A Character Sketch of Chaucer’s Knight
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in approximately
1385, is a collection of twenty-four stories ostensibly told by various
people who are going on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral from
London, England. Prior to the actual tales, however, Chaucer offers the
reader a glimpse of fourteenth century life by way of what he refers to as
a General Prologue. In this prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the
characters who are involved in this imaginary journey and who will tell the
tales. Among the characters included in this introductory section is a
knight. Chaucer initially refers to the knight as “a most distinguished
man” (l. 43) and, indeed, his sketch of the knight is highly complimentary.
The knight, Chaucer tells us, “possessed/Fine horses, but he
was not gaily dressed” (ll. 69-70). Indeed, the knight is dressed in a
common shirt which is stained “where his armor had left mark” (l. 72).
That is, the knight is “just home from service” (l. 73) and is in such a
hurry to go on his pilgrimage that he has not even paused before beginning
it to change his clothes.
The knight has had a very busy life as his fighting career has
taken him to a great many places. He has seen military service in Egypt,
Lithuania, Prussia, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Asia Minor where he
“was of great value in all eyes (l. 63). Even though he has had a very
successful and busy career, he is extremely humble: Chaucer maintains that
he is “modest as a maid” (l. 65). Moreover, he has never said a rude thing
to anyone in his entire life (cf., ll. 66-7).
Clearly, the knight possesses an outstanding character.
Chaucer gives to the knight one of the more flattering descriptions in the
General Prologue. The knight can do no wrong: he is an outstanding
warrior who has fought for the true faith–according to Chaucer–on three
continents. In the midst of all this contenton, however, the knight
remains modest and polite. The knight is the embodiment of the chivalric
code: he is devout and courteous off the battlefield and is bold and
fearless on it.
In twentieth century America, we would like to think that we
have many people in our society who are like Chaucer’s knight. During this
nation’s altercation with Iraq in 1991, the concept of the modest but
effective soldier captured the imagination of the country. Indeed, the
nation’s journalists in many ways attempted to make General H. Norman
Schwarzkof a latter day knight. The general was made to appear as a
fearless leader who really was a regular guy under the uniform.
It would be nice to think that a person such as the knight
could exist in the twentieth century. The fact of the matter is that it is
unlikely that people such as the knight existed even in the fourteenth
century. As he does with all of his characters, Chaucer is producing a
stereotype in creating the knight. As noted above, Chaucer, in describing
the knight, is describing a chivalric ideal. The history of the Middle
Ages demonstrates that this ideal rarely was manifested in actual conduct.
Nevertheless, in his description of the knight, Chaucer shows the reader
the possibility of the chivalric way of life.