Geoffrey Chaucer, `The Canterbury Tales`
In medieval literature, the idea of erotic romance played a central role in the expression of the chivalric code, which was ostensibly a set of prescriptive moral behaviors meant to enforce and maintain societal mores and customs which were predominantly involved with issues of sexuality and reproduction. By common appraisal, chivalry and courtly romance were two of a medieval knights most cherished beliefs and cultural identities.
Chaucer in “The Knight’s Tale” plays upon the reader’s expectation that knights, according to the chivalric code, should be devoted to and protective of women, and in particular, the preservation of chastity both in themselves and in the Ladies they serve. Arguably,both Palamon and Arcite represent aspects of virtue and authentic devotion to the chivalric code and, as such, Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” should be read as a prescriptive meditation on the efficacy of chivalry.
However, the true resonance of this assertion lies, not in the idea that Chaucer meant to express an affirmation of the chivalric code in “The Knight’s Tale,” but in what, exactly, this affirmation of chivalry means in terms of Chaucer’s larger theme of male and female relationships. Obviously, the opening lines of ‘The Knight’s Tale” portray a world of patriarchal rule, of rule by force and by manhood, with women being led in tow and lamentation by the conquering Theseus who, in his great wisdom and compassion, takes pity on them.
The theme of “The Knight’s Tale’ is encapsulated in one of the opening couplets of the poem: “That with his wysdom and his chivalrie/ He conquered al the regne of Femenye” (Chaucer, 865-866). When posited against the Canterbury Tales as a whole, this statement must be viewed ironically, because of the obvious resonance of other tales such as “The Miller’s Tale” or “The Wyf of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” both of which emerge as cautionary tales regarding the imbalance of power to one gender or the other.
This truth is borne out through a close analysis of one of the “ironic tales” particularly the following tale “The Miller’s Tale” which can be thought of as the “incerse” theme to “The Knight’s Tale” in that it demonstrates an erotic entanglement which is not restrained by the chivalric code.
Although, at first glance, Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” would seem to express a cynical vision of male and female sexuality, a vision which seems to establish men and women in an eternal battle of the sexes, a closer reading of the tales reveals a more dynamic and complex vision of the issue of marriage and all matters related to erotic love and sensuality. To fully grasp the ambiguities and thematic resonances of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is the study of a lifetime, so complete is the author’s immersion in human experience and in the emotional, psychological, and sexual schism which seems to create a battle-field between men and women.
Chivalry and all of the ideas associated with it are, for Chaucer, aspects of the erotic and romantic entanglements which exist between people and an attempt to control these entanglements. However, it is often difficult to determine with final accuracy whether or not Chaucer’s apparent idealization of chivalric morality is intended to be satirical or prescriptive.
So while Chaucer often portrays “questions of female agency, accountability, and interpretability” (Parry) his typical process as in “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Knight’s Tale,” two tales which are ostensibly interested in mocking the conventions and pretensions” of classical narratives, he shows his “male figures’ efforts physically and interpretively to possess and control the desirable female “object” as the dominant narrative focus” (Parry) which is what is meant by female agency in the critical works.
This type of female agency incites various types of male-action in “The Canterbury Tales” from rape to cuckoldry, and the idea of female agency is a unifying theme in all of the tales. Chaucer’s penchant for strange correspondences in the collected tales is also reflective of the theme of female agency. Female agency can be thought of as both feminine sexuality and the active male response to female sexuality and the chivalric code, as viewed by Chaucer in “The Knight’s Tale” is the only manner in which male response to female sexuality can be controlled in order to stave off cultural and social disintegration.
By contrast, in the “Miller’s Tale, the idea of equality is even more pronounced: “Men sholde wedden after hire estaat/ For youthe and elde is often at debaat” (Chaucer 3229-3230). Here the onus of disrepair is not on the unfaithful young wife, nor on the scholar, but on the Miller himself who has tried to evade his side of the marital “debt” by marrying a much younger woman. Since he is incapable of satisfying her sexually, he can’t pay in sexual currency and so tries to pay with material wealth.
But it is not ignorance, merely self-absorption and self-interest that create the Miller’s cuckoldry and foolishness. He would not have ever been farted on by the scholar had he understood female-agency, which appears passive but is in fact a counter-point to male aggression. Later in the tale, Absalon, too, suffers the fate of “absence” and the scorn was born out of the proverb “Nigh-and-Sly Wins against/ Fair-and-Square who isn’t there. ‘ (Chaucer 110) and this states explicitely the power of feminine agency and also of the male obligation to the marital debt.
Worse than the mere destruction of his self-identity and his manhood, the Miller risks the complete unbalance of his world. The problems which accompany the marital pursuit of “mutual liberty” are also aspects which impact the entire human race and all human societies. The “Miller’s Tale” like the other tales in the “Canterbury Tales” presents a social microcosm: “And Nicholas is scalded in the towte/ The tale is doon, and God save al the rowte” (Chaucer, 3854-3855).
Obviously, “The Miller’s Tale” shows a world of disorder where the chivalric code which is present in “The Knight’s Tale” does not serve to force the scholar and the Miller into a ritualistically antagonist relationship which preserves male action and social order, simultaneously. This fact is demonstrated in “The Knight’s Tale” by a positivistic vision of chivalric morality, although the same theme is demonstrated elsewhere, in other tales, through the use of irony.
Part of the final analysis of “The Knight’s Tale” must be associated with the fact that the tale is the first in sequence of “The Canterbury Tales’ and, as such, stands for the ideal state which is hoped-for, but demonstrably unaccomplished as is attested to by the remainder of the tales. In fact, the message of Chaucer seems to be that men find strength in gentle humility and that women find peace by utilizing female-agency as a form of strength by which male aggression can be tamed and blunted.
or more correctly, directed toward to the payment of a the mutual erotic debt. In this way, the “element of ambiguity emerges even more clearly” (Traversi 93) when it is shown that in response to male gentleness, women will become too humble and gentle: as “is the natural and appropriate response” (Traversi 93). Such a conclusion seems to suggest that Chaucer thought that the state of Eros between men and women was an organic and natural thing meant to be negotiated through much like the natural world itself and perhaps never fully understood.
Such a vision could account for the ambiguity of the tales and the fact that despite their effort as explicated by Nelson to touch upon key ideas and behaviors that restore erotic harmony, the main impact of the “Canterbury Tales” their most convincing aspects seem to be those which show eroticism in its unbalanced state. According to Chaucer, the chivalric code as represented in “The Knight’s Tale” expresses a socially functional way of defining and restraining otherwise destructive impulses which are the consequence of erotic entanglements. Works Cited Chaucer, Geoffrey.
The Canterbury Tales. Macmillan and Company, London, 1907. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Nevill Coghill. Revised ed. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1969. Nelson, Marie. “”Biheste Is Dette”: Marriage Promises in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. ” Papers on Language & Literature 38. 2 (2002): 167. Parry, Joseph D. “Interpreting Female Agency and Responsibility in the Miller’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale. ” Philological Quarterly 80. 2 (2001): 133+. Traversi, Derek. The Literary Imagination: Studies in Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1982.Sample Essay of EduBirdie.com