We’ve all heard jokes about various strange groups walking into bars, but what about a bunch of pilgrims at an inn? Come explore the barbed humor of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in this lesson as we see how he uses laughs to highlight old class struggles.
With ongoing talks about income inequality in America and perhaps our own personal experiences, many of us are familiar with the concept of different socioeconomic classes and the bickering that often goes on between them. Don’t think this is new, though, just because it’s happening today. In fact, much of the satire – the criticism of social or literary institutions through the use of comedic elements – found in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales displays this age-old war between the various social estates, or groups of people categorized by their level of socioeconomic influence.In case you’re not familiar with The Canterbury Tales, it’s a collection of tales told by a group of pilgrims from a medley of lifestyles who are traveling to a shrine in Canterbury. These tales focus on the interactions among social estates to creatively critique English society.
The Three Estates
You might’ve heard people talk about journalism or the media as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ and this term builds off of the ‘estate’ system that was in place for most of Europe’s medieval history – including Chaucer’s own lifetime. During the 14th century, though, there were only three estates, and each finds itself under fire at some point in the The Canterbury Tales.The First Estate of these socioeconomic groups was reserved for clergy members. Now, while priests, nuns, and other holders of holy orders were supposed to live lives of poverty without any property to call their own, they still exercised a tremendous amount of social influence as the key to a happy afterlife.
The Second Estate was home to the nobility_ the knights and landed gentry who controlled the property farmed by the Third Estate – the peasantry – which included pretty much everyone else. Essentially, the social structure of Medieval Europe consisted of the rich (Second), the poor (Third), and those to whom money isn’t supposed to matter (the First).
Chaucer noted, of course, that money mattered to all three of these groups, and greed in particular is cited as problematic in his satire. However, the criticism and humor found throughout his collection of tales is more complex than simply pointing out individual vices and setting the three-tiered system against itself.We can gather from the ‘General Prologue’ to the The Canterbury Tales and through the tones of various other prologues and tales that many of the beefs existing between these groups have existed for quite some time. Accordingly, then, the comedic and critical circumstances that arise as a result of their interaction on their joint pilgrimage to Canterbury are multi-dimensional to say the least. Let’s take a look at just a few of these situations to get a feel for how Chaucer crafted these surprisingly complicated satirical tales.
The Miller’s PrologueAs is often the case throughout history, one of the first estates to come under fire in the The Canterbury Tales is the Second (the nobility). The famous ‘Knight’s Tale’ is the first in Chaucer’s collection; however, it’s quickly followed by ‘The Miller’s Prologue.’ Here we find the pilgrims’ Host at an inn in Southwark calling for more tales after hearing the ‘Knight’s Tale’. When the Host asks the Monk (a member of the First Estate) to share, he’s immediately interrupted by Robin, the miller and a member of the Third Estate.
What makes ‘The Miller’s Prologue’ and subsequent ‘Miller’s Tale’ so satirical is partially the parody, or mocking representation, of the knight in the image of the miller. When Robin first arrives on the scene, he’s astride his steed as any man of chivalry would be, but he’s also ‘so completely drunk and pale’ that he’s about to fall off. Of course, what’s even more satirically hilarious is the intoxicated miller’s claim that ‘I have a noble story’ that could ‘match the good Knight.
‘ However, the following ‘Miller’s Tale’ tells of more members of the peasantry, thereby negating the superiority of the noble Second Estate.The Friar’s TaleEven the Third Estate, though, doesn’t escape Chaucer’s satirical wit in his The Canterbury Tales. Not surprisingly, one bit of censure is brought against members of the lower class through a member of the First Estate. In ‘The Friar’s Tale,’ the traveling clergyman (of the First Estate) tells of a summoner – someone hired by the Church to deliver summons to ecclesiastical court – who abuses his connection with the Church for personal gain.The Friar’s story follows a demon accompanying a summoner as they have a contest to see who can be the vilest. The summoner says he can win when he goes to call an elderly woman to court with plans of simply taking a bribe.
When the demon interprets the woman’s wish for the summoner to go to Hell to be genuine, he grants it since the summoner doesn’t seem to be sorry for his actions, anyway. Here, we find the concept of ‘gain to the detriment of others’ criticized amongst the peasantry; however, Chaucer saw that it was also at work in the First Estate.The Summoner’s TaleReally, a good portion of Chaucer’s satire and other critical elements in the The Canterbury Tales is devoted to criticizing the Church and organized religion in general. One of the most famous critiques of the First Estate, though, comes from ‘The Summoner’s Tale,’ which follows a friar on his rounds of begging and preaching.The friar imposes himself on a family of meager means that’s given to him in the past, only to find that the family has been beset by a number of recent troubles. Instead of offering any comfort or compassion, the friar instead continues to press the family for food and donations – all the while preaching to them as he enjoys their hospitality. He even jealously scolds the family for giving to other friars who’ve been in the area.
Ultimately, ‘The Summoner’s Tale,’ along with others, demonstrates that everyone is susceptible to misusing the often considerable power that comes along with any connection to the First Estate.
Much of the satire – the criticism of social or literary institutions through the use of comedic elements – found in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales focuses on the feuds between the Three Estates: the clergy (First), nobility (Second), and peasantry (Third).These groups of people, categorized by their level of socioeconomic influence, clash at various points in Chaucer’s work, leading to such satirical situations as ‘The Miller’s Prologue,’ in which we find a parody, or mocking representation, of the Knight from the previous tale. Chaucer also tends to focus on critiquing those with any connections to the Church, as we can see in the ‘Tales’ of both the friar and the summoner