The medieval period in Europe held a unique culture quite different from today, with basic principles like honor treated very differently. Commonly but incorrectly known today from this time period is the concept of chivalry or the code of chivalry. In its various stories, The Canterbury Tales each provide a different element of the code of chivalry to serve as the central theme and motivation for its characters. For “The Knight’s Tale”, never attacking an unarmed foe serves this role. Contrasting from this, for “The Franklin’s Tale”, maintaining one’s principles is used. In The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, elements of the code of chivalry enhance the idea of honor by giving characters a motivation to make decisions contradictory to the ones most would.
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In “The Knight’s Tale”, the element of the Code of Chivalry never attacking an unarmed foe plays a pivotal role in the advancement of the plot. In this tale, Theseus perfectly exemplifies living by the Code of Chivalry Theseus. After defeating King Creon of Thebes in battle, Theseus finds two wounded Theban men-at-arms, Arcita and Palamon. However, rather than simply killing them, Theseus makes an injunction that they “…should at once be sent/ To Athens, and gave orders they be kept/ Perpetual prisoners” (37). Making the decision to spare the two demonstrates that Theseus clearly lives an exemplary life for followers of chivalry, because if he ended their pain and killed them, no one would have known, or thought any different of him. Not only this, but he also had already won the battle, giving him a clear right to kill any enemies remaining, but he makes a different decision because of the effect the Code of Chivalry has on him. Later in the story, Arcita and Palamon find each other in a field, Arcita having secretly worked as a menial in Athens, and Palamon having escaped prison. Unfortunately, both have fallen in love with Emily, for one to kill the other means winning her, and Arcita holds the opportunity to finally kill Palamon, but instead, he tells him that “I shall bring arms and harnesses for us both/ And you shall have the right of choosing first” (56). For Arcita to make this decision seems completely absurd to the reader, but this is simply the standard he must live up to according to the Code of Chivalry, which states that no man must attack an unarmed foe. To make this choice seem even odder, if Arcita used this opportunity to kill Palamon, he would have then won Emily, but, by giving Palamon a fighting chance in their strife, he himself could be killed. “The Knight’s Tale” features an element of The Code of Chivalry, never attacking and unarmed foe, which drives the plot forward and gives the characters a sense of honor to them, which forces them to make choices different than most others.
Similarly, “The Franklin’s Tale” utilizes the Code of Chivalry as a way to give its characters a motivation to make certain choices, particularly featuring maintaining one’s principles. Near the conclusion of the story, Averagus returns from overseas to find Dorigen in an interesting tribulation; in an act of temerity, she behested Aurelius that if he removes all the rocks from the shores of Briton, she would vouchsafe herself to him. This ends badly for Dorigen when Aurelius hires a conjuror to “remove” the rocks, and she asks Averagus what she should do; stand by her word, or claim she was not being serious. In response, he insists she stands by her word, saying “‘I rather would be stabbed than live to see / You fail in truth’” (251). Even though it means losing the love of his life, Averagus accepts that Aurelius has won Dorigen, and she must stay honorable and live up to her principles. To continue, even though Aurelius may have acted slightly unethically in his means of winning Dorigen, Averagus still insists that Dorigen continue to live up to the Code of Chivalry. When Aurelius hears that Averagus made this choice, he decides to “‘…release into your hand/ All bonds or deeds of covenant that stand/ Between us’” (252-253). Both shocked and amazed after witnessing the honor of both Dorigen and Averagus, Aurelius decides to amend his mistakes and allow the two to stay together. He realizes that he has not been maintaining his principles given by the Code of Chivalry, and uses this decision to turn this around. In “The Franklin’s Tale”, the main characters all make choices in order to preserve or better their honor and maintain the principles they choose to live by, even if the decision negatively affects them.
To conclude, each story in The Canterbury Tales highlights a different key element of the Code of Chivalry that most of the characters live by. Both to enhance the characters honor, but also to give them a motivation, Chaucer uses these elements of chivalry to serve as a main theme of each story. Noticeably, “The Knight’s Tale” uses the rule of never attacking an unarmed enemy to move the story’s plot forward and force its characters to make unusual choices. “The Franklin’s Tale”, however, uses the rule of always maintaining one’s principles to force characters to make unexpected and extremely honorable decisions when faced with a difficult situation. In each story, the main characters’ responses to conflict reflect how much different their lifestyle is than most others due to their obedience to the code of chivalry, enhancing their sense of honor compared to most characters.
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Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales and Related Reading. Literature Connections, McDougal Littell, 1998, Evanston, Illinois.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Franklin’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales and Related Reading. Literature Connections, McDougal Littell, 1998, Evanston, Illinois.