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The Shaping of English Poetry – Volume IV

Essays on 'The Battle of Maldon', Chrétien de Troyes, Dante, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' and Chaucer

Gerald Morgan

This fourth volume of essays under the title The Shaping of English Poetry consolidates the work of the previous three volumes on the great subjects of English literature in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The Norman Conquest of England built upon the rich foundation of Anglo-Saxon England but did not destroy it; thus the present volume begins with the commemoration of English heroism in The Battle of Maldon. In the late twelfth century we encounter in Chrétien de Troyes's seminal romance Le Chevalier de la Charrete a new kind of hero in Lancelot, abject and obedient before his mistress, although Chrétien himself is not an uncritical admirer of the sanctity of adulterous love. Hence the importance of Dante's exposition of love in Purgatorio, XVIII, which forms a background to the essays here on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Parliament of Fowls. The volume concludes with essays on Chaucer's Knight's, Monk's and Nun's Priest's Tales, which form part of a long-term project to interpret the Canterbury Tales as a unified whole and not merely a series of fragments awaiting revision on Chaucer's death.


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7 The Campaigns of Chaucer’s Knight


Encores qui fait guerre contre les ennemis de la foy et pour la crestienté soustenir et maintenir et la foy de Nostre Seigneur, ycelle guerre est droite, sainte, seure et ferme, que les corps en sont sainctement honorez et les ames en sont briefment et sainctement et senz paine portees en paradis. — geoffroi de charny, Le Livre de chevalerie, 35/206–10 A Crusading Knight I. Chaucer has not only set his portrait of the Knight in the context of a pilgrimage to Canterbury (a penitential act at the end of a long life) but has set the virtue of piety at the heart of the Knight’s experience of life as a warrior. Thus the selection of the battles listed in the portrait is exclusively a list of crusades. Such an emphasis is evident at once to the reader entirely ignorant of the historical details of the campaigns in which the Knight has been continuously engaged, for the antinomy between Christian and heathen runs throughout the portrait. The point is made by Chaucer by the rhetorical figure of traductio and by repeated emphasis. The Knight had campaigned ‘[a]s wel in cristendom as in hethenesse’ (GP, I.49) and ‘[n] o Cristen man … of his degree’ (I.55) had been so often on expedition in Lithuania and Russia. He had ‘foughten for oure feith’ (I.62) at Tlemcen in Algeria (or perhaps at Termessos near Antalya)1 and on one occasion ‘[a] gayn another hethen in Turkye’ (I.66). We ought not, with Terry Jones,...

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