Wisdom and Chivalry

Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Medieval Political Theory


The Knight's Tale is one of the most controversial of all the Canterbury Tales. Does Chaucer portray Theseus, the duke of Athens whose actions dominate the tale, as an ideal ruler, one who is noble, wise and chivalrous, or does the duke's behaviour reveal him to be immoral, self-seeking and tyrannical? This book ( now in a corrected second printing) assesses the duke's conduct and thought in terms of the ideals set out in medieval mirrors for princes, particularly in Giles of Rome's De Regimine Principum. It argues that, when judged by the standards of these works, Theseus can be seen as a model prince in terms of his self-government ('ethics'), his rule of his household ('economics'), his governance of his realm ('politics) and his cosmography and philosophy.


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Biographical Note

Stephen H. Rigby, Ph.D. (1983) in History, University of London, is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Social and Economic History. He has published extensively on medieval history and literature and on social theory including English Society in the Later Middle Ages and Chaucer in Context.

Review Quotes

“...His exposition of Giles is supplemented by a dazzling amount of reading in medieval thought and literature...Indeed one of the pleasures of this book is not just the exhibition of the interchange between Chaucer and the ideological tradition with which he grew up but also of the way literary works across much of Europe,..., refracted and reflected this tradition, sometimes passing it between themselves...The great merit of this approach is that the interpretation ceases to be merely in the eye of the beholder and subject to some modern political or literary theory but is firmly grounded in the understanding that Chaucer himself is likely to have had. ... He has laid down a challenge to literary critics of the period to be less ahistorical and more sensitive to the meaning of the words they study which they would do well to take up. His analysis of the Tale is a tour de force…The really great debt any historian of this period owes him is his masterly exposition of Giles, the Aegidian tradition and the wider medieval world of philosophy and political theory within which he situates both Giles and Chaucer... This is a splendid book. One hopes that students of medieval literature will give it the serious attention it deserves and learn from it but it also has a great deal to offer to medieval historians.”
Christine Carpenter, Reviews in History, review no. 1057 (2011)

“…one can be grateful to Stephen Rigby for bringing political philosophy home to the Canterbury gathering's lead-off tale…”
John M. Hill, The Medieval Review 11.06.16

“…Rigby lays out his argument in detail, creating a deeply layered context to support his contention that Chaucer’s richly problematic text is also a morally consistent one…”
Caroline P. Collette, Speculum, vol. 86, issue 4 (2011)

Wisdom and Chivalry is a deeply researched and closely argued piece of historical criticism….”
Robert Emmett Finnegan, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 33 (2011)

Table of contents

Abbreviations in the Text and Notes
Introduction the ‘Knight’s Tale’ in Context

Part 1 Ethics: The Good Rule of the Self
1. The ‘Knight’s Tale’ as Ethics: the Aristotelian Virtues
2. The ‘Knight’s Tale’ as Ethics: the Passions and the Ages of Man

Part II Economics and Politics the Good Rule of Others
3. The ‘Knight’s Tale’ as Economics: The Good Rule of the Household
4. The ‘Knight’s Tale’ as Politics: The Good Rule of the Community

Part III The First Mover and the Good Rule of the Cosmos
5. The ‘Knight’s Tale’ as Cosmography: The Good Rule of the Universe

Conclusion Chaucer: Literature, History and Ideology


All those interested in medieval literature, medieval political theory and late medieval English history.


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