Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterburry tales". "The Man of Law's Tale" as a response to "The Knight's Tale"

Term Paper, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1



Table of Contents:


I. General Analysis
I.1. The Knight ’ s Tale
I.1.1. Position in the Canterbury Tales
I.1.2. Style
I.1.3. Origin of The Knight ’ s Tale
I.2. The Man of Law ’ s Tale
I.2.1. Position in the Canterbury Tales
I.2.2. Style
I.2.3. Origin of The Man of Law ’ s Tale

II. Comparison of the Two Tales
II.1. The Narrators
II.2. Implied Worldview
II.3. Representation of Women and Love
II.4. Representation of Religion

III. Conclusion



At a first glance, The Knight ’ s Tale and The Man of Law ’ s Tale seem to have very few in common. Yes, both are romance adaptations of other works, the Teseida and the Chronique and Confessio amantis respectively, but not much more (unlike The Miller ’ s Tale, which obviously answers to the Knight’s story of chivalry and gallantry).

However, when digging deeper, one soon finds more to discuss and analyze than one might have expected: Both narrators are members of the upper class of society, both tales deal with marriage, love, and the hard way of reaching the two, both tales present us with a clear view on religion, and The Knight ’ s Tale as well as The Man of Law ’ s Tale have prominent female characters, allowing us an insight into the narrators’ view on women. All these aspects not only make an in depth comparison of the two tales necessary to understand the Canterbury Tales and its composition better, but it is also interesting, as it permits us to enter the fictitious minds of both the Knight and the Man of Law. Through comparison single features that might have been missed when investigating only one story get emphasized, giving us a whole new view on the two tales.

The main aspects, or themes, that will be analyzed in the course of this paper are the narrators themselves, their characters, reliabilities, and involvement with their stories, the worldview they transmit, or try to transmit via their tales, the role of love and women in the romances, and finally how religion influences the worlds the Knight and the Man of Law describe. Beforehand however a short general analysis of the two tales will be given, discussing their form and origin, as well as place in the frame narrative, which is, from the author’s point of view, necessary to fully understand the following chapters. Finally, a short conclusion will be given, as well as a list of sources that were used to aid in the writing of this paper.

I. General Analysis

I.1. The Knight’s Tale

I.1.1. Position in theCanterbury Tales

As the Knight draws the short straw in a game deciding who should start with telling stories, presented in the General Prologue, The Knight ’ s Tale is the first of the stories told in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is followed by the Miller ’ s Tale, creating not only a huge gap considering social status, with the Knight representing nobility and the “upper-class”, and the Miller standing in for peasantry and the lower classes, but as the story told by the Miller is also a story of two men wooing for one woman - like Arcite and Palamon in the story before

- it can be seen as a lower-class version, or a parody, as Hughes explains (1988:76), of the preceding Knight ’ s Tale.

Although the members of the Canterbury pilgrimage are listed according to their status in the General Prologue, beginning with nobility (“And eek in what array that they were inne;/ And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.” Lines 41-42), coming to the craftsmen, and slowly descending to the lower classes, they nevertheless tell their stories ignoring any social order, seemingly at random. Thus, Chaucer managed to intensify the effects of his stories, as the reader, heightened and feeling noble after the Knight ’ s Tale, gets dragged down even deeper on the Miller’s level, as he would not have if there had not been such a stark contrast.

I.1.2. Style

The Knight ’ s Tale is written in a very “high” and noble language, as its narrator is from a high rank and Chaucer tried to incorporate the several stereotypical characteristics of his narrators in their choice of story (Owen, 1977:3 et seq.), as well as their narrative style. Iambic pentameter combined with rhymed couplets (as can be seen in TABLE I) is used to tell the story. The key modes of narration in this tale are apophasis (especially when the funeral of Arcite is

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


being described; from line 2919 to 2966 the Knight lists people and objects, as well as names of trees and types of cloth he will not list) and ekphrasis (notably in the description of the arena, its surrounding temples, as well as the garments of the warriors), paying homage to the ancient epics who also made use of these modes. However, as the Knight drastically overuses them he is presented as a somewhat comical figure, unaware of his imperfect and forced, basically unnatural style of narration. This takes away most of the seriousness of his story, provoking the reader to question not only the obviously discrepant parts, but also the narrator, his tale and its morals as a whole.

I.1.3. Origin ofThe Knight’s Tale

The main source for the Knight’s tale, as Cooper describes (1983:92), was Boccaccio’s Teseida. The Teseida is a fully developed epic, and Chaucer shortened it to one fifth of its length, mostly leaving out history and military action, putting the focus of the tale on love and its consequences. Chaucer furthermore changed the style from epic to romance, nevertheless keeping some epic elements in the Knight ’ s Tale, to have some of the grandeur and noblesse remain in the story.[1]

I.2. The Man of Law’s Tale

I.2.1. Position in theCanterbury Tales

The Man of Law ’ s Tale is the only story in its fragment, and thus difficult to locate in the overall composition (Cooper, 1983:120). As there are no direct, obvious connections to other tales, like with the Knight and the Miller, and as the Man of Law ’ s Tale breaks with many themes, and the thematic thread as a whole, it is often put after the incomplete Cook ’ s Tale. As the Cook ’ s Tale is yet again a lusty, base story (preceded by the already mentioned Miller ’ s Tale and the Reeve ’ s Tale, both of far from noble nature) the Man of Law ’ s Tale could be seen as a restart, an abandonment of this downward spiral. The sexual activity of the preceding women gets contrasted by holy Custance, the archetypical Christian woman.

The tale is followed by the Wife of Bath ’ s Tale, with the wife and her tale being diametrical to Custance and hers - where Custance is filled with virtue and holiness, the wife is filled with experience and criticism towards “a meager and barren, bookish and academic scholasticism that bolsters up age-old theologically sanctioned and authorized male prejudice and tyranny” (Speirs, quoted in Koff, 1988: 106 et seq.), confronting the reader yet again with a heavy contrast.

I.2.2. Style

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The Man of Law’s language is incredibly precise: Like one may expect from a man of law, he tells his story as if he was defending Custance in court. Furthermore, in his introduction, he claims that he first heard this story from a merchant - and as merchants’ businesses rely on their credibility and reliability, the story must be true. The tale is written in rhyme royal, normally used for 5 religious texts, here nevertheless applied in a romance work, seven-line stanzas of rhymed iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababbcc (see TABLE II). The Man of Law’s mainly used modes of narration are rhetorical figures, to emphasize the validity of his tale.

I.2.3. Origin ofThe Man of Law’s Tale

As Wallace (1997: 185) mentions, Chaucer took the main plot of The Man of Law ’ s Tale from an old folk-tale, the Custanze-story about a princess who keeps her uncorrupted virtue throughout diverse hardships. His main sources were Trivet’s Chronique and Gower’s Confessio amantis, which however differ greatly from Chaucer’s adaptation. So whereas for instance in Gower’s version the whole world knew already about Custanze’s holiness, in Chaucer’s tale the knowledge of her existence has to be delivered to her first admirer via hearsay. Nevertheless, the main theme remained the same.

II. Comparison of the Two Tales

II.1. The Narrators

One of the most important aspects of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the deep psychological traits the narrators are equipped with. Every character comes as a representative of his trade, or his place in society, and is thus stereotypical for his kind (the knight being chivalric, the miller being rude and blasphemous, etc.), but nevertheless also carries some unique, often ironic characteristics with him/her.

The Knight is a very good example for this assumption, as he is on the one hand a nobleman, a prototype of the manly chivalric system and code of honor, but has undoubtedly also some underlying problems with the system he describes and tries to propagate in his tale. According to Wetherbee (1990: 305 et seq.), the knight is not fully aware of how his story might go and is thus “at once the instigator of the tale and an enthusiastic member of the audience”. He presents his fellow pilgrims with the honorable deeds of Theseus, who 6


[1] For more information about the Teseida and the differences between Boccaccio’s work and Chaucer’s adaptation I recommend Schladen (1966) as to be found in the bibliography.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterburry tales". "The Man of Law's Tale" as a response to "The Knight's Tale"
University of Graz  (Institut für Anglistik)
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geoffrey, chaucer, canterburry, tale, knight
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Anonymous, 2012, Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterburry tales". "The Man of Law's Tale" as a response to "The Knight's Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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