The Holy and the “Hethen”
Whether it be religious corruption or the refusal of sanctity within Christianity and the church, The Canterbury Tales often showcases a negative connotation following the word “hethen” when recounting characters seen as faithless. The placement of “hethen” is necessary and specifically used by Chaucer to further showcase the importance of piety within the Knight’s character and impart its importance on readers.
The Middle English dictionary defines “hethen” as being similar to a Pagan, someone who “is not Christian or Jewish” (Middle English Dictionary Entry). The word is seen as derogatory and describes a person who “does not acknowledge the God of Christianity and Judaism and Islam — especially someone who grew up in a culture that is not familiar with those religions” (Heathen used). “Hethen” is used copiously in The General Prologue and operates both in a literal and, with further evaluation, a larger sense. From the text, one can ascertain a description of heathen in juxtaposition to those who are holy. Putting the character of the Knight behind an absolutely pious view as opposed to those who were irreligious is made to show the true depth that the word “hethen” has.
The word is first introduced in The General Prologue, as the narrator describes the Knight. He is characterized as a strong believer in Christian faith, willing to fight for the Lord and against Pagans as is narrated, “…Full worthy was he in his lordes were, // And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre, // As wel in Cristendom as hethenesse// And evere honoured for his worthinesse.” (p.244). Chaucer presents Christianity with a sense of nobility and glory, as backed by imagery of the Knight’s crusades. The heathens are pitted against these virtuous ideals, and, as such, made to be enemies of the divine. The Knight, despite all of the battles he undergoes, comes across many people he sees as afflicted by Paganism. However, he carries a strong certainty in his religion and purpose, and this confidence provides both comfort and confirmation for readers. We later come to learn that not only has the Knight been on the Christian believer’s side, but has also served in the service of non-Christians. “Hethen” is again used to describe foreign peoples and as before, gives a negative connotation as, “In listes thries, and ay slain his fo. // This ilke worthy Knight hadde been also // Sometime with the lord of Palatye // Again another hethen in Turkye.” (245). Knowing that the Knight had been fighting in areas conquered by heathen Turks, the narrator allows us to see the Knight as a valiant and major defender of the Christian religion. His conquests are commended and always conducted for his love of his God and not love of praise and glory, unlike heathens, who have no such motivation and selflessness to please any spiritual figure.
To understand why Chaucer so intentionally repeats the word, one can look to the contrast between being holy and a heathen. In all of the Knight’s actions, he constantly tries to push Christianity’s reach onto those who he sees lost without its righteous values. This is why Chaucer so strongly emphasizes the word “hethen”: in the Knight’s eyes, it is seen as a way of life that needs to be altered. The Knight is written to be the holiest of characters by being faced against these heathens, who serve as the very antithesis of his ideals. In tandem with his glamorization of the Knight, Chaucer’s characterizations put these ideals on a pedestal and indeed reflect them as a standard to aspire to for both the reader and the stories’ other characters.