[DFT] [ChivalryToday] Chaucer's Knightly Virtues

Seanan mac Tighearnain seanan at elfsea.net
Sat May 3 04:42:27 PDT 2003

Chaucer's Knightly Virtues
By Scott Farrell
©2003 Shining Armor Enterprises

"There was a knight, a most distinguished man ... "

So begins the description of the knight in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The
Canterbury Tales." Chaucer wrote about this unnamed knight in 1386,
when he began work on what many scholars consider to be the first
"novel" ever written. The description of the knight (and all the
pilgrims who tell their stories in his book) comes from the "Prologue."

Chaucer lived and wrote at a time when there were still real knights in
shining armor riding into battle and jousting in tournaments. Because
of this, his concept of knighthood and chivalry is far more realistic
than later authors who were looking back to the Middle Ages with a
romantic sense of whimsy. How does a medieval author characterize
knighthood? Chaucer's contemporary description of this knight sheds
light on the true sprit of chivalry:

There was a knight, a most distinguished man
Who from the day on which he first began
To ride abroad had followed chivalry,
Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy.
He had done nobly in his sovereign's war
And ridden into battle, no man more,
As well in Christian as in heathen places,
And ever honored for his noble graces ...
He was of sovereign value in all eyes.
And though so much distinguished, he was wise
And in his bearing modest as a maid
He never yet a boorish thing had said
In all his life to any, come what might;
He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.
Speaking of his equipment, he possessed
Fine horses, but he was not gaily dressed.
He wore a fustian tunic stained and dark
With smudges where his armour had left mark;
Just home from service, he had joined our ranks
To do his pilgrimage and render thanks. (1)

In this brief description, Chaucer offers an examination of the values
that, in his mind at least, make up the Code of Chivalry. When called
upon to serve his kingdom, the knight performed his duty bravely and
valiantly. Yet regardless of his successes and renown, the knight isn't
a braggart. He doesn't flaunt his wealth to the people he is traveling
with, and instead is generous and honest. And, having returned from
arduous foreign service, he chose not to bask in his glory, but to make
a pious journey as a show of gratitude.

Read a historical novel today - like James Patterson's bestseller "The
Jester" or Bernard Cornwell's "The Archer's Tale" - and you'll get a
very different picture of a knight: gritty, callous, self-serving and
often brutal. They are great books, based on real historical accounts,
but modern authors write stories for readers that identify with
"underdog" characters who go against the bonds of social custom.
Chaucer reminds us that not all knights were hypocritical louts. The
perfect gentle-knight of "The Canterbury Tales" is a fine example of
Chivalry Today.

(1) The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill; New York, Penguin
Books, 1951.

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Surf over to Chivalry Today and learn more about knights in shining
Our newest feature is "Chivalry: A Door to Teaching the Middle Ages,"
by Professor Christopher Bellitto. Although this three-part article
provides ideas to help educators interest their students in medieval
history, you don't have to be a teacher to appreciate the wealth of
resources and historical information Prof. Bellitto references in his
article. Discover dozens of books, magazines and websites which explore
knighthood and the Code of Chivalry by clicking on the "Open the Door"
link in the left-hand navigation bar at www.ChivalryToday.com .

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Readers are permitted and encouraged to share this article with
teachers, history buffs, movie fans who became familiar with Geoffrey
Chaucer in the movie "A Knight's Tale," or anyone who enjoys exploring
the ethical and scholarly aspects of the Code of Chivalry. Please
include all copyright statements and attributions when sharing Chivalry
Today articles. Copyright 2003 Scott Farrell and Shining Armor
Enterprises. Visit our website at www.ChivalryToday.com .

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