Imperfect Knight

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Chaucer’s Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary by Terry Jones
    Weidenfeld, 319 pp, £8.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 297 77566 9
  • Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination by David Aers
    Routledge, 236 pp, £9.75, January 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0351 X
  • The Golden Age: Manuscript Painting at the Time of Jean, Duc de Berry by Marcel Thomas
    Chatto, 120 pp, £12.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 7011 2471 7

The life of books is a mysterious thing. If an author is still read fifty years after his death there is a strong likelihood that he will be read five centuries from then. Chaucer, at any rate, has never been far from the consciousness of readers of English, and if the last twenty years have seen an amazing upsurge of interest in him in academic circles, this has fortunately not been balanced by his disappearance from the consciousness of the wider public.

Here, as if to prove the point, is a study of Chaucer’s Knight, the first of the Canterbury Pilgrims to be described, by a member of the Monty Python team, Terry Jones. Jones obviously enjoys reading Chaucer and his book conveys a personal excitement usually missing from academic studies. From the time he first came across the description of the Knight, he tells us, he was struck by the oddity of it. Why does Chaucer take 36 lines to describe the Knight when he could have made his point in eight? Jones began to read what historians had to say about the various battles in which the knight is supposed to have fought, and he gradually became convinced that the conventional account of him as one of the few pilgrims to be presented non-ironically, the perfect representative of one of the three great orders (commons, clergy, knights) into which medieval theorists divided society, was simply wrong. The Knight was in fact one of the new breed of ruthless mercenaries emerging in the later 14th century, men like Sir John Hawkwood, the leader of the legendary White Company, whose monument can still be seen in the Duomo in Florence next to Dante’s, who hired themselves out to petty tyrants and brought terror and destruction wherever they went. Moreover, Jones argues, Chaucer’s audience would have recognised this right away: it is only we who have lost the ability to read the clues Chaucer lays before us.

Jones brings an avalanche of facts to the defence of his thesis. He has made himself master of Middle English syntax, of the modes of construction of medieval castles, the kinds of armour worn by knights, and of the entire military history of the epoch. With the gusto of a 19th-century autodidact he builds up a powerful picture of the new breed of fighters who were gradually supplanting the old feudal knights with their oaths of allegiance to their lords and their complex chivalric lore. How much this portrait fits Chaucer’s Knight, though, is another matter. Because every detail is turned by Jones into evidence in favour of his thesis, one gradually loses faith in him: he could just as easily, one feels, have argued in the same way even if Chaucer’s description had been quite different. To take just one example, Jones makes the point again and again that men like Sir John Hawkwood infested Europe in the wake of the Hundred Years’ War. Whenever England and France patched up a peace, the mercenaries suddenly found themselves without pay and with nothing to do. No wonder everyone, from the Pope down, breathed a sigh of relief when they were invited to go off and deploy their skills in North Africa or Eastern Europe. But Jones also argues that Chaucer deliberately did not make his Knight fight in France, in order to show that he would not even defend his country in time of need. But surely Jones has given us a very good reason for Chaucer doing that: it was precisely to preserve the Knight from any suspicion of being one of the veteran mercenaries of the Hundred Years’ War. In reading this book, I was reminded of those scholarly and passionate studies of the Gospels, which are enormously convincing for the first fifty pages, about which one starts to have doubts by page 100, and which one throws away in disgust by page 150, since there is clearly no evidence which the author would not be able to turn to his advantage.

Like such books, this one has no sense of tone. Despite the wealth of information, I cannot reconcile Jones’s picture with my reading of Chaucer. Now it may be, as Jones would certainly argue, that this is just prejudice on my part: this is how I have always seen the Knight, and I’m unwilling to change my mind. Tone is always a difficult thing to discuss and an impossible thing to prove. Yet it is not wholly subjective either. The Knight, for example, is at once described as ‘a worthy man’. Jones points out that the word is used to describe a number of other pilgrims, some of whom, like the Friar, Chaucer clearly disapproves of. But one cannot fail to be struck by the difference in tone. First, the Knight:

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[*] Ralph Baldwin was, so far as I know, the first to stress this aspects of the poem. See his ‘The Unity of the Canterbury Tales’, Anglistica, V. On the ‘idea’ of the work see Donald Howard’s splendid The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (1976).