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Women in The Knight's Tale
David I and Squire
"The Lady or the Tiger"
In his tale, Chaucer’s Knight reveals the profound belief that women are important, indeed necessary to the concept of knighthood, and that the warrior side of a knight is dangerously violent and ought to be ruled by his gentler courtier side in order for him to be truly gentle. Lines 1746 to 1761 of “The Knight’s Tale” demonstrate these ideas perfectly. They begin with a pronouncement of doom (coming from Theseus as the warrior) which is interrupted by the women who awaken his compassion (appealing to his courtier side) and ends with his anger abating (representing a victory of courtier over warrior, and, possibly, woman over man).
Theseus’ sentencing of Palomon and Artcite demonstrates the violence implicit in the concept of the warrior knight. The arbitrary nature of his decision is emphasized by his pronouncement: “Ye shal be deed, by myghty Mars the Rede” (I. 1746). Theseus does not leave any room for negotiation. His captives “shal be deed” and that is an end to it. Although as a knight he is considered a gentleman, there is nothing particularly gentle about him at the moment. His invocation of “myghty Mars the rede” illustrates this point. The choice of the word “rede” or “red” is critical. Red is a color associated with not only heavenly bodies (a fact Chaucer as a follower of astrology would no doubt have been aware) but also with blood, rust, and aggravation (MED). This reminds us of the brutality of the knightly ideal, embodied by Mars and all his negative connotations. The adjective “myghty” is less precise in its connotations since it was a common descriptor for the Christian God, pagan gods, and anything else powerful or praiseworthy. Nevertheless, it forms an interesting counterpoint to the descriptor “rede.” By describing Mars as both mighty and bloody, the Knight acknowledges the seductiveness of the brutality wrapped up in the knightly ideal.
The appeal of the women to Theseus for the lives of Palomon and Arcite demonstrates the importance of women in upholding the knightly ideal and the power they hold over knights. The significance of women as a whole is illustrated by the Knight’s description of them as weeping “for verray wommanhede” (I. 1748). In Middle English, “wommanhede” or “womanhood” could mean women as a group or female characteristics in general (MED). These women here are weeping on the behalf of or in place of all women, making their argument much stronger and, therefore, more effective for swaying Theseus. This idea of the unity of women is emphasized by the fact that all the women “crieden, bothe lasse and moore, / ‘Have mercy, Lord, upon us wommen alle” (I. 1756-57). In Middle English, “lasse and moore” or “less and more” referred to those of low and high rank. Therefore, all women hold sway over knights’ behavior (and not just noble women). Theseus (and the concept of knighthood which he exemplifies) can perhaps ignore a few women but he cannot fight all of “wommanhede,” a union of “bothe lasse and moore.” The perseverance of these women matches their pervasiveness. The Knight describes them as falling “on hir bare knees” and says they “wolde have kist his feet ther as he stood; / Til at the laste aslaked was his mood” (I. 1759). Not only do the women strongly protest Theseus’ sentence, they do so until he relents, literally until his emotions or wrath became calm (MED). These themes of strength, unity, power, and perseverance are all important to the idea of knighthood and are typically associated with men. It is significant that the women of Theseus’ court display these attributes and are necessary to awaken them in Theseus. They are necessary to temper his ruthless and brutal warrior nature and they do it most effectively.
Theseus’ change of heart represents a triumph of his inner kindness and courtier nature over the brutality of his warrior nature. The Knight presents this victory as a proof of nobility saying that “pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” (I. 1761). The word “gentil” was most commonly used to mean noble or aristocratic, but could also refer to one who was chivalrous, Christian, or kind (MED). Which definition of gentle the Knight is referring to (or whether he believes persons of noble birth are always chivalrous) is unclear. A clue as to the Knight’s ideas on gentility, can, however, be found in his description of Palomon and Arcite as being “gentil men… of greet estaat” (I. 1753). This description equates the word “gentil” with being “of greet estaat”, that is, being of high rank (MED). The use of the word “gentil” to describe the two as of high rank is further strengthened by the situation the ladies have found Palomon and Arcite in, a mortal duel. It is hardly likely that either man would rate very high on the scale of kindness or compassion at this point in the tale. When the Knight says “gentil” he means high ranking. However, he also associates high rank with mercy as evidenced by saying that “pitee” or compassion comes quickly to a “gentil” heart (MED). For the Knight, “gentil” means both aristocratic and chivalric.
The Knight’s choice of language to describe his protagonists reveals the tightrope his characters walk between brutality and civility, only kept from giving in to the violence of their profession by womankind. Although, the Knight equates gentility with chivalric or Christian behavior, all the male “gentil” characters in the story are capable of great violence. Palomon and Arcite have just been fighting one another with animalistic ferocity and Theseus has every intention of executing them for escaping prison. All three of these characters have taken the warrior aspect of knighthood to the extreme. It takes the intercession of the women of Theseus’ household to intercede and remind them to abide by the courtly or Christian aspects of knighthood. It is only through this submission that these characters show themselves to be truly “gentil.”