The English Review
Nov 2001 v12 i2 pS2(2)
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2001 Philip Allan Updates
Critical opinion is divided over the portrait of the knight in The Canterbury Tales. Helen Barr discusses possible reasons for the conflict
The portrait of the knight in Chaucer's 'General Prologue' to The Canterbury Tales causes disagreement and controversy. Is he an exemplar of Christian knighthood or (as the ex-Monty Python, Terry Jones, claims) a bloodthirsty mercenary? views of the knight are nearly always polarised along these lines. How is it that this portrait causes such a split response? And how far are these poles of opinion justified?
How 'worthy' is the knight?
A crucial factor when analysing any portrait in the 'General Prologue' is the fact that we do not know how far we can trust the narrator. It is clear that his opinions of other pilgrims are naive. For instance, we are told that the monk thinks more of hunting and worldliness than monasticism, and that he doesn't give a damn for the text which states that a monk out of his cloister is like a fish out of water. Yet the narrator endorses this hypocrisy: 'I seyde his opinion was good.' The joke is on the narrator's gullible judgement and the monk's flagrant disregard for his calling -- the monk's opinion is anything but good, and totally opposed to his monastic vows. Perhaps, then, the sweeping praise the narrator lavishes on the knight is equally double-edged; a sustained example of irony?
Lavish praise is certainly the order of the day. We are told that the knight is 'worthy' four times, and that he is always honoured for his 'worthynesse'. He embraces all the cardinal virtues of Christian knighthood: 'trouthe, honour, fredom and curtesie', and is wise, gently-spoken and humble. No man has ridden further than him in either Christian or heathen lands, and no Christian man of his rank has ever ridden on more raids, always winning the highest of reputations. Unlike the monk, he disdains fine dress -- his tunic is made of coarse cloth and his armour is battle-stained. He is, as the narrator says, 'a verray, parfit, gentil knyght'.
Why a crusading knight?
It is possible to see all of this as wide-eyed, foolish judgement on the part of the narrator. But to do so, in my view, misses the point. I do think that the superlatives and unqualified admiration are only half the story, but for an entirely different reason. The knight is a crusading knight -- and that, in itself, is deeply significant.
Chaucer could have chosen to tell us of a knight who had been fighting in the Hundred Years War against France. He doesn't. He reserves that for the knight's son, the squire, who in any case is too busy being a textbook lover and fop to engage in any noble military prowess. Furthermore, the vast majority of knights in Chaucer's time would not have been continuously employed in active military service. They would have been engaged in administering their lands and estates, and taking part in affairs of government.
So why tell us about a crusading knight? The answer, I think, is because the whole question of fighting crusades, of using military force against pagan lands in the name of Christianity, was a hotly debated issue when Chaucer was writing. For some, to take part in crusades was to engage in the most virtuous activity a knight could perform. Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV of England, was a crusader, and so too were some of Chaucer's close friends. But crusading also drew furious comment from those who considered that killing other human beings, even if they were pagans, was a violation of the sixth commandment: 'Thou shalt nor kill.'
Crusading and killing
Chaucer was writing at a time when there was a lot of criticism of the established Church, especially by religious dissidents known as Wycliffites or Lollards. Not all Lollards were pacifists, but statements along the lines of 'it is not leeful [lawful] to slee [slay] ony man' are frequent in their writings, along with criticisms of the Pope and the bishops who supported these crusades. Chaucer certainly knew men who were sympathetic to Lollard views, and some of his poetry alludes to Lollard ideas.
But crusades also attracted hostility from men who were no friends of Lollards. John Gower was a poet writing at exactly the same time as Chaucer. The two men knew each other and mention each other in their poetry. In an English work called Confessio Amantis (the confession of a lover), Gower attacks the practice of crusading. He includes it as an example of one of the seven deadly sins -- wrath. In a dialogue between the lover and his confessor, the lover asks whether crusades are lawful. The answer he receives is that they are most certainly not. The Church's office is to preach, not to kill, and for priests to shed blood, rather than practising charity after the example of Christ, is a sign of a disordered world and corrupted faith.
Given that crusades were such a controversial subject, how would Chaucer's original audience have responded to the following lines?
At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
And foughten for oure feith at Tramyssene
In lysres thries and ay slayn his foo.
In this passage, Chaucer tells us that the knight has fought in 15 fatal battles, three formal contests and always killed his enemy for 'oure feith'. The narrator need not have supplied this detail. Its inclusion triggers the whole crusading debate. Is the knight's serial pagan-slaying an example of worthy Christian zeal, or is it the sign of sinful slaughter in the name of Christianity?
I imagine that the response to the portrait of the knight among Chaucer's audience would have depended on how people stood on the crusades question. To my mind, the issue about the knight is not whether he is, or is not, a good man, but whether he is fighting for a good cause.
A modern comparison
If I were to find a modern analogy it would be this. Suppose a modern writer penned a portrait of an exemplary NATO soldier, who had always fulfilled his duties to the best of his abilities, and was a thoroughly decent chap. Suppose the writer mentioned (without further comment) that this solider had served in Kosovo and similar conflicts. What would we make of it? It would depend on whether we thought that the activities of NATO were of a peace-keeping nature, or whether the countries of NATO were guilty of illegal military intervention in a sovereign state (what used to be known as 'war').
I think that Chaucer's portrait of the knight reproduces a very similar ethical and political dilemma. The knight is situated right at the heart of a bitter controversy. Typically, Chaucer, the arch-narrator in every sense, doesn't tell his audience what they should think. That, however, is one of the crucial differences between a polemicist and a socially responsible poet.
Keen, M. (1983) 'Chaucer's Knight, the English Aristocracy and the Crusade' in V. J. Scattergood and J. W. Sherborne (eds) English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages, Duckworth.
Mann, J. (1973) Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, Cambridge University Press.
Patterson, L. (1991) Chaucer and the Subject of History, Routledge. See in particular Chapter 3.
Helen Barr is a Fellow and Tutor in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She teaches Old and Middle English, Shakespeare, and language to the present day. Her research specialises in language and culture in medieval texts.