Friday, March 30, 2007

Chaucer's Knight by Terry Jones


Some years back I read parts of Terry Jones' Chaucer's Knight; only this week did I actually read it through.

I can see why people get slightly unhinged discussing it; nevertheless, I liked it more than I thought I would.

Jones says that the usual 20th century understanding of the figure of the Knight in The Canterbury Tales is as "a personification of the ideals of knighthood," a character presented straight and not at all as the target of satire; also that the tale he tells to the other pilgrims, The Knight's Tale (not the basis for the movie) is also a straight story representing Chaucer's understanding and valuation of chivalry. Jones disagrees. He thinks that the Knight is a roughneck mercenary of low status who presents himself as a crusader but whose military career is marked by participation in campaigns of dubious worth, even by 14th century standards. The Knight's Tale when reconsidered in that light "emerges...as a hymn to tyranny, dressed-up in the rags of a chivalric romance." (What a great line!)

I admit that I find it easy enough to believe that Jones is right, that the Knight is not nearly as respectable as he would like to appear, and that the other pilgrims and the original readers of the book would have seen right through him. I know from my own work and teaching-related research that knighthood and crusading both were controversial topics at just about any time. The real problem with Jones' argument is -- Jones' argument.

For instance, in making the case that the Knight is not quite what he seems, Jones notes that he has few retainers, a Squire and a Yeoman. Does it ever occur to him that maybe Chaucer gave him these two retainers because he didn't want extraneous valets and other servants hanging around the company? Jones comes across as a pretty smart guy, surely this must have occurred to him at some point.

What I really think is weak (and here I follow better scholars) is the way Jones contrasts "mercenaries" like the Knight with "real feudal knights." The division between nobles who fought for religion or duty or loyalty and low-born scum who insisted on being paid cash and had to present horses for inspection lest they cheat the people who paid for well-equipped men-at-arms, this division goes against everything we know about 14th century armies and their organization. In every well-organized army, everyone got paid, everyone had contracts, everyone was subject to inspection of mount and equipment. And noble tournaments were filled with people willing to argue about the rules, even the noblest did it.

Jones' book has caused a lot of excitement over the years because the issue is not just whether the Knight was "a verray, parfit gentil knyght" (a phrase of great complexity) but also whether being a "parfit knyght" was a good thing to be. Jones, as those of you who have seen his Crusades series know, comes down on the skeptical side. Oddly, however, he still seems to have the idea that sometime well before Chaucer's time there were knights with a feudal set of values that was more worthwhile than the plundering mentality of the Hundred Years War. Well, I think that Chaucer's Knight, even as Jones presents him, would have fit very nicely in the world of William Marshal.

Image: Above,Chaucer's Knight as portrayed in one of our earliest and best manuscripts, the Ellesmere ms. Below, the whole first page of the Knight's Tale. What a beauty.



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