There was a knight, a most distinguished man …
So begins the description of the knight in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote about this unnamed knight in 1386, when he began work on what many scholars consider to be the first “novel” ever written. The description of the knight (and all the pilgrims who tell their stories in his book) comes from the Prologue.
Chaucer lived and wrote at a time when there were still real knights in shining armor riding into battle and jousting in tournaments. Because of this, his concept of knighthood and chivalry is far more realistic than later authors who were looking back to the Middle Ages with a romantic sense of whimsy. How does a medieval author characterize knighthood? Chaucer’s contemporary description of this knight sheds light on the true spirit of chivalry:
There was a knight, a most distinguished man
Who from the day on which he first began
To ride abroad had followed chivalry,
Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy.
He had done nobly in his sovereign’s war
And ridden into battle, no man more,
As well in Christian as in heathen places,
And ever honored for his noble graces …
He was of sovereign value in all eyes.
And though so much distinguished, he was wise
And in his bearing modest as a maid
He never yet a boorish thing had said
In all his life to any, come what might;
He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.
Speaking of his equipment, he possessed
Fine horses, but he was not gaily dressed.
He wore a fustian tunic stained and dark
With smudges where his armour had left mark;
Just home from service, he had joined our ranks
To do his pilgrimage and render thanks. ((Taken from: The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill; New York, Penguin Books, 1951.))
In this brief description, Chaucer offers an examination of the values that, in his mind at least, make up the Code of Chivalry. When called upon to serve his kingdom, the knight performed his duty bravely and valiantly. Yet regardless of his successes and renown, the knight isn’t a braggart. He doesn’t flaunt his wealth to the people he is traveling with, and instead is generous and honest. And, having returned from arduous foreign service, he chose not to bask in his glory, but to make a pious journey as a show of gratitude.
Read a historical novel today — like James Patterson’s bestseller The Jester or Bernard Cornwell’s Heretic — and you’ll get a very different picture of a knight: gritty, callous, self-serving and often brutal. They are great books, based on real historical incidents, but modern authors write stories for readers that identify with “underdog” characters who go against the bonds of social custom. Chaucer reminds us that not all knights were hypocritical louts. The perfect gentle-knight of The Canterbury Tales is a fine example of Chivalry Today.