The Canterbury Tales

by: Geoffrey Chaucer

Social Class

1

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly, After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe, For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

In the Prologue, the Narrator spends much time describing the nun, or Prioress, and her fine manners. Since the Norman conquest of 1066, French was the spoken language of English nobility. The nun speaks French, though her speaking skills seem imperfect compared to the French spoken in Paris. Chaucer gives readers the impression of a person who works constantly to keep up the appearance of class and who is almost—but not quite—successful. The Narrator seems to admire the Prioress, yet readers might infer that the lengthy descriptions of her dainty eating and emotional attachment to animals are meant to be a bit ironic.

2

So estatly was he of his governaunce, With his bargaynes and with his chevyssaunce. For sothe he was a worthy man with alle, But, sothe to seyn, I noot how men hym calle.

The Narrator makes a sly remark about class when he describes the Merchant in the Prologue. The Merchant, finely dressed, appears to always take great pains to show off his wealth and status. Chaucer claims to be impressed, but he then immediately says he forgot the man’s name. Unlike the ambiguous description of the Prioress, Chaucer’s comment about the Merchant appears unmistakable: Bragging about wealth only makes a person obnoxious.

3

That hadde ylad of dong ful many a fother; A trewe swynkere and a good was he, Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee. God loved he best with al his hoole herte[.]

Chaucer introduces a common trope when he describes the Plowman and his brother, the Parson: a noble poor person. The poor, manure-hauling Plowman, unlike the clergy, actually lives a moral, religious life. But Chaucer’s take on such a character is not meant to simply state that the rich are bad and the poor are good. Some of Chaucer’s wealthy characters appear to be good people, so long as they are honest. He saves his greatest contempt for religious figures who preach poverty and humility but practice the opposite. The Plowman’s manure cart doesn’t make him a good person, but his genuine faith and goodwill do.

4

The Miller, that for dronken was al pale, So that unnethe upon his hors he sat, He nolde avalen neither hood ne hat, Ne abyde no man for his curteisie, But in Pilates voys he gan to crie, And swoor, ‘By armes, and by blood and bones, I can a noble tale for the nones, With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale.’

The transition between the Knight’s and Miller’s tales would have had great significance to readers in Chaucer’s time. The Knight tells the first tale because he holds the highest rank in the party. The Host then chooses the Monk to speak next. Instead, the Miller drunkenly interrupts, claiming he can outdo the Knight’s story of chivalry. The drunk, swearing Miller represents an individual of both low class and low character. His interrupting the Host, insulting the Knight, and taking the Monk’s place would have been shocking behavior in Chaucer’s time. Chaucer used this scenario to challenge the social order, especially the clergy. Based on the storytelling order in this scene, a drunk workingman with a lewd, fart-filled story is put in a worthier place than a Church authority.

5

Hir olde povre fader fostred shee. A fewe sheep, spynnynge, on feeld she kepte; She wolde noght been ydel til she slepte. And whan she homward cam, she wolde brynge Wortes or othere herbes tymes ofte, The whiche she shredde and seeth for hir lyvynge, And made hir bed ful hard and nothyng softe[.]

The Clerk’s tale represents a retelling of an old story about a rich noble who marries a poor farm woman. He cruelly tests her obedience by convincing her that he killed her children. Throughout, the noble’s wife remains steadfast. Some have interpreted the story as an allegory for people’s relationship to God. But at nearly all points, Chaucer sympathizes with the young wife. This quote details her simple, poor life tending sheep, collecting wild herbs, and sleeping on a bare floor. The image of the humble wife presents another example of Chaucer’s sympathy with the poor, here intersecting with ideas about religion, gender, and marriage.