22 October 2013
In The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the father and son relationship of the squire and the knight can be interpreted as poking fun at the nobility. If one takes the description of the knight as the ideal example of nobility and the squire as the example of corruption, the description of a loving father and son outing takes the shape of social critique aimed at the nobility. Whether or not Chaucer intended this critique, the description of the squire in lines 79-100 of The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales gives an example of how idealizing someone based solely on accident of noble birth can create a lazy and entitled individual.
The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales is an estates satire. This genre is particular to medieval literature. Estates satires uncover and make fun of the vice and stupidity that was to be found in the three estates, the clergy, the nobility, and the peasants (Greenblatt 243). The prologue is written in the form of a poem in rhyming couplets. The General Prologue and the prologues for each individual story bring together unrelated tales in a single framing narrative. Without this frame story, the Canterbury Tales would be a curious mix of unrelated short stories. However, the use of this framing device allows The Canterbury Tales to speak to each other.
If one reduces the characters to examples of type, Chaucer’s juxtaposition of the knight and the squire creates an uneasy portrait of the typical noble of the fourteenth century. The Knight’s description is almost an idealized account of what a noble should be like. Chaucer describes the military deeds of the noble knight who fights for the honor of his king (Chaucer 47-66). During the fourteenth century there was not much more honorable for nobles than to garner the king’s favor and protect the peasants who serve them. He is further described as having a serviceable but not sporty horse and clothes stained from his coat of mail (Chaucer 74-76). Again Chaucer shows the noble as a servant to the people and not interested personal gain. The knight description exudes the confidence of a self-made man deserving of the place that he holds in society. However, the squire does hold the same set of values.
The squire’s military career is not a storied as the knight’s. The knight’s military history is given with examples how he excelled in each, but Chaucer does not do the same for the squire. Chaucer mentions a few expeditions that the squire participated in, but the skirmishes were not given more than just the merest mention. At fifteen years old, the knight was proving himself in tournaments to the death, but squire is already 20 years old and has done little more than a few cavalry expeditions that Chaucer does little more than mention (Chaucer 61-63, 85-87). This shows that while the nobles may participate in battles, they are not all the hardened warriors that the knight’s description leads us to believe. Both the knight and the squire have experience in the lists; however, the knight participated in battles to the death while the squire was only in competition for the favor of the lady fair (Chaucer 61-63, 87-89). Rather than fighting for honor, protection of the peasants, or the favor of the king, the typical noble uses his military training as a way to impress women (Chaucer 87). The squire’s focus on his appearance seems to corroborate this less than honorable military motivation. He kept his hair nice and neat, his clothes were clean and decorated, and his days were spent in vain pursuits like singing, whistling, and drawing (Chaucer 81, 88-95). Chaucer writes, “Wel coulde he sitte a hors, and faire ride. . .” (Chaucer 94). Chaucer’s lists the description of the squire’s beautiful horsemanship among the skills that do not apply to war. Therefore, one gets the impression that the squire’s picture perfect riding ability does not translate to the battlefield. Next, Chaucer writes, “So hote he loved by nightertale/ He slept namore than doth a nightingale” (Chaucer 98-99). Although this line may have meant something different in Chaucer’s day, the modern interpretation of the phrase, he loved hotly all night long, suggests that the squire spent his nights in intimate relations. Therefore, all of the squire’s pursuits–from dressing nicely and riding well to whistling and singing–are done in the pursuit of personal pleasure and not in the interest of god, king, and country. Reading the squire as a commentary on the nobles of the fourteenth century reveals them as petty and narcissistic; they are only interested in military service as a feather in their cap and not as a means to serve and protect society. The same change in tone that is evidenced between the description of the knight and the squire exists between The Knight’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale.
Like the relationship between the description of the Knight and the Squire, the Knight’s Tale and the Miller’s Tale also share the dynamic of being a veiled accusation of vice and corruption on the part of the nobles. The stories are placed next to each other in the order that best contrasts genre, style, tone, and values (Greenblatt 242). He goes on to say, “. . . The Knight’s courtly romance about the rivalry of two noble lovers for a lady is followed by the Miller’s fabliau of the seduction of an old carpenter’s young wife by a student” (Greenblatt 242). The squire and the student are both in a position of learning, they both live in the company of their instructors, and they both take advantage of the circumstances in which they live. The squire uses his status as nobility to help him attract the women with whom he hotly loves, and Nicholas used his status as student to make time with instructor’s wife. Even though the tale is presented as a story about peasants, the position of the tale following the knight’s courtly romance parallels the description of the squire following the description of the knight. This tale of love, lust and, ignored responsibilities further reinforces the idea of a corrupt noble class that was set up in the description of the squire. The positioning of the Miller’s Tale was initiated by the inebriated miller’s insistence on telling his tale directly after the knight spoke. The miller’s insistence on cutting in even though he was overstepping the bounds of class helps to create this idea that his tale had more importance than just a silly tale of love and lust. He told a ribald story about sex and corruption that mirrors the personality traits that were revealed about the squire in his earlier description. Through the passage of time, the juxtaposition of contradictory information, and the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, the description of the squire in The General Prologue can be interpreted as a critique of the noble class of the fourteenth century.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. Pages 243-263. Print.