Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Rules and Order

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Rules and Order

Whilom as olden stories tellen us
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he wasa lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde he wonne,
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie.

This is the passage that sets up Theseus as the Big Kahuna – the most powerful person in the tale. As "lord and governour," he's the one who gets to make all the rules.   Not only that, but from this passage we can assume that because of his "wysdom and his chivalrie," he rules fairly.

The remenant of the tale is long ynough.
I wol nat letten eek noon of this route,
Lat every felawe telle his tale aboute,
And lat se now who shal the soper wynne.

Here the Knight (our trusty narrator) demonstrates his conscientiousness as a competitor, which is to say, his respect for the rules of the tale-telling game. He's so concerned that everyone have time to tell their tale, that he abridges his own.

'He, for despit and for his tirranye
To do the dede bodyes vileynye,
Of alle oure lordes, which that been slawe,
Hath alle the bodyes on an heep ydrawe,
And wol nat suffren hem, by noon assent,
Neither to been yburyed nor ybrent,
But maketh houndes ete hem in despit.'

By refusing to let these wives bury their husbands' bodies, King Creon breaks one of the most important rules of Greek society, which is that the bodies of the dead must be given proper burials, including elaborate funeral rituals. These rituals were so important to the living that an entire ancient Greek play, <em>Antigone</em>, deals with a sister's refusal to let her brother's body go unburied despite being threatened with death. The disrespect for societal norms that Creon's actions communicate is probably why Theseus, the order-bringer, is so quick to go to battle over them.

[He] swoor his ooth, as he was trewe knyght,
He wolde doon so ferforthly his myght
Upon the tiraunt Creon hem to wreke,
That all the peple of Grece sholde speke
How Creon was of Theseus yserved,
As he that hadde his deeth ful wel deserved.

Theseus demonstrates his respect for the proper order of things by promising to kill Creon, who refuses to allow the wives of men he's defeated to bury their husbands' bodies. Theseus can't let Creon's savagery stand unpunished. He must balance the books by killing Creon. Notice how it's important to Theseus that everybody <em>know </em>what happens to Creon, "that all the peple of Grece sholde speke / How Creon was of Theseus yserved."  It's not just that Theseus wants to take vengeance; he also wants to show the world that wrongs won't go unpunished – not while he's around.

'It nere,' quod he, 'to thee no greet honour
For to be fals, ne for to be traitour
To me, that arn thy cosyn and thy brother,
Ysworn ful depe, and ech of us til oother,
That nevere for to dyen in the peyne,
Til that the deeth departe shal us tweyne,
Neither of us in love to hyndre other,
Ne in noon oother cas, my leeve brother,
But that thou sholdest trewely forthren me
In every cas, as I shal forthren thee,--
This was thyn ooth, and myn also certeyn,
I woot right wel thou darst it nat withseyn.'

Palamon takes a long time to make a short point: that Arcite and he have sworn an oath to further one another's interests in everything. As knights, it would be breaking the rules of chivalry for them to break that oath. Palamon craftily tries to win Arcite to his point of view with flattery, sort of, "I know <em>you </em>would never break a sworn oath, Arcite." But he also presents his argument in strong language, implying that Palamon will be a traitor and dishonorable if he breaks his promise.

'Wostow nat wel the olde clerkes sawe
That "who shal yeve a lovere any lawe?"
Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan,
Than may be yeve of any erthely man.
And therefore positif lawe and swich decree
Is broken al day for love in ech degree.' (305-310)

Palamon claims that Arcite will be breaking their oath of sworn brotherhood if he continues to love Emily.  However, Arcite says that love is a "gretter," or higher, law than any earthly one. So love supersedes all other commitments. Although it's presented here in a world of ancient Greek paganism, this idea would ring true for medieval Christians as well.  They would have remembered Christ's claim that he brought a new law of love, one that won out over the commandments-based law of the Old Testament. This passage also pits the rules of chivalry, represented by Arcite and Palamon's oath of brotherhood, against the rules of courtly love, which demand a lover's loyalty to his lady above all else.

This was the forward, pleynly for t'endite,
Bitwixen Theseus and hym Arcite,
That if so were that Arcite were yfounde
Evere in his life, by day or nyght or stounde,
In any contree of this Theseus,
And he were caught, it was acorded thus,
That with a swerd he sholde lese his heed;
Ther nas noon oother remedie ne reed.

Theseus lays down the condition of Arcite's release, which is that he must leave Athens forever and never return, upon pain of losing his head. This rule puts Arcite in between a rock and a hard place: without seeing Emily, he's metaphorically dead. But if he returns to Athens, the only place where he can see Emily, he's physically dead.

Now artow hent that lovest my lady so,
For whom that I have al this peyne and wo,
And art my blood, and to my conseil sworn,
As I ful ofte have seyde thee heerbiforn,
And hast byjaped heere duc Theseus,
And falsly chaunged hast thy name thus.

Palamon paints Arcite as a rule-breaker by laying out his transgressions one by one. One, Arcite has broken their oath of sworn brotherhood. Two, Arcite has broken Theseus's rule that he stay away from Athens as a condition of his release. And three, Arcite has deceived everyone in Theseus's court by changing his name and appearance.

'Have heer my trouthe; tomorwe I wol nat faille
Withoute wityng of any oother wight
That heere I wol be founden as a knyght,
And bryngen harneys right ynough for thee,
And ches the beste, and leef the worste for me.
And mete and drynke this nyght wol I brynge
Ynough for thee, and clothes for thy beddynge;
And if so be that thou my lady wynne,
And sle me in this wode ther I am inne,
Thow mayst wel have thy lady as for me.'

Arcite proposes that he and Palamon resolve their dispute according to the rules of chivalry, in a duel. Chivalry requires that neither party have the advantage in the fight.  This is why Arcite promises to bring not only weapons, but also food and comfortable bedding so that Palamon can get a good night's sleep. The two agree to the duel in a "trouthe" that makes them honor-bound to show up for it.

'Namoore, up peyne of lesynge of youre heed!
By myghty Mars, he shal anon be deed
That smyteth any strook, that I may seen.
But telleth me what myster men ye been,
That been so hardy for to fighten heere
Withouten juge or oother officere,
As it were in a lystes roially?'

Theseus objects to Palamon and Arcite's duel not because he objects to fighting generally, but because they're doing it unsupervised, there's no referee. Theseus's rules demand a "juge or oother officere" to preside over the duel so that it can be fairly adjudicated. This rule ensures that Theseus can keep order in his lands.

He hath considered shortly in a clause
The trespas of hem bothe, and eek the cause,
And although that his ire hir gilt accused,
Yet in his resoun he hem bothe excused
As thus: he thoghte wel that every man
Wol helpe hymself in love, if that he kan,
And eek delivere hym-self out of prisoun;
And eek his herte hadde compassioun
Of wommen, for they wepen ever in oon.

Here Theseus weighs the demands of justice and mercy, and comes down on the side of mercy. His reasoning is similar to Arcite's when he claims that love is a higher law than any other. It's obvious to Theseus that a man can't be expected to follow the normal rules when he's crazy with love. Also, Theseus takes pity on the women, who don't want to see these two knights executed.

And softe unto hymself he seyde, 'Fy
Upon a lord that wol have no mercy,
But been a leon, bothe in worde and dede,
To hem that been in repentaunce and drede,
As wel as to a proud despitous man,
that wol maynteyne that he first bigan
That lord hath litel of discrecioun
That in swich cas kan no divisioun,
But weyeth pride and humblesse after oon.'

Theseus believes that the attitude of a law-breaker – whether repentant or defiant – ought to determine the punisher's response to his crime. He says that a lord that fails to take this into account shows a lack of "discrecioun," or an ability to differentiate between things, by treating both kinds of rule-breakers as though they are the same. Theseus's thought process here shows his desire for balance, for everyone to get what they deserve.

Everich of you shal brynge an hundred knyghtes
Armed for lystes up at alle rightes,
Al redy to darreyne hire by bataille.
And this bihote I yow withouten faille,
Upon my trouthe, and as I am a knyght,
This is to seyn, that wheither he, or thow
May with his hundred, as I spak of now,
Sleen his contrarie, or out of lystes dryve,
Thanne shal I yeve Emelya to wyve.

Here Theseus lays down the rules of the game that's going to have Emily as its prize. He proposes a huge joust between two hundred knights, the winner of which gets Emily. The winner is the one who either slays the other or manages to remove him from the "lystes," or group of jousting knights, by taking him prisoner.

No man therfore, up peyne of los of lyf,
No maner shot, ne polax, ne short knyf
Into the lystes sende, ne thider brynge.
Ne short swerd for to stoke, with poynt bitynge,
No man ne drawe, ne bere by his syde;
Ne no man shal unto his felawe ryde
But o cours, with a sharpe ygrounde spere.
Foyne, if hym list on foote, hymself to were.

Theseus lays down some additional rules for the joust just before it begins. Since he has decided it would be a shame for any of the knights to lose their lives, he forbids the knights from bringing any weapons into the stadium except for dull spears. The only exception is if a knight is unhorsed. Then he can use other kinds of weapons to defend himself, although it's not clear here exactly what these are.

And he that is at meschief shal be take,
And noght slayn, but be broght unto the stake
That shal ben ordeyned on either syde,
But thider he shal by force, and ther abyde.
And if so be the chevetayn be take
On outher syde, or elles sleen his make,
No lenger shal the turneiynge laste.

Theseus's other rule to prevent loss of life is that defeated knights shall be taken prisoner at the stake, rather than killed. Since Theseus's real aim in proposing the joust is just to decide who gets Emily, and not to somehow punish the weaker knight, it makes sense that he would revise the rules to prevent loss of life.

And to the lystes rit the compaignye,
By ordinance, thurghout the citee large
Hanged with clooth of gold, and nat with sarge.
Ful lik a lord this noble duc gan ryde,
Thise two Thebanes upon either syde,
And after rood the queene and Emelye,
And after that another compaignye,
Of oon and oother, after hir degree.

The narrator emphasizes how everyone in Athens rides to the stadium in an orderly procession, proceeding in order of rank ("after hir degree"). We can't help but notice how much this "compaignye" resembles another one in <em>The Canterbury Tales</em>. Of course, we're speaking of the company of pilgrims who also proceed in order of rank, and who are also involved in a competition, except with tales instead of spears.

'The Firste Moevere of the cause above
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th'effect,a nd heigh was his entente;
Wel wiste he why, and what therof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond,
In certeyn boundes that they may nat flee.'

Theseus sees God ("the Firste Moevere") as the boundary-maker. The "faire cheyne of love" Theseus mentions is the collection of everything in existence. Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato believed everything was bound together by divine power.  God binds the world in this chain ("cheyne"), giving everything the boundaries of their existence.  Beyond this, says Theseus, nothing may pass. This is a vision of an orderly, organized universe.

'That same prince and that same moevere,' quod he,
'Hath stablissed in this wrecched world adoun
Certeyn dayes and duracioun
To al that is engendred in this place,
Over the whiche day they may nat pace;
Al mowe they yet tho dayes wel abregge.'

Theseus's point here is that God the boundary-maker has established a boundary for a creature's days on earth, beyond which he may not pass. This boundary links all created things together: just as the earth, air, fire, and water exist in their bounded areas, so do mortal creatures.

Thanne may men by this ordre wel discerne
That thilke Moevere stable is and eterne.
Wel may men knowe, but it be a fool,
That every part deryveth from his hool;
For nature hath nat taken his bigynnyng
Of no partie nor cantel of a thyng,
But of a thyng that parfit is and stable,
Descendynge so til it be corrumpable.

Theseus takes the orderliness of creation as evidence of the First Mover's nature as stable and eternal.  If Creation is orderly and ruled, and all Creation derives its existence from God, then God must be orderly and ruled. Theseus establishes the nature of Creation as parts derived from God's whole. The idea, which, again, derives from ancient Greek philosophy, is that things take their existence from God's existence.  Things only differ essentially in how <em>much </em>they participate in this existence, in their degrees of "being." Created things are imperfect and "corrumpable," or subject to change. However, everything derives its existence from God, who is perfect and "stable," or unchanging.

And therfore, of his wise purveiaunce,
He hath so wel biset his ordinaunce,
That speces of thynges and progressiouns
Shullen enduren by successiouns,
And nat eterne, withouten any lye.

Theseus gets to the point of his speech with this passage. He asserts that God's "ordinaunce," or plan for the world, is that creation shall endure through "successiouns," or descendants, of one created thing from another, and not eternally. If things existed eternally, they would be God, and not creation. This argument allows Theseus to show how death is a part of God's orderly universe and not just a random act of fate.