Since they are blank pages, the women possess no direct say in which man will use her to write his story. The result is that men will compete over her and she will remain largely passive in this pursuit. This motif is used by Chaucer both within the Miller's and Knight's tales, and between these two pilgrims; men compete for women in both stories, just as the Knight and Miller compete for the praise of the travelers. The Miller and the Knight are social opposites, and Chaucer makes use of this to convey two stories that each says something very different about life in medieval England, yet maintains many of the basics of Chaucer's personal views of women and society.
In this way, the first story unfolds largely as the typical Medieval audience may have anticipated. The Knight tells the story of Palamoun and Arcite and their love for Emilye. The primary image within the Knight's Tale is that of fate: to the knight, fate acts like a revolving wheel. Chaucer writes, "For certes, lord, ther is noon of us alle / That she nath been a duchesse of a queene. / Now be we caitives, as it is wel seene, / Thanked be Fortune and hir false wheel, / That noon estaat assureth to be weel," (Chaucer 921-25). Essentially, Palamoun and Arcite are caught upon the edge of fate's revolving wheel: when the four widows kneel before Theseus and beg for his intervention, they are on the bottom of fate's wheel; but when Theseus acts on their behalf fate acts to save them while forcing Palamoun and Arcite into prison. This suggests some level of divine balance within the world illustrated by the Knight. Yet because fate behaves in such a revolving fashion, the prisoners find love while in their incarcerated state -- they fall in love with Emilye after seeing her through their prison window. So although they are in a desperate state while imprisoned by Theseus, their confinement allows them the possibility of experiencing the medieval archetype of love -- courtly love.
It is significant that the Knight presents this version of love, and its relationship to medieval women, because it is the culmination of his personal passion for the chivalric code of honor. In accordance with the motif of fate's wheel, love acts to both save the pair of inmates at the same time as it dooms them: neither one can be completely happy while imprisoned, but neither one can be completely happy in their freedom in the absence of Emilye. Ultimately, this is why the Knight rhetorically asks his audience after Arcite is freed and Palamoun is left behind: "Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun? / That oon may seen his lady day by day, / But in prisoun moot he dwelle always; / That oother wher him list may ride or go, / But seen his lady shal he neveremo," (Chaucer 1347-52). Throughout the tale, it is unclear who is in the better position, because fate offers both positives and negatives associated with every action.
Doubtlessly, the association of both positives and negatives around certain aspects of life is exemplified best by the Knight's depiction of courtly love. Of course, this must be the first version of love that Chaucer presents because it is the form of love believed to exist in the upper classes: "Though sex and marriage belonged to everyone, 'love' in Chaucer's time belonged to the upper classes," (Howard 103). Since the Knight is the pilgrim in the highest social station, it is essential that his notion of women and society be presented first. After all, this is the version of society and human interaction that makes it into the history books; history is written by the upper classes to detail their lives, actions, and beliefs. Accordingly, Chaucer begins by offering his audience something that is at least somewhat familiar.
The courtly love upheld by the Knight's honor code, and pursued by the Squire is precisely the variety of love exhibited by Palamoun and Arcite simply by seeing Emilye through a window: "
The Knight's Tale is a romance that encapsulates the themes, motifs, and ideals of courtly love: love is like an illness that can change the lover's physical appearance, the lover risks death to win favor with his lady, and he is inspired to utter eloquent poetic complaints. The lovers go without sleep because they are tormented by their love, and for many years they pine away hopelessly for an unattainable woman," (Gardner). So although love possesses the power to inspire and resurrect men from the depths of despair -- it at least partially redeems the inmates -- it also brings along the power to bring illness, torment, and violent hostility. In short, courtly love demands that Palamoun and Arcite eventually compete with one another, even if the object of their affections is completely unattainable.
Of course, Chaucer was no stranger to critiquing and poking fun at the conventions of courtly love. Much unlike the great poets who immediately preceded him -- Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio -- Chaucer explicitly claims to be an outsider when it comes to love. However, for a poet in fourteenth century England, not being proficient in courtly love and its rituals would have been completely ridiculous: "Talking about love was a great evening pastime, and talking about it well was a recognized skill. In this verbal aspect of courtly tradition Chaucer must have been exceptionally brilliant, so part of the humor in his pose came from its being incongruous, rather like the famous mathematician who says he can't add," (Howard 104). By Chaucer's time, the images of courtly love, with men pining after women to write upon their blank pages, were so well-known that they were almost classless (Howard 104). Nevertheless, it was chiefly among the nobility that it was pursued with any level of sincerity. Thus, Chaucer's claim of unknowingness is truly an indication of his understanding of humor with respect to the subject of love; so it should come as little surprise that Chaucer allows the Miller's tale to interrupt the tale of the Monk. By doing this Chaucer is able to both disrupt the implicit social order among the pilgrims -- which Bailey seemed intent upon allowing to progress along the lines of social rank -- and to sharply and humorously contrast the love of history books or fairy tales, with that of everyday life.
Furthermore, the Miller, besides offering a depiction of love quite divergent from that of the Knight, also creates a character that comically stands for the idealistic love promoted by the Knight: Absolon. The parish clerk, Absolon, is in love with the carpenter's wife, Alisoun. He attempts to go about winning her affections in the haphazard mimicry of a medieval prince: he serenades her, lavishes her with presents, thinks about her day and night, and even gives her money. However, Absolon's love for Alisoun is meant to be ironic in two ways: first it is ironic that the object of his polite and proper love is a married woman; and second, his use of princely tactics to win a carpenter's wife is completely out of place. The Miller shows how courtly love, in the context of the real world -- as he understands it -- is equivalent to awkwardness and unrealistic frivolity: "Taken together, the imbalances in [Absolon's] demeanor, as shown later in the tale -- courtly and infantile, eager and timid, sexually obsessed and over-idealistic -- create an element of psychological comedy, with probably an underlying current of homophobia," (Phillips 292).
Yet just as Absolon is presented as a ridiculous character, the narrator seems to express admiration or even praise for the Squire, who seems to exhibit many of the same characteristics -- lovelorn personality and fashion-conscious manner. Here we are forced to deal with one of the central controversies surrounding Chaucer's text: should Chaucer himself be believed to be classist, or should the audience believe that only the narrator sees class in such a manner? It is most likely that Chaucer, though not actually believing in the existence of true courtly love, saw its pursuit as an attribute among the upper classes -- where it belonged -- while it was a foolish vice of the lower classes: "Chaucer here shows himself the conservative member of the princely, courtly, circles in which he was a civil servant and retainer," (Phillips 293). In other words, Chaucer seems to recognize courtly love as a tradition of the nobility, but certainly not as an actual fact of medieval life.
Still, the connecting theme between these two tales is the competition for female affection. Although the Miller's Tale offers a critique of courtly traditions, it does not come particularly close to exonerating the image of the woman in literature. In the Knight's tale, Emilye is almost wholly passive in the…