By Tara Fairclough
Senior Honors Thesis, Eastern Michigan University, 2007
Abstract: We first glimpse Chaucer’s Knight in a portrait-like description of him that Chaucer the narrator relays in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer describes the Knight as embodying all of the necessary characteristics of a “verray, parfit gentil knight,” true, complete and noble (GP 72). In addition to this, he is a veteran of crusades and has gained an outstanding reputation through his deeds. Despite the Knight’s impeccable track record, he has a somewhat shabby appearance, which contrasts starkly with the ideals he embodies. Chaucer tells us “But for to tellen yow of his array,/ His hors were goode, but he was nat gay./ Of fustian he wered a gypon/ Al bismotered with his habergeon” (GP 73-76). This description calls into question the effectiveness of the institution of knighthood as a means of subsistence for the Knight, and invites a reappraisal of his own effectiveness as a knight. In essence, the picture Chaucer gives of the Knight is disjointed.
The audience is pulled farther and farther away from the Knight due to an emphasis on unachievable goals and abstract concepts that have taken on a mythological proportion over time. As a crusader and an established knight of good reputation, the Knight embodies the ideals generally attributed to knighthood. Such concepts include, as Chaucer mentions, “trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisie” (GP 46). In The Knight in History, Francis Gies explains: “a knight should be courteous, generous, well-spoken, discreet, faithful in the service of love; he should have… excellence and worth, as well as good sense… brave, loyal, and honorable, and should perform deeds that would earn him glory”. She continues, adding the religious elements, “he must defend and maintain the church, and widows and orphans”. These qualities combine to form quite an ideal picture of a masculine warrior, but what is Chaucer hinting at with the Knight’s shabby appearance?