Chaucer admired and made use of the medieval “courtly love” romance tradition, although he did not fully “buy into it.” The “courtly love” code is based on the woman as the center of attention. The medieval knight suffers greatly for his love, who is often someone else’s wife. He will do anything to protect and honor her, remaining faithful at all costs. Adultery and secrecy characterize these relationships. The knight views a woman and experiences true love. The knight fears that he will never be accepted by his love; therefore, she is worshiped at a distance.
Elements of courtly love can be seen in both “The Book of the Duchess” and “The Knight’s Tale.” In “The Book of the Duchess” the Black Knight represents the courtly love character, who falls hopelessly in love with Lady White. Following the courtly love tradition, Lady White becomes the most important thing in the Black Knight’s life. He describes her as the one true love that struck his eye with utter beauty.
“Among these ladies fair and bright,
Is fairer, clearer, has more light
More than the Moon, or the starry seven,
Just so for all the world did she
What more, thus briefly, can I say?” (lines 816-830)
The courtly love tradition brings a powerful romance to “The Book of the Duchess.” The Black Knight has found his true love; however, she has died. Her death is his deepest sorrow. The reader is made to feel for the Knight’s great loss. The repetition of the lines: “Thou woost ful litel what thou menest: I have lost more than thou weenest” (lines 740-743; 1136-1142; 1300-1309) represents a progression of pain and sorrow; no one can understand the true sorrows of the knight or how much he has really lost.
“The Book of the Duchess” was written as an elegy, honoring and celebrating Lady Blanche. In Chaucer’s elegy, the Black Knight represents John of Gaunt, while the White Lady represents Lady Blanche. In the deeper meaning of the poem the lovers are married, not in an extramarital relationship. This does not follow the traditional pattern of the courtly love romance. Chaucer strays from the traditional role of the courtly love romance to make the point that marriage is a sacred thing. John of Gaunt truly loved his wife. There is no happy ending to the poem. In the elegy, Chaucer does not try to comfort John of Gaunt.Rather, he honors Lady Blanche, providing a sense of immortality and remembrance through his poetry
In “The Knight’s Tale” there are also elements of the courtly love romance. However, this evidence is somewhat hypocritical. In the tale, both Palamon and Arcite fall deeply in love with Emelye, who is quite out of their reach because they have been imprisoned by Theseus, King of Athens. The two men pine over Emelye, declaring their love for her, but realize that neither will ever have her.
“For Goddes love, tak al in pacience
Our prisoun, for it may non other be;
Fortune hath yeven us this adversitte.
Hath yeven us this, although we hadde it sworn:
So stood the hevene whan that we were born.
We moste endure it; this is the short and pleyn” (lines 226-33).
“Perhaps no characters in The Canterbury Tales are less courtly in their attitude to women than the two principle lovers, Palamon and Arcite” (Jones 156). The reader is to assume that the flaw in the tale serves a purpose. “It is more reasonable to suppose Chaucer is telling the tale in the persona of the Knight and that it is the Knight-narrator who misunderstands the nature of courtly chivalry” (Jones 154). Both Palamon and Arcite display a passion for Emelye that is extremely self-centered. This self-centeredness is untypical of courtly love.
Chaucer’s Arcite is released from prison and banned from Athens. However, he returns disguised so that he can remain in contact with Emelye. Arcite has suffered and has expressed regret for his suffering.
“Allas, the wo! allas, the peynes stronge,
That I for yow have suffered, and so longe” (lines 1913,14).
This too is untypical of the courtly love romance. The self-centered passion of Palamon and Arcite distracts the reader from any true feelings of love. The knights’ view love in a barbaric way. Chaucer