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Chivalry in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' is not known for its chivalry. However, this lesson will discuss how Chaucer does make a point of showing one glowing example of chivalry through the Knight and his tale.

The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales concerns 30 people who meet at the Tabard Inn on their way to see the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The group is comprised of a variety of pilgrims, from the faithful Parson and the crooked Pardoner to the drunk Miller and the bad Cook. The inn's host, Harry Bailly, helps the journey by suggesting a wager; each person will tell four tales, two on the way to the shrine and two on the way back. Whomever is deemed to be the best storyteller by the end of the journey will have their dinner paid for by the rest of the group. Everyone agrees and the tales are told. However, the book ends after only 22 full tales and 2 fragments are told. Since the manuscript for The Canterbury Tales was found posthumously it is unknown whether the manuscript was ever finished. What is known is that Chaucer apparently wanted to show the corruption of the church; he does this by first describing the background of chivalry for the sake of comparison.

Chivalric Code

The first tale in The Canterbury Tales is the Knight's tale. The first pilgrim described in the general prologue is also the Knight. It is not certain whether Chaucer wrote about the Knight and his son the Squire to intentionally show the dramatic differences between the Knight and the corrupt church. Regardless, it does provide a stark contrast.

The chivalric code of the Middle Ages had many rules that focused on piety and faith. Although knights were defenders and fighters in battles, they fought for God. Another set of rules covered how to take care of and fight for those who could not, like women, children, and the sick. A knight's job was to be a shining example of God and morality, which points to Chaucer's need to discuss and compare religion within his novel.

The Knight and the Squire

The Knight is one of the few characters not ironically discussed or mocked by the narrator or by Harry Bailly. The Knight is described by the inn's host as 'valiant' and a lover of chivalry. Bailly sees the Knight as an example of chivalry and all of its requirements. The description of the Knight is completely opposite to most of the religious figures on the journey. He fights battle after battle, fighting for his Lord, and chooses humility over vanity. Though the Knight is not a religious figure like the Friar, he is stronger in faith and displays more piety than those employed by the church.

This theme is prevalent in Chaucer's novel; the people who focus on riches and are well-clothed (like the Friar and Monk) are also corrupt. The men who wear functional, non-fancy clothing are the honest ones, including the Knight and the Parson. Chivalry is emphasized when the Knight's deeds are described -- the Knight has won so many battles and accomplished so much in his profession that he has the ability to brag, yet he does not. He is also humble and treats all with respect, no matter who they are.

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