True Nobility: Knightly Show & Inner Spirit – Part 1

Scott Farrell Comments:

The most difficult part of providing an excerpt from Prof. Braudy’s book From Chivalry to Terrorism was choosing which portion to select. It’s an excellent book that provides a scholarly examination of chivalry and the warrior ethos in Western Culture throughout the ages. I settled upon this passage because in it, Prof. Braudy focues on the complex interplay of many of the knightly virtues — mercy, faith and justice, but primarily nobility, and how the Code of Chivalry and the literature of the Late Middle Ages helped to change our perception of that concept. Nobility was once indicated by the trappings of wealth and an aristocratic pedigree; chivalry turned the focus inward and reached toward a realization that true nobility comes from the heart.

Chivalry and the Wife of Bath

BraudyUntil the 12th century in Europe, the time of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes, literary depictions of a sympathetic male vulnerability characterize it as existing primarily between men. Achilles may leave the battle for Troy in the Iliad because Agamemnon has taken the slave girl Briseis for himself, but he returns because Hector has slain Patroklos, his sworn companion. Such male camaraderie hardly disappears from war. But the works of Chrétien mark the literary dawn of the possibility of receiving similar support and emotional nourishment from women as well.

Hidden not very deeply in Chrétien’s presentation of the conflicts within the chivalric assumptions about masculine and feminine identity (and even more explicit in the works of Andreas Capellanus, thought to be another member of Marie de Champagne’s court) is the distinction between a nobility of birth, verified by the externals of knightly and noble show, and a nobility of virtue, validated by individual nature. In the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, some 300 years after Chrétien, Chaucer revisits Arthurian romance in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and dramatizes for a war-weary audience the submerged implications of what happens when women and their perspective are allowed into the chivalric world.

After a long prologue in which the Wife of Bath recounts her life, tells of her five husbands, and attacks the efforts of medieval misogynistic literature to regulate women’s behavior, she surprisingly tells a tale set not in a contemporary realistic world but in an Arthurian fairyland that existed “many hundred years ago.” At first the Wife of Bath is nostalgic about this world, particularly because it lacked the wandering friars who use their place in the Christian hierarchy to prey upon women. But even in this ideal world there is brutality. A knight from Arthur’s court, “a lusty bacheler,” sees a young woman walking by the river and rapes her. By law, he is to be beheaded. But the queen and the ladies of the court ask that he be given to them for judgment, and Arthur agrees. The queen then tells the knight he will be spared if within a year he can find out what it is that women most desire.

Fruitlessly, the knight searches for the answer, since no one he talks to agrees with anyone else, until, the year almost gone, he comes upon a women in the forest who says she will give him the answer if he promises to marry her. Even though she is “foul, and old, and poor,” the knight agrees. She tells him that women most desire “sovereignty” and “mastery” over their husbands. They return to the court where the queen and her ladies accept this answer and free the knight from his death sentence. However, when the old woman claims her recompense of marriage, he balks: “Take all my good [possessions] and let my body go.” But a promise is a promise, she says, and he is forced to marry her.

As the story then unfolds, it focuses on the confrontation between a sexually immature but aggressive male knight and a sexually unattractive but wise lower-class woman, a confrontation that illustrates how the relation between the sexes taught by chivalric literature fosters emotions that may at first intensify a relationship but then too quickly lead to its destruction. Even though his new wife has saved his life, the knight in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” feels that all his social and sexual prestige have vanished with his marriage.

But now the tale takes another turn, as they lie in bed and talk, the knight bemoaning that he has married someone so ugly, old, and socially beneath him. In response the woman questions all the knight’s assumptions about the way the world should be, especially his definition of what constitutes social prestige. The word she uses is gentilesse, but not in its usual meaning of high social position. True gentilesse, she says, has nothing to do with family or wealth or position, but comes from God alone. It is a personal characteristic, not a social one, validated by deeds, not by ancestors or possessions.

Choose then, she says. Would you rather have me ugly, old, and faithful to you, or would you rather have me be young, beautiful, and wellborn and take your chances with the trouble that might bring?

“I put me in your wise governance,” he answers.

Well, she responds, since you have given me the mastery, I will be both beautiful and true.

© 2004 Leo Braudy

About the Author: Leo Braudy is a University Professor and Bing Professor at the University of Southern California. He previously taught at Yale, Columbia and Johns Hopkins. He has received a Gunggenheim Fellowship as well as a Senior Scholar Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has been a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, as well as a writer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. His book The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History (now available in paperback) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and Harper’s. Mr. Braudy lives with his wife in Los Angeles.