Perceptions of Knighthood: Comparing the Character of "The Knight" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the Knight in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal
Chaucer’s description of “the Knight” in his “General Prologue” may be seen as a multi-layered narration. First he gives a very precise and historically relevant account of his campaigns. Based on what Chaucer knows about the knight’s deeds he gives his own evaluation of his character. Chaucer calls him a “reputable man”, “trustworthy” and “courteous”, loyal to his king, and honored for his abilities. From this description we get an image of a respectable person who “cherished the profession of arms” and acted within a set of moral principles suitable for a knight of his time. It also seems that Chaucer’s characterization of the knight abounds with what may be the knight’s own statements about himself. Several phrases stand out on the background of Chaucer’s objective and rather sensible text: “[he] travelled far; no man as far as he, in Christian and in heathen lands as well”, often he took the highest place at table, over the other foreign knights in Prussia”, “no Christian of his rank fought there more often”.1
These exaggerated declarations of the knight’s achievements and qualities may have evoked a smile on Chaucer’s lips as he wrote them, but are presented as well-deserved praise. Chaucer was well familiar with a certain knight who had already become a legend at a very young age and was universally lauded as the epitome of knightly chivalry – Edward “the Black Prince”, son Edward III of England, Chaucer’s sovereign. In fact Chaucer himself had fought in the army of the Black Prince at Najaro – a mercenary expedition. 2
Bergman’s knight is rather more brooding than Chaucer’s. Disgusted with himself and spiritually confused, he has none of the smug self-congratulatory air of Chaucer’s knight. Although we are told almost nothing of Bergman’s knight’s campaigns, we do see their effect on him. It is evident that his self-loathing attitude stems from the atrocities that he has witnessed and committed on crusade, and that he is disillusioned with his own faith. He is incapable of viewing himself as the ideal knight, and he seems to be questioning the very foundations that his society’s standards rest on.
Neither of them is really a true representation of the men who we read about in primary sources. Historic crusaders are hardly presented as flawlessly reputable, but they are far from hating themselves for it. Frederick II, for instance ignored his vow to go on crusade more than once for a variety of reasons, and never showed any symptoms of remorse over his loss of honor, although his failure to join the Fifth Crusade contributed enormously to its disastrous failure. As for those who did show up for the Fifth Crusade, they spent most of their time plundering Damietta and satisfying personal ambitions instead of exchanging the captured city for Jerusalem, their supposed goal. Frederick himself only dragged himself out on crusade when it was personally profitable to him. The brother of Louis IX, Robert of Artois, betrayed his comrades in a different way, allowing his thirst for personal glory to lead an entire army into a suicidal trap.
Bergman’s knight is rather a twentieth century person plunged into a medieval world than a genuine fourteenth century knight. His scruples over his actions are entirely anachronistic, as every pope who called a crusade made a point of declaring it a proper and holy endeavor and giving indulgences to all involved.3 The knight would have been incapable of seeing his own actions from such a negative perspective. His highly individualistic approach is also jarring. Wherever he campaigned he would have been part of a larger crusading army, proudly uniting to do the will of God. He can hardly consider himself personally responsible for anything that went on in battle.
The list of campaigns given by Chaucer includes several honorable and famous battles. As stated by M. Keen, “the names of those who came to Prussia to crusade included many of the most famous chivalric figures of the age…nearly all of the unblemished knights…had been there; so had the ‘parfait gentil knight’ of Chaucer’s prologue to the Canterbury Tales”.4 Alexandria was besieged and sacked by King Peter de Lusignan of Cyprus in 1365. When he had previously visited England he impressed the knights of Europe as the epitome of the values prized by chivalric knights of old. Joining Peter’s campaign may have been seen by contemporaries as rather a spiritually inspired act, and Chaucer’s knight is named as one of the followers of Peter. Some of the knight’s minor campaigns may be seen as mercenary work, but this type of employment was not necessarily looked down on at the time, as mentioned previously.5
Bergman, on the other hand, has a distinctly modern view of crusading and knighthood. Modern society generally condemns violence, and with society’s growing cynicism, religion is hardly seen as a good reason for it. Hence, Bergman’s knight expresses the feelings of Bergman himself. He has trouble believing in heaven, and constantly doubts his own ideals. He has no problems believing in Death however.
The horrifically destructive effects of the 1347 – 1349 epidemic known as the Black Death had a devastating effect on anyone who had come in contact with it. Chaucer himself had lived through it and so did many of the pilgrims he describes in the Canterbury Tales. His statement at the beginning of the General Prologue that many of the pilgrims came to Canterbury to thank St. Thomas Beckett “who gave his help to them when they were sick” is an obvious reference to the Black Plague.6 It is natural to assume that the mood of penitence and fear that pervaded Europe during the Plague would lead to an increase in pilgrimages. Chaucer’s Knight may well be on his way to thank the saints from sparing him when so many around him died. The indiscriminate slaughter of the Plague would also have created a greater sense of unity and equality among the various social classes. No one was immune regardless of rank and money – everyone was in it together. Chaucer illustrates this newfound sense of unity, uniting a socially diverse group of people who are all able to communicate with one another and share stories, forgetting their social differences.
Bergman’s knight is thrust right into the midst of the actual Plague. The figure of Death that stalks him from the moment he lands on his native shore is a vivid reminder of this. After all, the knight is almost inevitably doomed to die along with one third of the population of Europe. He knows this, and tries to stall the process, all the while realizing that the deeper plunges into the country the smaller his chances of survival. As Death himself notes at one point, both the knight and his companions will soon die. The image of Death as a chess player reinforces the randomness of the Plague’s casualties, and that to Death the whole thing is just a game.7 The yearning felt by the knight to find comfort in religion is typical of the feelings experienced by many at this period. Unable to understand the science behind the disaster, people looked to God to understand how they could save themselves.
T.Jones dedicated his book Chaucer’s Knight to proving the statement that Chaucer’s contemporaries “would not have seen a militant Christian idealist, but a shabby mercenary without morals or scruples – the typical product of an age which saw war turned into a business.” 8As I have made evident in this essay I do not view Chaucer’s work in this way. The views of Bernard of Clairvaux on the perfect knight are highly unrealistic and confined mostly to literature.9 Jones however seems to have gone to the other extreme, equating the concept of a knight with that of a mercenary and a killer, calling the crusades a business. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Business formed a large part of any military expedition, as they all needed to be funded and supplied. However it is cynical to say that none of these people had any beliefs or ideals. They may not always have been worthy of these ideals, but that does not mean that they did not remember them.
A vivid example of this controversial attitude in Chaucer’s time is the magnificent tomb of Edward the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral. Not all of his deeds would be considered chivalrous or honorable from the perspective of a modern observer, but he had already achieved legendary status in his lifetime, and immortalized himself in his last deed. His effigy at Canterbury cathedral was created from his own design and probably under his own supervision.10 It is the most poetic and romantic image of a knight ever created in art. This controversial figure of the time of Chaucer’s knight immortalized himself as the personification of chivalrous knighthood. This means he believed it existed, and that he was its finest representative.