardoner, by a man who should have been the one, by virtue of his duty as a Christian knight, to stand forth and challenge the Pardoner's blatant and heretical abuse of indulgences. The force of Harry's objection to the Pardoner's avarice, and to his blatant disregard for the church's role in human affairs as the seat of man's hope for the cure and salvation of the Christian's soul, has been completely dissipated by the Knight's intervention, an intervention meant only to restore a social, or secular, harmony among the pilgrims. At the same time, however, one cannot rightly argue that the Knight's siding with the Pardoner in the dispute has also usurpted Harry's governance of the social relationships established by the agreement entered into by every pilgrim at the Tabard Inn before the journey began. That agreement is not unlike a contract, as some critics have observed, which grants to the Host a nearly absolute power to exercise his authority over the entire company of pilgrims. David R. Pichaske and Laura Sweetland have asserted that "Chaucer's diction, Harry's election, the swearing of oaths of fidelity (I.810), the Knight's subservience (I.851), and Harry's own self-esteem all make one thing clear: the Host is more than a literary arbiter; he is the elected medieval monarch governing this pilgrim society."
The point of emphasizing the contractual nature expressed in the terms of the story-telling contest concerns the fact that most of the Knight's professional experience as a soldier is conditioned by his agreement to terms of service and payment in the form of the contracts he makes by swearing oaths to the lords and captains under whom he fights. Harry's contract with the pilgrims stipulates, for instance, that anyone who gainsays his judgments "Shal paye al that we spenden by the weye" (I.805-806). Chaucer then notes that
This thyng was graunted, and our othes swore
With ful glad herte, and preyden him also
That he wolde vauche sauf for to do so,
And that he wolde been oure governour,
And of oure tales juge and reportour,
And sette a soper at a certayn pris,
And we wol reuled been at his devys
In heigh and lough; and thus by oon assent
We been acorded to his juggement. (I.810-818)
In the final line of this passage, Chaucer creates a definitive connection between Harry's "juggement" and the fact that all the pilgrims, "by oon assent," have been "acorded" to his literary decisions. The act of swearing oaths to bring a group of people into accord with the verbal signs of a contract encompasses a Chaucerian principle that points to the preservation of truth in the use of such signs where word and deed must always be in harmony with one another. When word and deed fail to accord, of course, one is confronted by hypocricy. The swearing of oaths suggests that the company agrees to accept Harry's judgments as true and the fact that the penalty itself, to "paye al that we spenden by the weye," is specifically attached to accepting his judgments as valid both confirms the contractual nature of the agreement and just as concretely addresses the issue of how, and under what circumstances, that contract can be violated. Chaucer's inclusion of these contract terms, the "soper at a certeyn pris" especially, which may be a reference to a "last supper" before entry into the holy city of Jerusalem and which never comes to pass, may reflect several motives on Chaucer's part that fall outside the usual assumption that he intended to create a two-way journey out to Canterbury and back to London again. Seriously, or not, the company has agreed unanimously ("by oon assent") to abide by the Host's opinions. They have agreed to be controlled ("reuled") by "his devys" and to accept his leadership as governor. Chaucer then uses his contractual terms to show us how the Knight has violated his oath to uphold them.
In this specific regard, and in terms of what Chaucer might be talking about here, Howard Kaminsky notes on several occasions that the popes failed as often as not to live up to their conclave oaths which always stipulated their agreement to resign in the via cessionis when called upon to do so. Kaminsky argues that Benedict XIII held the intention
to make all Europe recognize that he and his fellow cardinals of 1378 had been right, that the Avignon line in the Schism was legitimate, and that he, its current embodiment, was the true pope and hence indispensable--as vicar of Christ and as monarch in matters of church and faith--to any valid solution of the Schism. (108)
Kaminsky then notes, as a consequence of Benedict's belief that he was the true pope, that he and "his advisors would show endless ingenuity in proving that the conclave oath did not necessarily bind the pope to resign" (143). Such tactics, according to Kaminsky, were commonplace in the fourteenth century (143 N111).
The issue of how seriously one ought to take the contract has been brought to the foreground here because contractual agreements between knights and lords in the real world of fourteenth century militarism cannot legitimately be compared to an agreement among pilgrims over who will act as judge of a story-telling contest. Even if the Knight, like everyone else, does swear an oath to abide by Harry's judgments, and then violates that agreement when he interrupts the Monk's Tale for reasons that seem to be connected specifically to issues of literary taste, as we shall see, one can always assert that by doing so he does not reveal any serious flaw in his character because the issues at stake are meaningless in the wider frame of fourteenth century life. The problem with that position, of course, concerns the fact that the Knight is a fictional entity whose character is being defined wholly by the terms of his actions within the construct of Chaucer's frame narrative. His terms are as absolute in that structure as the real actions of real people are in historical contexts. The seriousness of the Knight's violation of an oath, even if it occurs in the context of a fictive game, is as compelling there, as a way of defining his character, as it would be in a real context of his violating an oath of fealty to a lord in a "chyvachee." Given the fact that Chaucer subsequently gives us, in his portrait of the Knight's son, a person come recently back from the Norwich crusade, and extends that historical reference to his depiction of Phebus as a fallen member of the knightly class, the Knight's violation of an oath of fealty, to the community of pilgrims, defines him by means of that literary device as a person who cannot be trusted to perform duties to which he has sworn compliance.
That the Knight's objection to the Monk's Tale has been formulated by Chaucer specifically to clash with the terms of the contract which makes Harry Bailly the pilgrim's governor can be read in its literary terms:
"Hoo!" quod the Knight, "good sire, namoore of this!
That ye han seyd is right ynough, ywis,
And muchel moore; for litel hevynesse
Is right ynough to muche folk, I gesse.
I seye for me, it is a greet disese
Whereas men han been in greet welthe and ese,
To heeren of hire sodeyn fall, allas!" (VII.2767-2773)
The Knight goes on to suggest that it is much better to hear stories about the opposite effects of Fortune, stories about men in "povre estaat" who climb upward into better circumstances (VII.2774-2779). The judgment he renders in stopping the Monk's speech performance is clearly based on literary principle, since "Swich thyng is gladsom, as it thynketh me,/ And of swich thyng it were goodly for to telle" (VII.2778-2779). The Knight's interruption, then, is a clear violation of the agreement because he has usurped, like any other "titlelees tiraunt" (IX.223), as the Manciple describes the "capitayn" in his speech performance, Harry Bailly's discretion as sole governor of the story-telling contest. The Knight shows no respect for Harry's position, since the courteous course to follow, under the circumstances, would have been for him to ask leave of his governor to express an opinion, or to apologize after the fact, if he really does find it impossible to control his own impulses to interfere. The Knight does neither. Finally, to argue, as some critics have, that Harry Bailly cannot properly interrupt the Monk's Tale himself, because of the disparity in their social status, ignores the fact that Harry speaks with less that socially inspired awe of the Monk's position when he first invites him to tell a story (VII.1924-1948), and fails to take into account the terms of the contract which stipulates that all members of the company, "In heigh and lough" (I.817), will be ruled by Harry's decisions.
The fact that Harry's election as governor of the company parallels the terms of the election of the English king to rule under the restrictions of the Magna Carta clearly implicates the Knight in an act of violating the oath he has sworn to his own lord--and by extension he has committed an act of treason against the "king" of the pilgrim's company. Chaucer's fictional construct, then, clearly reflects the repeated civil wars that plagued England during the final half of the fourteenth century in which knight after knight rebelled against England's king. The ultimate rebellion, of course, was Bolingbroke's usurpation of Richard's crown.
While it might be possible to accept the Knight's motivation for stopping the Monk's series of tragedies at face value, it does seem a little odd that a man who has spent his adult life bringing the high-born, the rich and the powerful, down to a lower estate, "into wo" (VII.2650), as the Monk tells us Alexander has done--it seems disingenuous that such a man would actually feel queasy hearing stories that rehearse the detailed consequences of his own life's most powerful ambitions. In the Tale of Melibee, Prudence quotes Solomon to the effect that "It is moore worth to be pacient than for to be right strong; and he that may have the lordshipe of his owene herte is moore to preyse than he that by his force or strengthe taketh grete citees" (VII.1514-1515). The Knight's impatience with the Monk's tragedies may suggest he is not in complete "lordshipe" of his own heart and has spent too much of his time employing his force and strength, not of character, but of class degree, to command his weaker brothers to his own desires in his attempts to overthrow "grete citees." To be successful in what he does, the Knight must vanquish his enemies, overpower their forces, breach the walls of their castles, and loot their possessions. There is more than a little sense here that the Knight's words do not exactly accord with his deeds. Surely someone of high estate fell to his sword at the seige of Alexandria. Surely he must have profited, like everyone else, from that engagement. Why then would he not want to hear stories that celebrate his achievements? Perhaps he simply prefers that the other pilgrims not be reminded of the more inglorious and violent aspects of his trade.
What we have seen, then, in this examination of the unique set of social relationships that Chaucer has created in his frame-narrative of a story telling contest is that his portrayal of the Knight has come much closer to the way he presents the Monk, who is considerably more worldly than one would expect of a cloistered individual, than it is to an idealized or valorized depiction of the upper class as modern critics tend to find it in a romanticized context drawn from the amour courtois tradition. When the Knight interferes in the dispute between Harry Bailly and the Pardoner, he fails to exercise his social responsibility to defend the church from those people whose actions defame and threaten to destroy it. At the time, of course, Chaucer's object of censure is schismatic heresy. The Knight is oblivious to his moral duty, at best, and may be acting out of avaricious self-interest to protect the source of his own livelihood at worst. In the case of his interruption of the Monk's Tale, the Knight displays a willful disregard for adhering to contractual agreements which he has sworn his oath to uphold. As a frequent member of the fourteenth century "chyvachee," which was a contractual arrangement between men-at-arms and the lord or lords they served, Chaucer's demonstration of the Knight's willingness to ignore his obligations does more than raise a few insignificant questions about the nature of his character. It is also clear in his objections to the Monk's Tale that the Knight fails to recognize its deeply heretical nature and stops it only to end his own "disese."
While Chaucer may not condemn the Knight
in the strongest possible terms, what he does say about him in
the context of his interactions with his fellow pilgrims strongly
supports the notion that his being called a "verray, parfit
gentil knight" (I.72) means that he is only the best kind of
knight one can expect to find at the end of the fourteenth
century. What the line and the depiction do not support,
consistent with the frame of the project itself as an estates
satire, taken in its widest frame of reference to the problems
generated and sustained by the Great Schism, is the notion that
the Knight is an idealized version of "bachilrie," one
that Chaucer found and experienced somewhere in a mythic frame of
reference outside the concrete and factual historical context of
his own courtly life. There are simply too many inconsistencies
in Chaucer's portrait, and in the actions of his Knight, to argue
that the man is somehow better than Chaucer makes him out to be.