Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in approximately 1385, is a collection of twenty-four stories ostensibly told by various people who are going on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral from London, England.
Prior to the actual tales, however, Chaucer offers the reader a glimpse of fourteenth century life by way of what he refers to as a General Prologue. In this prologue, Chaucer introduces all of the characters who are involved in this imaginary journey and who will tell the tales. Among the characters included in this introductory section is a knight.
Chaucer initially refers to the knight as “a most distinguished man” (l. 43) and, indeed, his sketch of the knight is highly complementary. The knight, Chaucer tells us, “possessed/Fine horses, but he was not gaily dressed” (ll. 69-70).
Indeed, the knight is dressed in a common shirt which is stained “where his armor had left mark” (l. 72). That is, the knight is “just home from service” (l. 73) and is in such a hurry to go on his pilgrimage that he has not even paused before beginning it to change his clothes.
The knight has had a very busy life as his fighting career has taken him to a great many places. He has seen military service in Egypt, Lithuania, Prussia, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Asia Minor where he “was of [great] value in all eyes (l. 63). Even though he has had a very successful and busy career, he is extremely humble: Chaucer maintains that he is “modest as a maid” (l. 65).
Moreover, he has never said a rude thing to anyone in his entire life (cf., ll. 66-7). Clearly, the knight possesses an outstanding character. Chaucer gives to the knight one of the more flattering descriptions in the General Prologue.
The knight can do no wrong: he is an outstanding warrior who has fought for the true faith–according to Chaucer–on three continents. In the midst of all this contention, however, the knight remains modest and polite. The knight is the embodiment of the chivalric code: he is devout and courteous off the battlefield and is bold and fearless on it.
In twentieth century America, we would like to think that we have many people in our society who are like Chaucer’s knight. During this nation’s altercation with Iraq in 1991, the concept of the modest but effective soldier captured the imagination of the country. Indeed, the nation’s journalists in many ways attempted to make General H. Norman Schwarzkof a latter day knight.
The general was made to appear as a fearless leader who really was a regular guy under the uniform. It would be nice to think that a person such as the knight could exist in the twentieth century. The fact of the matter is that it is unlikely that people such as the knight existed even in the fourteenth century.
As he does with all of his characters, Chaucer is producing a stereotype in creating the knight. As noted above, Chaucer, in describing the knight, is describing a chivalric ideal. The history of the Middle Ages demonstrates that this ideal rarely was manifested in actual conduct. Nevertheless, in his description of the knight, Chaucer shows the reader the possibility of the chivalric way of life.