How Chaucer weaves high-minded poetry with low comedy

The Canterbury Tales manage to combine the most solemn chivalric concerns and bright lyric poetry with bawdy gags about bums and red hot pokers

The thing that most people know about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s full of good old-fashioned filth. The storytellers may be on a religious pilgrimage, but they’re just as interested in matters earthy as they are celestial things. For every religious reference, there’s a bum joke; scatology always follows eschatology.

The Knight’s Tale is a case in point. It is a story full of high-minded sacrifice, courtly love, complex delineations of rank and honour, and examples of chivalry in action. It’s set in an Athens ruled over by the legendary Theseus, but the account of Palamon and Arcite and their rivalry for the love of the “fair” Emily doesn’t feel particularly classical. If you wanted an archetypal story from the days of olde when knights ...