The Portrait of Medieval Social Classes as Presented in the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales

Topics: Social class, The Canterbury Tales, Bourgeoisie Pages: 11 (4613 words) Published: May 6, 2011
The General Prologue fulfils two functions: it tells the story of how the tales came to be told, and it introduces the tellers. There are about thirty pilgrims travelling to Canterbury to pray to the holy blissful martyr- St. Thomas of Becket. These characters can be considered the portrait of the whole Middle English society. All the pilgrims can be divided into particular hierarchic structure of classes. The simplest division of society was into three estates: those who fight, those who pray, and those who labour, typified by the Knight, the Parson and the Plowman. Women were often treated as an estate to themselves. The basic tripartite division of society, for instance, is reflected in Chaucer’s making his Knight, Parson and Plowman the three ideal characters on the pilgrimage- along with the Clerk to stand for those who learn and teach. However, I have to admit that this division is not so obvious, which I explained below. ‘Chaucer starts the introduction of pilgrims with the highest-ranking layman, the Knight, with his entourage, and continues with the highest-ranking ecclesiastics, the Prioress and the Monk. The Merchant, Clerk, Sergeant of Law, and Franklin who follow were regarded more or less as social equals, and various other representatives of the middle classes, most of them keen to push themselves up the social ladder, follow in somewhat haphazard order. The Summoner and Pardoner are social and moral misfits in almost every sense, with no obvious place either in a class hierarchy or in the ‘common weal’, society as a system of mutual support’ (Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press, 1996). According to Helen Cooper, the basic organization then is by rank, but with some telling exceptions and some haphazardness: society is not an ordered hierarchy, not least because the people who compose it are reluctant to stay in their places. The Knight and Squire represent very different types, and functions, of chivalry. The Monk is described in terms that make him a different kind of antitype to the Knight, and the attributes that might be expected of each are exchanged: it is the Monk who hunts and loves good food and clothes, while the Knight is ascetic who has devoted his life to service of Christ (cf. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press, 1996). If there is a certain logic in the order of the pilgrims, however, the content of the individual portraits shows a constant variation. The stress can fall on appearance, past life, the pilgrim’s own voice or self-image, moral probity, or tastes and priorities. The estates structure suggest that the pilgrims will be defined by their work, but while many of the portraits adopt an appropriate language, only few show their subject doing what his or her office requires. In my work I will describe and submit every character and then summary the portrait of the class as a whole, and finally, in the summary I will put forward the whole portrait of society as a whole by summing up the features of each social class. Chivalry

Chivalry was undoubtedly the most important of social classes in middle ages. They fought for the king, his kingdom and the religion. Chivalry is also nowadays considered as a pattern of behaviour of ideal man: he has to be brave, gentle for ladies and honourable; he also has to be ready to die for his beliefs. There are three characters representing this class in The General Prologue. These are the Knight, the Squire, and the Yeoman. The Knight is described by Chaucer with respect and honour. Chaucer does not use any irony or satire in the description of the Knight; the irony is reserved to those who fall short of the standard of perfection he sets. The function of the Knight was to fight; but throughout Christian history, and increasingly in the late fourteenth century, there was a profound unease at the thought of Christian fighting Christian. The wars that were...

Bibliography: 1.Cooper Helen, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (Oxford University Press, 1996)
2.Keen Maurice, ‘Chaucer’s Knight, the English Aristocracy and the Crusade’ (in V.J. Scattergood and J.W. Sherborne (eds.), English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1983), pp. 45-62)
3.Mann Jill, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, 1973)
4.Morgan Gerald, ‘The Universality of the Portraits in The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales’, ES 58 (1997), p. 481-493
5.Nicoll Bruce, The Canterbury Tales notes (Coles Notes, 1992)
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