In medieval literature, the idea of erotic romance played a central role in the expression of the chivalric code, which was ostensibly a set of prescriptive moral behaviors meant to enforce and maintain societal mores and customs which were predominantly involved with issues of sexuality and reproduction. By common appraisal, chivalry and courtly romance were two of a medieval knights most cherished beliefs and cultural identities.
Chaucer in “The Knight’s Tale” plays upon the reader’s expectation that knights, according to the chivalric code, should be devoted to and protective of women, and in particular, the preservation of chastity both in themselves and in the Ladies they serve. Arguably,both Palamon and Arcite represent aspects of virtue and authentic devotion to the chivalric code and, as such, Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” should be read as a prescriptive meditation on the efficacy of chivalry.
Similarly, obvious connections exist between the objectification of women in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur and the deepening importance of Christian, as opposed to pagan, mythologies on the cultural and social mores of Europe in the Middle Ages. Among these obvious connections is the equation of femininity and more specifically feminine sexuality with a corruptive sense of “worldliness,” which can be understood to represent the connection in Christian consciousness between the earth and the Christian concept of sin.
In pre-Christian traditions, nature was associated with sacred space: “If there was an Indo-European homeland, there were no temples there, only landscape. Sacral area must therefore in origin be identified by geography, not buildings[… ] “nature’ inevitably underlies the choice of place in which to perform ritual” (Dowden, 2000, p. 27). By contrast, in the Christian world-view, sacredness was grounded in objects and in persons, rather than in the elemental forces of nature.
When Book Thirteen of Le Morte Darthur opens, it is clear that Malory intends the following tale to demonstrate not only aspects of adventure but aspects of morality, as well. The opening scene of the book describes the arrival of a “ful fayre gentylwoman” (Malory, 612) who gallops into Camelot, rising so fast that “her hors was al besuette” (Malory, 612). Here there can be no doubt that the image of a fair woman of gentle breeding astride a hot, excited horse is meant to convey anything other than sexual energy.
In point of fact, the lady’s errand is one of a summoning which is connection to an earlier erotic interlude wherein Lancelot was hoodwinked into sleeping with Elaine, King Pelles’ daughter. Underlying this past-incident is an extremely important detail: that Lancelot had believed Elaine to be Guinevere. This is an important fact because it reveals that Lancelot, unwilling to commit the common sin of fornication with Elaine, maintains his knightly virtue.
However, Lancelot is fully willing to commit adultery with his Queen, despite the fact that this adulterous behavior will destroy his knightly virtues and, in fact, endanger Camelot itself. This reveals that Lancelot is essentially a “pagan” at heart, unwilling to accept the Christian morals of temperance and allegiance to a King, and not a Queen. Lancelot is a “goddess worshiper” and this single fault in his otherwise virtuous character, brings about the downfall of Camelot which, ironically, is only reversed by Lancelot’s bastard son with Elaine, Galahad.
What is notable about the rather intricate relationships between the characters of Arthur’s court and those who associate with it is that relationships are immediately brought into a singular and ever-present contrast: the contrast between masculine virtue and feminine virtue. This contrast is very often expressed as outright conflict and in every case where there is a conflict between two characters, that conflict can be understood as a function of the gender-based division of virtues which is the underlying theme of not only Book thirteen, but of Le Morte Darthur as a whole.
For Chaucer, portrayals of “questions of female agency, accountability, and interpretability” (Parry,2001) are typical process as in “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Knight’s Tale,” two tales which are ostensibly interested in mocking the conventions and pretensions” of classical narratives, he shows his “male figures’ efforts physically and interpretively to possess and control the desirable female “object” as the dominant narrative focus” (Parry, 2001) which is what is meant by female agency in the critical works.
This type of female agency incites various types of male-action in “The Canterbury Tales” from rape to cuckoldry, and the idea of female agency is a unifying theme in all of the tales. Chaucer’s penchant for strange correspondences in the collected tales is also reflective of the theme of female agency. Female agency can be thought of as both feminine sexuality and the active male response to female sexuality and the chivalric code, as viewed by Chaucer in “The Knight’s Tale” is the only manner in which male response to female sexuality can be controlled in order to stave off cultural and social disintegration.
By contrast, in the “Miller’s Tale, the idea of equality is even more pronounced: “Men sholde wedden after hire estaat/ For youthe and elde is often at debaat” (Chaucer 3229-3230). Here the onus of disrepair is not on the unfaithful young wife, nor on the scholar, but on the Miller himself who has tried to evade his side of the marital “debt” by marrying a much younger woman. Since he is incapable of satisfying her sexually, he can’t pay in sexual currency and so tries to pay with material wealth.
But it is not ignorance, merely self-absorption and self-interest that create the Miller’s cuckoldry and foolishness. He would not have ever been farted on by the scholar had he understood female-agency, which appears passive but is in fact a counter-point to male aggression. Later in the tale, Absalon, too, suffers the fate of “absence” and the scorn was born out of the proverb “Nigh-and-Sly Wins against/ Fair-and-Square who isn’t there. ‘ (Chaucer 110) and this states explicitely the power of feminine agency and also of the male obligation to the marital debt.
Worse than the mere destruction of his self-identity and his manhood, the Miller risks the complete unbalance of his world. The problems which accompany the marital pursuit of “mutual liberty” are also aspects which impact the entire human race and all human societies. The “Miller’s Tale” like the other tales in the “Canterbury Tales” presents a social microcosm: “And Nicholas is scalded in the towte/ The tale is doon, and God save al the rowte” (Chaucer, 3854-3855).
Obviously, “The Miller’s Tale” shows a world of disorder where the chivalric code which is present in “The Knight’s Tale” does not serve to force the scholar and the Miller into a ritualistically antagonist relationship which preserves male action and social order, simultaneously. This fact is demonstrated in “The Knight’s Tale” by a positivistic vision of chivalric morality, although the same theme is demonstrated elsewhere, in other tales, through the use of irony.
Part of the final analysis of “The Knight’s Tale” must be associated with the fact that the tale is the first in sequence of “The Canterbury Tales’ and, as such, stands for the ideal state which is hoped-for, but demonstrably unaccomplished as is attested to by the remainder of the tales. In fact, the message of Chaucer seems to be that men find strength in gentle humility and that women find peace by utilizing female-agency as a form of strength by which male aggression can be tamed and blunted. r more correctly, directed toward to the payment of a the mutual erotic debt.
In this way, the “element of ambiguity emerges even more clearly” (Traversi,1982, p. 93) when it is shown that in response to male gentleness, women will become too humble and gentle: as “is the natural and appropriate response” (Traversi, 1982, p. 93). Such a conclusion seems to suggest that Chaucer thought that the state of Eros between men and women was an organic and natural thing meant to be negotiated through much like the natural world itself and perhaps never fully understood.
Such a vision could account for the ambiguity of the tales and the fact that despite their effort as explicated by Nelson to touch upon key ideas and behaviors that restore erotic harmony, the main impact of the “Canterbury Tales” their most convincing aspects seem to be those which show eroticism in its unbalanced state. According to Chaucer, the chivalric code as represented in “The Knight’s Tale” expresses a socially functional way of defining and restraining otherwise destructive impulses which are the consequence of erotic entanglements.