First, a series of confessions. This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it. I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field. And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.
Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head. Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians. After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the tyme he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrie, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers. Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?
His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader. If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.
From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress. At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story. How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?
I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.
Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.
Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan. Any decent university library should have it.