Representation of Chivalry in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: Critical Analysis

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During the 14th Century, when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, knighthood was generally reserved for upper class members of society. Knights were an integral part of the feudal system and acquired land in exchange for protecting the King. They were bound by the chivalric code, which was a collection of moral standards, such as honor, courtesy, and bravery. However, as the feudal system declined, knighthood began to collapse as well. While chivalry was initially used to restrain knights from immoral behavior, it became a moral code for the upper and noble classes, making it invaluable to upper class society. The attempt to preserve and justify the potentially declining chivalric ideals is witnessed in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with the Knight’s Tale. As Chaucer witnessed the dying code in 14th century society, the Knight fails to effectively justify the disintegrating chivalric code. Through the Knight’s inclusion and defense of incongruities, Chaucer constructs the Knight to inadvertently satirize himself and chivalry in the “Knight’s Tale”.

Arcite’s and Palomon’s beliefs and behavior are antithetical to chivalrous qualities. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Knight as achieving the pinnacle of knighthood. Chaucer claims the Knight is the “most distinguished man who had followed chivalry, truth, honor, generosity, and courtesy… /he was wise and in his bearing modest as a maid,” and constructs these attributes as constituting chivalry and knighthood (TCT 4-5). He confirms the already prevailing view of knighthood by praising the Knight for these qualities and also establishes expectations for chivalrous behavior in the Knight’s tale. However, the Knight’s Tale subverts these expectations through Arcite and Palamon’s unwarranted jealousy towards each other. In the beginning of the tale, the reigning king, Theseus, condemns Palomon and Arcite to prison, where they fall in love with Thesesus’s sister-in-law, Emily. When Arcite’s friend implores Theseus for Arcite’s freedom, Theseus compiles but orders him never to return. Yet Arcite, preoccupied with Emily, laments his loss. He says, “‘O my dear cousin Palamon/ Yours is the victory in this adventure/ How blissfully you serve your long indenture/ In prison - prison? No, in Paradise’ ”(TCT 36). Arcite, as a knight freed from his perpetual imprisonment, should be courteous and gracious for the ability to return to his chivalrous duties. However, Arcite is envious of Palamon for being able to “blissfully” watch Emily from afar everyday in his prison cell and insinuates prison is “Paradise” (TCT 36). Similarly, Palomon has “bitter tears” upon discovering Arcite has been released, not because Arcite now gets to be free and resume his knightly duties, but rather because Emily “may become [his] lady” (TCT 37). Palamon and Arcite’s envy of one another is incongruous with the honor and courtesy expected of a chivalrous knight. They also lack the wisdom of a knight by failing to realize neither of them have an advantage in accessing Emily, as Arcite is banished and Palomon is imprisoned. Palamon’s frustration with his imprisonment leads him to ask why he should adhere to moral behavior if he has to endure misfortune. He asks, “Where is the right rule in your foreknowledge/ When such torments fall on innocent, helpless men/ Yet there is more, for added to my load/ I am to pay duties that are owed to God/ for Him I am to curb my will/in all the lusts cattle may fulfill” (TCT 38). Palamon’s anger about having to “curb his will” or restrain from certain “lusts” when he is not rewarded by God or Fate is contradictory to the honor a chivalrous knight should have without expectation of reward. It exposes Palamon as not inherently courteous and only willing to act honorable and chivalrous as a knight if he obtains some benefit. Additionally, prompted by his sadness, Arcite decides to disobey the agreement made with Theseus and return to Athens, where he “remained with Emily the bright, her page-of-state/ and gave it out his name was Philostrate” (TCT 41). By assuming a false identity and deceiving Emily and Theseus, he contradicts the value of honesty that a knight is supposed to uphold further undermining his credibility as a knight. Arcite and Palomon’s behavior contradicts the chivalry expected of the two knights.

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Theseus’s competition is undermined by the greater authority and belief in Fate which makes the competition redundant and superfluous. Once Theseus discovers Palamon and Arcite are in love with Emily, he not only pardons them for violating prior pacts and escaping from prison, he organizes a competition between Arcite and Palamon for Emily’s love. The Knight suggests the competition embodies knighthood and chivalry because it as a desirable method to acquire honor. He praises the competition : “Everyone with a taste for chivalry/ and keen (you bet!) to win a glorious name/ had begged to be allowed to join the game” (TCT 59). However, the competition was proposed mainly to see whether Arcite or Palamon “proves of greater might, backed by the hundred knights allowed” and to determine who Theseus “shall give Emily to wife” (TCT 53). Ironically, the knights themselves do not believe in the impact of the competition for the purpose of finding who Emily’s husband should be. For example, while the competition was supposedly created to determine the more chivalrous winner of Emily’s love, Palamon spends his time praying to God rather than simply preparing to win. In his prayer, he does not ask to win the competition, which would mean winning Emily’s hand. Instead he says, “the ways I care not how, whether it be/ by my defeat of them, or theirs of me/ so that I may have my lady in my arms” (TCT 63). If Palamon believed the competition yielded the merit or impact the Knight describes, he would have insisted on being its winner instead of proclaiming indifference to its victor. Palamon’s demonstration of the competition’s redundancy is reinforced when Emily speaks to the goddess Diana, who reveals to her that Fortune is guiding the winner. Diana tells Emily, “For thee the Gods on high have set their term/ and by eternal word and writ confirm/ that thou shalt be espoused to one of those/ Make plan they destiny in this forever” (TCT 66). Diana’s claim that destiny has already determined the winner before the competition demonstrates the superseding authority of Fate that renders to competition useless in determining the more chivalrous winner. Furthermore, the Knight’s description depicts the competition as a reason for extravagant celebration and therefore, an incongruity with chivalry. The Knight describes how “dukes and kings were gathered in this noble company” to reaffirm the importance of the competition to Theseus as well as to other knights and nobility (TCT 62). He also describes “how richly decked the palace was” and illustrates the “ladies loveliest in the dancing throng” which contradicts the modesty used to define chivalry in the General Prologue (TCT 62). The obvious juxtaposition between the chivalric values of modesty and the extravagant competition serve to mock the competition as an inept representation of chivalry. As a result, the competition is undercut by the greater authority of Fate and depicted as excess.

Through the Knight’s defense of incongruities and his inclusion of excessive descriptions of violence, Chaucer undermines the credibility of the Knight, and by extension, chivalry. The Knight inadvertently satirizes himself because of his sympathy and lack of criticism to Arcite and Palamon’s unchivalrous behavior. Following Arcite’s banishment and envy towards Palamon, the Knight sympathizes with Arcite and says, “What misery it cost him to depart!” (TCT 36). The Knight is unable to recognize the absurdity and incongruity of Arcite’s jealousy and lack of gratitude for his freedom. The Knight continues to express strong empathy for both Arcite and Palomon for their misfortune with regard to Emily. He says, “double the miseries and appetites of lover in jail and lover free as air, I cannot tell you which had the most to bear” (TCT 39). By ignorantly equating Arcite’s freedom and Palomon’s imprisonment as indistinguishable misfortunes and ignoring their incongruous envy, the Knight undermines his own credibility as a “wise man” (TCT 5). Additionally, his sympathy of the two knights follows Palamon’s rejection of chivalrous behavior if there is no benefit, which further undermines the Knight’s own chivalry. Chaucer constructs the Knight to represent the “perfect gentle knight” in the General Prologue, but ironically subverts that construction further with his defense of the competition (TCT 5). The Knight describes the competition with an excitement and praise saying, “great was the festival they held that day … put everyone so well in countenance” and describes the “shrill heralds shouting friendly and high joy for honour” (TCT 74). However, The Knight’s unconscious inclusion of Palamon’s prayers and Diana’s conversation with Emily as clear depictions of Fate at work which weakens his own praise of the competition. Due to Fate’s decision that Emily’s husband must be Palamon, Arcite encounters a fatality after winning the competition. However, even after Fate undercut the outcome of the competition, the Knight continues to defend it by claiming “there’s nothing despicable about all of this/ No one could ever call it cowardice” (TCT 76). His insistence that the competition was simply not “despicable” is primarily a weak justification and further satirizes the Knight for not recognizing the illegitimacy of the competition. Finally, the Knight’s narration with excessive violent descriptions reveal the Knight’s obsession with violence, which contradicts his position as a “perfect gentle knight” (TCT 5). Theseus himself recognizes the incongruity in unnecessary bloodshed and instantes rules to avoid death. Yet the Knight, focuses his narration on the bloodshed during the competition. He brutally describes the competition and says, “You would have thought, seeing Palamon engage,/ He was a lion fighting-mad with rage,/ Arcite a cruel tiger, as they beat,/ And smote each other, or as boars that meet/ And froth as white as foam upon the flood./ They fought till they were ankle-deep in blood…” (TCT 47). His choice to use similes of the “cruel tiger” and “lion” and gory details contribute to an overemphasized detailed account. It is ironic that his crude description continues for quite some time, because he repeatedly laments about his “lack of time to tell” much, which indicates the violence was significant to him to describe at length (TCT 81). The Knight, proposed by Chaucer as the representation of the chivalric code, allows Chaucer criticizes incongruity of chivalry through his flawed narration. The Knight’s flawed narration, riddled with incongruities, is completely unconscious and constructed by Chaucer. As Edward E. Foster writes, “There are instances of humor which cannot properly be assigned to the intention of the Knight [and] these instances [are] more probably the unconscious result of the noble nostalgia of the Knight’s aspirations (Foster 90). The Knight’s aspirations to defend chivalry effectively fail and lead to inadvertent self delegitimizing. The multi-faceted satire Chaucer constructs, both through the tale itself and the Knight’s narration of it, invalidate the chivalry represented by the competition and the Knight.

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Representation of Chivalry in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: Critical Analysis. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from
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