Estates satire (Geoffrey Chaucer)

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The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales was written by Geoffrey Chaucer toward the close of the fourteenth century. It is regarded as an estates satire and one of the noteworthy Medieval literary works because of how well it mocks the dominant social classes of the period. These groups were referred to as the three Medieval estates: the church (clergy), the nobility (knights who battled), and the peasantry. (those who laboured - peasantry). For a very long period, these three classes comprised the vast majority of the population. All three of the classes were divided according to gender and took males into account. Women population was altogether considered as a different class. For instance, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.

The Period of Social Mobility

The period around fourteenth century witnessed increased social mobility that helped Geoffrey Chaucer to came up with the Canterbury Tales. It was not necessary that a person should belong to one the estates by birth. It was due to the actions or work of the people who fitted them in one of the classes. In the Chaucer’s work, Canterbury Tales, many characters do not belong to any of the classes but they do actually represent a part of the middle class.

Function of Estates Satire

Geoffrey Chaucer’s estates satire admired the beauties and limpidness of each class in its perfect way. The satire was utilized as a frame to depict the functioning of the society. According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature the duty of estates satire is that "they set forth the functions and duties of each estate and castigate the failure of the estates in the present world to live up to their divinely assigned social roles" (The Norton Anthology of English Literature).

Analysis of Social Divisions

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is very aware of the established social divisions in the society known as the Estates. It is quite interesting to analyse that the genre of the work of the Geoffrey Chaucer as a whole is a frame narrative but, the Overall Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is an illustration of "Estates Satire" - a genre which parodies the exploitations that are integral to the three dimensions (estates) of the society (in particular, the Church). For example, in her personal Prelude, the Wife of Bath claims cogently that the female estates of "wife" and "widow" should be appreciated as much as that of "virgin” (Schwartz, 2).

The Three Estates

The First Estate represents the Church (Clergy), those who prayed, that consisted of those who actively work for the smooth functioning of the Catholic Church and portion of the country. This class have some special attributes associated (Jill, 123). For instance, they used to receive the tithe or the 10% of the total tax given to the Church.

The Second Estate was called the Nobility, those who fought. They were royal in status. However, it did not include the King. They too enjoyed special privileges. For example, they were exempted from giving tax. One of their distinguished features was that they could collect taxes from the Third Estate, and had other distinctive rights.

The Third Estate, the Commons (those who laboured), were the largest and consisted of around 96% of the total population. The commons included primarily rural peasants and the urban bourgeois or middle class. People who did not belong to any of the first two classes were naturally identified under the commons. This class did not enjoy any special privileges. They had none of the amenities which the other two classes adored. However, the immediate rise in Capitalism offered better space to this class.

Representation of the Three Estates

Geoffrey Chaucer’s representation of the three estates defines the working of the society at large during the fourteenth century. Al the three estates were portrayed as the three different characters of a single story which, by the way, gives a simple understanding of the people associated with these three estates. It is because at the end it is the people who made these estates or it was the Chaucer who classified the society in this way. Both the approaches facilitate the socio-cultural, political, and economical aspects of the society that prevailed during this period. For instance,

The Pilgrimage

With the beginning of spring in April, people from different parts of England gather at the Tabard Inn. They spend some time in making preparations for a pilgrimage to receive the mercy and blessings of an English martyr, St. Thomas à Becket. Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the pilgrims. While making the preparations, they suggested telling a story while going towards Canterbury and the way back to pass the time more pleasantly. It is important to mention that going on the pilgrimage was itself considered a very pleasant thing during that period. It was announced that the best story teller would be awarded a grandeur dinner at the end of the journey. The trip itself indicated the rich cultural tradition of the journey ad the story telling that do facilitate the estates satire, beautifully illustrated by Chaucer. All the socio-cultural and political facets of the society were elegantly established by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The First Estate - the Church

All the three estates were definitely interesting to explore. But, the first estate is somewhat very different from others in many aspects. The Church (Clergy) includes the first estate in the Canterbury Tales. It constituted the clergy as this estate constituted the people who keep themselves busy with prayers for most the time. This clergy was very different from the contemporary clergy as they do take part in working outside the church. Some of them have well established families besides their clerical responsibilities.

The Church enjoys special privileges and is treated as the sacred institutions by the other two classes. The people associated with this class were treated accordingly by the people of other two estates.

The character of the Parson suits the best example of this estate. In the pilgrimage some of the travellers belonged to this estate. They were somewhat open and were able to accept certain new ideologies like emerging changes in social and political structures in the society including intellectualism and social mobility (for example, the pilgrimage). Most of them were very open to think about the stereotypes linked with the clergy and the Church. The parson would believe in "holy thought and work". It was a duty accustomed by the clergy to stick to the teachings of the clergy.

Works cited

"Estates Satire". The Norton Anthology of English Literature. W.W. Norton & Company. Retrieved 20 March 2017.

Mann, Jill. Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 123.

Schwartz Debora. Essay, English Department, California Polytechnic State University. 2009. P2. Retrieved 20 March 2017.

June 19, 2023


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