The Knight's Tale

She gadereth floures, party white and rede,
To make a subtil gerland for hire hede;
And as an aungel hevenysshly she soong

This illustration of Emily in the pleasure garden is taken from a fifteenth century manuscript of Boccaccio's Teseida, which was the source for Chaucer's Knight's Tale.

Love was commonly represented as a wound to the eye, as it is here in an illustration of a manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose. It was the sight of Emily in the garden which caused Palamon and Arcite to fall in love.

Fortune was commonly represented as a blind woman, sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, turning a wheel on which perched foolish men at various stages in the cycle of prosperity. Fortune's victims are here portrayed as asses in this illustration from a translation of Boccaccio's The Fates of Illustious Men.
The concept of Fortune as it was expressed in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy is central to The Knight's Tale

From The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius. Translated by: W.V. Cooper. : J.M. Dent and Company. London 1902: The Temple Classics, edited by Israel Golancz M.A.

On the nature of Fortune: Book II, pr. I

THEN for a while she held her peace. But when her silence, so discreet, made my thoughts to cease from straying, she thus began to speak: 'If I have thoroughly learned the causes and the manner of your sickness, your former good fortune has so affected you that you are being consumed by longing for it. The change of one of her this alone has overturned your peace of mind through your own imagination. I understand the varied disguises of that unnatural state. I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected. If you recall her nature, her ways, or her deserts, you will see that you never had in her, nor have lost with her, aught that was lovely. Yet, I think, I shall not need great labour to recall this to your memory. For then too, when she was at your side with all her flattery, you were wont to reproach her in strong and manly terms ; and to revile her with the opinions that you had gathered in worship of me with my favoured ones. But no sudden change of outward affairs can ever come without some upheaval in the mind. Thus has it followed that you, like others, have fallen somewhat away from your calm peace of mind. But it is time now for you to make trial of some gentle and pleasant draught, which by reaching your inmost parts shall prepare the way for yet stronger healing draughts. Try therefore the assuring influence of gentle argument which keeps its straight path only when it holds fast to my instructions. And with this art of orators let my handmaid, the art of song, lend her aid in chanting light or weighty harmonies as we desire. ' What is it, mortal man, that has cast you down into grief and mourning ? You have seen something unwonted, it would seem, something strange to you. But if you think that Fortune has changed towards you, you are wrong. These are ever her ways: this is her very nature. She has with you preserved her own constancy by her very change. She was ever changeable at the time when she smiled upon you, when she was mocking you with the allurements of false good fortune. You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess. To the eyes of others she is veiled in part: to you she has made herself wholly known. If you find her welcome, make use of her ways, and so make no complaining. If she fills you with horror by her treachery, treat her with despite ; thrust her away from you, for she tempts you to your ruin. For though she is the cause of this great trouble for you, she ought to have been the subject of calmness and peace. For no man can ever make himself sure that she will never desert him, and thus has she deserted you. Do you reckon such happiness to be prized, which is sure to pass away? Is good fortune dear to you, which is with you for a time and is not sure to stay, and which is sure to bring you unhappiness when it is gone? But seeing that it cannot be stayed at will, and that when it flees away it leaves misery behind, what is such a fleeting thing but a sign of coming misery ? Nor should it ever satisfy any man to look only at that which is placed before his eyes. Prudence takes measure of the results to come from all things. The very changeableness of good and bad makes Fortune's threats no more fearful, nor her smiles to be desired. And lastly, when you have once put your neck beneath the yoke of Fortune, you must with steadfast heart bear whatever comes to pass within her realm. But if you would dictate the law by which she whom you have freely chosen to be your mistress must stay or go, surely you will be acting without justification ; and your very impatience will make more bitter a lot which you cannot change. If you set your sails before the wind, will you not move forward whither the wind drives you, not whither your will may choose to go? If you intrust your seed to the furrow, will you not weigh the rich years and the barren against each other? You have given yourself over to Fortune's rule, and you must bow yourself to your mistress's ways. Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull- witted mortal, if Fortune begin to stay still, she is no longer Fortune.

Poem I

'As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand, and presses on like the surge of Euripus's tides, fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king, and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face. She hears no wretch's cry, she heeds no tears, but wantonly she mocks the sorrow which her cruelty has made. This is her sport: thus she proves her power ; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair, 'tis thus she shews her might.

On the Relationship of Fate and Providence: There is no such thing as bad fortune.

That is true,' I said; 'but it is your kind office to unravel the causes of hidden matters,and explain reasons now veiled in darkness;wherefore I beg of you, put forth your decreeand expound all to me, since this wonder mostdeeply stirs my mind.' Then said she, smiling, ' Your question callsme to the greatest of all these matters, and afull answer thereto is well-nigh impossible.For this is its kind: if one doubt be cut away, innumerable others arise, as the Hydra's heads; and there can be no limit unless a man restrainsthem by the most quick fire of the mind. For herein lie the questions of the directness of Providence, the course of Fate, chances which cannot be foreseen, knowledge, divine predestination, and freedom of judgment. You can judge for yourself the weight of these questions. But since it is a part of your treatment to know some of these, I will attempt to make some advantage there from, though we are penned in by our narrow space of time. But if you enjoy the delights of song, you must wait a while for that pleasure, while I weave together for you the chain of reasons.' ' As you will,' said I. Then, as though beginning afresh, she spake thus: ' The engendering of all things, the whole advance of all changing natures, and every motion and progress in the world, draw their causes, their order, and their forms from the allotment of the unchanging mind of God, which lays manifold restrictions on all action from the calm fortress of its own directness. Such restrictions are called Providence when they can be seen to lie in the very simplicity of divine understanding; but they were called Fate in old times when they were viewed with reference to the objects which they moved or arranged. It will easily be understood that these two are very different if the mind examines the force of each. For Providence is the very divine reason which arranges all things, and rests with the supreme disposer of all; while Fate is that ordering which is a part of all changeable things, and by means of which Providence binds all things together in their own order. Providence embraces all things equally, however different they may be, even however infinite: when they are assigned to their own places, forms, and times, Fate sets them in an orderly motion; so that this development of the temporal order, unified in the intelligence of the mind of God, is Providence. The working of this unified development in time is called Fate. These are different, but the one hangs upon the other. For this order, which is ruled by Fate, emanates from the directness of Providence. Just as when a craftsman perceives in his mind the form of the object he would make, he sets his working power in motion, and brings through the order of time that which he had seen directly and ready present to his mind. So by Providence does God dispose all that is to be done, each thing by itself and unchangeably; while these same things which Providence has arranged are worked out by Fate in many ways and in time. Whether, therefore, Fate works by the aid of the divine spirits which serve Providence, or whether it works by the aid of the soul, or of all nature, or the motions of the stars in heaven, or the powers of angels, or the manifold skill of other spirits, whether the course of Fate is bound together by any or all of these, one thing is certain, namely that Providence is the one unchangeable direct power which gives form to all things which are to come to pass, while Fate is the changing bond, the temporal order of those things which are arranged to come to pass by the direct disposition of God. Wherefore everything which is subject to Fate is also subject to Providence, to which Fate is itself subject. But there are things which, though beneath Providence, are above the course of Fate. Those things are they which are immovably set nearest the primary divinity, and are there beyond the course of the movement of Fate. As in the case of spheres moving round the same axis, that which is nearest the centre approaches most nearly the simple motion of the centre,and is itself, as it were, an axis around which turn those which are set outside it. That sphere which is outside all turns through a greater circuit, and fulfils a longer course in proportion as it is farther from the central axis; and if it be joined or connect itself with that centre, it is drawn into the direct motion thereof, and no longer strays or strives to turn away. In like manner, that which goes farther from the primary intelligence, is bound the more by the ties of Fate, and the nearer it approaches the axis of all, the more free it is from Fate. But that which clings without movement to the firm intellect above, surpasses altogether the bond of Fate. As, therefore, reasoning is to understanding; as that which becomes is to that which is; as time is to eternity; as the circumference is to the centre: so is the changing course of Fate to the immovable directness of Providence. That course of Fate moves the heavens and the stars, moderates the first principles in their turns, and alters their forms by balanced interchangings. The same course renews all things that are born and wither away by like advances of offspring and seed. It constrains, too, the actions and fortunes of men by an unbreakable chain of causes: and these causes must be unchangeable, as they proceed from the beginnings of an unchangingProvidence. Thus is the world governed for the best if a directness, which rests in the intelligence of God, puts forth an order of causes which may not swerve. This order restrains by its own unchangeableness changeable things, which might otherwise run hither and thither at random. Wherefore in disposing the universe this limitation directs all for good, though to you who are not strong enough to comprehend the whole order, all seems confusion and disorder. Naught is there that comes to pass for the sake of evil, or due to wicked men, of whom it has been abundantly shewn that they seek the good, but misleading error turns them from the right course; for never does the true order, which comes forth from the centre of the highest good, turn any man aside from the right beginning. ' But you will ask, " What more unjust confusion could exist than that good men should sometimes enjoy prosperity, sometimes suffer adversity, and that the bad too should sometimes receive what they desire, sometimes what they hate ? " Are then men possessed of such infallible minds that they, whom they consider honest or dishonest, must necessarily be what they are held to be? No, in these matters human judgment is at variance with itself, and those who are held by some to be worthy of reward, are by others held worthy of punishment. But let us grant that a man could discern between good and bad characters. Can he therefore know the inmost feelings of thesoul, as a doctor can learn a body's temperature? For it is no less a wonder to the ignorant why sweet things suit one sound body, while bitter things suit another; or why some sick people are aided by gentle draughts, others by sharp and bitter ones. But a doctor does not wonder at such things, for he knows the ways and constitutions of health and sickness. And what is the health of the soul but virtue ? and what the sickness, but vice ? And who is the preserver of the good and banisher of the evil, who but God, the guardian and healer of minds ? God looks forth from the high watchtower of His Providence, He sees what suits each man, and applies to him that which suits him. Hence then comes that conspicuous cause of wonder in the order of Fate, when a wiseman does that which amazes the ignorant. For, to glance at the depth of God's works with so few words as human reason is capable of comprehending, I say that what you think to be most fair and most conducive to justice's preservation, that appears different to an all-seeing Providence. Has not our fellow-philosopher Lucan told us how " the conquering cause did please the gods, but not the conquered, Cato?" [Note: Lucan, Pharsalia, i. 128. This famous line refers to the final triumph of Cęsar at Thapsus, B.C. 46, when Cato considered that the Republican cause was finally doomed and he committed suicide at Utica rather than survive it.] What then surprises you when done on this earth, is the true-guided order of things; it is your opinion which is perverted and confused. But if there is any one whose life is so good that divine and human estimates of him agree, yet he must be uncertain in the strength of his mind; if any adversity befall him, it may always be that he will cease to preserve his innocence, by which he found that he could not preserve his good fortune. Thus then a wise dispensation spares a man who might be made worse by adversity, lest he should suffer when it is not good for him to be oppressed. Another may be perfected in all virtues, wholly conscientious, and very near to God: Providence holds that it is not right such an one should receive any adversity, so that it allows him to be troubled not even by bodily diseases. As a better man [Note: The author is supposed to be Hermes Trismegistus,who wrote in the third century after Christ. The word 'powers' was used by many Neo-Platonic philosophers for those beings in the scale of nature, with which they filled the chasm between God and man. But Boethius does not seem to intend the word to have that definite meaning here.] than I has said, " The powers of virtues build up the body of a good man." It often happens that the duty of a supreme authority is assigned to good men for the purpose of pruning the insolent growth of wickedness. To some, Providence grants a mingled store of good and bad, according to the nature of their minds. Some she treats bitterly,lest they grow too exuberant with long continued good fortune; others she allows to be harassed by hardships that the virtues of their minds should be strengthened by the habit and exercise of patience. Some have too great a fear of sufferings which they can bear; others have too great contempt for those which they cannot bear: these she leads on by troubles to make trial of themselves. Some have brought a name to be honoured for all time at the price of a glorious death. Some by shewing themselves undefeated by punishment, have left a proof to others that virtue may be invincible by evil. What doubt can there be of how rightly such things are disposed, and that they are for the good of those whom we see them befall ? The other point too arises from like causes, that sometimes sorrows, sometimes the fulfilment of their desires, falls to the wicked. As concerns the sorrows, no one is surprised, because all agree that they deserve ill. Their punishments serve both to deter others from crime by fear, and also to amend the lives of those who undergo them; their happiness, on the other hand, serves as a proof to good men of how they should regard good fortune of this nature, which they see often attends upon the dishonest. And another thing seems to me to be well arranged: the nature of a man may be so headstrong and rough that lack of wealth may stir him to crime more readily than restrain him; for the disease of such an one Providence prescribes a remedy of stores of patrimony: he may see that his conscience is befouled by sin, he may take account with himself of his fortune, and will perhaps fear lest the loss of this property, of which he enjoys the use, may bring unhappiness. Wherefore he will change his ways, and leave off from ill-doing so long as he fears the loss of his fortune. Again, good fortune, unworthily improved, has flung some into ruin. To some the right of punishing is committed that they may use it for the exercise and trial of the good, and the punishment of evil men. And just as there is no league between good and bad men, so also the bad cannot either agree among themselves: nay, with their vices tearing their own consciences asunder, they cannot agree with themselves, and do often perform acts which, when done, they perceive that they should not have done. Wherefore high Providence has thus often shewn her strange wonder, namely, that bad men should make other bad men good. For some find themselves suffering injustice at the hands of evil men, and, burning with hatred of those who have injured them, they have returned to cultivate the fruits of virtue, because their aim is to be unlike those whom they hate. To divine power, and to that alone, are evil things good, when it uses them suitably so as to draw good results therefrom. For a definite order embraces all things, so that even when some subject leaves the true place assigned to it in the order, it returns to an order, though another, it may be, lest aught in the realm of Providence be left to random chance. But "hard is it for me to set forth all these matters as a god," [Note: Homer, Iliad, xii. 176.] nor is it right for a man to try to comprehend with his mind all the means of divine working, or to explain them in words. Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the Creator of all nature, directs and disposes all things for good. And while He urges all, that He has made manifest,to keep His own likeness, He drives out by the course of Fate all evil from the bounds of His state. Wherefore if you look to the disposition of Providence, you will reckon naught as bad of all the evils which are held to abound uponearth. ' But I see that now you are weighed down by the burden of the question, and wearied by the length of our reasoning, and waiting for the gentleness of song. Take then your draught, be refreshed thereby and advance further the stronger. 'If thou wouldst diligently behold with unsullied mind the laws of the God of thunder upon high, look to the highest point of heaven above. There, by a fair and equal compact, do the stars keep their ancient peace. The sun is hurried on by its whirl of fire, but impedes not the moon's cool orb. The Bear turns its rushing course around the highest pole of theuniverse, and dips not in the western depths, and though it sees the other constellations sink, it never seeks to quench its flames in the ocean stream. In just divisions of time does the evening star foretell the coming of the late shadows, and, as Lucifer, brings back again the warming light of day. Thus does the interchanging bond of love bring round their never failing courses; and strife is forever an exile from the starry realms. This unity rules by fair limits the elements, so that wet yields to dry, its opposite, and it faithfully joins cold to heat. Floating fire rises up on high, and matter by its weight sinks down. From these same causes in warm spring the flowering season breathes its scents; then the hot summer dries the grain; then with its burden of fruits comes autumn again, and winter's falling rain gives moisture. This mingling of seasons nourishes and brings forth all on earth that has the breath of life; and again snatches them away and hides them, whelming in death all that has arisen. Meanwhile the Creator sits on high, rules all and guides, king and Lord, fount and source of all, Law itself and wise judge of justice. He restrains all that stirs nature to motion, holds it back, and makes firm all that would stray. If He were not to recall them to their true paths, and set them again upon the circles of their courses, they would be torn from their source and so would perish. This is the common bond of love; all seek thus to be restrained by the limit of the good. In no other manner can they endure if this bond of love be not turned round again, and if thecauses, which He has set, return not again. 'Do you see now,' she continued, 'what follows upon all that we have said ? ' 'What is it?' I asked. 'That all fortune is plainly good,' she answered. 'How can that be ? ' said I. 'Consider this,' she said: 'all fortune, whether pleasant or difficult, is due to this cause; it is for the sake of rewarding the good or exercising their virtue, and of punishing and correcting bad men: therefore it is plain that all this fortune which is allowed to be just or expedient, must be good.' 'Yes,' I said, 'that is a true argument, and when I think of the Providence or Fate about which you have taught me, the conclusion rests upon strong foundations. But if it please you, let us count it among those conclusions which you a little while ago set down as inconceivable.' 'Why?' she asked. 'Because it is a commonplace saying among men -- indeed an especially frequent one -- that some people have bad fortune.' 'Would you then have us approach more nearly the common conversation of men, lest we should seem to withdraw too far from human ways?' 'If you will,' I said. 'Do you not think that that, which is advantageous, is good?' 'Yes.' 'And that fortune, which exercises or corrects, is advantageous ? ' ' I agree,' said I. ' Then it is good, is it not ? ' ' It must be so.' ' This is the fortune of those who are either firmly set in virtue and struggling against their difficulties, or of those who would leave their vices and take the path of virtue ? ' ' That is true,' I said. ' But what of that pleasant fortune which is granted as a reward to good men? Do most people perceive that it is bad ? No; but, as is true, they esteem it the best. And what of the last kind of fortune, which is hard and which restrains bad men by just punishment? Is that commonly held to be good ? ' ' No,' said I, ' it is held to be the most miserable of all that can be imagined.' ' Beware lest in following the common conception, we come to some truly inconceivable conclusion.' 'What do you mean ? ' ' From what we have allowed,' she said, ' it results that the fortune of those who are in possession of virtue, or are gaining it, or advancing therein, is entirely good, whatever it be, while for those who remain in wickedness, their fortune is the worst.' ' That is true, but who would dare confess it ? ' 'For this reason a wise man should nevercomplain, whenever he is brought into strife with fortune; just as a brave man cannot properly be disgusted whenever the noise of battle is heard, since for both of them their very difficulty is their opportunity, for the brave man of increasing his glory, for the wise man of confirming and strengthening his wisdom. From this is virtue itself so named, [Note: The Latin word 'virtus' means by its derivation, manly strength.] because it is so supported by its strength that it is not overcome by adversity. And you who were set in the advance of virtue have not come to this pass of being dissipated by delights, or enervated by pleasure; but you fight too bitterly against all fortune. Keep the middle path of strength and virtue, lest you be overwhelmed by misfortune or corrupted by pleasant fortune. All that falls short or goes too far ahead, has contempt for happiness, and gains not the reward for labour done. It rests in your own hands what shall be the nature of the fortune which you choose to form for yourself. For all fortune which seems difficult, either exercises virtue, or corrects or punishes vice.

Poem 7

'The avenging son of Atreus strove for full ten years before he expiated in the fall of Phrygian Troy the wrong done to his brother's marriage. The same Agamemnon must needs throw off his father's nature, and himself, an unwilling priest, thrust his knife into his unhappy daughter's throat, and buy the winds at the cost of blood, when he sought to fill the sails of the fleet of Greece. The King of Ithaca wept sore for his lost comrades whom the savage Polyphemus swallowed into his huge maw as he lay in his vast cave; but, when mad for his blinded eye, he paid back with rejoicings for the sad tears he had drawn. Hercules became famous through hard labours. He tamed the haughty Centaurs, and from the fierce lion of Nemea took his spoil. With his sure arrows he smote the birds of Stymphalus; and from the watchful dragon took the apples of the Hesperides, filling his hand with their precious gold; and Cerberus he dragged along with threefold chain. The story tells how he conquered the fierce Diomede and set before his savage mares their master as their food.The Hydra's poison perished in his fire. He took the horn and so disgraced the brow of the river Achelous, who hid below his bank his head ashamed. On the sands of Libya he laidAntęus low; Cacus he slew to sate Evander's wrath. The bristling boar of Erymanthus flecked with his own foam the shoulders which were to bear the height of heaven; for in his last labour he bore with unbending neck the heavens, and so won again his place in heaven, the reward of his last work. ' Go forth then bravely whither leads the lofty path of high example. Why do ye sluggards turn your backs? When the earth is overcome, the stars are yours.

Another important expression of Fortune's submission to Divine Providence that the Knight's Tale invokes (especially Theseus's "Firste Moevere" speech) is found in Dante. Dante is original especially for his portrayal of Fortune's serene withdrawal from earthly concerns. The pilgrim Dante is here addressing is guide, Virgil.

From Dante's Inferno, VII

"Maestro," said I to him. "Now tell me also,
This Fortune that you have mentioned to me,
What is it, that has such control over worldly goods?"

And he to me: "Oh misguided creatures,
How much ignorance afflicts you.
Now I want you to absorb my instruction.

He whose intelligence transcends all
Made the heavens and gave to them a guide
So that every part mirrors every other part

Distributing in equal proportion the light.
Likewise, over the worldly splendors
He ordained general minister and duke

One who would change from time to time vain goods
From people to people, and from one race to another
Beyond the scope of human understanding.

So that one people would prevail, another languish
According to the judgement of her
Who is hidden from view like the serpent in the grass.

Your knowledge cannot attain to her:
She disposes, judges, and perseveres in
Her reign as the other divinities do in theirs.

Her mutations are without cease.
Necessity makes her move quicky,
So that it often happens that fortunes change

This is she who is so often criticized
Even by those who should praise her,
Blaming her wrongly and with an evil voice

But she is blessed, and does not hear this.
And turns her wheel and enjoys her state.
Inf. VII.67-96

Chaucer's description of the arena that Theseus built for the combat between Palamon and Arcite is highly unusual. Lists for the most part were built of wooden scaffolding and were quite simple edifices. The three constructions of The Knight's Tale are three walled edifices: the prison, the garden, the arena.

Click here to return to the index of Jane Zatta's Chaucer Web Site