Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale

By Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Introduction

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Welcome to the Middle Ages' version of a rom-com.

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" found in The Canterbury Tales, is the story of two knights from Thebes who fall in love with the same woman, a princess of Athens named Emily. Since the two knights have apparently sworn to support each other in everything, each one's love for Emily does not go over well.

The name of the game in "The Knight's Tale" is chivalry, a system of rituals, duties, and behaviors a knight was supposed to follow if he wished to behave with honor. The rules of chivalry included things like always keeping your promises, defending the helpless, and remaining loyal to your lord and fellow knights no matter what. Think King Arthur and you're on the right track.

"The Knight's Tale" is also concerned with courtly love, which demanded the loyalty of the knight to just one person: his lady-love. Courtly love was actually a "system" of love, just as chivalry was a system of knightly behavior. That means there were rules...for love. The system got its start in the literature of the Aquitaine region in France, where troubadours sang ballads about the often secret and illicit love of knights for noblewomen (scandalous!).

The woman in a courtly love story is placed on a pedestal: she is totally perfect in every way, and the knight practically worships her. In fact, his love for her makes the knight stronger and more honorable. The rules of courtly love were even written down in a treatise by a 12th-century French courtier, Andreas Capellanus, in a work called De Amore, although literary types disagree on whether or not this work is meant to be serious or just a way to make fun of the courtly love tradition.

In any case, we have these two codes of behavior: chivalry and courtly love; and in "The Knight's Tale" we get to see what happens when the two codes clash. 

Palamon and Arcite are sworn brothers. As brother knights, they should be willing to do anything to protect one another. But when they both fall into (courtly) love with Emily, they have to be willing to do anything to win her, which includes breaking their promise to one another. Or does it? That's the question "The Knight's Tale" wants you to think about.

Brought in to solve the conflict, we have the almost impossibly noble Duke Theseus. He represents another of the tale's major themes: order. What happens when two systems come into conflict? Answer: you need someone smart and powerful like Duke Theseus to figure out what to do. 

Theseus's calming, powerful presence in the tale represents authority overcoming the forces of chaos. It reveals this tale's origins in the aristocratic genre of courtly romance, which portrays the aristocracy as a force for good in an otherwise dark, crazy, and scary world.

What is The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale About and Why Should I Care?

Everybody knows that you should never, ever in a million years date your BFF's crush. No matter what. Even if said crush begs and pleads and claims he/she's hopelessly in love with you. Even if you're so hopelessly in love with him/her that you think you're going to die if you can't be together. Because dating the guy/girl that you know your BFF's hopelessly in love with would break the BFF code of conduct, and would make you the most heinous person on the face of the earth, right?

Well, maybe. On the other hand, there are those that claim that "love is a gretter lawe" (307) than any other code of conduct, that true love trumps all obligations you might have to the other people in your life. This is the excuse that Arcite uses in "The Knight's Tale" when he breaks his oath of sworn brotherhood to Palamon in order to become his rival for the love of Emily. It's also one of the excuses Denise Richards used when dating former BFF Heather Locklear's husband. Which just goes to show that this kind of situation's been going on for a long time now and isn't likely to stop occurring any time soon. So what's a BFF to do?

Well, if you're an ancient Greek knight, you can fight it out in a joust and just pray that a freak earthquake doesn't knock you off your horse. Unfortunately, not many of us are ancient Greek knights, which means that we have to solve this conflict without horses, spears, and armor. We've got to either suck it up and hang on to our friendship, or say goodbye to the friendship for good in order to date the guy or girl of our dreams.

Of course, we could also hope against hope that our friend will find it in their heart to forgive us and declare "non so worthy to ben loved" as us, as Arcite does for Palamon on his deathbed (1934-1935). Yeah, we don't think that last one's too likely either. So, like Arcite and Palamon, you're going to have to make a choice between the BFF and the love of your life. And if you need help understanding the possible consequences of your choice, you need only turn to "The Knight's Tale" for guidance.

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Resources

Websites

Luminarium's Knight's Tale Page
This page collects various resources on the tale, including links to modern and Middle English editions, bibliography pages, images, and articles.

Goucher College Knight's Tale Page
Professor Arnie Sanders's page has notes on genre, form, and sources, as well as a wonderful section that links background information on the tale to "Interpretive issues," or questions. We're linking you to the Sanders's course syllabus page. Be sure to click the links for "Knight's Tale Parts 1 and 2" and "Knight's Tale Parts 3 and 4."

Harvard University's Knight's Tale Page
This page has notes on Chaucer's likely sources, genre, and themes of the tale. It links to a few scholarly essays as well.

Jane Zatta's Canterbury Tales Page
This website covers The Canterbury Tales as a whole, but be sure to check out the two pages specifically on "The Knight's Tale."

Courtly Love
An explanation of courtly love from the "Backgrounds to Romance" website.

Historical Documents

Art of Courtly Love
Here's a link to a Google Books preview of Andreas Capellanus's De Amore, or Art of Courtly Love, the book that lays out the "rules" of the system.

Movie or TV Productions

BBC Canterbury Tales: "The Knight's Tale"
This modern adaptation of "The Knight's Tale" sets the action in a British prison where two childhood friends are serving time. Both fall in love with Emily, who's a teacher there.

A Knight's Tale
Although the plot of this movie has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of Chaucer's version, it does take its title from "The Knight's Tale." Plus, Paul Bettany plays a wonderful Chaucer.

Video

BBC's Knight's Tale
Here's a link to a YouTube clip of the modern adaptation by the BBC:

Audio

The Tournament!
Listen to a reading of the tournament scene in the original Middle English.

"BBC Remakes 'Canterbury Tales' for TV"
NPR interviews Peter Bowker, who adapted four <em>Canterbury Tales</em>, including "The Knight's Tale," to a modern setting.

Images

Emily Maying
A picture of Emily gathering flowers for Mayday, from a fifteenth-century manuscript for Boccaccio's Teseida del Nozze d'Emilia, Chaucer's source for "The Knight's Tale." You can see Palamon and Arcite looking out at Emily from the prison window.

Ellesmere Chaucer Knight's Tale
Here's an image of the first page of "The Knight's Tale" in the Ellesmere Manuscript, which contains a portrait of the Knight.

Resources to Help Students Learn Middle English

Teach Yourself to Read Middle English
This page, provided by Harvard, offers ten lessons that start with a general explanation of the principles of Middle English pronunciation and move on to actual practice with the tales themselves.

A Basic Chaucer Glossary
This is a helpful glossary of Middle English terms often used in Chaucer. The 100 most common words are denoted by an asterisk.