Kristin Lee Bovaird-Abbo
KU ScholarWorks: Doctor of Philosophy, University of Kansas,
I trace Chaucer’s increasingly complex use of the Arthurian legend. In his early dream visions, Chaucer mirrors his Italian and French sources; however, his Arthurian allusions diverges from his predecessors to reflect the negative attitude found in fourteenth-century England towards the Arthurian myth. In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer is indebted to the French tradition; he models Troilus on Lancelot. In The Canterbury Tales , Chaucer explores how the Arthurian legend permeates contemporary English society, critiquing both the clergy, who cite the legend’s lack of morality, and the aristocracy, who use the legend to establish a superficial superiority. Through his invocation of the popular figure of Gawain in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer criticizes his fellow romance writers in the former tale and offers an Arthurian tale from the mouth of one of the female pilgrims in the latter. The Wife of Bath rejects the traditional glorification of Gawain in order to recast him as a nameless rapist, stripped of his famous name as punishment for his transgression of female sovereignty. She thus raises the issue of female authorship, thereby complicating Chaucer the pilgrim’s professed role of compilator in the General Prologue.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw an explosion of Arthurian activity in both France and England. The Arthurian romance narrative flourished under the pens of such writers as Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Thomas d’Angleterre, and Béroul, and the popularity of Arthur and his knights of the Round Table continued into the thirteenth century with the emergence of the great prose cycles: the Vulgate Cycle expanded upon Chrétien’s story of Lancelot and his love for Guinevere, and the Prose Tristan brought the legend of Tristan and Iseult firmly into the Arthurian circle. The Arthurian chronicle tradition in England, initiated in the twelfth century with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, followed by Wace’s Roman De Brut continued to argue for Arthur’s inclusion in British history with Robert Mannyng’s 1338 Chronicle and John Trevisa’s 1387 translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon. Even the British monarchs participated in the Arthurian mythos during this time. In 1220, Henry III is reported to have received Tristan’s sword from Peter de Roches, bishop of Winchester, and in 1282, Edward I received King Arthur’s crown at the Welsh surrender. In 1344, Edward III made a vow to found an order of 300 knights, the creation of which was modeled on King Arthur’s legendary Round Table.