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Note: This is an assigned topic, and I have gotten bogged down in it. Any comments, suggestions, or criticism is welcome. In advance, thank you for helping me make this a better paper.

When Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, it is hard to be sure if he was simply trying to relay the facts of his time as he knew them. The pilgrims on their way to the shrine were representative of English society in his time, and he gave a fairly accurate description of them. If one delves deeper, however, he may find that there is far more than meets the eye with Chaucer’s works—in fact, the only way to truly appreciate all of the innuendo and sarcastic wit would be to have been there, and share some of the same experiences he did. Chaucer was a chronicler, truly able to invoke his own caveat of just telling it like it is, of letting the chips fall where they may. Still, he had to consider the political power of his peers. Chaucer knew exactly who to offend, and how far he could go in his insults—but the modern reader should be willing to look at what the man didn’t say as much as what he did say.

The first tale, the Knight’s Tale, offers an excellent example of Chaucer’s own sensibilities. While introducing the character of the Knight in the prologue and in the presentation of the tale itself, there is no mention at all of anything scandalous or unethical about knights—none at all—and the absence of any criticism is very conspicuous upon closer examination. Many knights were really scandalous creatures, although they have always been associated with romantic notions of fair play, noble deeds, and being helpers of the downtrodden. Stacks of books were written about chivalry as it unfolded, but the truth is that most of it was wishful thinking.

Further back in time (between 500 and 950 AD), there was a period of general confusion and lawlessness after the decline of Rome, and this vacuum was filled by rugged men on horseback who robbed, pillaged and plundered at times and places of their own choosing. The only moral authority of the time was the Catholic Church, and they considered military or violent life contrary to their philosophy. Their official position is evident in Peace of God—Synod of Charroux—989, when they strongly condemned those who robbed the poor, beat the clergy, and broke into and robbed churches. Maybe the perpetrators were not responding to verbal reprimand, because the church had a more conciliatory tone when they issued The Truce of God in 1063: “…no man or woman shall assault, wound, or slay another, or attack, seize, or destroy a castle, burg, or villa, by craft or by violence.” In a hundred years, the situation had gone from complete madness to random violence, and notably, there was no mention of attacks on the church in 1063. What had taken place? Actually, only the tone of the Church had changed, because the clergy remained victims of the marauders—as everyone else did—for many years to come. According to Brian Price, editor of the Knighthood, Chivalry, and Tournaments library, “The church sought to harness the knight’s energy and martial skills—his prowess—primarily by formulating a role for him in the church’s structure of society—the protector.” Thus was born the chivalrous and honorable knight: and just in time for a glorious mission.

When the crusades began, thousands of Christian soldiers marched off to war. It was a brutal and ugly business, but they became efficient at organized warfare and hand-to-hand combat. Effective fighting was essential in the Holy Land, and knights had to simulate the battlefield as closely as possible in order to become proficient in battle. In the earliest tournaments, where they perfected their skills against each other, the melee was developed. The melee was an especially brutal contest where several knights would battle each other using basically any sort of weapon. Melees caused a high death rate among participants—a melee usually covered a large area, would often scar the countryside, and destroy crops and livestock. Since the Catholic Church needed soldiers in the Holy Land, they tried to discourage what amounted to wholesale slaughter among their own recruits. Eventually the Church gave in on the grounds that the training helped the knights become better soldiers on the battlefield. The church leaders felt that “it was preferable to exert some influence over the sport than to allow it by neglect or repression to become the weapon of the disaffected.” (Baker, 69) Further, the Church continued to endure injuries at the hands of those who were sworn to protect the weak. William of Tyre made this lament about the Knights Templar shortly after their ranks grew from nine to 300: “They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.” (“The Foundation of the Order of the Knights Templar”: Knighthood, Chivalry, and Tournaments Library) The progression of the knights from barbarity to civility was slow and painful. Eventually, the melee was replaced by the one-on-one joust between two knights, and it became a more gentlemanly sport which one stood a chance to survive; but it took over a hundred years for the tournament to develop those refinements, and only because they were wholly practical. In warfare, the French knights had developed a technique of charging the enemy in tight formation on horseback, brandishing lances. It was new and devastating, but also required a great amount of discipline and skill. In this way, jousting became the preferred contest among knights, and tournaments became the medium for the contest.

The tournament began to emerge as a popular sport during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and had already reached its greatest glory by the time Chaucer wrote of it. Gone were the barbaric contests of the past. Instead, knights used specialized equipment and an increasingly complex code of rituals and procedures. Women were included, where they weren’t before, and tournaments became a prime source of entertainment. Along with the show, vices also entered. Juliet Baker notes in her book on English Tournaments, “One of the commonest accusations was that tourneyers committed all of the seven deadly sins.” (72) The virtuous knight became less virtuous, but there is still more. Knights were also known to be irreverent, especially when things were not going to their liking with the church. For example, “the chivalric response to ecclesiastical condemnation and prohibition of tournaments, for instance, was to use hastiludes as a form of anti-clerical satire.” (95) Sometimes knights would dress as the Pope, the cardinals, or other clergy as a sort of theme during a tournament—with the full intention of disrespect for the church. Again, “irreverence…may have prompted Enguerrand de Balliol…to appear as a demon.” (96)

Where was the outrage? It seems that the knights were fighting the wars, protecting the lands—and when they weren’t; they pretty well did whatever they pleased. After all, they had all the military might. Everyone was very respectful of knights and sang high praises to them, if they knew what was best for them, because there was a certain level of intimidation. These were creatures that were battle-hardened and completely unafraid of death, and they had to be manipulated carefully by the church and the local constituents, much like a pit bull dog has to be carefully manipulated by its owner. It is likely so much romantic literature developed because there was a need to keep the energies of knights directed and focused, and because it served as a constant reminder and appeal to the knight to keep his passions constrained.

Conclusion: When Chaucer described his Knight’s Tale, chivalry and knighthood had already lost favor. Knights were generally irreverent, riotous, and reckless—but they were still dangerous— perhaps that is why Chaucer described his knight as a virtuous man. In some ways, knights could be seen as the schoolyard bully. Everyone respects him and is courteous to him, but no one really likes him. Chivalry had passed its glorious age when a knight was sworn to lay down his life for the greater good of mankind and the glory of God: instead, a knight would fight for his ornately defined honor, or for the love of a lady. The codes of conduct became hollow and meaningless, and the tournament became the ultimate goal of the knight during Chaucer’s time. It could even be argued that there was no distinct time when chivalry was realized. The code, which includes provisions for protecting the weak, respecting women, and not robbing the poor (and what about the rich?) was developed in reaction to what the knights were doing during their leisure time; and they had lots of leisure time.

In light of the actual history, it is easier to understand why Chaucer’s Arcitus and Palamon are in such ridiculous circumstances. They are brothers in arms, but become blood-enemies at the first sight of a maiden, even though they are both in prison. They try to duel without supervision, an act that is highly dishonorable at the time. After all of the fighting and bickering, Palamon laments when Arcitus finally dies of a shameful accident—not as a knight would in the glory of battle. The tournament, when it finally was so ordered by Theseus, made no mention to Christianity or God, presumably the cornerstone of chivalry. Instead, a great fuss was made about the position and location of the deities of the Roman pantheon, along with the personal devotions each of the knights made to their own pagan gods—this section alone condemns the knight of Chaucer’s day as an irreverent scoundrel. Befitting the general immorality we have come to expect of the knight, it is no surprise that Arcitus is given a proper pagan burial, complete with a nod to the tree spirits. With every element of the story, Chaucer has lambasted the state of knighthood. Even the knight, as narrator of the story, fails to understand the shameful position his caste has come to. His presentation of the Knight’s tale does not pay homage at all to chivalry, but questions where it went to, or if it ever did exist in the first place—and it certainly did exist. However, it was always more of an ideal and a model for behavior than a reality; in a time when life was short, bitter, and cruel; and the strong had to choose between self indulgence and the general welfare of the public. Scarcely a hundred years later, the knight forever vanished from all but our memories, leaving behind a legacy of lofty ideals and moral standards that continue to influence and elude us to this day.







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"We sit here stranded though we're all doing our best to deny it." (Visions of Johanna) Bob Dylan


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