Higher Loving

Great class. Great Professor. Knights, Chivalry, oh the good old days, everybody’s talking about the good old days…enjoy


Dr. Jim Weldon

English 390

6 December 2004

Higher Loving

The Middle Ages were preoccupied with the dream of order. Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, and other great philosophers, postulated that the world and all its parts were somehow connected and held together by opposites. To balance the barbarian ideals civilization was still struggling to weed out, an order of mounted soldiers, called Knights, was created. The first crusade, launched by a speech given by Pope Urban II in 1095, saw the largest installation of knights march for the Holy Lands of the Middle East in an effort to reclaim the area from the Turks. The Pope required his knights to be “wise, provident, just and pure” (Coles 19). Thus began the first major movement in establishing a code for all knights to live by. Chivalry, coming from the French word ‘chival’, meaning ‘mounted warrior’, became intimately connected with knights in that it enveloped what knighthood was. The codes to which knights were obligated to live by became more formal after the establishment of the order of the garter by Richard the II. The Livre de chivalry became a handbook for knights, which they were believed to consult in order to live truthfully by the code. Running parallel to this development was the growing popularity of poetry and prose in the aristocratic courts. Love and marriage, the primary topics of such literature, soon became irrevocably entangled with the codes of chivalry. To be courteous to women of the court, and openly offering your service to any woman in need, became an accepted norm for the knight and soon all of aristocratic men. Even though the Vatican saw sex as sinful when used for pleasure, soon enough, love was the most important thing a person of worth could have and the church found ways to excuse this. Being in love was linked to the dream of order because it aroused feelings of heightened emotion that was so far-reaching into the sublime that it was viewed as an ennobling factor to the knight who was seated at the pinnacle of medieval man’s aspirations. Even Richard II had to show that he was a courtly lover in public to gain the favor of those he ruled over. Chaucer’s knight, as seen in the General Prologue and The Knight’s Tale, is the epitome of knighthood. The Duke Theseus however, along with the knights Palamon and Arcite, seem to represent disorder rather order and neither love nor marriage come across as ennobling. This portrayal of knighthood may represent Chaucer’s anxiety of the times, being the era of The Crusades and an ongoing feud between England and France. After reading Boccaccio’s Teseida, Chaucer may have decided to retell and reshape the narrative to express his uncertainty about the adequacy of the knightly class to truly bring order to an age of disorder. His uncertainty is displayed in The Knight’s Tale, whereby courtly love and chivalry both seem unfit for the code of men because instead of exclusively bringing peace, love, and life they also bring war, hate, and death. This essay aims to prove that as a response to courtly love, The Knight’s Tale is not condemning its ideals, but showing that they are too high a set of ideals for man to ever hope to fully aspire to.

The first view of knighthood we get when reading The Knight’s Tale is from the Duke Theseus. He has just conquered Femenye, the land of the Amazons, and forced marriage upon Hippolyta, their queen. No intimate bond exists between the two, and in fact Theseus is seen later to be contemptuous of courtly love: “Now looketh, is nat that an heigh folye?/ Who may been a fool, but if he love?” (KnT 940-941) He believed that courtly love was for the younger knights. Theseus also brings – which probably means kidnaps – his new queen’s sister, the fair Emelye. Needless to say, Theseus does not embody Pope Urban’s hope that Christian knights would be “just”. But Theseus represents an older order of knighthood, whereby women were often taken as the spoils of victory. And he is not all bad, as is seen just a few lines later in Chaucer’s poem, where he agrees to help “a companye of ladies” in need (KnT 40).

But swich a cry and swich a wo they make,/ That in this world nis creature livinge,/ That herde swich another weymentinge;/ And of this cry they nolde nevere stenten,/ Til they the reynes of his brydel henten (KnT 42-46).

Theseus’ initial conclusion as to why these women were crying was that they wept because they were so envious of him. This is not a fact to be overlooked in that it represents a fault in knights that is one of vanity. Theseus is obviously in love with himself first, and concerned with the needs of others second. After asking what their problem actually was, he learns of the despotism of the new Lord of Thebes Creon, who has recently conquered that city and left these weeping widows to watch their husbands’ corpses be devoured by dogs. Notable here, is that neither the women nor Theseus disapproves of Creon killing the men of Thebes and conquering the city. It is as if war was an accepted occurrence as long as it was done with some sense of honor. The women plea to Theseus’ ‘noblesse oblige’:

But we biseken mercy and socour./ Have mercy on oure wo and oure distresse./ Som drope of pitte, thrugh thy gentillesse,/ Upon us wretched wommen lat thou falle. (KnT 60-64)

The women succeed in convincing Theseus to help them, but still his motivations do not seem to lay where they should. Chaucer’s Knight does note that “with herte pitous, whan he herde hem speke./ Him thoughte that his herte wolde breke” (KnT 95-96), but he only feels this way because he would prefer not to see those who “whylom weren of so greet estat” be reduced to the level of beggars. This forces the reader to ask reflectively: was Theseus’ concern for the injustice being done to the women or for the order of the estates which was so blatantly being broken? He thereupon swears an oath that he rectify the situation and do so in a manner “that al the peple of Grece sholde speke/ How Creon was of Theseus y-served” (KnT 104-105). Yet again, the reader must ask whether Theseus’ motivation for taking up this dispute is a noble one or one concerned with garnering him more fame and renown. If the latter is the case, Theseus would not be regarded as a knight who is “wise, provident, just and pure,” but as one who is a proud, war-mongering, misogynist. His ideals as a knight prove to be a façade as he lives up to them only in name. Theseus nonetheless helps the widows, granting them peace of mind that their husbands’ remains were properly dealt with. But this small sliver of peace came only after another war was waged and more men were committed to the ground; proving, yet again, that Theseus’ code of chivalry is not without its faults. Being a knight of the old chivalric code, he does not set a good example for the younger knights and it is no wonder that Palamon and Arcite, discovered among the wounded after Creon’s defeat at Thebes, are soon corrupted by false values of their own.

Being doomed to perpetual imprisonment, Palamon and Arcite have no other knightly ambitions to pursue until years after their initial incarceration when by chance they behold the lovely Emily in the garden next to the prison. Both of them fall in love with her at first sight, in what V.A. Kolve calls a “gratuitous decision to love” and continues by describing:

this act of pure will – as their only available expression of something within them still free, not limited by prison walls, leg-irons, or exile. The affirmation of some freedom, no matter how tenuous, is essential to their survival as fully human beings…” (Saunders 246-247)

Now that they have love they desire freedom from the cell that binds them and prevents them from pursuing that love. So engrossed are these two with the laws of courtly love, that actuating their freedom from prison does not occur to them until they have beheld Emily. Had they been men of philosophy, rather than knights, they may have been shown the truth by Lady Philosophy like Boethius was. She gets him to see that his lamentations and longings for his old life are superficial. Had she appeared to Palamon and Arcite she may have steered them from their knighthood and made them see that it was a misguided attempt at fashioning order among men who were by nature unable and ill-equipped to create let alone understand order. Love misguides Palamon and Arcite as the narrator notes by saying plainly “loveres maladye/ Of Hereos” (KnT 515-516). Both eventually free themselves from prison but will not forget Emily and the petty competition they have started between each other, vowing to spill the other’s blood to win the hand of a woman who is completely ignorant of their existence. All these occurrences could lead the reader to conclude that Chaucer himself condemned love but that, according to Derek Brewer is not the case at all.

[Chaucer] tells how their love for Emily destroys their friendship; how they regained their freedom and served long and faithfully in love; he describes their battle for Emily and the great tournament; and finally Arcite’s death and Palamon’s eventual marriage to Emily…Anyone who thinks from this that Chaucer really thought love foolish, has not begun to understand him. But Chaucer would have been foolish himself had he not seen that love, looked at from outside – in the dullness of age, or in clownish ignorance – often seems absurd, like other fine feelings. By admitting such criticism into his poems he so to speak, neutralizes it, deals with it on his own ground, and at the same time widens the scope of his own work. (Brewer 70)

By widening the scope of his work, Chaucer invites us to consider the subtle themes expressed in his poem and realize that this particular tale is, as opposed to the norm with epic romances, is “about love rather than lovers” (Brewer 67). With this argument in mind we are forced to reconsider the hate that has arisen between the former comrades and even the fact that love ultimately drives Arcite to his death. We see that love occasions disorder but that in the end Love prevails. As Brewer puts it: “That Palamon, not Arcite, eventually wins Emily is just, because he saw her first, reverenced her more, and kept his priorities right” (Brewer 173). To Chaucer, or at least to the Knight, love is indelibly connected to justice and providence. In the broadened view to which this narrator is trying to make his listeners/readers adopt, we find an ideal that is sublime. Behind the apparent chaos of the tale lies some kind of stability which is hinted to in Theseus’ speech on the death of Arcite in which he

passes to the inevitable transitorialness of all things; the First Mover[1] he says, having established the chain of love to bind all things together, has also set a limited duration to all things’ all things must pass away. Death, says Theseus is natural and must be accepted; it is a return to the fountainhead of all good, and no dead man will thank us for mourning for something which is really his welfare. There can be no final tragedy for any good man. Let us resign ourselves to the will of God, subject ourselves without repining to the necessary conditions and ups and downs of existence, making the best of misery and thanking God for his great mercies…it is our duty cheerfully to make the best of it. (Brewer 72-73)

As Ghandi once said: “to live is to suffer, to survive, that is to find meaning within the suffering”. In this tale, Chaucer seems to be offering his “own reply to the problem of evil” (Brewer 76). The conclusions he comes to echo those of Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy, whereby by existence is explained in terms of fate, fortune, and providence; fate being how things unfold according to human reason, fortune representing the Greek Goddess Fortune and her blind turning of the wheel of fortune – i.e. how unstable things appear to the human senses, and providence being God’s understanding of reality from the perspective of eternity. The latter perspective being the only view that man is cursed and blessed never to comprehend. It posits a reality beyond what we see and also reiterates the contemplations of Plato that “what we see are but shadows of reality”.

In conclusion, as a response to courtly love, The Knight’s Tale is attempting to justify the flawed knight’s shortcomings, and excuse him from often bringing the direct opposite of what he finds virtuous to the doorstep of innocents. Chaucer is hinting to fact that the ideals of courtly love are linked to the provident order of things in that they – whether upheld honorably or not – act apart from the men who claim to hold them and would be perfect codes for men to live by if men were able to reach levels of perfection – though we get the impression that Chaucer believes this is impossible.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. “The Five Ways”. Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery. Thomas A.

Shipka and Arthur J. Minton, ed. McGraw-Hill Co.: Boston, 1996.

Brewer, Derek. Chaucer. Third ed., Longman Group Ltd.: London, 1973.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue.

V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson, ed. W. W. Norton & Co.: London, 1989.

V.A. Kolve,[2] “The Knight’s Tale and Its Settings”. Chaucer. Corine Saunders ed. Blackwell Publishing: Massachusetts, 2001.

The Prologue: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Coles Editorial Board: Toronto, 1993.


[1] Aquinas’ First Mover is a descriptive term justifying the existence of God; discussed in “The Five Ways”.

[2] V. A. Kolve, from ‘The Knight’s Tale and Its Settings’ in Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Frive Cantebury Tales. Edward Arnold, London, 1984.

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