Chapter 17 Summary
The hermit and the knight engage in a musical duel. The knight accurately assesses the rather battered condition of the harp, demonstrating his degree of familiarity with the instrument. He then asks the monk whether he would prefer a sirvente, a lai, or a ballad—indicating his ability to sing in a variety of styles and languages.
The hermit declares that he is English through and through, and so was his patron Saint Dunstan; he forbids any song but an English one in his hut. The Black Knight then sings a ballad by a Saxon crusader of his acquaintance to please his Saxon host.
The host is a critic, however. The knight's voice is well trained but naturally gruff and limited in range. The hermit sings along in places to help him out. The song is about the return of a knight from the Crusade who stands beneath his true love's window and calls her to open the gate. The crusader, like all good chivalrous knights, fights for the sake of his lady and bestows on her all the fame of his bloody exploits, yet he feels a chill beneath her window.
The hermit complains the song is too Norman in its melancholy and lack of common sense. "What did he expect," the monk wonders, when the crusader returns only to find his mistress with a rival and his serenade "as little regarded as the caterwauling of a cat in the gutter."
The Clerk of Copmanhurst then sings a lusty ditty about the pleasant life of friars. The comic quatrains relate the cherished consolation of wounded knights' ladies, the choice of destination, the honored place in the best chair, and the most generous hospitality at the supper table. Kings have taken the cowl but never the other way around, and "the goodwife would wish her goodman in the mire" to provide a soft pillow for a barefooted friar. The song concludes that a pleasant and trouble-free existence is possible only to friars.
The knight praises the performance but teases the monk about his "uncannonical pastimes." In a blustery defense bolstered by misapplied Latin phrases, the hermit maintains that he upholds his holy office faithfully and doesn't fear the devil. He confides, however, that he doesn't like to speak of such things until after morning Vespers. Until then, the reader infers, the uncannonical festivities will continue.
Late in the evening, after many songs have been exchanged and flagons emptied, there is a knock at the door.