Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Knight's Tale Suffering

By Geoffrey Chaucer


'Have mercy on oure wo and oure distresse,
Some drope of piteee thurgh thy gentillesse
Upon us wrecched wommen lat thou falle;
For certes, lord, ther is noon of alle,
That she ne hath been a duchesse or a queene.
Now we be caytyves, as it is wel seene.'

The eldest of the lamenting women Theseus meets on his way back from Scythia describes the root of their distress as a fall from nobility to wretchedness. Those who once were duchesses or queens have now become "caytyves," or wretched creatures. This is not the last time that a quick, unexpected change in position will be the cause of suffering.

'But I was hurt right now thurgh-out myn ye
Into myn herte, that wol my bane be.
The fairnesse of that lady, that I see
Yond in the gardyn romen to and fro,
Is cause of al my criyng and my wo.'

Love hurts, as the old Nazareth song goes.  In Palamon's case, the pain it causes travels right from his eye to his heart. Palamon blames Emily's "fairnesse" (her beauty) for his suffering. Later Palamon and Arcite will blame Emily herself, despite the fact that she has never even heard of them.

He wepeth, wayleth, crieth pitously,
To sleen hymself he waiteth prively.
He seyde, Allas that day that he was born!
'Now is my prisoun worse than biforn;
Now is me shape eternally to dwelle
Nat in purgatorie, but in helle.'

Arcite compares his forced separation from Emily to dwelling in Hell, whereas his imprisonment, during which he at least could see his beloved, was nothing more than Purgatory. This passage draws attention to the way in which love can create a prison for the lover.  Just like a prison, the desire to be near the beloved "traps" the lover in a particular place.

'For I moot wepe and wayle, whil I lyve,
With al the wo that prison may me yeve,
And eek with peyne that love me yeveth also,
That doubleth al my torment and my wo.'

Palamon, stuck in prison while Arcite goes free, says that both imprisonment and love cause him suffering, or "wo." In fact, love seems to cause so much suffering, that we're starting to wonder why anyone would want to feel it.  Theseus raises this same question later on.

And in his geere for al the world he ferde
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye
Engendred of humour malencolik
Biforen in his celle fantastik.

This excerpt concludes a passage that details Arcite's suffering while he's not able to see Emily. He's so upset, says the narrator, that he behaves not "oonly" like a lovesick fool, but rather like a former prisoner driven mad by his imprisonment. Of course, Arcite is <em>both </em>a lover and a former prisoner.  This creates a literal connection between love and imprisonment and also links the two in the way they cause suffering.

Of his lynage am I, and his ofspryng,
By verray ligne, as of the stok roial,
And now I am so caytyf and so thral
That he that is my mortal enemy
I serve hym as his squier povrely.

Like the lamenting women who met Theseus on his way back to Athens, Arcite here identifies the cause of his woe to be a fall from prosperity.  He once held a high position in, but now he's a "caytyf," or wretched slave, to his mortal enemy. This fall from grace troubles him, as it did the lamenting women (the ones who beg Theseus to kill Creon). Unlike them, however, Arcite has chosen his lowly position because of his love for Emily.  Here again, love is causing suffering.

Then saugh I firste the dirke ymaginyng
The shepne brennynge with the blake smoke,
The tresoun of the mordrynge in the bedde,
The open were, with woundes al bibledde;
The sleere of hymself yet saugh I ther,
His herte-blood hath bathed al his heer.
(1137, 1142-1144, 1147-1148)

In this passage the narrator "sees" all of the suffering caused by Mars, god of war. In contrast to the suffering and woe of Palamon and Arcite, here we see the very physical and detailed suffering caused by violence: incinerations, murders, open wounds, suicides bathed in their own blood. The contrast between this and the abstract, intellectualized suffering of Palamon and Arcite is striking.

So was is shewed in that portreituree,
As is depeynted in the sterres above
Who shal be slayn or elles deed for love.

By placing the murders and deaths "for love" in Mars's temple of horrors, the tale connects love and suffering in a graphic and physical way. This description of Mars's temple is the first depiction we see of real, physical suffering in the tale.  Connecting this physical suffering to love makes the suffering caused by love seem more real and physical than it has thus far.

The helmes they tohewen and toshrede,
Out brest the blood, with stiernes stremes rede,
With myghty maces the bones they tobreste.
He thurgh the thikkeste of the throng gan threste;
Ther stomblen steedes strong, and doun gooth al;
He rolleth under foot as dooth a bal,
He foyneth on his feet with his trounchoun,
And he hym hurtleth with his hors adoun.
He thurgh his body is hurt and sithen ytake,
maugree his heed, and broght unto the stake.

This graphic description of the battle between Palamon and Arcite's forces is curious in the way it refuses to assign actions to any particular person. Helmets get shredded. Blood runs. "He" gets stampeded on "as dooth a bal," but no one person does or suffers any of these things. The effect of this language is to make the battle seem like something that just sort of happens, with no particular person or reason behind it.

Swelleth the brest of Arcite, and the soore
Encresseth at his herte moore and moore.
The clothered blood for any lechecraft
Corrupteth, and is in his bouk ylaft.
The pipes of his longes gonne to swelle,
And every lacerte in his brest adoun
Is shent with venym and corrupcioun.
(1885-1888, 1894-1896)

This passage about the physical illness of Arcite reveals a lot about medieval medicine. It identifies the root cause of Arcite's malady as the "clothered blood," or clotted blood, that doctors are unable to remove from around his heart with their leeches. This blood is corrupt with venom and poisons Arcite until he dies.

Shrighte Emelye, and howleth Palamon,
And Theseus his suster took anon
Swownynge, and bar hir fro the corps away.
What helpeth it to tarien forth the day
To tellen how she weep bothe eve and morwe?
For in swich cas wommen have swich sorwe
Whan that hir housbond is from hem ago,
That for the moore part they sorwen so,
Or ellis fallen in swich maladye,
That at the laste certeinly they dye.

Despite the fact that Palamon also howls at the death of Arcite, the narrator here identifies extreme sorrow as particularly characteristic of women. The narrator says that women can become ill or die from grief. Besides revealing a common stereotype about women, this passage shows how medieval people were as aware as we are of the mind-body connection – the way in which a psychological upset can cause physical illness.

So greet a wepyng was ther noon, certayn,
Whan Ector was ybroght al fressh yslayn
To Troye. Allas, the pitee that was ther,
Cracchynge of chekes, rentynge eek of heer.

The Greeks express their grief over Arcite's death by scratching their cheeks and tearing their hair. This physical expression of grief creates wounds on the body as signs or expressions of the condition of the mourner's heart.