True Nobility: Knightly Show & Inner Spirit – Part 2

Scott Farrell Comments:

In the second part of this essay, Prof. Braudy provides an analysis of how “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” reflects the shifting social mores of the 14th century, and how the Code of Chivalry helped soften the brutal warriors’ ethos into the more sympathetic and cooperative spirit that we still admire today as part of an inner nobility and strength of character.

Struggling Toward Empathy

ChaucerIn the context of The Canterbury Tales, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a story of wish fulfillment by which the Wife, who has railed against misogynist doctrine in her prologue, constructs an ideal relation between husband and wife. In it, she counters the institutional Christianity that licenses the hatred of women with another Christianity that emphasizes the equality of all — male and female, high and low, ugly and fair — and reverses the knightly value system of judging primarily by grand appearances and ostentatious victories. The underbelly of knighthood that justifies any male aggression must be qualified by an idea of masculinity that, even in a stumbling way and under duress, struggles toward empathy.

The early stages of this crucial shift in the nature of military masculinity might be explained by saying that Marie de France was a woman and Chrétien de Troyes wrote for a court ruled by a woman. But in a larger context, it came at a time when a significant proportion of male deaths were the result of natural causes rather than violence. War was no longer perpetual but intermittent. Moreover, female life expectancy, which had been much lower than male, increased through the Middle Ages, due in part to the softening influence of Christianity as well as to the rise of towns and the increase in access to health care. Complex, too, is the relationship between a warrior culture and institutional misogyny, especially in medieval Europe when, as the Wife of Bath amply demonstrates, that misogyny is mainly promulgated by churchmen. But “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” focuses on the retrievable young knight rather than on the venal churchmen who insult and dishonor women. The only character with a name in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is Arthur; the queen has a title, but the other characters … must define themselves. The knight, whose only way of relating to women is either to rape or to venerate them, is transformed into a husband who can appreciate the knowledge and insight of his wife as an individual. The woman, whose relation to marriage is otherwise as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded for genealogical and political benefit, becomes instead the source of a new way of looking at the world.

This potential for an identity unindebted to either the social or the gender hierarchy had always been present in Christian doctrine, but it is only in the 14th century that it becomes an explicit criticism. In the 15th century, even the chivalric courts are penetrated by the Wife’s argument that inner gentilesse constitutes true nobility and that personal virtue must anchor social honor and external show. At the beginning of the 15th century, not long afer Chaucer created the Wife of Bath and Christien de Pizan wrote of women’s capacity to fight and rule, Joan of Arc managed to combine all these threads of inner spiritual conviction, national self-consciousness, and warrior zeal — in the form of a woman leading troops while dressed in battlefield armor, she defends the ideal of “France” sung to her by saintly voices. At her trial for blasphemy one of the primary charges against her was that she had illegitimately disguised herself as a man, to the disgust of God and nature. But, like those knights of chivalric romance who learned of love, it is precisely this crossing of a previously impermeable boundary that helped create her legend.

© 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.

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