Re-Knighting Chaucer’s Knight

Review and commentary on a book by Terry Jones

Chaucer's Knight, woodcut from the Caxton's Edition of 1485For decades, students of history and students of literature didn’t have much interaction — the two fields were taught and studied independently. Then, during the 1960s and ’70s, educators began to realize that both concepts had to be viewed together in order to be thoroughly understood: Literature reflects its culture, and culture is influenced by great literature.

One of the most notable books to come from this new scholastic viewpoint was Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary by Terry Jones, the former Monty Python comic and respected historian. The book was originally published in 1980 (sadly, it’s now out of print, although it is still available in libraries and through used book sellers), and it shook up the usually quiet world of Chaucerian literature by theorizing that the “perfect gentle knight” of The Canterbury Tales was actually a brutal, hardened killer.

How did Jones reach this conclusion? By examining the factual details of medieval life (everything from military history to 14th century fashion) and interpreting Chaucer’s description of the Knight through that filter. In doing this, Jones determined that Chaucer is describing the institution of knighthood in a manner that’s full of irony and sarcasm, not in the reverent, awestruck tone that comes across on the surface of Chaucer’s verse.

Jones’ approach is a very interesting one and (much like studying history by competing in re-enactment jousting competitions or taking part in a Renaissance Faire) it lends a whole new aspect to historical studies of the period.

Unfortunately, the thesis of Chaucer’s Knight has been taken by some scholars (and even by Jones himself) to a somewhat extreme conclusion. The resulting academic theory is that if Chaucer was delivering a gently worded insult regarding the inherent hypocrisy of the chivalrous image of knighthood, then perhaps the ideal of the Code of Chivalry was never really taken seriously, even in its own time.

Yet Chaucer wasn’t the only author to write about knighthood and chivalry in the Middle Ages. Scholars who take Jones’ views as evidence that “chivalry never existed” risk losing sight of other authors of the 13th and 14th centuries — authors such as Geoffroi de Charny and Ramon Lull, whose respective “manuals of chivalry” approach the concept both with sincerity and with the clear expectation that their advice would be taken to heart by knights, princes, ladies and nobles of the period.

If Chaucer’s description of the Knight is, as Terry Jones theorizes, full of wry sarcasm, it should simply reaffirm a very basic principle about the Code of Chivalry: The fact that few people lived up to the knightly ideals doesn’t negate them. If everybody was bold, generous, noble and cheerful, we wouldn’t need books, sermons and poems urging people to be trustworthy and virtuous — and that’s as true in the 21st century as it was in Chaucer’s day.

Tim O’Neill, who holds an MA in medieval literature, wrote a well-considered review of Chaucer’s Knight for, and we asked him to share his thoughts on the book with Chivalry Today readers. Here is what O’Neill has to say about Terry Jones’ book.

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[pullquote align=”left”]As an undergraduate, my Chaucer lecturer began his lectures on “The Knight’s Tale” with a ringing (and unconvincing) denunciation of Terry Jones’ thesis. If his intention was to discourage us from believing Jones, he failed. Several of us raced to the library to get our hands on Jones’ book and I remember reading it eagerly and finding it entirely convincing.

Years later, with a great deal more experience in literary analysis and a far greater knowledge of Chaucer under my belt, I re-read Jones and was surprised to find his thesis rather more threadbare. It is still a provocative and entertaining book, and one which shook up the usually somnolent field of Chaucer studies, but his central thesis simply doesn’t stand up to detailed scrutiny. His work has some serious and ultimately fatal flaws.

Firstly, Jones argues we should not just look at where the Knight fought, but where he didn’t fight. Why no mention of him fighting in France like a good English knight? He must, argues Jones, be a mercenary. But it’s hard to see how Chaucer could be indicating this with a list of crusading campaigns. The heartlands of mercenary activity in the 14th century were in the endless wars in Italy, so why doesn’t Chaucer have his mercenary knight fighting there? Jones himself constantly refers to examples of mercenaries in Italy to illustrate many of his points, but never explains why this supposedly archetypal mercenary didn’t campaign there.

Secondly, Jones goes to great lengths to argue that the crusades the Knight took part in were not noble, chivalric and virtuous ventures, but actually grubby, savage and often futile affairs. This may be true from a modern person’s perspective, but what Jones (who has an admitted anti-Church bias) thinks about these campaigns is irrelevant – it’s how they were seen in Chaucer’s time that is important. And, unfortunately for Jones’ thesis, in Chaucer’s time they simply were seen as noble, chivalric and virtuous ventures.

Thirdly, Jones devotes a great deal of attention to the Knight’s appearance, saying this is an obvious clue to his mercenary status. He argues:

“One might expect a glorious figure in shining armour, with banners flying, a dragon on his shield and a crested helm glinting in the sun.”

Instead, we have a figure in a fustian gypon stained with rust. Again, this argument is weak. A chivalric paragon may have worn armour and carried banners on campaign, but the Knight was on a pilgrimage. He goes on to argue that the Knights fustian gypon is a sign that the Knight is poor and that it is stained by his mail habergeon because, unlike a real knight, he doesn’t wear a coat of plates or breastplate-and-fauld over his mail and under his gypon or surcoat. He goes on to present evidence that Italian mercenaries went into battle more lightly armed in this manner, but that some form of plate over the mail shirt was ubiquitous for knights in this period. But Jones is simply wrong on that last point, however, and the alliterative Morte Arthur depicts an arming scene where no less a chivalric paragon than King Arthur himself wears a gypon directly over his mail.

Fourthly, Jones completely ignores the Squire, who is the Knight’s son and whose description follows that of the Knight in the “General Prologue.” In stark contrast to his father, the Squire is presented as fashionably and brightly dressed in the latest style, with great emphasis on his up to-date hairstyle and courtly manners. Unlike his father, the younger man has fought not for the sake of Christendom, but “in hope to stonden in his lady grace.” His campaign was “in Flaundres, in Artoys and Pycardie” — most probably a reference to the pseudo-crusade of Bishop Henry Despencer in 1383. Unlike his father’s crusading campaigns, the Squire took part in one that was widely condemned at the time and regarded as a debasement of the crusading ideal. Jones argues that Chaucer tends to be wry and satirical in his characterization, but forgets that three of his characters — the Knight, the Parson and the Ploughman — seem to be paragons representing the Three Estates, while it is the other characters who stand in satirical relation to them.

Jones’ book is provocative and highly readable, but in many places it seems he is straining to find something — anything — to support his ideas while skating over alternative interpretations. For this reason (and not academic snobbery) his thesis has been largely rejected, though his book has been welcomed. This book is recommended (reading for anyone interested in medieval history or Chaucerian literature), but it should be read with due caution.[/pullquote]

© 2004 Scott Farrell and Tim O’Neill

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Tim O’Neill holds a Master of Arts in medieval literature from the University of Tasmania and has been a keen medievalist for almost 27 years. His review of Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary is reprinted by permission of the author.

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