There are three distinct social status levels in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As the author’s twenty-nine pilgrims set out on their religious sojourn to Canterbury on that fine April morn, their ranks stretching out on horseback likely a quarter mile or more, the little battalion represents all three of these levels, in a reasonably hierarchical order. In Chaucer’s day, the classes were separated into three distinct and nearly uncrossable boundaries: The Aristocracy; The Plutocracy, or, as some would refer to it, the newly emerging Bourgeoisie; and, finally, the Theocracy, or members of the Catholic Church.
In Chaucer’s evocation of life in 14th century England, the roles each of his pilgrims plays corresponds roughly with his or her position in the parade, as they leave the Tabard Inn that bright and hopeful Spring morning.
First, the Theocracy. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church had a deep and abiding problem with some of its more avaricious members in the middle ages. Clerics of all stripes took liberties selling indulgences, tricking the uneducated into donating what they could ill afford, and sponsoring members who served in a rather cavalier fashion.
One of the most obvious examples is Chaucer’s Prioress. Named Lady Eglantyne, allegedly after a real character the author seems to have known, the Prioress represents Chaucer’s best observations of the role class plays in The Canterbury Tales, and best example, too, of the contrast mentioned above. Arguably Chaucer’s best ironic target, the Prioress appears to be the antithesis of her assigned role as head of a nun’s conclave. Though she weeps at the sight of mice in traps, feeds her dogs better than most commoners eat, in spite of a vow of poverty, and bares her forehead–a symbol of sexual availability in Chaucer’s day, and the very purpose of the forehead-shielding wimple–the Prioress represents a rather elevated member of the Church.
Another contrasting figure is the Monk, a rather dandy fellow who also disregards Church wishes, and goes hunting every chance he gets. Owner of land, several horses, fine jewelry and a brace of greyhounds, the Monk, with his squirrel-lined gloves must have been an imposing figure. But, again, an ironic one, and likely the author’s comment on the nefarious ways of certain Church functionaries. The Monk himself even says that, as far the old, traditional teachings of the Church, he ‘didn’t give a plucked hen.’
In contrast, then, to the Monk, and the Prioress, Chaucer gives us the gentle Parson, who refused, in contravention of Church dictates, to excommunicate those who didn’t tithe. This fellow even refused travel to the big city, London, to enhance his own position.
Moving along, the author gives us examples of the Plutocracy, or middle class. And little of what these individuals do earns our respect. The miller is the best example. Rough, argumentative, crude and apparently obnoxious, the miller takes an immediate dislike of the reeve, and the two end up at opposite ends of the line. Though the miller, with his red beard, wart-infested nose and black nostrils is what we’d refer to as middle class, it’s his imposing, and somewhat over-zealous disposition that puts him at the head of the line. Despite his bagpipes that led them all out of London, the fellow does possess a head with which he ‘can break down doors’. ‘Emerging’ Bourgeousie, indeed. And a good example of the contrasting roles throughout the piece.
Jumping to the rear of the procession, we have the reeve, or keeper of the manor. This fellow, too, is middle class, and his antipathy for the miller, established quite early in the work, dictates his position at the end of the line. In this mix, also, is the shipman. This fellow lived, the author believed, near Dartmouth, a town believed to harbor pirates in Chaucer’s day. The shipman thought nothing of making opponents walk the plank, and he seemed to take special delight in stealing cargo from unwitting merchant seafarers. The maunciple, or paralegal, isn’t much better. This fellow takes particular joy in scheming against his own thirty masters, some of whom actually thank him for lending them back their own funds!
In contrast to those rascals, Chaucer gives us the lowly plowman. This fellow loves God with ‘al his herte’. He works hard all day, carrying dung, and digging ditches, and wouldn’t do a dishonest deed if his life depended on it.
Then we have the Aristocracy. The franklin, or landowner, and the sergeant of the law did their peerage proud with all manner of underhanded ventures. The author says of the sergeant at law that he was ‘busier than he seemed to be’, a citation filled with pathos, and thinly-veiled innuendo. The fellow is obviously a crook.
In contrast to these questionable pilgrims, Chaucer gives us the knight. A noble, battle-tested gentleman, the knight has an ironic role in the Canterbury tales for several reasons. Despite having been in fifteen battles, and bested three foes in open duels, the knight has an aversion to violence. Also, despite his adventuresome life, he appears to have been a good father. His son, the young squire, is well mannered, well schooled, and quite considerate. The boy even cuts his father’s meat for him.
Chaucer’s twenty-nine pilgrims are nothing if not colorful figures. They are, as well, likely to have been written from real life, and not just sprung fully formed from the author’s brain. Geoffrey Chaucer himself was a member of the middle class, but he had nearly direct access to the nobles of his day. He was able, thus, to be open, and even somewhat bold in his descriptives of those above his class. Plus, in his ambition to elevate the English language into everyday use, his disregard for convention matched that of some of his fellow travelers on the road to Canterbury. So Chaucer’s own life was a study in contrast as well.