Pawn Captures Knighthood: The Tale of Sir Thopas as a Commentary on the Rise of Peasants to Knighthood and the Deterioration of Chivalry
CHIVALRY AND HISTORY IN THE MIDDLE AGES (UNDERGRADUATE PAPER), University of Guelph (Online paper 2010)
The Tale of Sir Thopas, one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, contains many details which are inversions of the traditional portrayal of knights in chansons de geste. The reason for these inversions must be determined by interpreting the various details of the portrayal of the protagonist, Sir Thopas, within the historical context of England during the late fourteenth century. During this time period in England, the Black Death had precipitated dramatic changes in social hierarchy. The drastic decline in population led many members of the established nobility to fall into economic distress as a result of labour shortages, and the rise in the value of labour meant that individuals of common birth were no longer as ubiquitous and expendable as they had previously been. Newly wealthy non-nobles were thereby able to rise to the rank of knighthood. This paper shall examine the symbolic details in the Tale of Sir Thopas in relation to their historical context of Medieval England in the years following the plague, and thereby demonstrate that the Tale of Sir Thopas is a commentary on the rise of common born knights and the resulting decline of chivalric values.
Introduction: In The Tale of Sir Thopas, a Canterbury Tale, one of Chaucer’s Pilgrims recites an asinine poem which mocks the traditional Chansons de Geste in both metre and content. The Tale of Sir Thopas is about an effeminate Flemish knight who must slay a three-headed giant in order to marry an elf queen. Sir Thopas is in many qualities antithetical to legendary knightly heroes such as Roland and Guillaume of Orange. Whereas these knights represent the military ideal of chivalry, driven by valour and a sense of Christian duty, Sir Thopas is effete and delicate. He travels unarmoured, and initially flees when confronted with the giant Sir Oliphaunt, a cowardly and unseemly act for a man of knightly status. Chaucer’s intention, however, extends beyond a simple desire to satirize the literary traditions of chivalric epic. Rather, through the use of symbolic details, such as those which are displayed in Sir Thopas’ behaviour, clothing, and armament, Chaucer demonstrates Sir Thopas’ non-noble, mercantile heritage, as well as the knight’s resulting failure to embody traditional chivalric ideals. Chaucer’s portrayal of a man of common birth having risen to the rank of knighthood is closely connected to the increase in social mobility which occurred in England in the wake of the Black Death. Chaucer’s use of farce in the Tale of Sir Thopas is therefore an expression of the subversion of the chivalric values that occurred in fourteenth-century England as a result of the ascension of wealthy peasants to the rank of knighthood.