"The Uncourteous Knights of The Canterbury Tales," in English Studies, Vol. 72, No. 3, 1991, pp. 209-18.
[Taylor is the author of Chaucer's Chain of Love. In the following essay, he examines Chaucer's portrayal of flawed knighthood by analyzing the "Franklin's Tale," the "Physician's Tale," the "Wife of Bath's Tale," and the "Merchant's Tale."]
Although the pilgrim-knight whom hazard honours as the first teller of tales is portrayed by Chaucer in great detail as a warrior who serves both secular and religious causes, the Knight's own tale tells of knights in the service of ideals of courtesy. Indeed, the eight tales which feature knights concern love rather than war, and this emphasis reflects the predominant literary tastes of Chaucer's day, if not the general recognition of the declining value of the knight on horseback in military operations. [From the time of the First Crusade, when Norman and Frankish knights struck terror into the Saracens as invincible fighting machines, until the Battle of Crécy in 1346 when the knight proved himself obsolete in battle, knighthood was, first and foremost, a military ideal in service of the Church. It is by martial standards of the day that recent studies measure Chaucer's Knight, for example Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight (London, 1980) and, in rebuttal, John H. Pratt, 'Was Chaucer's Knight Really a Mercenary?' Chaucer Review, 1987. By Chaucer's day the knight was idealized for his courtesy, for his figurative rather than real protection of the Faith.] There are surprisingly few knights in The Canterbury Tales, considering how freely the title is attributed in The Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde. Besides Theseus, Palamon and Arcite in "The Knight's Tale," there is the false accuser of Constance in "The Man of Law's Tale," the rapist of "The Wife of Bath's Tale," the Franklin's Arveragus, the Merchant's Januarie, the Physician's Virginius, Chaucer's own Thopas and the Second Nun's knights of Christ in her hagiographical account of Cecilie. Of these, only the first three take part in wars, though it is Theseus's mediation in the love contest between the two unruly knights that is the topic of the Knight's story. The last knights—Cecilie's husband and his brother—embody ideals of spiritual service that match Theseus's secular service. Between these poles, however, are six tales which display knights who fail, more or less, the ideals of courtesy attached to their title. The peril in which these knights place both image and person of women suggests that Chaucer is framing a timely argument against a knighthood whose ideals are belied by its exemplars, whose understood service to love is performed in disservice to women.
From its inception in the Carolingian epoch, knighthood was associated with a common defence of Church and womanhood, the latter as image of the former. Chaucer's Parson explains that 'certes, the swerd that men yeven first to a knyght, whan that he is newe dubbed, signifieth that he sholde defend hooly chirche' [Quotations are from The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed.]. The text of that ceremony requires the knight to protect ecclesiarum, viduarum et orphanorum ('Church, widows and orphans') as well as to fight the heathen. Langland's Holy Church tells Piers that knights are to defend its truth and punish its transgressors [in Piers Plowman], while the French poetic tradition of Crêtien and his followers call upon the knight to display strength, courage, fair bearing, loyalty, generosity, courtesy, leadership and dedication to just causes. This list accords closely with the virtues of knighthood recommended in Palamon by his rival Arcite to Emily:
'To speken of a servent properly,
With alle circumstances trewely—
That is to seyen, trouthe, honour, knyghthede,
Wysdom, humblesse, estaat, and heigh kyndrede,
Fredom, and al that longeth to that art.'
There is no need to multiply such lists of knightly virtue. They appear throughout the prose and poetic corpus of medieval western Europe. The protection of women is typologically bound to the defence of Holy Church because the exegetes had identified women as reflections of the Virgin Mary and, hence, figures of Church. Virgo Maria est ecclesia, says Hildibert. As the Church mediates between God and man, women mediate between husband and children in the popular model of the family. [David Herlihy, 'The Making of the Medieval Family,' Journal of Family History, 1983. Herlihy notes that the ancient Germanic tradition of according a higher wergild value to women during their child-bearing years pertains to the bourgeois medieval English notion of the marketable value of family members.]. The love between husband and wife which produces offspring, in fulfillment of God's command to wax and multiply, is honesta copulatio, and the child-bearing bed an image of the church altar. These are but commonplace truisms, but they need to be rehearsed in order to show why knights are, ideally, the mediating bond between spiritual and worldly love. They are figures of Christ and of that universal governing force Theseus identifies as the faire cheyne of love. A knight is, therefore, a servant of love, whether fighting the heathen or protecting oppressed damsels.
With the establishment of the ideal arrive its counter-figures. An early anonymous Latin poem, probably from the twelfth century, exposes clerks and knights who serve venereal instead of charitable love….
As protectors of the ideals of love, knights would be expected to be ideal lovers themselves, exercising moderatio in choice and performance of love. Knights should love as Pandarus counsels Troilus, 'in a worthy place' (Troilus). The social history of Chaucer's Europe reveals, however, a common interpretation of this hierarchal harmony to mean that while one should love another of the same social worth, one can lust lower. Alison, of "The Miller's Tale," is
… a prymerole, a piggesnye,
For any lord to leggen in his bedde,
Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.
The point seems innocuous in context, but it is likely that Chaucer's audience would know that women like Alison were married off for economic reasons in which they, themselves, had no say. If Malyn in "The Reeve's Tale" addresses a courtly aubade to the clerk who rapes her, it is because this lover will be, most likely, the highest of social rank she will have amorous dealing with in her squalid environment. Violent amorous pursuits were not infrequent in Chaucer's day. Groups of young knights perpetrated gang rapes in southeast France which were considered by the ruling class as "acceptable amusement for the young men who felt frustrated by their inability to marry before they were sufficiently established" [Mary Wade Labarge, Women in Medieval Life, 1986.]. Lower class women were fair game and those who were viewed askance as fairies were prime targets [Duby, The Knight. He remarks: 'When they imagined themselves winning, by violent and dangerous means, these enticing, elusive, dominating fays, they must have felt they were conquering their anxieties and returning to the warm bosom of their earliest infancy.' Psychoanalytic speculation aside, women who were considered to possess 'magical' powers were more often attacked with impunity than others.]. Rapine love seems to Jean de Meung the rule rather than the exception. Chaucer's Parson, in his lugubrious exposition of the sin of lechery, establishes a hierarchy of deleterious love in association with the senses, or wits. Eyes, ears, and so forth, incite lust, where reason should mediate spiritual love.
It is this deficiency of the senses that quickens the lust which characterizes Chaucer's knights. Palamon and Arcite desire Emily from first sight, though the former compares her to a goddess, while the latter is attracted to her as a creature. Theseus, after mediating the griefs of the Theban women, converts the disorderly pursuit of the two knights for Emily into a structured contest whose reward is marriage. When that plan goes awry by the untimely and unexpected death of Arcite, Theseus calls Emily and Palamon together for a marriage which will serve the political alliances of the state. As a philosophical justification for the union, Theseus makes his renowned 'Great Mover' speech in which he celebrates the fair chain of love and the holy bond of matrimony which reflects it in the secular world. In keeping with the historical context and the typological structure of the tale, Theseus attributes the bond of love, the Divine Logos, if you will, to Jupiter. In the mythographic tradition, ironically, it is Jupiter who ushers in the age of lechery:
… Jupiter the likerous,
That first was fader of delicacye,
Come in this world.
('The Former Age')
At any rate, Theseus protects Emily's interests by turning her pursuers' squabble into an honourable quest for marriage. In doing so, however, as Emily herself reveals in her futile prayer to Diana to preserve her virginity, the woman's own desires are not taken into consideration. Theseus uses his sister-in-law as a peace-web.
"The Franklin's Tale" is a parodic reflection of the Knight's story in contemporary and domestic setting. Like the Knight's tale of Theseus, the Franklin's story of Arveragus and Dorigen ends happily, in re-established order; but, where in the Knight's story Theseus ties a political knot by means of a marriage, the Franklin's plot is achieved by a succession of untyings. Arveragus releases his wife from her marriage vows, Aurelius releases her from her rash promise, and the clerk of Orleans releases Aurelius from his debt. Where Theseus resets in place, over and over again, an order he compares to the created order of the universe, Arveragus, Dorigen and Aurelius proceed in their comic triangle of love by unthreading fabrics of order. The tale begins with Arveragus surrendering his 'natural' superiority over his wife to her will in all marital matters except his public posture, on the grounds that:
Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye,
Whan maistrie comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!
Love is a thyng as an spirit free.
By this comic image the Franklin trivializes the philosophic concept of love and reduces it to a sprite in fear of a cage. Such a notion is only a symptom of the tale's confusion of love and knighthood. Arveragus leaves his wife unprotected as he goes off to enhance his chivalric honour. Dorigen, alone and fearful, looks at the black rocks of Brittany as threats to her love and calls upon God to view his own works. The address parodies Theseus's exposition of universal design, but where Theseus the man celebrates the harmony of order in nature apparent to the intellectual eye, Dorigen the woman laments the 'foul confusion' of nature before her eyes. It is no surprise that a mind which reads nature so poorly should read Aurelius's offer of service as an invitation to adultery. Her offer of her body to him, should he remove the rocks, is a false promise, quite different from Theseus's promise of Emily's hand to the winner in the lists. It is not necessary to spin out here the comic complications which follow. It is sufficient to recall that Arveragus, once he hears of Dorigen's contract, releases her from their vital marital bond to send her off to honour a frivolously contracted bond of adultery, though he takes the precaution, curiously, of protecting her this time with a maid and squire. Where Theseus had exposed a universe ordered by a perceptible providential design, Arveragus, Dorigen and Aurelius are finally restored to order by a series of gratuitous and contingent repudiations of bonds. When Arveragus orders Dorigen to keep her word to Aurelius, he exercises his will in a fashion comparable to Theseus's marrying of Emily, but where Theseus is fulfilling a noble service of love, Arveragus is pandering to the basest service of love.
"The Physician's Tale" also treats the issue of knightly protection of love. Virginius is, as Theseus and Arveragus, a noble knight. Under his guard is a daughter Virginia whose perfection of nature is detailed in a passage which occupies more than a third of the entire tale. Her body and its controlling virtues reflect Theseus's view of the cosmos. All is moderate and self-sustained. She is an image of unfallen nature, an example of governance. When the magistrate Apius schemes to possess her, Virginius, instead of permitting his daughter to exercise her virtues of self-governance to protect herself or to convert the lust of her suitor to honourable affection, decides to kill her, apparently for no better reason than to defend his and her public honor. [In the Roman de la Rose version of the story, Apius resorts to his fraud only after direct confrontation with Virginia fails.] Her pleas to mercy are ignored, and she finally yields herself to her father's will, ironically, in God's name. The operations of will untempered by mercy and uninstructed by reason—that is, at least, an understanding of man's just participation in God's creation—contrast with Theseus's ordering according to the merciful interests of women and with Arveragus's misguided but well-intentioned reconciliation of his wife with her pledge of body. All three tales feature knights who exercise their will to subject women to a personal view of order and value in the universe. Theseus's mastery of Emily may strike the modern reader as lacking a sense of equality between the sexes, but is, in its context, a benign operation. Arveragus's fault is a failure of protection and a subjection of an essential bond to a deleterious one, but the gratuitous generosity of man finally turns to comedy the materials of tragedy. Virginius wastes life and destroys the nature which reflects universal order. He kills what he cannot master. All three knights are married, in the prime of life, and enjoy public worth.
The knightly concern in "The Man Law's Tale," "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and "The Merchant's Tale" shifts from protection of woman to ways of loving them. These are tales of amorous pursuit, assaults on the bodies of women. Thwarted in his advances to Constance, the Man of Law's knight kills Hermengyld and accuses Constance of the crime. Unlike Virginius's killing of his daughter, there are no mitigating circumstances here, and the fact that God's hand materializes to strike the knight dead implies that the knight's crime of perjury implicates the bond of Divine Love. Comparable in culpability is the rapist-knight of the Wife's tale. Berefting a maid of her virginity, the Parson reminds the pilgrims, is casting her out of the 'hyeste degree that is in this present lif, and bireveth hire thilke fruyt that the book clepeth the hundred fruyt.' His crime, then, is tantamount to murder, but all the more odious being motivated by pride of lust. Echoing distantly the deference of judgement to woman's mercy, penance is set by Guenevere. The punishment fits the crime, since the knight is condemned to discover and express publicly what women most desire privately. The answer is mastery, or sovereignty over men, a sort of turning the tables on the knight who had exercised sexual sovereignty over the maid. It is a fairy woman's counsel that gives the knight the saving reply, and this is a turning of the tables of protection by knights, for it is she who saves his life. Her price is a promise of marriage, but the fact that she is old, ugly and poor complicates the issue. His marriage would not be a bond to a worthy object; nor would it be a bond for the lawful reason to beget children for the common profit. In effect, the old hag, shape-shifting from old to young, appropriates the role of a knight in amorous pursuit. She imposes her body upon him, against his will. She counsels him in such a way as to persuade him to render his sovereignty to her. When she offers him, finally, a decisive choice between having her fair and fickle or foul and true, he returns the choice to her. His will has been chastised if not his reason, and she rewards his will by promising both youth and fidelity. As we might expect of a woman playing the role of a sexual predator knight, the reward has already been promised for her own sake, for even before she reveals the choice, she reveals its profit:
'But nathlees, syn I knowe youre delit,
I shall fulfille youre worldly appetit.'
Now, while it may be argued that, like Theseus, she is acting as a mediator to convert a savage sexual pursuit to an ordered marriage, it appears that she is mediating between his will and her own lust. She is engaging the knight in an amorous combat, duelling with words rather than with the blunted weapons of the mêlée in which Palamon and Arcite participate. What she has done, effectively, is to convert his will to her own sexual profit. She rapes with words.
Januarie, the knight of "The Merchant's Tale," has much in common with the Wife's knight as well as with the hag. He marries a young woman in order to serve his personal delight rather than to serve the common profit in the engendering of children. To give Januarie credit where it is due, he does mention children as a motive for marriage, as well as the bonds of marriage as a protection against the sin of fornication, but it would seem that both arguments are mounted in order to justify the purchase of a servant to his lust. After all, he 'buys' May by 'scrit and bond.' Januarie presents himself as a grotesque parody of the 'First Mover' Theseus posits as the maker of the chain of love. First of all, he spends considerable time entertaining images of the young girls he has seen, or not seen, in the marketplace. The Merchant identifies Januarie's entertainment as 'heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse,' [For 'fantasy' the Oxford English Dictionary has 'the faculty of delusive images, deluded images produced by such a faculty' (see Troilus V), 'a liking directed by caprice' Wife's prologue (III), and 'an amorous fancy' "Monk's Tale" (VII). Januarie's 'fantasy' is related, of course, to a sexual drive inappropriate to his age.] and I suspect that these terms direct us to the neo-platonic figure of the God who contains in his mind an image of what does not yet exist. This figure is known throughout the Middle Ages, from Chalcidius and Boethius through Bernard Silvester and William of Conches, as the Opifex and the artifex. The latter term designates the Divine Architect who reifies his eternal plan by the Word of love, or Logos. It is a stock figure in Chaucer's works. Pandarus recognizes in himself an architect of deceitful love in Troilus (III). So Januarie conceives of himself in his love-making, exclaiming to May in the nuptial bed:
' … Allas! I moot trespace
To yow, my spouse, and yow greetly offende
Ere tyme come that I wil doun descende.
But nathelees, considereth this,' quod he,
'Ther nys no werkman, whatsoevere he be,
That may bothe werke wel and hastily.'
The Biblical echoes need no glossing here, but Januarie's amatory dalliance is ironic in this context. God does work Creation in no time at all, and his shaping of the world is no trespass, while Januarie's rapine reach is one of a series of amatory gestures which trangress May's body without creating life. The descent of the Holy Spirit to impregnate the Virgin Mary is not quite the same thing as Januarie's stumble down the stairs after his sexual visit. After a while, however, May learns the Hag's lesson on mastery and works to convert Januarie's desire to her use. She hints at a pregnancy both to flatter her husband and to justify her inordinate hunger for the pears in the tree where her lover awaits. When his eyes are opened to the adulterous liaison, her words blind him to the truth by convincing him of what he would like to believe. This is not unlike the Hag's knight who is convinced of a reward by words rather than by acts.
What aligns "The Merchant's Tale's" denouement with the ending of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" is the manner in which crimes of knights are redressed by women who succeed, one way or another, in submitting the body of their knights to their own will. May uses Januarie's back for her ascent into the tree to enjoy the kind of love that Januarie himself is well-acquainted with. The Hag's knight becomes the means by which the hag recovers her youth and sexual vitality, in thought if not in deed. [Yielding to an ugly lover's expressed wish is a common disenchantment device in medieval folk-tale and romance.] It is the word, the secular reflection of the creative logos, that chastizes and purges the excessive lust of rapine knights.
The tales of Sir Thopas and Saint Cecilia present two extreme views of otherworldly love, the former as fantasy pursuit and the latter as spiritual pursuit. Both tales concern the quest for an idea rather than for a person. Chaucer's tale of Sir Thopas is a comic travesty of amorous idealism. In outward array as well as accomplishment, Thopas is a knight par excellence: he sings, dances, wrestles and hunts. He falls in love to the thrustel's song (VII), and once his outward ear is incited to an amorous quest, his inward eye sights, in a dream, an elf-queen as his lemman, a term for a loverfound most typically in Chaucer's day in lyric references to Christ. If Januarie's heigh fantasye paraded images of women he had seen at one time or another, Thopas's amorous imagination pictures what, as far as we know, does not even exist. Pursuit of an invisible love is, of course, pursuit of the Virgin Mary and a quest for spiritual love. The identification of Chaucer's Fairy Queen with the Virgin Mary is made by Edmund Spenser in the first book of his Fairie Queene, and it is likely that Chaucer's immediate audience understood the implicit allusion. Thopas makes the identification himself, paratactically, when he wakes from his dream and exclaims: 'O seynte Marie, benedicite!' (VII). Since Thopas's love is never joined to an image outside of his own fantasy, it is autistic. It is puerile, and like Januarie's love for May, it is sterile. The expense of energy during his quest for the elf-queen procures him nothing but words. It is fitting that his quest be blocked by a giant Olifaunt, whose name, according to Boethius, signals 'gretnesse or weighte of body' countering the 'stablenesse and the swift cours of the hevene.' [This is Chaucer's translation of The Consolation, Book III. In the context of Thopas's ridiculous quest it is perhaps worth mentioning that for Chaucer's pronunciation, quene 'whore' and queene 'queen' would be virtually homophonous.] Thopas's vapid and fruitless pursuit in a doggerel style of its teller, which matches the hero's gallop, is a carnival mirror of knightly love chases. It is a caricature of misdirected gestures of love.
As if to direct the imagination towards a spiritual love manifest in nature, the Second Nun tells a tale in which angles are seen, flowers of martyrdom smelled and eternal truths heard from the mouth of Pope Urban. If Thopas is engaged in a labyrinthine pursuit attended by multitudinous trivial details of speech and gesture, the Second Nun's Cecile points a narrow and direct path toward a truth that is evident to man's senses. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that Valerian and Tiburce earn their knighthood, for Cecile rewards their faith with the title 'Cristes owene knyghtes leeve and deere' (VIII). The career of these two is a chastising example to earlier tales of knights. For example, whereas Theseus's secular design is based on the authority of Jupiter, Cecile makes knights of her husband and his brother in order to arm them against a command to sacrifice to Jupiter. Theseus mediates a disordered pursuit in order to conform it to his political design, while Cecile preaches a withdrawal from worldly pursuits in favour of a spiritual design. While Theseus argues that Jupiter's cosmic order is apparent to the eye (intellectual or physical), Cecile explains a manifestation of spirit in nature which binds this world with the next. Like the Wife's hag and the Merchant's May, Cecile converts husbands to her will, but her motives are not private and personal, but public and universal. There is no question of begetting children in marriage for her, because in her austere and radical view of this world's service to the next, there is profit only in renouncing physical things for spiritual good. Val awarded knighthood for renouncing everything that marks the mundane knights of earlier tales. They disdain their own nature as well as social honour. Their title of 'knight' is a distant ideal, a service to one sense of love alone.
Chaucer's knights in The Canterbury Tales, apart from the rarified models presented by the Second Nun, are uniform in submitting women to their will. They abuse both image and body of women to an extent that feminists would be justified in labelling 'sexual imperialism.' The threat against body is prevalent. Virginius kills his daughter, a maiden is raped by a knight, Arveragus threatens to kill Dorigen if she makes her contract with Aurelius public, and then orders her to surrender her body. May submits to the perverse sexual appetite of Januarie, Hermengyld is murdered and Constance falsely accused by the Man of Law's knight, and even Theseus cannot escape the charge that he neverdefers to Emily's opinion in the question of her marriage. Thopas is an extreme case, for whatever image of elf-queen he holds in his mind, it is wholly his; that is, Thopas's woman is a product of a male fantasy, and fully subject to its delights. If tnere is a singular flaw that can be pointed to as the cause of flawed service of love, it is man's deficiency of sense, or wits. Chaucer's knights, with the exception of the well-instructed knights of Cecile, misread nature. Theseus posits a perfectly ordered creation to justify his mundane ambitions, but dislocates nature violently when he dislodges the denizens of the forest from their habitat, and when he changes the use of the earth by bringing sunlight to where it never was before. In effect, he destroys the very design he celebrates. Virginius kills his daughter, failing to protect her, but also failing to recognize in her virtues a power to protect herself. Arveragus renders up his will to a wife whose senses and reason, if we judge her address to God before the black rocks as evidence, are manifestly insufficient. The Wife's knight cannot contain his lust, Januarie's lust is excessive for his age, and Thopas does not even care to distinguish, if he could, dream images from real persons.
Chaucer's knights reflect three errors in their service of love. The first is subjection of woman's bodies to male wills for the sake of public order and honour. Theseus, Arveragus and Virginius are more or less culpable of this fault. The second error is the rapine pursuit of woman's bodies for pride of lust, and the knights of the Man of Law, the Wife of Bath and the Merchant are so guilty. The third error is fantasy pursuit, the quest of an ideal in the absence of a person. So Palamon loves until he is brought into Emily's company, and so Thopas pursues an image of his own fancy. Chaucer plays in his art with shifting distances between ideals and practices, and it would seem that his careful selection of knights in the tales serves his exposition of flawed knighthood.