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Aristotelian Ethics in the Aristocratic Culture of the Later Middle Ages

In the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer says of the Knight that “though that he were worthy, he was wys.”1 As is well known, when Chaucer uses the term “worthy,” it can have a number of different meanings. In its most general sense, “worthiness” refers to a person’s reputable social standing or admirable moral character or—when used ironically—to the lack of such qualities.2 However, the description of the Knight as “worthy” has often been interpreted in a [End Page 329] more specific sense: as meaning that he is “brave,” “valiant,” or “doughty.”3 Certainly in The Man of Law’s Tale, the “ful wys” Alla, king of Northumberland, is described as having been “worthy of his hond” (i.e., “brave in battle”) against the Scots, whilst the Knight himself is said to have been “Ful worthy” in “his lordes werre” and to have been honored for such “worthynesse,” which again seems to relate to his distinguished record in battle (II.579; I.47, 50). The praise of rulers and warriors such as King Alla for being brave and wise, as possessing both fortitudo and sapientia, was a topos commonly found in ancient, medieval, and renaissance literature.4 As Geoffroi de Charny said in his Book of Chivalry (c. 1352), knights who lacked moral wisdom would be unlikely to achieve “any great perfection” of martial prowess.5

In contrast to this tradition, Chaucer’s portrait of the Knight does not simply present wisdom and bravery as being complementary virtues but rather implies a potential for opposition between them: “though that he were worthy, he was wys.” For this reason, R. M. Lumiansky took this line to mean that Chaucer was contrasting the wisdom of his Knight with the lack of prudence that generally characterized the supposedly “worthy” knights of his day.6 Similarly, Peggy Knapp interprets the line to mean that the Knight has wisdom even though “military worth would not normally imply complex thinking.”7 More usually, however, the line has been read as meaning that although the Knight was brave, [End Page 330] he was “not a mere hothead.”8 If this were the case, then Chaucer’s allusion to the possible tension between worthiness and wisdom can be seen as a reference to the Aristotelian idea that even an admirable quality, such as courage, can, if taken to an extreme, be transformed into a vice. Thus, while a knight would be inevitably criticized if he lacked courage, to display so much bravery that he became foolhardy would also be unfitting, with a virtuous—or wise—degree of courage being located between these two negative extremes.

This definition of virtue as a mean between two opposing vices was a commonplace of late medieval poetry and didactic literature, one invoked by authors such as Gower and Hoccleve.9 As Chaucer puts it in The Legend of Good Women, with an explicit mention of the Aristotelian source of this concept of virtue, “Vertu is the mene / As Etick seith.”10 At first sight, this Aristotelian definition of virtue as a mean between two opposing vices may seem to be at odds with an alternative, Christian conception—one familiar from medieval art and pastoral theology—in which each virtue is seen as engaged in a combat with a single contrary vice.11 In practice, however, the Aristotelian definition and the theological one were easily reconciled. Thus, although the thirteenth-century Summa virtutum de remediis anime presents the virtues as the remedy for specific vices, as when humility is the cure for pride, it is also happy to invoke the general conception of virtue as a mean, one that is established by the exercise of prudence. Similarly, whilst Chaucer’s Parson follows the Summa virtutum in seeing the virtue of abstinence as the remedy for [End Page 331] the vice of gluttony, he immediately goes on to praise “attemperaunce, that holdeth the meene in alle thynges.”12

While the learned Clerk in The General Prologue aspires to have “twenty bookes” of Aristotle’s philosophy beside his bed, we cannot know if...


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