The Reading Room

True Nobility: The Wife of Bath’s knight from The Canterbury Tales

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” spends a significant amount of time discussing the qualifications of nobility. In her monologue to the knight, the old woman characterizes gentility as a grace granted by God shown through virtuous deeds. This view contradicts the traditional definition of ancestral nobility. 
She calls the latter view arrogant, unreasonable, and unconfirmed. According to her, the deeds of a man, not his lineage, determines his gentility. This understanding of nobility not only allows a person of low birth such as herself to be gentile but discredits the knight’s perceived nobility. Indeed, his deeds prove him a dishonorable man. 
The knight’s failure to protect the weak is the first sign of his ignobility. At the beginning of the tale, the knight decapitates a young maiden. The text portrays this violence as random, unprovoked, and merciless. On behalf of the outcry, King Arthur sentences the knight to beheading. The knight’s random act of violence against an unprotected maid goes against the code of chivalry. Instead of defending the weak, he needlessly kills the vulnerable. This is neither noble nor becoming of a knight, and justice demands his punishment. 
The knight’s reluctance to keep his word also discredits his knighthood. In exchange for the answer to the queen’s question, the knight swears on his honor that he will do anything the old woman requests. When the old woman later demands matrimony, the knight balks. Anything but that, he begs. Even after the court forces him to comply, he is reluctant. The wedding is mournful and joyless. He must be ‘piloted to bed’ and shrinks back from consummating the union. This reluctance truly discredits his nobility. He swore on his honor to do as she requested. As a noble knight, he is bound by honor and chivalry to fulfill this oath. However, instead of doing it willingly, he must be forced to do it. This is ignoble indeed. 
Moreover, this reluctance stems from his vulgar pride. He refuses to honor his word because the old woman is foul and low. Upon hearing her request of marriage, the knight cries, “Alas that any of my race and station/Should ever make so foul a misalliance!” (287). His pride in his identity as a high-born knight perceives union with an old foul woman to be disgracefully beneath him. This arrogance misguides him into reneging his promise. It furthermore blinds him to gratitude. If the old woman had not provided the right answer, he would have been beheaded. He owes her his life. Gratitude demands that he honor her. Instead, he allows his pride to trump his debt of honor and gratitude towards this woman. 
The knight’s deeds of violence and prideful reneging illustrate that, as the old woman says, “Men fail in living up to their professions” (289). Though he bears the title, knighthood has not made him noble. Thus, gentility cannot be based on birth or rank but on a person’s actions and behavior. This exemplified critique of nobility opens the door for further discussion on Chaucer and interpreting his commentary of Medieval England.