Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Verray Parfit, Gentil, (Desperately Poor? Greedy? Penitent?) Knyght

As long as I've been studying Old Geoff, I've been told that the parfit, gentil knyght was clearly "down on his luck." No other interpretation would be permitted. Ever. It was as if the editors of Speculum had met secretly and, using the power only they possess, declared the knyght impecunious. And then they cackled sinisterly, swept their dark capes around them, and disappeared into the aether, as scholarly-journal editors are wont to do. I'm told that nobody cackles more sinisterly than a Speculum editor.

Here's my shameful medievalist secret: I'm not buying it. I know that he could have over-spent on all those crusade battles of his. Many knights did, some ruinously. I know he could have gone on these crusades because he'd heard of all the luxurious wealth of the east, and wanted some for himself. Many knights did that, too. And, perhaps a knight returning from a successful (-ish) crusade into the east would return all dripping with gems and ostentation. It's perfectly possible that medieval people were tacky. Perhaps the motivation for all these voyages out into "heathen lands" was less about religious zeal, and more about attempts to win the conqueror lottery. But does greed presuppose poverty? Does simple clothing presuppose poverty? Couldn't this perfect example of Christian knighthood have been an almost religious figure, showing the gentle humility that only a very powerful man has the freedom to do, and be unequalled in his zeal for Christendom?

I give you the bit of The Prologue that describes the knight, so that you don't have to drag your giant Chaucer book out to consider the issue.

43: A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
44: That fro the tyme that he first bigan
45: To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
46: Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
47: Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
48: And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
49: As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
50: And evere honoured for his worthynesse.
51: At alisaundre he was whan it was wonne.
52: Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
53: Aboven alle nacions in pruce;
54: In lettow hadde he reysed and in ruce,
55: No cristen man so ofte of his degree.
56: In gernade at the seege eek hadde he be
57: Of algezir, and riden in belmarye.
58: At lyeys was he and at satalye,
59: Whan they were wonne; and in the grete see
60: At many a noble armee hadde he be.
61: At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene,
62: And foughten for oure feith at tramyssene
63: In lystes thries, and ay slayn his foo.
64: This ilke worthy knyght hadde been also
65: Somtyme with the lord of palatye
66: Agayn another hethen in turkye.
67: And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys;
68: And though that he were worthy, he was wys,
69: And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.
70: He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
71: In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
72: He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.
73: But, for to tellen yow of his array,
74: His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.
75: Of fustian he wered a gypon
76: Al bismotered with his habergeon,
77: For he was late ycome from his viage,
78: And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.

[Added after publishing, because I hit the wrong button: My take on this is probably less sophisticated than others, but here it is. It seems to me as if the Knight has the accoutrements of a seasoned warrior. No more, no less. A good, solid horse, but not a fancy one. Serviceable clothing that doesn't draw too much attention. He's not overly concerned with personal hygiene. Here is a man's man, fighting in the fields, praying in the church, an no nonsense about him. He has stuff to do, damn it, and no time for foppery. And if we take that image, and contrast it with the young sparks that follow, we find a generational parody that doesn't exactly favor the kids. Which is, I think, Chaucer's point. It's as if he's saying "Here's what a man should be, and has been. Now look at what's coming up behind them. Bunch of flowery-tunic-wearing, slave-of-fashion sissies who are more interested in being pretty and impressing maidens than fighting for God and King. We're doomed!"

79: With hym ther was his sone, a yong squier,
80: A lovyere and a lusty bacheler,
81: With lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse.
82: Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse.
83: Of his stature he was of evene lengthe,
84: And wonderly delyvere, and of greet strengthe.
85: And he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie
86: In flaundres, in artoys, and pycardie,
87: And born hym weel, as of so litel space,
88: In hope to stonden in his lady grace.
89: Embrouded was he, as it were a meede
90: Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede.
91: Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day;
92: He was as fressh as is the month of may.
93: Short was his gowne, with sleves longe and wyde.
94: Wel koude he sitte on hors and faire ryde.
95: He koude songes make and wel endite,
96: Juste and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write.
97: So hoote he lovede that by nyghtertale.
98: He sleep namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale.
99: Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,
100: And carf biforn his fader at the table.

I'm pretty sure I could kick the Squier around a field a bit. His clothing was decorative, but impaired his ability to hold a weapon. And the little punk was sleep-deprived from all his skirt-chasing. I could totally take him.

101: A yeman hadde he and servantz namo
102: At that tyme, for hym liste ride so,
103: And he was clad in cote and hood of grene.
104: A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene,
105: Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
106: (wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:
107: His arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)
108: And in his hand he baar a myghty bowe.
109: A not heed hadde he, with a broun visage.
110: Of wodecraft wel koude he al the usage.
111: Upon his arm he baar a gay bracer,
112: And by his syde a swerd and a bokeler,
113: And on that oother syde a gay daggere
114: Harneised wel and sharp as point of spere;
115: A cristopher on his brest of silver sheene.
116: An horn he bar, the bawdryk was of grene;
117: A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse.

That last bit, about the Yeoman, is what really works against the "poor Knight" interpretation for me. When was the last time you saw a servant better-dressed than his employer, when the employer dressed poorly out of poverty rather than principle? ]


medieval woman said...

I've totally always interpreted it as you are, Heo! I think he seriously just got off the "Crusade Queen" boat and decided to go on pilgrimage - I think that's the real interesting thing - it seems like he hasn't had the chance to stop and change - what is he feeling the need to purge himself of? Why is he so penitent after coming off of a Holy War that should have totally washed him clean of all sins? I think there might be the opportunity to question the possible guilt (and problematic policy) behind all his "reys[ing]" (54). I'm not saying that Chaucer is criticizing the Crusades - or that the Knight has come back a totally disillusioned Christian - but I think there's cool wiggle room and I wouldn't go the "he's poor" route personally.

I'm with ya, babe.

Dr. Virago said...

I really like your idea of his simple accoutrements as somehow performative of a utilitarian vision of knighthood. I don't think I'd ever quite seen his clothing as performative (in the way that other Pilgrims' costumes are) but I *definitely* have always seen the Knight as the "fighter" and the Squire as the "lover" and the two as a contrasting pair pointing to the complicated and contradictory impulses of both knightly/courtly culture and romance literature.

In short, I'm pretty much on the same page as you and medieval woman, Heo. I wonder if there's been a generational shift, post Terry Jones perhaps, that doesn't see the Knight as wholly uncomplicated as older generations.

And btw, the idea of Speculum editors in evil-doers' capes, and medieval people as potentially "tacky" made me giggle!

History Geek said...

I wish I had more to say, then I found this really interesting.

Also, I'm never going to be able to read Speculum again without hearing Bond-Villian like cackling, or picturing Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham.

Bardiac said...

What do you make of the bismotered bit? I was taught that it might contribute to a reading that (if outward appearance reflects inward being, as was the prof's theory of medieval lit clothing) a bismotered habergeon might indicate an inward uncleanliness or sinfulness, and that he's on pilgrimage because of it.

I like Dr. Virago's point that we might have a generational thing. I've been in classes where we problematized the knight as a grad student.

And I totally agree: you could wipe the mead hall with the squire without breaking a sweat.

History Geek said...

I thought you'd find it intersting that we talked about this in my History of Brit Lit today. My Professor seems to agree with you, as when he asked us what we thought Chaucer was trying to imply about the stains on his tunic, one student said 'he's poor?'. The Professor comment was along the lines of 'probably not'.

I was able to input more into the discussions, I think because you had me thinking about it in a different way.

HeoCwaeth said...

MW: Thanks. I was feeling like the idiot in the room when I tried, again, to push an alternative reading. Nice to know that there are people who agree with me.

Dr.V: Thanks to you, too. When I read the first sentence in your response, I thought to myself "Oh, THAT's how you present that idea concisely and eloquently. I'm torn between envy and admiration at the moment. I do have to say that I'm only one degree of separation from Paul E. Szarmach, and I'm told he hasn't been issued his evil cape yet.

Bardiac: I actually hadn't considered the "bismotered" clothing as reflecting inner sinfulness. I've always sort of assumed he was bismotered with blood from his battles, and didn't really take that idea further. Shame on me. And thanks for giving me something to think about.

HG: I'm thrilled that this post prompted you to come up with your own ideas about the knight. Thanks for telling me that.