1. Explain how the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman are all ideal representatives of the three traditional estates: those who defend (nobility), pray (clergy), and work (peasants). 2. Discuss the character of the young knight in "The Wife's Tale." What good qualities are there to set against the bad?

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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.

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The Knight is an ideal representative of the nobility.  He shows all the qualities of chivalry expected in someone of his class.  Not only is he brave, “he had proved his worth in his lord’s wars,” but he is also humble.  “Although he was brave, he was also prudent, and bore himself as meekly as a maiden.”  In the case of the Knight, Chaucer lets us know he is the ideal representative by calling him, “a true, perfect, gentle knight.” 

The Parson is an idea representative of the clergy.  In direct contrast to characters like the Friar and the Pardoner, he wants to set an example for the people of his parish.  Instead of cheating them out of their money, he would “rather give…part of his own offerings and property.”  He makes a point to visit all the people in his parish, even the poorest and most humble.  Also, instead of being scornful toward sinners, he was “discreet and benign in his teaching.”  All of these examples contrast with other religious characters who are greedy and take advantage of the sinners in their flocks.

The Plowman is an idea representative of the peasant class.  He works hard from dawn to dusk without complaining.  Chaucer calls him a “good and faithful laborer.”  He is religious and he helps his fellow man without thinking twice.  Chaucer contrasts him with characters such as the Miller, who cheats his customers and tells raunchy stories at the tavern.  The Plowman is not concerned with money, and will help his neighbors.  The Miller, on the other hand, will cheat his customers out of money,

The young knight is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is, of course, not the ideal chivalrous knight.  He rapes a young woman and is put on trial for this.  Later, in his quest to find out what all women want, he is given the answer by an old woman in return for a promise.  When he finds out what the promise is, he whines and complains, and begs the old woman in a most unchivalrous way not to make him keep his promise.  On their wedding night, he insults her by calling her, “so loathsome, so old, and of low birth.”  None of these actions show the knight to be chivalrous figure he is meant to be.  His only redeeming quality is at the end of the story, after listening to his wife, he decides to allow her all the power in the relationship.  This is when she changes from an old, loathsome woman to a young, beautiful woman.

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