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In this lesson, we’ll explore the social classes that existed in medieval England when Geoffrey Chaucer was writing ”The Canterbury Tales” and how he used his characters to critique and satirize English society.

Three Estates

In The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the main characters fall into one of three basic estates, or social classes. In feudal English society, estates were used to categorize people.

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The First Estate was the Church and members of its religious hierarchy. The five characters in The Canterbury Tales who fall into this class include the Prioress, Monk, Friar, Parson, and Pardoner. These characters were born into one of the other two Estates and chose to commit their lives to the Church. They would have been expected to behave in a pious, or devout, manner, without too much attachment to material goods. But, as we see in the The Canterbury Tales, these characters meet these expectations to varying degrees.The Second Estate consisted of the nobility, including aristocratic families, dukes, and other royals, such as the Knight and the Squire in The Canterbury Tales. Harry Bailly, the innkeeper in the book, suggests that the Knight tells his story first when the pilgrims begin their storytelling contest, acknowledging that the Knight is highly ranked in society.

However, after The Knight tells his story, The Miller insists on telling his next, disrupting the social order. This detail seems to suggest that Chaucer is comfortable with questioning and disrupting the feudal social order in general.The Third Estate was composed of the peasants, or people who produced food and clothing for the higher estates, such as The Plowman.

As a character in The Canterbury Tales, the Plowman best represents this estate.Women in feudal society were categorized differently. Like men, they were born into one of the three estates, but these categories were based on what people do for a living. Women were also categorized in their relation to men and sexual status: virgin, wife, or widow. In The Canterbury Tales, the two female characters are The Prioress and The Wife of Bath, who would have belonged to the First Estate and mercantile classes, respectively.

As a Nun, The Prioress would be a virgin, while The Wife of Bath would have been both a wife and a widow, having been married several times.

Middle Ages: New Classes

By the time Chaucer started writing The Canterbury Tales, new classes were emerging in the Middle Ages. We not only find members of the traditional three estates but also members of the mercantile and intellectual classes among the pilgrims in the story.

The mercantile class included merchants who lived in the cities and represented a new middle class in England. Characters such as The Cook, Merchant, Reeve, Shipman, and Wife of Bath would have been part of this new emerging class.The intellectual class included lawyers, professors, and scholars who spent their lives reading, studying, and writing but did not end up joining the clergy. The Clerk is the character in The Canterbury Tales that best represents this class. The intellectual and mercantile classes would have fallen above the traditional Third Estate, or the peasants, but below the Second Estate, or the Nobility.

Satire ; Social Class

Because Chaucer belonged to the intellectual and mercantile classes, he had enough distance from the original three estates and was educated enough to notice hypocrisy and irony when he saw them. He used the pilgrimage device to show how people from a variety of social classes interacted with each other in real life.As such, The Canterbury Tales is a social satire, a type of humor that uses exaggeration and irony to make fun of society. While presenting his characters as members of specific social classes who do or do not live up to the behaviors and expectations associated with their classes, Chaucer makes the point that many wealthy people of high social status in Medieval England, including clergy members, were essentially corrupt.

Lesson Summary

The characters in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer fall into one of the three estates, or social classes, used to categorize people in feudal and medieval England.

These included members of the First Estate, or Church hierarchy, like The Prioress, Monk, Friar, Parson, and Pardoner. Characters belonging to the Second Estate were the nobility and included The Knight. The Third Estate consisted of peasants like The Miller. Medieval women were categorized not only according to the estates they were born into but also in their relation to men and sexual status: virgin, wife, or widow.

During Chaucer’s time, two new classes emerged in Medieval England: the intellectual class which included The Clerk, and the mercantile class where we’d find The Cook, Merchant, Reeve, Shipman, and Wife of Bath. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was a social satire, a type of humor that uses exaggeration and irony to make fun of society. While his characters belonged to particular social classes, they often failed to live up to the behaviors and expectations associated with their classes.

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