r’s KnightGeoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in approximately
1385, is a collection of twenty-four stories ostensibly told by
various people who are going on a religious pilgrimage to
Canterbury Cathedral from London, England. Prior to the actual
tales, however, Chaucer offers the reader a glimpse of fourteenth
century life by way of what he refers to as a General Prologue.
In this prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are
involved in this imaginary journey and who will tell the tales.
Among the characters included in this introductory section is a
knight. Chaucer initially refers to the knight as “a most
distinguished man” (l. 43) and, indeed, his sketch of the knight
is highly complimentary.
The knight, Chaucer tells us, “possessed/Fine horses, but he was
not gaily dressed” (ll. 69-70). Indeed, the knight is dressed in
a common shirt which is stained “where his armor had left mark”
(l. 72). That is, the knight is “just home from service” (l. 73)
and is in such a hurry to go on his pilgrimage that he has not
even paused before beginning it to change his clothes.
The knight has had a very busy life as his fighting career has
taken him to a great many places. He has seen military service in
Egypt, Lithuania, Prussia, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Asia
Minor where he “was of great value in all eyes (l. 63). Even
though he has had a very successful and busy career, he is
extremely humble: Chaucer maintains that he is “modest as a maid”
(l. 65). Moreover, he has never said a rude thing to anyone in
his entire life (cf., ll. 66-7). Clearly, the knight possesses an
Chaucer gives to the knight one of the more flattering
descriptions in the General Prologue. The knight can do no
wrong: he is an outstanding warrior who has fought for the true
faith_according to Chaucer_on three continents. In the midst of
all this contenton, however, the knight remains modest and
polite. The knight is the embodiment of the chivalric code: he
is devout and courteous off the battlefield and is bold and
fearless on it.
In twentieth century America, we would like to think that we have
many people in our society who are like Chaucer’s knight. During
this nation’s altercation with Iraq in 1991, the concept of the
modest but effective soldier captured the imagination of the
country. Indeed, the nation’s journalists in many ways attempted
to make General H. Norman Schwarzkof a latter day knight. The
general was made to appear as a fearless leader who really was a
regular guy under the uniform.
It would be nice to think that a person such as the knight could
exist in the twentieth century. The fact of the matter is that it
is unlikely that people such as the knight existed even in the
fourteenth century. As he does with all of his characters,
Chaucer is producing a stereotype in creating the knight. As
noted above, Chaucer, in describing the knight, is describing a
chivalric ideal. The history of the Middle Ages demonstrates that
this ideal rarely was manifested in actual conduct. Nevertheless,
in his description of the knight, Chaucer shows the reader the
possibility of the chivalric way of life.