A parfit gentil knyght?

Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello, Duomo, Florence
Sir John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello, Duomo, Florence (Wikipedia Commons)

Terry Jones Chaucer’s Knight:
the Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary

Eyre Methuen 1982 (1980)

A most impressive fresco of a sculptured horseman in trompe-l’oeil perspective dominates the north aisle of Florence’s Duomo. Painted in 1436 by Uccello (best known perhaps for his painting of St George and the Dragon in London’s National Gallery) the Latin inscription indicates that it represents Ioannes Acutus Eques Britannicus Dux Aetatis Suae Cavtissimus et Rei Militaris Peritissimus Habitus Est. A rough translation informs us that this is “John Hawkwood, British knight, the most careful leader of his age and the most skilled in matters of war”. It is an extraordinary monument in an already extraordinary building and at first leaves us wondering why an Englishman from Essex is commemorated so prominently in a Tuscan cathedral.

Hawkwood, who died in 1394 in his seventies, was variously known as Jean Haccoude in France and Giovanni Acuto in Italy, but his calling wasn’t that which we might associate with, say, an Arthurian knight — he was a condottiere, a mercenary, leader of the White Company of mercenaries, and worked for various despots, first in France and then extensively in Italy, receiving a pension from Florence before his death there. Mercenaries owe allegiance to none except those who pay them, and sometimes not even then, and are frequently a law unto themselves.

As a schoolboy I had little idea of the realities of medieval knighthood, vaguely aware that the chivalrous knights of Arthurian tales were supposed to abide by a code of honourable warfare. So, when we came to ‘do’ Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales and a couple of the tales themselves, I found his Knight tedious — as the verray, parfit gentil knight he lacked any of the ironic or humorous attributes Chaucer gave to the other pilgrims, and the list of battles in which he’d participated meant nothing to me, to the other A-level students and, I suspect, the teacher himself.

So when in 1980 I came across a library copy of Chaucer’s Knight I was excited: here at last was the reason why none of us ‘got’ this character at school — he was a paid professional soldier, with none of Chaucer’s epithets to be taken at face value, neither faithful, complete nor well-born. And I was doubly excited, for the author was Terry Jones, best known then as a member of the Monty Python team but now also as screenwriter, actor, director, author and TV documentary presenter. What insights could he, would he provide?

I found that this Oxford history graduate had at school, some half dozen years before me, also been perplexed by the contrasts within the “witty yet compassionate” portraitist of some of his pilgrims who was also responsible for “apparently dull and interminable pieces” such as the tales by the Knight and the Monk. At university he found that historians thought it self-evident that the Knight was a mercenary but that it was “anathema to literary scholars”. Almost laughably, while on location filming that parody of history Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a Scottish castle he gained more insights into medieval responses to mercenary duplicity. And he realised that Chaucer had even carried out secret negotiations with his contemporary Sir John Hawkwood, the mercenary of the age.

So Jones sets out to explain the ‘jokes’ in Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight by reference to the military background, providing a commentary on the real meanings of Middle English words used to describe the Knight’s character and actions in the Prologue, underlining the subtext of The Knight’s Tale and explaining why the Knight rudely interrupts the Monk in the middle of his tale. I can’t overemphasise how comprehensive yet readable Jones’ text is: while copiously referenced, the general reader can take or leave the footnotes without seriously doubting that the tenor of his argument is correct. There are maps and (in his early paperback edition) several monochrome illustrations and, for the more finicky, a quarter of the text is taken up with an appendix, detailed yet fascinating notes, bibliography and index.

A fascinating picture emerges of the change in ethics from a feudal society to the professional, commercially-oriented society familiar to us 600 years on. Chaucer’s satire is strangely relevant even now and Jones leaves no stone unturned to hammer home his point. This must be the essential companion to any reading or re-reading of the Prologue or The Knight’s Tale. And perhaps a helpful preparation for any future visit or re-visit to Florence to view the portrait of one probable inspiration for Chaucer’s professional soldier.

8 thoughts on “A parfit gentil knyght?

  1. What a great piece. All the Monty Python guys were of course exceptionally bright and very well, and very traditionally, schooled. (You can only make that sort of social satire, on class and tradition, from the inside, so to speak), but Terry Jones was always the one most fascinated by history.
    I read an interview with him ages ago and his enthusiasm was palpable. Think he even collects old maps, which is of course one of the best ways to learn about past mindsets and cultures really. Look forward to reading this book sometime, especially after your super review. 🙂


  2. i have Terry Jones’ Who Murdered Chaucer, on my book shelf. While it is not my favorite of his books, it is very well researched. This is going to be my next Amazon purchase. Thanks for the review Chris.


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