Several years before Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales, he translated the most important medieval work depicting the ideals of chivalry and knighthood, Chretien de Troyes's The Romance of the Rose. The knight of the Prologue is the direct descendant of de Troyes's conception of the ideal knight. Chaucer describes the knight as a man who "loved chivalrie, / Trouthe and honour, fredom [generosity], and curteisie [courtesy]" (ll. 45-46). More important, he joins the pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately upon his return from fighting for Christendom in what is now Eastern Europe and the Middle East, presumably for his king or an earl to whom he owes a feudal obligation. He is not dressed in finery, as one might expect of a typical knight; rather, he wears a drab, mud-spattered cloak, stained by his rusty chain-mail. As the "parfit, gentil knyght," he has returned from the wars and, because he is also pious, goes on pilgrimage, perhaps to make up for the slaughter he has recently engaged in. In short, he has military skills, has supported his feudal lord, has all the personal attributes of the ideal knight, and he is a devout Christian.
The Parson and the Plowman, who happen to be brothers, are two of a kind, but from very different levels of society. The Parson, who is described as "a lerned man, a clerk," occupies a low place in the hierarchy of the medieval church, but he is a true shepherd of his parishioners. Among his virtues, he treats both the poor and the wealthy equally; he gives his poorer parishioners money and his own property when they need it; and, perhaps most important, he leads them to Christianity with gentleness rather than the threat of excommunication. His brother, the Plowman, whose many jobs include loading dung onto carts (l. 530), is a secular version of the Parson, but he occupies the lowest level of medieval society. His status in society notwithstanding, however, he is described as a man who loves God with all his heart and loves his neighbor as himself—in other words, the Plowman exemplifies the ideal Christian, content with his station in life, and very much like his brother, the Parson.
Unfortunately, when we arrive at the knight in the Wife of Bath's Tale, we are presented with the dark reflection of knighthood. First, he violates all chivalric principles and rapes a woman—for which he is required to find out what all women want most in the world or forfeit his life. Second, after undertaking an arduous journey (a good thing) and then discovering from an old woman the answer to what women want, he complains bitterly when it appears that he must marry the old hag. A knight with any vestige of the chivalric code would gracefully accept his situation, but he continues to bemoan his unfair fate until he accepts the governance of the old hag—of course, he has no choice—and then all turns right in the end. But he is, in the end, a pale shadow of the knight of the Prologue, and his redeeming qualities are essentially nil.