Editor’s Note: On the blog this week, we are featuring the top essay in the Torrey Academy course, Faith of Our Fathers, written by Abby Borne. In this essay, Abby explores the presence of knightly vows in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, exposing them as verbal promises and declarations of truth deeply tied to a Knight’s honor and integrity. She clearly researches and argues for the danger that comes in making vows, as the refusal to stay true to one’s word may result in civil and social death, and highlights the connection to Christ’s words of warning around vow-making for Christians. We’re proud of our accomplished Torrey Academy scholars, like Abby, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to share the fine work they produce with you. Enroll your student in a Torrey Academy course today.
Vow of Death: The Importance of the Knightly Vow in The Canterbury Tales
by Abby Borne
“A promise is a comfort for a fool.” — Traditional Proverb
The modern attitude on vows is relatively relaxed. Some cynics are justifiably skeptical about the worth of promises due to the lack of importance placed on them. Promises are often only kept when the breaking of an oath poses a threat. Elementary school best friends make “pinky promises” between each other, couples make wedding vows, and written contracts keep people bound to their word, with legal and financial consequences for those who do not keep it. Medieval oaths, however, were taken more seriously. Vows are seen throughout The Canterbury Tales, whether between a husband and wife, a lover and the magician who will help him, or two knights and cousins who swear brotherhood to each other. The free giving of vows is portrayed as honorable, but often these promises are broken or put in danger. In no case is the breaking of a vow so dishonorable and tragic as in the breaking of a knight’s oath, as knightly chivalry includes a focus on the keeping of vows. The breaking of such a vow would even result in a loss of a knight’s identity. Although knightly vows are often seen as a way to obtain honor and show integrity, they can lead to dishonor because if the giver of the vow breaks their vow, this leads to a loss of identity and a form of civil and social death. Through an investigation of medieval and chivalric society and a closer look at two specific examples of knightly oaths, this paper seeks to explore honor, integrity, and the reason Christ exhorted his church to be careful in its vow-making—a lesson which is applicable even today.