The Canterbury Tales is best-known for its vivid portrayal of a diverse group of pilgrims and reveals much about the composition and values of society in late medieval England.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is an assembly of short stories written during the feudal epoch when peasants only started to develop an awareness of the unfairness of their social position. Indeed, Chaucer is rightfully viewed as “the Father of English poetry” who dedicated his life to exploring and illustrating various social issues in his works (Milligan 2). Furthermore, many scholars claim that Chaucer’s Tales contain more information about English society of that time than the works of other authors (Utz 199). According to Seal, “The Canterbury Tales is a poem about male authority in the midst of a patriarchal crisis and secular ambition in the face of renewed lay devotion” (4). These stories represent the poet’s uncertainty about that time’s societal structure, religious beliefs, gender roles, and fatherhood (Seal 4). It is challenging to state a definite opinion about this piece of poetry because the author seemed to have a dichotomous representation of his world, doomed to restructuring but still joyful. The Canterbury Tales is best-known for its vivid portrayal of a diverse group of pilgrims and reveals much about the composition and values of society in late medieval England.
Class Tension in Middle Ages: “Us” vs. “Them” in The Canterbury Tales
The opposition between higher and lower classes has always existed, but it was more active at times of crisis. Although Chaucer did not describe the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, in his works, the author demonstrates the clash of values between the affluent class and peasants (Yildiz 131). Indeed, significant changes were happening in the economy and society of medieval England, initiating transitions from feudalism to capitalism (Fisher 1). Moreover, the structure of The Tales allows the narrators of each story, pilgrims, to replace the roles of each other in this story (Seal 12). Still, Chaucer was able to communicate his major concerns about societal and gender hierarchies in each tale.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer appears to deny drastic changes and transitions from one class to another, utilizing an unpleasant description of characters who wanted to be accepted to an affluent group. Chaucer, belonging to a higher class himself, seems to express his consensus with other rich people’s negative opinions about the social mobility ladder that may allow these alterations (Seal 1). Indeed, the tremendous difference between these groups was depicted by affluent people’s perception of themselves as human beings and the poor class as monsters, making a sharp delineation within the society (Yildiz 130). Despite an enormous gap between the two groups, all characters of the tales have one commonality, preoccupation with worldly things. This opposition was caused by the reluctance of one side to share the wealth and the desire of another party to receive these privileges.
The Miller as the Disruptor of Class Boundaries
The most prominent representative of violators of the social order of that time was Miller in The General Prologue. Furthermore, they can be considered the founders of the middle class in classic literature. The depiction of poverty through the lens of the Miller can be appalling: “The Miller was a stout carle for the nones, / He was short-shouldered, broad, a thicke gnarr, stump of wood/ His beard as any sow or fox was red” (Chaucer 33, para. 43-44). It appears that this illustration is reminiscent of an animal, which was the most common association of the higher class with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt (Yildiz 134). Miller’s appearance and manners do not allow him to become recognized by affluent country members (Yildiz 135). When the Knight learns about Miller’s goals, he cannot accept this idea: “Robin, abide, my leve brother, dear / Some better man shall tell us first another: / Abide, and let us worke thriftily” (Chaucer 99, para. 2). Indeed, Miller was met with resistance from the nobility, but he continued to assert his willingness to changing the class.
The Reeve’s Tale: The Desire for the Place in the First Class
In Chaucer’s stories, two other anarchists of the feudal time can be considered greedy millers, named Simkin and his arrogant wife in The Reeve’s Tale. In this case, a wealthy peasant and his high-born wife want to get noble titles: “A wife he hadde, come of noble kin: / The parson of the town her father was” (Chaucer 121, para 3). They also reached a certain level of wealth and had genetic relations to a higher class. Furthermore, the man’s wife was confident of her right to be a part of an affluent group, showing it with her dress and manners. Thus, her attitude towards other people demonstrated that everyone should treat her accordingly: “And she was proud, and pert as is a pie” (Chaucer 121, para. 3). Still, her husband is illustrated as an animal-like figure, serving as an analogy for the rebels of the 1381 revolt, who wanted to violate the established rulers and servants’ order (Yildiz 139). Indeed, this tale also demonstrates Chaucer’s and the higher class’s bias about peasants, who, according to affluent people, were ugly, ill-mannered, ignorant, disobedient, and aggressive like animals.
The Reeve’s Tale: Equivalence
One of the most notable examples of the collective desire for change in social structure is The Reeve’s Tale, which raises the issue of justice and equivalence. For example, at the beginning of the tale, Osewold the Reeve says that the law of equality allows resisting force with force: “For lawful is force off with force to shove to repel force” (Chaucer 120, para. 12). Moreover, the reeve and his two clerks decide to punish the miller Simkin for theft and reestablish justice (Epstein 80). Although this line and their actions demonstrate violence, it seems to be a hidden message about the rise of people’s awareness about their rights, not clearly articulated and documented at that time. Indeed, the Peasants’ Revolt was the brutal expression of citizens’ tiredness from high taxes, poverty, and social injustice. Therefore, Chaucer’s work is considered as “a perfect crucible to test the challenges of humanistic study” about societal changes in the middle ages because “his work continues to be retold … into myriad new forms” (Milligan 4). The characters of this particular tale appear to be the most prominent representatives of the early proletariat.
The Cook’s Tale: A Different Type of the New Middle Class
The Cook’s Tale presents a different type of middle class that prefers peaceful and joyful life to revolts. Specifically, Perkin Revellour, who “was as full of love and paramour, / As is the honeycomb of honey-sweet,” was released from his duties by his master (Chaucer 132, para. 1). Perkin loves to sing and dance at weddings where he can get drunk, creating a separate middle-class group that does not have a master and is indifferent to their time’s socio-economic disturbance. The author shows this person and his wife in an unpleasant satirical way, implying that this man was never free from his soul-destroying habits even though “he spent money liberally” (Chaucer 132, para. 2). Indeed, although coincidentally, this tale was unfinished, its incomplete structure speaks for the nature of the life of the tale’s characters.
The Perspective of the High Class: The Knight’s Tale
It appears that the affluent English class of the middle ages was terrified by the riots and change in social structure, which was illustrated in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer depicts an aristocratic society in The Knight’s Tale by showing the Knight with noble appearance and manners: “That greater was their none under the sun. / What with his wisdom and his chivalry” (Chaucer 43, para. 3; Simon-Jones et al. 12). Furthermore, despite the Knight’s unpleasant behavior in the past, unlike other pilgrims, he is not presented as a monster (Milligan 24). Indeed, even the language utilized to talk about the Knight and the lower class differs drastically, showing the author’s attitude to social restructuring. Neither the poet nor aristocrats could accept peasants’ aspirations to become a higher class based on accumulated wealth instead of inherited titles.
The higher class seemed comfortable with their positions and reluctant to share their privileges with former peasants. Moreover, they did not consider them capable of human thoughts and feelings: “And when a beast is dead, he hath no pain; / But man after his death must weep and plain” (Chaucer 54, para. 18). On the other hand, the pilgrims in the tales admit that the Knight’s noble stories set an example of how the affluent class should behave, creating the goal for the rising middle class to improve (Yildiz 135). Still, although the author seems to admire the physical strength of these lower-class men, the satirical illustration of the members of the rising middle class exposes Chaucer’s view of this movement. Moreover, it is challenging to state if this attitude of the nobility was reasonable since people from that class wrote all the historical texts because most peasants were illiterate.
The Higher Middle Class: The Merchant’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale
Despite the resistance from the higher class, wealthy peasants and merchants started to create a new societal niche in medieval England. For example, the merchant and franklin represented the higher middle class but did not belong to the nobility (Meyer-Lee 135). Unlike their lower-class counterparts, franklin and merchant appear to eradicate animal-like appearance and bad manners, allowing them to enjoy the fruits of their income. Furthermore, they lack the same physical strength as the miller because the higher middle class is not desperate to be accepted by the affluent class, removing the need for revolts for these people. Thus, The Merchant’s Tale and The Franklin’s Tale mainly focus on relationships between men and women. Moreover, Chaucer displays this class’s adjacency to the nobility by showing the dichotomy of their character in their appearance. For instance, the merchant’s “forked-beard” and the franklin’s white beard implied their duplicity, which was an integral part of higher society in contrast to the lower class’s brutal straightforwardness (Meyer-Lee 127, 210). Indeed, even the middle class that started to appear in the feudal period developed a divide based on people’s wealth, resulting in behaviorally distinct groups.
The Rise of the Middle Class in Middle Ages: Ugly Force
All the social boundary disruptors that belonged to the lower middle class were not esthetically attractive in the tales. Still, this ugly force was probably the only effective method for the rise of the middle class at that time because the wall between the two groups seemed to be impervious to polite requests. Therefore, such heroes of The Canterbury Tales as the Miller had to embody their monstrous force to claim a new place in changing society. Indeed, Miller was physically strong, making him capable of literary destroying the inter-class wall and audacious to announce his equality to the Knight, becoming the symbol of the newly formed middle class (Yildiz 130). Multiple revolts during infectious disease epidemics, caused by poverty and lack of sanitation, were horrifying, but these riots initiated a significant transition from feudal to capitalistic regime.
Relevance of The Canterbury Tales to the Middle Ages
Chaucer created this masterpiece in the middle ages, but it is not the only correlation between The Canterbury Tales and medieval England. Moreover, his writing perpetuates because inter-class tension, societal issues, and ambivalence of human nature remain today (Byrne 52). Admittedly, the author accurately conveyed the socio-economic situation of that period because he could observe it. The fall of the feudal order and the rise of the middle class in Chaucer’s time were embodied in his work in the form of the pilgrims whose illustration described each estate of middle-aged England. Indeed, peasants were described as an illiterate, disobedient, and aggressive group that founded the middle class, which later became the driving force for significant changes throughout history. The new societal niche is illustrated in the tales in an unfavorable light, displaying the medieval affluent class’s attitude to these changes. Although the rebels were violent in their pursuit of a better life, they admired the appearance and manners of the nobility, which was demonstrated in people’s respect for the knight’s tale.
To summarize, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a meditation on a restructuring of the society in the middle ages that resulted in the formation of a new class and transition from feudal to capitalist society. The nobility is opposed by former peasants who want to be recognized for their wealth. The most prominent representative of the rising middle class was Miller in The General Prologue. Despite the lack of noble ancestry, Miller could reach financial success, which pushes him to claim his place among the higher class. Still, his appearance and ill manners make him unfit for this role, forcing him to stay in the lower middle class. Similarly, in The Reeve’s Tale characters are desperate to become a part of the affluent group. These tales are considered an illustration of the events of Chaucer’s time and the nature of medieval society. Specifically, the lower class was protesting against high taxes, while affluent people viewed these riots as monstrous behavior of peasants, perceived as animal-like creatures. Overall, The Canterbury Tales is one of the most accurate satirical works about societal flaws and inter-class tension in middle-age England that remain relevant today.
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