“I nam no divinistre”: Heterodoxy and Disjunction in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”
In the Knight’s Tale, the inexplicable suffering and seemingly random death of Arcite comprises a riddle that neither Chaucer’s reader nor the characters within the story are able to definitively interpret. Arcite’s final words, “What is this world, what asketh men to have?” appearing as they do at the climax of the plot’s trajectory, highlight rather than resolve the variety of philosophical discourses competing for dominance in the Knight’s Tale. Helen Cooper aptly infers that the Knight’s Tale is “concerned with the metaphysical problems of human existence, of fate and fortune and freewill, in a pagan world where the orthodox Christian answers are not available” (66). But rather than privileging orthodoxy as a resolution, Chaucer makes a number of curious moves that disrupt rather than enable the affirmation of a Christian worldview.
This paper is concerned with the way Chaucer’s text calls attention to the disjunction between these discourses, and in particular with the way he uses the Aristotelian term “first Moevere” in Theseus’ final speech. Rather than effectively reconciling Jupiter and Jesus, Theseus’ speech conjures contemporary debates over the interpretation of Aristotle and also gestures quite explicitly to III.10 and IV.6 of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, a text that is already in conversation with Aristotelian thought. This paper will throw critical points in Chaucer’s narrative into relief with contemporary debates over the compatibility of Christian theology with Aristotelian thought in an attempt to uncover the early seeds of religious subversion that suggest not merely theological divergence, but unbelief. It is my assertion that these classical texts provide the medieval imagination with a picture of a world without God, and the acknowledgement of the difficulty of integrating Christianity and classical philosophy only underscores, for medieval scholars, the value of a purely secular virtue.
Cooper, Helen. “The Knight’s Tale.” In Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury
Tales. Larry D. Benson, Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.