The Knight's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Tale: Two Approaches to Chivalric Romance

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  • 0:04 Chivalric Romance
  • 1:08 'The Knight's Tale'
  • 4:17 Analysis of 'The…
  • 4:35 The 'Wife of Bath's Tale'
  • 8:33 Analysis of the 'Wife…
  • 9:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Higinbotham
In this lesson, we'll outline some of the key features of the medieval genre of chivalric romance. Then we'll talk about two very different tales that are examples of this genre: The Knight's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Tale.

Chivalric Romance

As much as I love the movie A Knight's Tale and Heath Ledger, this is not about Heath Ledger. This knight's tale bears no relation at all to the plot of the film. Do not be confused. Get it out of your head. Gone? Gone. Okay.

Instead, 'The Knight's Tale' and the 'Wife of Bath's Tale' are examples of this medieval genre called chivalric romance. You've heard of chivalry, right? It just comes from that. Again, you should probably get all of your ideas of what romance means out of your head. We're not talking about Danielle Steele. There are no shirtless men in kilts hanging around - totally different. In medieval context, what it means is that it's an adventure story, starring a knight, usually, going around and doing lots of adventuresome things - sometimes there's dragons, stuff like that. There's often a lovely lady involved in some way as maybe the prize for all of those adventures. It's not romance novels; it's not what we're talking about.

'The Knight's Tale'

The knight tells one of these tales. It's the first tale that all the pilgrims tell. It's super long. To my mind, it's one of the more boring, but it is significant because it's the first one, so we're going to go over what happens.

We've got two cousins. Their names are Arcite and Palamon. They're nephews of the Duke of Thebes, and they end up getting captured by the Duke of Athens. They're in jail, but luckily - or maybe unluckily - they have a window in their cell. So, Palamon, one day, is looking out the window, and he sees a beautiful woman, Emily, with whom he falls immediately in love, from looking at a distance.

'That thurgh a window, thikke of many a barre

Of iron greet, and square as any sparre,

He cast his eye upon Emelya,

And therwithal he bleynte, and creyde 'A!'

So, love at first sight, basically. He catches a glimpse of Emily (Emelya) and cries out. He's totally into her. Not that smart, he wakes his cousin up and says, 'Come take a look at this. She's great!' Of course, he falls in love with her, too.

'That, if that Palamon was wounded sore,

Arcite is hurt as moche as he, or moore.'

Arcite's even more in love with this girl. They get all mad at each other because they are fighting over the same woman, but it doesn't last that long because an old friend of Arcite's turns up and is negotiating his release from prison. The Duke of Athens says, 'You can leave, just don't ever come back to my country. I just don't want you here anymore.'

So, he's free now, but he can't pursue Emily because he's not allowed back in Athens. Palamon is still in jail, but at least he can still see her through the window. They're both unhappy for various reasons.

What ensues is years of moaning, disguising themselves and trying to get back so they can see Emily again. So, finally, they're both free - Palamon's escaped. They're both free, and they're both disguised. They run into each other, and they decide that they're going to fight to the death over Emily. They're interrupted by the Duke of Athens, who's like, 'What are these dudes doing?' One of them is supposed to be in jail. One is supposed to be gone. This is the worst. He wants to kill them. He's super upset.

His wife intervenes and says, 'You know what, let's have a compromise. Let's give them each 100 knights, and they'll have a battle over this, like a real proper battle, and we can watch.' So, they do that, and Arcite's eventually declared the winner, but then an earthquake happens. It knocks him off his horse, and he dies. So, Palamon gets to marry Emily, and they mourn Arcite.

Win? I guess. It's a way to get out of having to actually choose one or the other. It still lets Arcite win, so it's kind of fair to him. That's our first example of a chivalric romance. You can see it does involve a woman, but the vast majority of it is battling for things, adventuring, disguising and escaping - all of these things that knights are good at and what they do.

The 'Wife of Bath's Tale'

The next story - not so much.

It's told by the fabulous Wife of Bath. She definitely wins the 'most interesting pilgrim' award. She had five husbands. She's got all this advice about love. She gets the longest prologue to her tale of any of the pilgrims - I'm pretty sure - which leads us to believe that Chaucer might like her, too. He may like her as much as we do.

So, we've got this chivalric romance that is told by a woman instead of a man, which is an interesting perspective. Whereas 'The Knight's Tale' starts out with two guys falling in love with a woman they've never met, let alone touched, the 'Wife of Bath's Tale' starts out with a knight (described by Chaucer as a lusty bachelor) raping a young woman. Charming, great - that's a great start. He's in King Arthur's court, so King Arthur decides he should die for his crimes, but the Queen says, 'Hold on a sec. I want to judge this one. I have a better idea.'

Remember in 'The Knight's Tale' the Queen also interceded to change the punishment. It's a consistent factor across both tales.

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