Read the Top Torrey Academy Student Paper for Spring 2018
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.
Medieval chivalry was not just being polite and displaying good manners, as it is today. Chivalry consisted of physical prowess, fulfillment of vows, obtainment of honor, displays of generosity and good manners, and the search for glory. In his book Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World, Donald R. Howard discusses what chivalry in the time of The Canterbury Tales looked like:
The knight who followed the ideal of courtly culture possessed chivalry, etymologically “horsemanship,” which meant the whole body of conduct proper to a male member of a knightly milieu. Its components can be defined by us in cold, practical ways. “Prowess” was your ability to subdue a foe in battle. “Truth” (better, “troth”) was your ability to make good all vows and obligations owed in a hierarchical world—to God, to your overlord, to all oaths you had made, to your lady, to your vassals. “Honor” was honorable conduct, especially with allies, foes, prisoners, or those with whom you had a bond or obligation. “Freedom” was generosity, the giving of appropriate gifts and the willingness to relinquish possession or privilege out of fairness or bounty or charity. Courtesy was “courtliness,” good manners. “Glory” was the fame of a knight and his reputation or “good name,” the just reward of noble deeds, a measure of immortality in the stream of successive human lives; to love glory for its own sake was a sin of “vainglory,” but to fight for glory was part of chivalry. (Howard 65)
This lengthy quote describes the various aspects of chivalry, but two in particular stand out—truth and honor. Truth is the ability to make good one’s vows and obligations, and honor is good conduct towards those with whom one might have a vow or obligation. To break one’s truth or show dishonor would be a violation of one’s identity as a knight, and as such, breaking of such a vow would be devastating.
If chivalry was more than politeness, and oaths were an important part of the concept, it is important to understand the definition of such vows. In Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, author Helen Cooper writes that trouthe (another word for an oath) is “a promise supported by the whole of one’s moral being” (Cooper 242). This form of vow is supported by one’s moral character, and a breaking of it is a reflection of that character. Author Margaret Hallissy expands on this concept in her A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “In days before written contracts, lawyers, and courts, a man’s spoken word was his bond; a man who broke his word lost his reputation. No matter how circumstances changed, no matter how difficult the task, even in the face of death, a man must keep his pledged word, his troth” (Hallissy 126). The breaking of a chivalrous vow would be similar to the breaking of a written contract, and the knight who broke his vow would lose his reputation among his peers and community.
Two of The Canterbury Tales feature vows given by knights. The first of these is “The Knight’s Tale”, in which two knights and cousins, Arcite and Palamon, vow that they will always help each other. Palamon says:
“Y-sworn full deep, and each of us to other,
That never, for to dien in the pain,
Till that the death departè shall us twain,
Neither of us in love to hinder other,
Nor in no other case, my levè brother,
But that thou shouldèst truly further me
In every case, as I shall further thee.
This was thine oath, and mine also, certáin.”
(“The Knight’s Tale” lines 274–281)
This vow, however, is broken when both Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emily. Arcite verbally breaks this vow before the cousins agree to duel over Emily: “For I defy the surety and the bond / Which that thou sayst that I have made to thee” (“The Knight’s Tale” lines 746–747). The vow is finally mended at Arcite’s bedside as he lays dying due to an injury he received in a fatal accident, as he encourages Emily to marry Palamon instead of him. Cooper writes, “The restoration of felaweship…is marked in the tale by Arcite’s dying words commending Palamon to Emily, by Palamon’s mourning of the man he had hoped to kill, and by Theseus’ insistence that the wedding is no betrayal of the cousin’s friendship” (Cooper 80). Although the cousins’ vows are originally broken, they are renewed by the end due to mutual honor and help to the other, signaling the renewal of their chivalric identity and reputation. Thus, Palamon is able to live and Arcite is able to die in honor.
The other tale which features a notable example of a vow given by a knight is “The Franklin’s Tale”, featuring an oath given in a romantic context instead of a platonic one. Its knightly vow is never actually broken, but it is still strained, and as such deserves to be looked at. In “The Franklin’s Tale”, a knight named Arveragus makes a vow to his wife, Dorigen, that he will not be the master of her, but that he will obey her will in everything.
Of his free will he swore her as a knight
That ne’er in all his life he day nor night
Ne should upon him take no mastery
Against her will, nor kith her jealousy
But her obey and follow her will in all,
As any lover to his lady shall—
Save that the name of sovereignty,
That would he have, for shame of his degree.
(“The Franklin’s Tale” lines 37–44)
This vow is threatened when Dorigen jokes to her lover, Aurelius, that if he can remove the rocks from the coast which threaten her husband’s safe return, she will return his love. Aurelius takes this vow seriously, contracts a magician who makes it appear as though the rocks are gone, and returns to Dorigen to demand that she fulfill her promise. Dorigen realizes that she must either fulfill the vow or die (to save her honor) and tells Arveragus of what happened. Arveragus encourages her to fulfill her vow.
You shall your truthè holden, by my fay,
For God so wisly have mercy upon me,
I had well lever y-sticked for to be,
For very love which that I to you have,
But if you should your truthè keep and save.
Truth is the highest thing that man may keep.
(“The Franklin’s Tale” lines 806–811)
Arveragus would rather be stabbed than see his wife break her vow due to his knightly honor and respect for vows and his love for her, despite the pain it causes him. By refusing to control Dorigen’s actions, he keeps his vow the entire time, despite the probable temptation to demand that she deny her oath to Aurelius and maintain her marriage vows.
It is important to remember that the breaking or keeping of a knightly vow in medieval times reflected one’s integrity and identity. Cooper writes in her Oxford Guide that “Trouthe is seen most often in terms of inner integrity expressed as a relationship between people, and especially in the keeping of an oath” (Cooper 86). For Palamon and Arcite, this integrity—and thus, their knightly identity—is lost for a good portion of the story until it is renewed at Arcite’s deathbed. Elizabeth Fowler refers to this as “civil death” in her essay titled “The Afterlife of the Civil Dead: Conquest in the Knight’s Tale”.
Stripped of their status by conquest, the knights respond in a peculiar and interesting way. The sole social bond that might be possible for them to sustain, the bond between them, they quickly abjure. Though it has multiple bases—kinship, citizenship, class, sworn brotherhood, knightly obligation—they are each willing, even eager, to sacrifice their mutual bond in order to dedicate themselves to a new explanation of their abjection. (Fowler 66)
Arcite and Palamon, first stripped of their social status by being conquered, cope by abandoning the small amount of honor they have left—their bond to each other. This symbolizes a complete civil death, although they are “resurrected” later at Arcite’s deathbed.
Arveragus needs no resurrection, fulfilling his vow to Dorigen by leaving her free to choose. Cooper writes on this in depth in her Oxford Guide:
[Dorigen] may never have intended to grant Aurelius sexual favours, but Aurelius reads her promise in that way, and so her trouthe, her integrity, even her identity…is linked to the fulfilling of her vow. Arveragus may have the right as her husband to order her to break it, but he has foregone maistrie in favour of a mutual respect, a recognition of precisely that integrity and individual identity she has pledged to Aurelius. A promise, like a debt, can rightly be set aside only by the person to whom it is owed, not by the person who makes or incurs it. Arveragus therefore gives up his own share in Dorigen’s vow of trouthe to him. (Cooper 238)
Arveragus is concerned for Dorigen’s reputation, integrity, and identity, and sees her as an equal instead of a subordinate, an unusual view to hold in medieval society. He forgives her vow to him and suggests (but, importantly, does not demand) that she fulfill her vow to Aurelius. Fortunately, Aurelius gives up this vow, and Dorigen remains with Arveragus.
The breaking of the cousins’ vows versus the keeping of Arveragus’s oath is due to differing focuses on the knightly code of behavior. Arcite and Palamon forget—or perhaps ignore—that their knightly code requires that they honor their obligations and keep their vows, while Arveragus never forgets it. Arcite and Palamon are willing to fight to the death, while Arveragus graciously gives Dorigen her vow back. Arcite and Palamon lose their civil life and identity as knights, though temporarily, because they lose focus on honor, and instead each tries to selfishly claim Emily for himself, breaking his vow to the other. Arveragus never loses that life and identity because he is willing to keep his painful vow so that Dorigen may keep her integrity as well. Howard writes that “‘Freedom’ was generosity, the giving of appropriate gifts and the willingness to relinquish possession or privilege out of fairness or bounty or charity,” (Howard 65). Arveragus freely gives Dorigen her vow back and gives his wife to Aurelius, while Arcite and Palamon both selfishly look out for their own interests and break their vows, ruining their identities as knights. Arveragus is free, Arcite and Palamon are not.
Interestingly, Christians—those freed from sinful lives—are warned against making oaths by Christ: “I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black” (Matthew 5.34–36). Christians are commanded to be honest, and a broken promise would show a lack of that virtue. As such, Christians should be careful in making promises, or they could end up in a situation like that Dorigen faces in “The Franklin’s Tale”: a mandatory choice between the sin of dishonesty and the sin of unfaithfulness. If a vow must be made, it should not be made rashly and should always be kept, with a mindfulness that if it is broken, it will have an effect on one’s identity and integrity as a Christian.
Chivalrous oaths can be seen as a way of obtaining honor and showing integrity, but they can lead the giver of the vow to dishonor because if he breaks his vow, he is led to a loss of identity and a form of civil and social death. Although the extent to which a broken promise could ruin a knight’s life may be extreme, modern promises should be given, taken, and kept more seriously than they are by the majority of those making such vows today. Christians are commanded to be truthful and show integrity; they should uphold their truth and integrity in the things which they promise to those around them. A Christian’s view on promises should, to some extent, be based on those held by chivalry many years ago. Medieval oaths, and especially chivalrous vows, are important to the integrity, honor, identity, and even life of those who give them. These pledges of troth are the predecessors of the written contract, and a failure to fulfill such a vow would result in a form of civil death as one lost his rank, respect, and reputation in the community. “The Knight’s Tale” features a loss of identity, while “The Franklin’s Tale” tells of a knight who keeps his honor even though it is difficult. The former provides an example of what one should not do, but the latter seems to present a challenge—if one makes a good vow, he will have the ability to honor it no matter the challenges.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Torrey Academy The Canterbury Tales Coursepack. Translated by Michael Murphy, Biola University, 2017. Print.
This coursepack features selections from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, including The General Prologue and five tales—The Knight’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Pardoner’s Tale. These tales are classic, meaningful, and oftentimes humorous, and their medieval setting allows for a unique look at the things which were important many years ago.
Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
This text is a definitive guide to The Canterbury Tales, with chapters on the work as a whole as well as the General Prologue and each of the tales. Each chapter covers various topics, such as theme, genre, and context. The in-depth looks at The Canterbury Tales provided in this text are useful to understanding the culture in those times.
Hallissy, Margaret. A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Greenwood, 1995. Print.
A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales features chapters on the General Prologue and each of the tales and discusses themes found in each one. The extensive background provided on each tale is helpful in understanding the meanings found in the text.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Illinois: Crossway Wheaton, 2011. Print.
The Bible tells the stories of God’s chosen people, first the Jews and then the Christians. From the creation of the physical universe to its destruction, this text provides a complete history, as well as teaching on the way Jews and Christians ought to live.
Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. Dutton, 1987. Print.
This work is a biography of Chaucer’s life, and also provides needed context of the way the world worked during Chaucer’s time. The biography portion of the book provides interesting background on the mind behind the well-known classic Canterbury Tales.
Stillinger, Thomas C. Critical Essays on Geoffrey Chaucer. G.K. Hall, 1998. Print.
This text features a collection of essays on many of Chaucer’s works, including several on The Canterbury Tales. Tales featured in the text include The Knight’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale, and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.
Want to read more work by Torrey Academy students? Here are the top papers for Spring 2018. Find out more about Torrey Academy and other BYA programs here.