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Essay Paper on Courtly Love As Seen By Chaucer

The Knight’s Tale, which is one of the chapters of the renowned Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, reveals the concept of courtly love, which was so popular in the Middle Ages. This essay is going to examine the aspects of courtly love in the abovementioned literary work on the basis of arguments provided by Slavoj Zizek.

For most writers of romance (medieval and modern), marriage is the culmination of peace and stability with which civilized values (chivalric, courtly, bourgeois or religious) are rewarded in hero and heroine. In many narratives the individual is tested for fitness before, and sometimes after, marriage, and narrative interest lies primarily in that testing, not in the further creation of the marriage, which traditionally proceeds “happily ever after”.

However, though Chaucer would not deny the desirability of the above ends (however ideal) for a stable community, his interest lies precisely in the ongoing dynamics between the sexes as they are played in and out of marriage, and thus centres on values as a continual making or unmaking, according to circumstances: for, if individual order reflects that of the community (and, indeed, creates it), it follows that it must reflect it in love, which, of course, it has a habit of not doing. Though the theme of love is a recurring one in the tales of pilgrims, the Knight’s Tale is often exemplified as an epitome of courtly love up to its sacrificial extent.

One should first of all note that medieval marriage was dominated by economic considerations and was arranged. Moreover, as a sacramental institution it was further clouded by the negative views of the anti-feminist camp.

The relations of men and women, then, offer an arena for the exposition of dramas of personal morality. On the one hand, the decisions made in and out of marriage are a true reflex of the individual’s capacity for choice and free will; on the other, they represent choices imposed by society.
The notion of courtly love refers to a phenomenon of the late middle ages when women were accorded an almost religious status, and the act of seeking a woman’s favor took on the flavor of a religious quest. Ironically, however, while women seem to be central to the story, in fact they do absolutely nothing. The point of these stories was to show how women for men represented a metaphor for the man’s relationship with the divine, and consequently in these works women function as completely static works of art.

These works of art also bear a similarity to one another. Women in courtly-love tales were always blonde, with large eyes, smooth skin, a small mouth, and small high breasts. Just as there was little allowance made for the individual characteristics of real live women, there was very little deviation in the codes of behavior allowed within the framework of a courtly love relationship. The man is expected to see the woman from afar and be smitten by her beauty. He makes some type of approach and is initially rebuffed. He persists, eventually overcoming her fears, and she accepts tokens of his esteem; often she gives him something in return which he wears into battle as a talisman (battle is an integral part of proving one’s worth to the lady). Generally after the battle, she accepts his love and a sexual relationship ensues.

Zizek also emphasized this point in his essay by reminding the readers that “the Lady in courtly love loses concrete features and is addressed as an abstract Ideal”. He also goes further by stating that a woman in the settings of courtly love is by no means a warm and compassionate partner, but rather a cold, distanced and to some extent inhuman creature. What is also true is that all the Lady’s virtues are mostly only skin-deep. She is praised for her beauty only, and not for other virtues. If she is ever called wise, it is only for some immaterial wisdom. In fact, she is rather cruel in imposing all sorts of tough assignments on her servant, who readily takes them up to prove his endless love to her.

This kind of relationship, therefore, is not a bond of equals, but rather the relationship of a master and a vassal, with master giving out various orders to his servant, with these orders often being capricious and senseless. Sometimes, this difference leads to a radical Otehrness, which is totally incommensurate with human needs and wishes.

One can see these classical motives in the “Knight’s Tale.” Two male cousins, Arcite and Palamon, are imprisoned in a tower. Looking out of their barred window, they see the beautiful sister-in-law of their captor walking in the garden. They learn that the beautiful young woman is named Emelye, and both fall in love with her. Arcite is released from prison on the grounds that he should leave the country forever, but instead he gets a job at court so he can be near Emelye. Palamon, however, escapes and challenges Arcite for Emelye’s love. Emelye prays to the goddess Diana that both young men might give up this silly idea because she does not want either of them to die for love of her. However, though she might be doing so, she still readily accepts the fact that they are going to fight for her, as it is the proof of her being worthy the “Lady” status.

The king intervenes to turn this private duel into a formal tournament, and the reader hopes these rash young men will reach a peaceful solution. But that is not to be. Arcite prays to Mars that he might win the joust; Palamon prays to Venus that he might win Emelye. Both prayers are, ironically, answered; Arcite, declared the winner, is thrown from his horse and mortally injured. Before he dies, Arcite cedes his beloved to Palamon, who marries Emelye and lives happily ever after.

Another important point of courtly love to consider here is that it is only a matter of courtesy and etiquette. There is no overcoming passion or crazy romance where both lovers are swept off their feet and are ready to do anything to preserve their love. The woman is rendered a totally passive role, with all responsibility upon the man – it is a sort of a game to be played with no deviation from the rules, a strict social formula. Some researchers even state that it is in fact a masochistic relationship.

One must note that the woman in this story, Emelye, is not accorded any power or authority at all. The convention of the courtly romance prohibits its audience from seeing women as women, but merely as symbols of the traditional conception of femininity; any action of women in this story actually occurs as the action of men reflected back to them through the mirror of womanhood.

For example, Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emelye after spying her from afar. They seem to perceive Emelye’s mere existence as an act of aggression upon themselves; as Arcite says, “Ye sleen me with your eyen, Emelye!” (You slay me with your eyes, Emily!). But in fact, Emelye has done nothing to seduce either cousin; when Palamon and Arcite first fall in love with her, she is not even aware that they exist. In addition, through the courting process, Emelye seems to favor Arcite, but when Palamon emerges the survivor, the Knight offers no indication that Emelye does not accept Palamon with good grace.

Probably the most important point to state about courtly love is its “being the most radical strategy for elevating the value of the object by putting up conventional obstacles to its attainability.” The value of object as such is close to nil – virtually any woman can take up that place regardless of her personal qualities. It is a sort of a niche to be filled by a Lady-Thing. Then, when an object is found, its value is measured by the seriousness and difficulty of obstacles necessary to overcome to finally reach the woman. The desire is also flamed not by the woman itself, but by the fact of a chase. In fact, the need for fighting for a female to obtain her as a mate start from the animal world, but here the chase is mostly pursued for the sake of a chase itself and for satisfying one’s own narcissist ambitions of being “the right man”. In fact, while the inherent desire of a man is to sleep with the Lady, it is also his greatest fear: what he wants more is another test or ordeal and therefore another posponement to prolong the excitement of the chase.

To sum up, the “Knight’s Tale” reflects the classical courtly love tradition’s idea of what the male’s relationship to the female should be. This tradition saw women as objects to be revered and love as a game to be mastered, another arena for conquest just like war. The courtly love genre reflected in this story did not see women as free agents, or indeed, as agents at all…

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