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

Reading Chaucer in the Tower

Last week, I surveyed Chaucer’s representations of prison spaces throughout his corpus. Today, I consider one reader of Chaucer, for whom those images of imprisonment would have particularly resonated.

In January of 1549, John Harington of Stepney and Kelston was arrested and sent to the Tower of London.[1] Harington remained in the Tower with his master, Thomas Seymour (the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane) for more than a year.[2] What was a literary-minded gentleman/prisoner to do with all of that time? Harington may have read Chaucer. 

Harington was in the Tower following suspicion about the nature of Seymour’s relationship with the very young Princess Elizabeth. He was also questioned regarding his own role in setting up a marriage between Lady Jane Grey, the nine-days queen, and the young King Edward VI.[3] 

While in the Tower, Harington would have had access to books and illustrious, scholarly-minded company. The imprisoned Harington used this time to learn French, and he wrote a translation of Cicero’s De Amicitia.[4]  As he told Lady Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, in the dedication to his translation:

Wherby I tried prisonment of the body, to be the libertee of spirite … and in the ende quietnes of mind, the occasion of study. [5]

Though the 1550 date on the front of Harington’s copy of Chaucer is not definitive evidence that he held the book while he was in the Tower, the long and idle days of imprisonment would haven given Harington the time he needed to thoroughly annotate his copy of William Thynne’s 1542 edition of Chaucer’s complete works. Harington’s copy is now housed at the University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library.[6]  

John Harington’s dated signature on the opening plate of William Thynne’s 1542 edition of Chaucer’s complete works. The inscription reads “non Amo’ chi non Ama.” University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, XLarge PR 1850 1542.

Nearly every page of the 1542 book shows evidence of Harington’s attentive reading. This post, of course, cannot cover everything involved in Harington’s copious marginal writing, but if readers are interested, they can consult my more detailed article — “Reading Chaucer in the Tower: The Person Behind the Pen in an Early-Modern Copy of Chaucer’s Works” — forthcoming in The Journal of the Early Book Society, volume 18.

One of Harington’s key concerns throughout was correcting ‘errors’ where he saw them in his book. He ‘corrects,’ or modernizes, spelling and adds commas or other marks of punctuation where he finds them appropriate.

Updating spelling in “The Knight’s Tale.” Harrington deletes “layde” and supplies “laid.” University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, XLarge PR 1850 1542, f. xi.r

Though these meticulous changes may make Harington seem a bit finicky, they reveal how closely he paid attention to every word on the page. He desired to improve his book, certainly an indication that he valued Chaucer.

At times, even Harington’s annotations received meticulous corrections. Here, Harington marginally notes “a gate of ^whit^ marble in a description of the arena in “The Knight’s Tale.” University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, XLarge PR 1850 1542, f. vi.r

However, his annotations are much more extensive than simple summary notes and spelling changes. Of particular interest to Harington was Chaucer’s Boece, a translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. A full-page table of contents and summary precedes Boece on a blank verso page, and Harington marginally marks the translation throughout.

The table of contents and summary for Chaucer’s Boece. University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, XLarge PR 1850 1542, f. ccxxxi.v

That Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy while in prison might have resonated with the imprisoned Harington.[7]   The imprisoned gentleman may have found Boethius’s discussions of free will, predestination, and changeable fortunes particularly relevant as he lamented the downturn of his own fortunes in court. Certainly this was the case for the imprisoned King James I of Scotland when he wrote his prison poem The Kingis Quair, which drew on Boethius.[8]

Harington draws a manicule next to a passage concerning freewill in Chaucer’s Boece. University of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, XLarge PR 1850 1542, f. cclxi.v

Overall, Harington, who also occasionally wrote his own poetry, was an attentive reader, finding solace in careful study. He was meticulous, academic, and thorough in his annotations, but, it would seem, he was also attentive to the book’s correspondences with his own life and experience.

Mimi Ensley
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


1. Ruth Willard Hughey, John Harington of Stepney: Tudor gentleman (Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1971), 28.
2. Ibid., 29-30.
3. Ibid., 22-4. See also Harington’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12325
4. Ibid., 31-2.
5. John Harington, “The booke of freendeship of Marcus Tullie Cicero,” in Hughey, John Harington, 137.
6. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Workes, Newlye Printed: Wyth Dyuers Workes Whych Were Neuer in Print Before, ed. William Thynne (London, 1542).
7. For a similar suggestion, see the brief description of Notre Dame’s 1542 Thynne edition here: http://rarebooks.library.nd.edu/exhibits/fructus/middle_english/1542chaucer.html
8. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/mooney-and-arn-kingis-quair-and-other-prison-poems-kingis-quair-introduction

Prison Break: The Permeable Prison Spaces of Chaucer’s Poetry

When we imagine imprisoned spaces, we often think of solitude, despair, and hopelessness. For medieval prisoners in the Tower of London or in London’s Newgate prison, this was often the case, particularly for debtors and the poorest inmates.

John the Baptist in Prison
John the Baptist pushed into prison and sitting, dejectedly, behind bars; Alsace, 4th quarter of the 12th century. London, British Library MS Additional 42497.

However, Chaucer, whose apartment at Aldgate was about a 10 minute walk from the Tower, often portrays prison as much more communal and permeable than we might imagine.

Take Palamon and Arcite of The Knight’s Tale for example. The knights share an imprisoned space, and though both are sentenced “to dwellen in prisoun / Perpetuelly,” they manage to leave their tower (I. 1023-4). Moreover, while imprisoned, the two characters have a close connection with the outside world. Emily’s garden shares a wall with their prison tower, and the two knights can gaze out at the seeming freedom of the beautiful maiden:

And so bifel, by aventure or cas,

That thurgh a wyndow, thikke of many a barre

Of iren greet and square as any sparre,

He cast his eye upon Emelya (l. I. 1074-7).[1] 

Even through this small, barred window, love’s arrow pierces the imprisoned knights. Though that arrow further ensnares the knights in a metaphorical prison of love-longing, the action also demonstrates that their physical prison space is not impenetrable.

Samson in Prison
Samson in his prison, looking out through a barred window like Palamon and Arcite in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale; John Lydgate, Fall of Princes, England, c. 1450-c. 1460. London, British Library MS Harley 1766.

Julia Boffey details several other depictions of imprisonment in Chaucer’s corpus.[2] If we look closely at each of her examples, we again see the potential for permeability and/or community in an imprisoned space.

There is Perkyn, the protagonist of the Cook’s Tale, who is “somtyme lad with revel to Newegate” (l. I. 4402). Newgate prison was notorious for its vile conditions.[3] However, visitors were allowed inside the prison gates, and that Perkyn was “somtyme” in the prison could indicate that he was in and out of the space frequently.

Theseus’s prison in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is so accessible that Ariadne and her sister can hear him “compleynynge” from their chambers (l. 1971). And though Philomela, in the next LGW narrative, initially seems conquered, she is still able to give a woven cloth to a serving boy and communicate with her sister (ll. 2335-70).

Queen Imprisoned
A queen looks out of her prison cell upon the bustling world around her. The gate to the prison is open and her window is unbarred, perhaps indicating, along with the busy scene, the permeability of her prison space; Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis, Paris, 1332-1350. London, British Library MS Royal 16 G VI.

In actual prison situations, those prisoners who had the funds to live comfortably were able to study, read, write and communicate with their fellow inmates.[4] [Tune in next week to see my post about an imprisoned reader of Chaucer!] And those who wrote poetry from prison often used the prison as much more than an image of enclosure.

Prison could be a space of community and a space for creativity. Boethius, whom Chaucer translated, ultimately found answers to important philosophical questions through his prison experience. Moreover prison poets, like Charles d’Orleans and King James I of Scotland, wrote during their imprisonments to confront questions of fortune, providence, and even love.[5]

Paul in Prison
An imprisoned Paul gives a scroll to a messenger, demonstrating the creative and reflective possibilities of imprisonment; the Bible of Robert de Bello, England, c. 1240-1253. London, British Library MS Burney 3.

Notably, prison poets following Chaucer were often influenced by him and by Boethius mediated through him.[6] Chaucer, who was held captive briefly in 1360, had communicated something meaningful and perhaps even hopeful or positive about imprisoned experiences, and his writing inspired imprisoned poets in the medieval and early modern periods.

Mimi Ensley
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


1. Quotations are taken from The Riverside Chaucer. For a more extensive discussion of Palamon and Arcite’s prison space, see V.A. Kolve, “The Knight’s Tale and Its Settings,” in Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1984), 85-157.

2. Julia Boffey, “Chaucerian Prisoners: The Context of The Kingis Quair,” in Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry, eds. Julia Boffey and Janet Cowen (London: King’s College Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, 1991), 84-103.

3. For details about the medieval Newgate, see Margery Bassett, “Newgate Prison in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 18.2 (1943): 233-46.

4. For one early modern prisoner’s experience building a reading and learning community in the Tower of London, see my article, “Reading Chaucer in the Tower: The Person Behind the Pen in an Early Modern Copy of Chaucer’s Works,” forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Book Society.

5. The TEAMS volume The Kingis Quair and Other Prison Poems is an excellent resource for these poets.

6. Mary-Jo Arn, “General Introduction,” in The Kingis Quair and Other Prison Poems, ed. Linne R. Mooney and Mary-Jo Arn (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005).