Undergrad Wednesdays – What is Love?: Or; Chaucer as Related to Modern Views of Love in Literature

 [This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The idea of love is rather simple. However, artists from every specialty tend to exaggerate it in order to make it more exciting for their audiences. In other words, wild and adventurous love stories tend to garner more attention than timid, mundane ones. Life is not typically filled with love that takes people on an actual journey across the world and back, and the fantastic escapades that occur in literature and film are not common occurrences in the real world. Many novels that are popular today contain a chaotic love triangle or dramatic tale of love. However, such fantasies have always existed in people’s minds—several stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales even demonstrate these ideas. Unfortunately, these types of stories are often glorified in a way that can be harmful. When these stories are written in ways that highlight a daring romance while ignoring the problematic parts of relationships, people are presented with a warped view of love. People are slowly made to believe that possessive and jealous lovers are attractive, or that self-loathing is sexy. Tropes like these should be reevaluated, or, at the very least, people should not be persuaded into believing that such tropes truly demonstrate an ideal form of love. I will focus primarily on the “Knight’s Tale” in light of how less than perfect ideas of love continue to be romanticized in today’s literature.

Throughout history, people have viewed knights in literature as chivalrous and noble men. When discussing the “Knight’s Tale”, however, some would argue that the knights, Arcite and Palamon, do not necessarily exhibit these traits, as they are not very considerate of the object of their affections, Emily. They function in their own world of fantasized love before Emily even knows they exist, and they do not honestly consider the situation from her point of view. The tale is set up to be rather romantic—two men fighting to the death for a woman’s love has often been considered an act of pure devotion. However, the romance in the “Knight’s Tale” is counteracted by the fact that Emily does not truly want to marry either of the knights (The Knight’s Tale 2304-2305). Her own desires are placed after everyone else’s, but the tale is considered romantic on the surface nonetheless. Essentially, the romantic ideals of protective knights and a beautiful woman are able to distract readers from the less-than-ideal treatment of Emily in which she is mostly ignored and forced into situations whether she likes it or not. Ashtin Ballard addresses Emily’s plight in regards to the oppression of her expressions in her essay as well, and this idea highlights the neglect Emily suffers throughout the “Knight’s Tale;” she is rarely able to discuss her woes, and no one seems to even want to hear about how she feels. Modern readers should be careful when reading to not accept this idea of love as ideal. Even if it is decorated with knights and princesses, it still contains many problematic aspects that continue into today’s literature—especially young adult fiction.

One of the more iconic love triangles of young adult fiction has its home in the popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. This idea of competitive love resembles the one in the “Knight’s Tale,” and it is present in many other pieces from the young adult genre. Glorifying this trope could be problematic, though. Generally speaking, only one love interest ends up with the main character, but this indicates that the main character was meant to be won from the start. Nevertheless, people want to feel wanted, so the thought of two people fighting for one person’s affection is seen as exciting. It could be argued that if the main character has feelings for the love interests, then it is acceptable for such a rivalry to take place. I would argue, however, that this mainly works to make it more palatable to readers, and the idea of reducing a person to a prize is still present. Even if authors do not intend for this to happen, fans of books with this trope often make the rivalry into a competition. (See screenshot above of “Why Katniss Should Have Chosen Gale Over Peeta In the Hunger Games,” article by Mehera Bonner.) Thus, it is easy to see the connection between society’s romanticizing of competitive love and literature. Because the trope of the love triangle has evolved over time, people may write off Chaucer’s version as archaic, but it seems that today’s standards of love have not actually diverted that much from pieces considered outdated. People could learn a thing or two about unhealthy relationships if they understood where many of their beloved clichés gain inspiration.

To take it a step further, the idea of possessive lovers has become especially alluring. Similar to how Arcite and Palamon decide that Emily will belong to one of them, literature today contains characters that forcefully claim another (typically a young woman) as their own. A handful of people have claimed that abuse is romanticized in works like the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer. In her piece “Twilight: The Glamorization of Abuse, Codependency, and White Privilege,” Danielle N. Borgia argues that Edward’s “extreme dominance of his female partner is characterized as ideal masculinity” (Borgia 155). Likewise, the knights in the “Knight’s Tale” are often read as wonderfully noble men who embody true masculinity. When a possessive or jealous lover is idealized, people begin to honestly believe that such a lover is to be desired. Many readers of young adult fiction are very impressionable, so these ideas have the potential to twist their views of love and devotion into harmful ones. Therefore, Chaucer remains relevant because, even though people claim ideas set forth in tales like the “Knight’s Tale” are outdated, popular literature being published today often promotes the same ideas decorated in different ways.

The literary examples I have mentioned have been undeniably popular in the past few years, and it goes to show how society worships unhealthy relationships that are embellished to appear lovely. Even though people try to distance themselves from medieval ideas that they think are archaic, they unknowingly tend to enforce those ideas with only a few slight modifications. Readers should understand that some ideas from popular books are not new, so if they admire problematic love stories, then they run the risk of admiring the dynamics of stories like the “Knight’s Tale.” I think The Canterbury Tales is a useful text to compare modern works with, as people would be able to identify unsavory ideas in today’s writing if they could make connections to a text that they may already view as containing problematic sentiments. Unless society wants younger generations to think that possessive partners and abusive relationships are desirable as long as they are dressed up romantically, we should teach people where the romanticization of such ideas began and how it is perpetuated today.

Nicole Matthias
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Borgia, Danielle N. “Twilight: The Glamorization of Abuse, Codependency, and White

Privilege.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 47, no. 1, 2011, Wiley Periodicals, Inc, pp.153-172. Wiley Online Library, www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00872.x.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, 2nded., edited by Robert Boeing and Andrew Taylor, Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 63-95.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games.Scholastic Press, 2008.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. Little, Brown and Company, 2005.



Undergrad Wednesdays – Emily as Subject of Foucauldian Prison Discourse in “The Knight’s Tale”

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Courtly love, as described by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, consists of a series of rigidly-defined criteria by which a man may rightly pursue a woman. In such pursuit, it is not uncommon for a man to become infatuated with a woman to the point of physical illness. He admires her from afar as she becomes the sole object of his gaze; the entire energy of his being is directed towards contemplation of her beauty. This dynamic may progress significantly without any direct reciprocation from the female party. In Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” Emily endures the reality of courtly love to the point of abject suffering. (For a further analysis of the female voice in Chaucer’s tales, consider reading Ashtin Ballad’s Emily’s Modes of Expression in the Knight’s Tale- A Precursor to the #MeToo Movement). Several hundred years after the writing of The Canterbury Tales, Michel Foucault offers in his Discipline and Punish consideration towards a prison construct termed the ‘panopticon’. In this building, a fortified guard tower at the center of a circular room looks out upon rows of prison cells stacked against its perimeter. The windows of the central tower are tinted so as to prevent the prisoners from knowing whether or not they are under observation at any given moment. This dynamic instills a latent sense of paranoia within the prisoner and subjects them to a power relation which renders them unable to resist the the penal system above them. Between these two works appears a space for courtly love to exist in relation to the construct of the panopticon. With Emily’s character as a grounds for consideration, the following post will explore the extent to which courtly love suppresses the female will by means of persistent observation and imposition of external force.

Stateville Correctional Facility Roundhouse. Closed in December of 2016, Stateville Correctional Facility located in Crest Hill, Illinois represented the longest-surviving panopticon-style prison house in the entire world. It was closed following a human rights investigation which exposed the facility for its poor living conditions in addition to its financial inefficiency compared to traditional prison formats.

While observation from afar comes to constitute a significant theme in “The Knight’s Tale,” its practical application is inverted with respect to the work of Foucault. In effect, it is the prisoners who observe a free subject rather than enforcers of the penal system who gaze upon a  prisoner. Chaucer details Palamon’s first encounter with Emily in writing:

And so bifel by aventure or cas* (it happened by chance or accident)
That thurgh a window thikke of many a barre
Of iren greet and square as any sparre* (beam)                                                                    
He caste his eye upon Emelya (ln. 1074-1077).

Here, Palamon and Arcite conduct their observation from a point of concealment imposed against their mutual will. While the physical structure of the prison operates at a base level against them in their observation-power exchange with Emily, the Foucaldian implications of their situation work such that power weighs in their favor. Though Palamon and Arcite are traditional prisoners in the immediate sense, Emily here occupies the role of the panopticon prisoner. Her status as a young woman of consequential birth renders her a conventionally attractive subject of the male gaze. She is, however, entirely unaware of her sustained observation and subsequent fetishization by the palpably-bored Palamon and Arcite. (For an alternate exploration of love in Chaucer’s work, consider reading Nicole Matthias’ What is love, Or Chaucer as Related to Modern Views of Love in Literature).

Further, the role of the Gods in Chaucer’s work seem to embody the indifferent nature of the penal system with regard to the will of its prisoners. Foucault, a significant critic of Western prison practice in the 19th Century, argued that prison systems employed methods inconsistent with the personal development of prisoners. As a consequence of this, recidivism abounds and the penal system as a whole devolves into a self-indulgent cycle of discipline and punishment. Here, there seems to be a tension between an individual’s free will and a near-supernatural sense of predestination towards a certain fate. Chaucer employs this mechanic in the pseudo-smiting of Arcite following his victory in battle. In granting such a great degree of power to the fickle hand of fate, Chaucer emphasizes Emily’s own helplessness to resist the power structures above her. Not only is she impotent in the face of the male presence which observes her and dictates her future, a further unseen element toys with the very fate of mortals and casts their affairs in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

In summary, Chaucer’s work in The Canterbury Tales maintains relevance beyond its value merely as a surviving fourteenth-century work of literature. Granted appropriate consideration, many tales serve as a fruitful ground for application of modern theory. In Chaucer’s time, the panopticon was hundreds of years from conception. The very notion of an advanced, sprawling penal system seems beyond the scope of possibility for Chaucer’s own context. Still, in producing nuanced works such as “The Knight’s Tale,” Chaucer effectively allows for his work to carry significance well into the modern age.

Connor Dunleavy
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – How to be a Good Anglo-Saxon King, according to King Alfred

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester in response to Maj-Britt Frenze’s prompt for her course on “Tolkien’s Myths and Monsters.”]

“Oh, King, eh, very nice. And how d’you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By ‘anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.” -Dennis, the constitutional peasant, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In the above quote from Monty Python’s classic comedy, Dennis berates King Arthur for his alleged systematic oppression of the proletariat, but, at the same time, raising the question of what makes a good political leader. What lessons could Arthur learn about how to properly govern his subjects, even those who think they are part of an anarcho-syndicalist collective?

The fictional Arthur, living in 963, according to the film, could actually take advice from someone who lived roughly a hundred years before him in real life: Alfred of Wessex. During his reign, King Alfred embarked on a massive venture of translating Latin texts into Old English, “so that he could / send them to his bishops, because some of them /who knew very little Latin needed it” (Alfred, Verse Prologue to the Old English Pastoral Care, 14-16). As a part of his translation efforts, Alfred translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, albeit, his definition of translation was understood much more loosely than our standards of translation today. Rather than simply translate Boethius’ work word for word, Alfred instead opted to insert his own thoughts and ideas into the text, modifying and editing it in accord with his own, Anglo-Saxon worldview.

Among the many topics Alfred discusses in his own rendition of Boethius’ summary of Late Roman philosophy is what a king must do in order to govern effectively. First and foremost, he must have the right materials because these will enable the king to exercise his skill of ruling. Regardless of whether he had good skills at ruling or not, his effort would be wasted if he did not have people to rule. Wisdom, the literary Boethius’ allegorical interlocutor, instructs him that a king would need three types of people in order for a kingdom to be run effectively, namely, “prayer men and army men and workmen” (Alfred, P9.2). Furthermore, he must see that they have the supplies to attend to their needs. In order to govern effectively, a king needs all three of these, but how well does Monty Python’s fictionalized Arthur stack up?

Indeed, pretty well as he has members of these three estates on his quest with him. In terms of prayer men, he has Friar Lawrence and his companions, who furnish him with the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Likewise, the first part of the film is spent collecting his group of army men. Lastly, in the form of his servant, Patsy, he has a workman under his command. However, it must be pointed out that the scene in which Dennis accuses Arthur of tyranny occurs so early in the movie that Arthur really hasn’t collected anyone other than Patsy to his traveling court. No wonder Dennis accuses him of poor governance; he doesn’t have all the tools needed to rule!

But what about once he has the full court assembled? Again, Alfred’s Boethius suggests that in order for a king to rule properly, he must not only have the necessary tools, but also supply them in order to enable his men to function (Alfred, P9.2). In this respect, Arthur is not able to maintain his expanded traveling party, as, in the midst of a harsh winter, the narrator depicts Arthur and his knights as having to eat Sir Robin’s minstrels in order to survive. While they don’t strictly fall into one of the three outlined categories, this nevertheless reflects poorly on Arthur. Furthermore, his absentee, traveling kingship, going so far as to dismiss the center of government as “a silly place” does not indicate that he could rule effectively. Indeed, the peasants didn’t know they actually had a king. They thought they were an anarcho-syndicalist collective. 

Mark Florig
University of Notre Dame


Gilliam, Terry., Jones, Terry, Forstater, Mark, Cleese, John, Chapman, Graham, Idle, Eric, and Palin, Michael. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Burbank, CA: Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1998.

Irvine, Susan, Boethius, and Godden, Malcolm. The Old English Boethius : With Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library ; 19. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012.

unknown (publisher, British). ca. 1907-1914 (publication date). Statue of King Alfred the Great, Wantage.; verso: [divided back, no message], overall, recto. Picture postcard. Place: Trinity College, Watkinson Library (Hartford, Connecticut, USA). http://library.artstor.org.proxy.library.nd.edu/asset/SS35428_35428_24881292.