The Canterbury Tales: Social Class & Status

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  • 0:03 Three Estates
  • 2:04 Middle Ages: New Classes
  • 2:53 Satire & Social Class
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

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.

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.

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