Examining the moral codes of Medieval literature and how they function in literature such as the Canterbury Tales.
Much of the well-known literature from the medieval period orbits around an ideological standard stereotyped by its characters. Through characters of moral impeccability, these tales instruct as well as entertain, providing a perfect example to rally behind and a goal for knights to hopefully achieve. There was some writing in the medieval period, however, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, that broke and parodied these ideals intentionally to both satirize unrealistic expectations and achieve a new creative edge for literary entertainment.
In a time period when rule of law was shaky, if existent at all, codes for moral behavior were exemplified and understood through the Arthurian-type myths. Writers of the period gravitated towards stories that evoked the cherished principles and morals of the courts they were hired to entertain, and through their stories they attempted to galvanize these qualities considered most desirable from members of a king’s court. Tales of great heroism in battle, even against all odds, were meant to hopefully inspire the same sort of courage when the time for real battle occurred.
In Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain bravely answers an insult to his king’s court, adhering to his acceptance to play this “game” even once its tricky nature has been revealed. Gawain faces this precarious challenge fearlessly, not allowing the obvious danger to undermine his resolve to protect his king, stating, “For I find it unfitting, as in fact it is held,/ when a challenge in your chamber makes choices so exalted,/ though you yourself be desirous to accept it in person,/ while many bold men about you on bench are seated” (348- 351). Gawain embodies the idealized knight that does not quake in the face of danger and will forfeit even his own life to protect the power and reputation of the court.
Courtly romance is also important in the Arthurian tales. Courtship is portrayed as honest and chaste: a women’s beauty is always revered and her dignity always respected. A biblical adherence to ‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife’ is judiciously practiced. Lovers are faithful, often pledging, or even forfeiting, their lives for the love of their mate. In Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain, when faced with seductive flattery and strong advances from a married woman, politely rejects the temptation, claiming that “…I am not he of whom you are speaking-/ to attain to such an honor as here you tell of/ I am a knight unworthy, as well indeed I know-” (1243-1245). This example of proper etiquette and moral chastity, spells out the ethical code that other knights were expected to adhere to.
The Arthurian legends held high on a pedestal a set of impractical ideals that affectively falsified and obscured the historical truth. Such ideal love and reckless abandon in battle was simply impossible. Another wave of medieval literature, such as those portrayed in The Canterbury Tales, recognize the fallacy of Arthurian courtly romance, and seek to instruct through the satirization of these ideals, and present a more realistic moral code and portrayal of medieval life.
The Miller’s Tale parodies this courtly romance. Nick, by all means a crude and improper man according to Arthurian definition, does not steal the heart of the older carpenter’s young bride Alison through chivalry and chastity, but instead literally grabs her forcefully by the gentials: “And prively he caught hire by the queinte,/ And said, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,/ for derne love of thee, lemman, I spille” (168-170). Yet in the end, Nick achieves his desire when Alison gives in, with little resistance, to the aggressive and seemingly improper courtship. Both Nick and Alison are complicit in a form of courtship that would not have been idealized by tales such as Gawain and the Green Knight.
The wife of Bath as a character also breaks the ideals of courtly romance. In the Arthurian tales, marriage and love is always implied as eternal and eternally happy. The wife of Bath, on the other hand, proclaims outright her five tumultuous marriages, and her desire to procure a sixth before age takes away her beauty. Her tale itself opens with a knight raping a defenseless girl, an act from which he eventually escapes retribution. Behaviors and characters such as this would never have been found amongst the idealized knights, and glorified women of Arthurianism.
The Pardoner’s Tale, on the other hand, seems to both challenge the Arthurian prototype of a knight’s code of chivalry by focusing on three characters of sloth and immorality, and, yet, reinforce the moral-bearing Arthur tales when these characters eventually fail and are ultimately destroyed by their greed. Though lacking the melodrama and formal structure of typical Arthurian romance, the moral lessons presented by The Pardoner’s Tale are consistent with other Arthurian tales, but its delivery, especially when put in context with the Pardoner’s peculiar and hypocritical prologue, is uncouth and unconventional.
In the medieval period, much of the literature was designed to entertain the wealthy and educated court. In order to please the nobility who hired them, poets and writers catered their tales to the ideals and gratifications of the powerful. As a result, an exaggerated mythology of heroic warriors and gentlemen lovers was born. Later, a newer generation of writers would challenge this structure, tastefully calling into question the practicality of this beloved genre, and issue a new image of the medieval world. In The Cantebury Tales, Chaucer seeks to instruct not through simulated and sensationalized ideals of myth, but instead by illuminating hypocrisy from those in power, and the reality of true courtly life.