Social,Religious and Historical Issues in the Knight’s Tale
TheCanterbury tales is a group of 24 stories written by Geoffrey Saucer,one of the greatest poets in the English history. The stories werewritten between the years 1387 and 1400 and depict thirty pilgrimswho are traveling together to Canterbury or current day England.Since they came from all walks of life, they decided to tell storiesto each other so as to kill time on their way. There are differentcharacters depicted in the story, each telling their unique stories.Among them are the merchant, the knight, the clerk, the yeoman, themonk, the friar and the Franklin.
Fromthe tale, the host of the group is also present in the story hehosts them in an inn just outside London (Ecker, n.p). The narratorjoins other 29 pilgrims on their way to the martyr shrine in St.Thomas Becket in Canterbury where he gives a vivid description ofeach of the pilgrims. For instance, the monk is described as a manlyman with religious traits. Also, he is fat fellow balding at the headand with large greasy eyes rolling in his head. The knight isdescribed as a nice guy with an athletic body who has never uttered anasty word against anyone while the merchant is brought out asfashion elite who I unhappily married to a distasteful wife.
Asthey tell stories, the pilgrims touch on different tales and issuesincluding tragedies and comedies, dirty stories and romances, sermonsand saint’ lives, stories of humiliation and deaths among others.This paper is specifically going to study the narration given by theknight and discuss some of the social, religious and political issuesarising from the tales.
Accordingto the Knight’s tale, the Duke of Athens, Theseus, imprisons twoKnights, Arcite, and Palamon, from the Thebes a city in Greece. Asthey are languishing in prison, both knights fall in love with theDuke’s sister-in-law named Emelye. In due process, Arcite is freedby the intervention of a friend and later banished from Athens. Aftersome time, he comes back disguised to work as a page in Emelye’schamber. As fate would have it, Palamon also escapes from prisonwhere they meet and fight over their love, Emelye. In the process,they are both apprehended by the Duke and immediately a tournament isorganized between them with Emelye as the prize.
Theseusarranges for them to each amass armies and fight each other after ayear. Palamon is seen praying to Venus so that he could get the prizewhile Arcite prayers are to the god Mars so that he can win the war.As the fight continues, Arcite wins the fight but accidentally fallsfrom his horse and injures himself badly. On his deathbed Arcitewhispers to Palamon to forgive him and that if he, Arcite, can’thave Emelye, then Palamon should have her instead (Jenkins 241-243).The story ends with Palamon marrying Emelye, and they live happilyever after. The Knight touches on several issues in the story thatcan be discussed in detail.
CourtlyLove Pervasiveness and Sexual Sesire
Courtlylove was a very influential part of literature and culture in themiddle ages. The knight’s tale is purely about two cousins swornnot to let anything come between them and especially a woman buteventually it is the love of a woman that sets them apart and causestheir downfalls. Both knights and their love for the maiden, Emelye,are incorporated in the story as it was a popular genre in the14th-century literature. Others included knights embarking on queststo rescue their maidens or forming lasting bonds with other rulersfrom other kingdoms. In the tale of the Knight, romantic elements inthe ancient classical times are incorporated.
Thiskind of love was a medieval concept that was used to express love andadmiration in a noble way however it only existed outside marriage.For instance, the knight’s tale tells of the two knights madlyconsummated by Emelye’s beauty and they have to face each other ina duel to win her hand in marriage. Another interesting aspect is thehost’s description of the young knight is a depiction of courtlylove from the way he wears fancy clothes, keeps himself fit andathletic by watching his appearance as well as his passion for lovethat he can barely sleep. He is also depicted as a good dancer andmusic writer. The issue of courtly love is also depicted in the otherstories told like the Miller’s tale which turns the courtly loveinto a joke while the Nun’s Priest’s tale of a beast fableintroduces the courtly love in a henhouse. The knight’s tale andmany others bring out the issue of sexual desire prominently such asto cause a debate of what makes a good marriage. The characters ofboth male and female are used to bring out the question of what makesa sustained relationship.
Ancientpoets throughout Europe promoted the notion that true love onlyexisted outside marriage and that it was this kind of love that couldbe idolized and spiritualized without being physically consummated.It was such that the man became the servant of the woman he lovedsince love was a torment/disease that changed the man’s appearancebecause the man failed to eat or sleep. For instance, when Arcitereturns to Thebes, he is affected by the lovesick condition . Thus,he constantly laments, ‘Alas!’ and consequently stops eating andgrows so thin to the point of unrecognizable. Because he was verythin and unrecognizable, he chose to endanger his life by disguisinghimself as a poor laborer so that he could find a job in Emelye’schamber and get to see her every day.
TheChurch and Spirituality
TheCatholic Church was a formidable force in the medieval times, and itswealth was insurmountable as a result of the amounts of gold thatwent into its construction and decoration of the shrines and saints’relics. For the most part, all the pilgrims in the story arereligious as they are going on a pilgrimage. However, it is not clearif it a case of religious quest or a tourist expedition. Forinstance, the religious figures in the tales deviate from theexpected norms. They are depicted as greedy, hypocrites andirreligious churchmen. The knight’s tale is also riddled withbelief in gods and goddesses signifying the lack of free will and theKnights’ belief in fate. When Arcite returns to Thebes, he is sodisturbed and obsessed with seeing Emelye again that one night,Mercury, the Roman god of financial gain, appears to him in a dreamand tells him to go back to Athens where he will find peace for hislovesick problems.
Hedutifully obeys signifying his belief in supernatural beings andspirituality. Again, in one of the religious events, theycoincidentally met when they came to pay their respect to May, one ofthe Greek goddesses. Throughout the tale, the issue of spiritualityis very ripe. We see that Theseus creates an amphitheater that willbe used for the tournament between the two knights. Not only is thetheater lavish but also adorned temples for three different godsMars, god of war, Diana the goddess of chastity, and Venus goddess oflove.
Finally,on the day of the battle, Palamon rises very early in the morning togo to the temple of Venus. He rises at two because this is the mostauspicious to pray according to their religion and beliefs. Whilepraying, he asks Venus that he might win the lady instead of winningthe battle. The statue vibrates, and Palamon interprets it as ananswer to his prayers. At about five in the morning the lady Emelyewakes up too to go to seek the favor of the gods. She cleanses herbody, performs rituals and prays so that her virginity and maidenhoodcould be preserved forever. She also prays that Arcite’s andPalamon’s love for her should be cured so that their friendship canbe restored. As she prayed, one of the fires in the temple went outand the goddess Diana appears to her and decrees that she must marryone of the knights though it is not revealed to her which one.
Arcitealso goes to Mars’ temple and uses Mar’s love for Venus to arguehis case. He even offers to shave his previously uncut hair and beardas a sacrifice to the gods. What is more, he even offers to serveMars for the rest of his life in the event that he wins the battle.The statue shakes and he hears the murmuring “Victorie!” As thestory continues, the heavens realms open and the gods Venus andMercury are arguing about the outcome of the battle as it has come tothe competition of gods (McKenzie 101-133).
Thepremise is competition is rife within the story itself as well asamong the pilgrims. The competition on the Knight’s tale isclimaxed in the battle between Palamon and Arcite on the amphitheateras they fight for the hand of the maiden who is the ultimate prize.Their rivalry is brought about by the love for the same woman, andthe knights determine to take the fight to the battlefield to decidewho will rightful take her. Previously, there was also competition inthe forest for the first time since they met after getting out ofprison. This fight was unjustified by the King and he declared itunlawful and set up another one with clear rules and a reward at theend of it. The violent competition serves to both disrupt the rulesof the society as well as reinforce them- a single man must marryEmelye whether she likes it or not just like Hippolyta, Emelye’ssister, was Theseus’ prize after a defeat against the Amazons.
Thistale also adheres to values and traditions of chivalry and knightlyhonor. It was characterized and regulated by strict codes andbehavior that had to be followed. For instance even though theknights are great rivals they still abide by the codes of conduct ofknighthood such that Arcite goes back to Athens to get weapons forboth of them to fight each other. Even after Arcite is wounded anddying, he calls for Palamon and Emelye and gives them his blessingsand says he will always love her even in his death.
Thevalue of Friendship and company
Inthe tale, the two knights Palamon and Arcite must choose betweentheir bonds of chivalry or their rivalry for the same woman forlove. This was a very tough choice for either of them because, forKnights, the choosing of a loved one over the chivalric codejeopardizes all rules. In the tale, both knights have sworn an oaththat they will preserve their brotherhood and protect the other’sinterest regardless of everything. However, as the story progress itreaches an antagonistic stage where their friendship faces achallenge of love. Both seem to imagine that love is more importantthan friendship bonds. Another level of friendship is observedbetween Theseus and Duke Perotheus such that they can do anything foreach other. In fact it is the Duke, who also knew Arcite thatpetitions for his release from prison. Finally at the end of thetale, we see their friendship renewed in death to signify thatfriendship is more important than any other thing for a knight(Muscatine, 911-929).
Apartfrom the story, the concept of company is brought out at the end ofthe stories as each of the characters finish their stories by wishingthe rest of the company or ‘compaignye’ well. The knight, onending his story, says “God save all this faire compaignye.”(Chaucer, 3108) while the Reeve finishes with “God that sittethheighe in magestee, /save all this compaignye, grete andsmale”(Chaucer, 4322- 4323)
Issueof long suffering and death
Thetale brings out issues of long suffering and death in many forms inthe society. For instance, there is both physical and mentalsuffering between Arcite and Palamon for their love for Emelye. Herbeauty pierces them and enters their hearts like an illness. At somepoint in the story, both knights declare that they have suffered somuch for love. Other lesser characters also suffer in the story likethe women lamenting for their husbands’ unburied bodies and theAthenians who scratched and tore their faces as they mourned Arcite.The ultimate death is that of Arcite at the hands of a friend andfellow knight. However, in most parts, death is equated to love asseen in Theseus’ saying death is the great equalizer.
Thenarrator uses a variety of styles and in his tales and each pilgrimbrings in a different voice. The knight’s tale is written in a highstyle meaning he uses courtly themes and noble language to convey hismessage. This is one of the styles uses by most noble people in themedieval times. There was also use of poetic techniques like theinstance when the narrator describes Arcite’s funeral. He usedpreterition, which means telling an audience something by saying thatyou are not going to tell them.
Allin all, the tale of the Knight is a rich source of medievalinformation that shows how different ranks and people in societylived and interacted with each. What is clear is that the characterscannot determine their futures as it relies on the gods. The in-depthdescription of the decorations of the gods’ temples shed light ontheir roles in the activities of the morals. However, the issue oflove comes out strongly, even amongst the gods.
Chaucer,Geoffrey. TheCanterbury tales.Broadview Press, 2012.
Ecker,Ronald. "The Canterbury Tales". English.fsu.edu.N.p., 1993. Web. 6 May 2016.
Jenkins,D. E. "Canterbury Tales or Canterbury Pilgrims?” Theology81.682 (1978): 241-243. Web.
McKenzie,James. "69. Chaucer’S The Knight’S Tale, 1053". TheExplicator20.8 (1962): 131-133. Web.
Muscatine,Charles. "Form, Texture, and Meaning in Chaucer`s Knight`sTale." Publicationsof the Modern Language Association of America (1950):911-929.