The Knight in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Social Class

Instructor: Karen Harker

Karen has taught high school English and has a master's degree in Shakespearean Studies

This lesson focuses on the Knight, one of the leading characters in 'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer. We'll explore the Knight's characterization and social class.

Chaucer's Characters

In the prologue of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes each character traveling on the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral to pay homage to Saint Thomas Becket's shrine. Through the use of direct characterization, a method of describing characters by stating their personality traits outright, Chaucer introduces readers to various types of people who were typical of Medieval society. By presenting the reader with these archetypal characters, meaning characters who display stereotypical or overly generalized personality traits, the reader is able to better understand the various social spheres, cultural norms, and behavior of people who lived in the Middle Ages.

In this lesson, we'll focus on the Knight, one of the most famous characters from Chaucer's work. Based on the descriptions for this character, the Knight was one of a few characters that were well-respected by Chaucer.

The Chivalrous and Christian Knight

In the opening stanza of The Canterbury Tales, some of the Knight's defining personality traits are revealed.These traits are tied to the chivalric code and religion. The Middle English text reads:

A KNIGHT ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the tyme that he first bigan

To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.

Although the Middle English spellings are quite different from modern English, we can still make out that the Knight is considered worthy and values chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy. All of these descriptors are associated with the Code of Chivalry, a code of honor that celebrated truth, honor, bravery, and respect for women. From the outset of Chaucer's description, we see that the knight is celebrated for his faithful adherence to this code.

In order to better portray the chivalrous knight, Chaucer gives us an example of his bravery by telling us about the Knight's valiant efforts during the Crusades, a series of religious wars that spanned the Medieval period where Christian countries attempted to conquer the Holy Land. The text reveals that the Knight has fought in a variety of places across Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, and North Africa. Chaucer goes on to say: 'At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene, ... and ay slayn his foo', meaning the Knight had fought in fifteen battles and slain his foe, or enemy, in each of them.

This gives us an example of the Knight's repeated bravery and skill in battle. Most importantly, however, it shows us the Knight's dedication to Christianity. Because the Crusades were religious wars, this passage reveals to us that the Knight is not just chivalrous and brave, but also a model Christian. He has served the Christian God by fighting in the crusades, and now, goes to pay homage to a Christian Saint in Canterbury, another show of the Knight's unwavering beliefs and faith.

The Humble Knight

The Knight's humbleness is something that sets him apart from many other characters on the pilgrimage. Although he is a member of nobility and could easily brag and boast about his success in battle, he chooses not to, as is revealed in the passage just after the description of his role in the Crusades. (This Middle English is more difficult to make out, so there is a modern translation provided in parenthesis.)

And though that he were worthy, he was wys, (A valiant warrior who was also wise)

And of his port as meke as is a mayde. (And in deportment meek as any maid.)

He never yet no vileinye ne sayde (He never spoke unkindly, never played)

In al his lyf, unto no maner wight. (The villain's part, but always did the right.)

He was a verray parfit gentil knight. (He truly was a perfect, gentle knight.)

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