In this lesson, we’ll outline some of the key features of the medieval genre of chivalric romance. Then we’ll talk about two very different tales that are examples of this genre: The Knight’s Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Tale.
As much as I love the movie A Knight’s Tale and Heath Ledger, this is not about Heath Ledger. This knight’s tale bears no relation at all to the plot of the film. Do not be confused.
Get it out of your head. Gone? Gone. Okay.Instead, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ and the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ are examples of this medieval genre called chivalric romance. You’ve heard of chivalry, right? It just comes from that. Again, you should probably get all of your ideas of what romance means out of your head.
We’re not talking about Danielle Steele. There are no shirtless men in kilts hanging around – totally different. In medieval context, what it means is that it’s an adventure story, starring a knight, usually, going around and doing lots of adventuresome things – sometimes there’s dragons, stuff like that.
There’s often a lovely lady involved in some way as maybe the prize for all of those adventures. It’s not romance novels; it’s not what we’re talking about.
‘The Knight’s Tale’
The knight tells one of these tales. It’s the first tale that all the pilgrims tell.
It’s super long. To my mind, it’s one of the more boring, but it is significant because it’s the first one, so we’re going to go over what happens.We’ve got two cousins. Their names are Arcite and Palamon. They’re nephews of the Duke of Thebes, and they end up getting captured by the Duke of Athens. They’re in jail, but luckily – or maybe unluckily – they have a window in their cell.
So, Palamon, one day, is looking out the window, and he sees a beautiful woman, Emily, with whom he falls immediately in love, from looking at a distance.’That thurgh a window, thikke of many a barreOf iron greet, and square as any sparre,He cast his eye upon Emelya,And therwithal he bleynte, and creyde ‘A!’So, love at first sight, basically. He catches a glimpse of Emily (Emelya) and cries out. He’s totally into her. Not that smart, he wakes his cousin up and says, ‘Come take a look at this. She’s great!’ Of course, he falls in love with her, too.’That, if that Palamon was wounded sore,Arcite is hurt as moche as he, or moore.
‘Arcite’s even more in love with this girl. They get all mad at each other because they are fighting over the same woman, but it doesn’t last that long because an old friend of Arcite’s turns up and is negotiating his release from prison. The Duke of Athens says, ‘You can leave, just don’t ever come back to my country.
I just don’t want you here anymore.’So, he’s free now, but he can’t pursue Emily because he’s not allowed back in Athens. Palamon is still in jail, but at least he can still see her through the window. They’re both unhappy for various reasons.What ensues is years of moaning, disguising themselves and trying to get back so they can see Emily again.
So, finally, they’re both free – Palamon’s escaped. They’re both free, and they’re both disguised. They run into each other, and they decide that they’re going to fight to the death over Emily. They’re interrupted by the Duke of Athens, who’s like, ‘What are these dudes doing?’ One of them is supposed to be in jail. One is supposed to be gone.
This is the worst. He wants to kill them. He’s super upset.His wife intervenes and says, ‘You know what, let’s have a compromise. Let’s give them each 100 knights, and they’ll have a battle over this, like a real proper battle, and we can watch.
‘ So, they do that, and Arcite’s eventually declared the winner, but then an earthquake happens. It knocks him off his horse, and he dies. So, Palamon gets to marry Emily, and they mourn Arcite.Win? I guess. It’s a way to get out of having to actually choose one or the other. It still lets Arcite win, so it’s kind of fair to him. That’s our first example of a chivalric romance.
You can see it does involve a woman, but the vast majority of it is battling for things, adventuring, disguising and escaping – all of these things that knights are good at and what they do.
The ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’
The next story – not so much.It’s told by the fabulous Wife of Bath. She definitely wins the ‘most interesting pilgrim’ award. She had five husbands. She’s got all this advice about love.
She gets the longest prologue to her tale of any of the pilgrims – I’m pretty sure – which leads us to believe that Chaucer might like her, too. He may like her as much as we do.So, we’ve got this chivalric romance that is told by a woman instead of a man, which is an interesting perspective.
Whereas ‘The Knight’s Tale’ starts out with two guys falling in love with a woman they’ve never met, let alone touched, the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ starts out with a knight (described by Chaucer as a lusty bachelor) raping a young woman. Charming, great – that’s a great start. He’s in King Arthur‘s court, so King Arthur decides he should die for his crimes, but the Queen says, ‘Hold on a sec.
I want to judge this one. I have a better idea.’Remember in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ the Queen also interceded to change the punishment. It’s a consistent factor across both tales.
The Queen tells the knight that he has a year, and if he figures out the answer to this question – which is ‘What is the thing that women most desire’ – if he figures it out within a year, then he’ll be okay. She says:’I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen meWhat thing is it that women moost desiren’So, this is how it becomes a chivalric romance because now he’s got this quest. Maybe since this is the Wife of Bath is telling it, his quest is just asking a bunch of women what they want. Everyone says something different – money, flattery. I don’t think anybody says shoes but maybe.A year goes by.
He’s pretty sure he’s going to go back and get punished because he doesn’t have a good answer. He doesn’t know what the real answer is. He’s shuffling back to the palace. He’s not in a great place. And lo and behold! He sees a magical circle of dancing maidens, just prancing around. He goes to check it out.
They all disappear and are replaced by an old hag. That’s the first sign that something crazy may be going on.She says, ‘I’ll give you the right answer to that question, but I’ll need payment in the future.’ She doesn’t really specify what that’s going to be. So, the knight goes and tells the Queen the answer the old woman gave him, which is that women want sovereignty over their husbands. Like a BOOM, feminism moment in the tale.
This is the correct answer. All the ladies of the court love it.The old Hag swoops in and collects her payment, which is to marry the knight.
If you’re feeling too sorry for him, do bear in mind that he got himself into this by raping someone. Hold the sympathy.They go into their home, and they start to have their wedding night, but the knight isn’t into it because she’s an ugly, old hag. She points out, maybe rightly, that there’s an advantage to being married to an ugly, old hag, which is that she’s never going to be unfaithful to him because no one else will want her. Alright, I guess that works. She asks him, ‘Would you rather have me, who’s always going to be faithful, or some sweet young thing that will probably cheat on you because she’s hot?’He shrugs and says, ‘I don’t know. You decide.
‘ That’s the right answer – DING, DING, DING. She’s achieved sovereignty over her husband because he just deferred to her opinion. So, now she transforms into a beautiful woman, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The question of Chaucer’s feminism or not is open here. The ending’s a little ambiguous. She gets sovereignty, but she then cedes once she becomes a beautiful woman. He gets rewarded in a physical way for something that he shouldn’t really.
.. Anyway, it’s a little murky how Chaucer really feels about all of this. But it’s definitely a really great example of a chivalric romance.
Even though, you can see it’s not that romantic, especially at the beginning.
A quick review:Chivalric romances are stories about knights doing adventuresome things and sometimes encountering supernatural stuff, like the hag or dragons and things like that, too.We had ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which was Arcite and Palamon fighting over Emily, who they fell in love with at first sight. Palamon ends up with her because Arcite is killed by an earthquake. That’s how that one ends.Then the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’: A knight rapes a maiden, and his punishment is to go around asking all these women what they want most in the world.
This old hag gives him the right answer, sovereignty over their husbands, makes him marry her in return and then she turns in to a beautiful woman when the knight gives into her sovereignty. So, that’s how that one ends.Those are two different approaches to chivalric romance from two very different pilgrims.