Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Society and Class

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Society and Class

General Prologue

[The Prioress] peyned hire to countrefete chere
Of court, and to ben estatlich of manere,
And to ben holden digne of reverence
.
(General Prologue 139 – 141)

Wanting to appear noble, the Prioress makes herself appear ridiculous. The Prioress's belief that one must be noble to be worthy of reverence provides an interesting window into her character and her failing as a religious figure.

It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
For to delen with no swich poraille,
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille.
(General Prologue 246 – 248)

The friar, who has taken a vow of poverty, is supposed to live a humble life tending to the poor and sick. But his pride and his desire for creature comforts cause him to gravitate toward the wealthy. This is a common failing of most of the religious figures Chaucer describes.

[The Plowman] wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve,
For Cristes sake, for every povre wight,
Withouten hyre, if it lay in his might
.
(General Prologue 536 – 538)

The figure of the plowman is a medieval symbol of the poor. The fact that this plowman works not just for himself, but for all poor men, reinforces this symbolism and speaks to a vision of the solidarity of the poor.

Were it by aventure, or sort, or cas,
The sothe is this, the cut fil to the Knight
.
(General Prologue 344 – 345)

Chaucer plays it coy here by claiming not to know whether chance, fate, or fortune allows the Knight to draw the shortest cut and, hence, go first in the tale-telling. In fact, the Knight's position in the order is perfectly in keeping with the social logic that places the nobleman on top of the pyramid. So, in this logic, it's definitely fate that puts the Knight first.

But rather wolde [the Parson] yeven, out of doute,
Unto his povre parisshens aboute
Of his offring, and eek of his substaunce
.
(General Prologue 487 – 489)

The Parson's generosity to the poor is what marks him as a successful religious figure, and distinguishes him from other religious figures like the Summoner and Pardoner, who take from, rather than give to, the poor.

The Millere was a stout carl for the nones;
Ful big he was of brawn, and eek of bones –

[...]
His nosethirles blake were and wyde.
[...]
His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys.
(General Prologue 545 – 546, 557, 559).

The Miller's physical appearance – a big lug with a huge nose and mouth – fits the medieval stereotype of a lower-class person. The idea is that he's all brawn, no brains.

Also I preye yow to foryive it me,
al have I nat set folk in hir degree
Here in this tale, as that they shode stonde;
My wit is schort, ye may wel understonde
.
(General Prologue 743 – 745)

If Chaucer were following the "proper order" of things, he would list the pilgrims in order of their social class, starting with the most noble and descending to the poorest. Instead he mixes it up a lot. This may be a foreshadowing of the disorder to come in the telling of tales, when the Miller interrupts the "proper" order begun by the Knight.

Everich, for the wisdom that he can,
Was shapely for to been an alderman.
For catel hadde they ynogh and rente.
(General Prologue 371 – 373)

There's an interesting irony in this quote: Chaucer starts out by claiming that, to be an "alderman," or powerful leader of the town, wisdom is necessary. But he ends by justifying the craftsmen's ascent to this position because of their wealth.

But with thise relikes, whan that [the Pardoner] fond
A povre person dwellinge upon lond,
Upon a day he gat in monthes tweye
.
(General Prologue 701 – 703)

Since we've already had a portrait of a truly good Parson, who gives to rather than takes from the poor, the Pardoner's cheating of the poor person here appears doubly treacherous.

It is ful fair to been y-clept, 'Madame,'
And goon to vigilyes al bifore,
And have a mantel royalliche y-bore
.
(General Prologue 376 – 378)

The upwardly mobile wives of the guildsmen like to display their social status conspicuously. For the women of this class, the ability to get noticed is an important "perk" of having money.

His Lord wel coude [the Reeve] plesen subtilly,
To yeve and lene him of his owne good,
And have a thank, and yet a cote and hood
.
(General Prologue 611 – 613)

Do we detect a bit of the narrator's vicarious delight in the way the lower-class Reeve outsmarts the nobleman? It's the classic "rooting for the underdog," with the element of class competition thrown in to spice it up a bit.

The Miller's Prologue
The Host

"Now telleth ye, sir Monk, if that ye konne,
Somwhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale."

(Miller's Prologue 10 – 11)

By asking the Monk to go next, the Host reveals that he plans to have the pilgrims tell their tales in order of social class; after the Monk would likely be the Franklin or another one of the religious figures.

The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this.
So was the Reve eek and othere mo,
And harlotrie they tolden bothe two
.
(Miller's Prologue 74 – 76)

It's in keeping with the "all brawn and no brains" stereotype of lower-class people ("cherles") that Chaucer suggests that the Miller and the Reeve would be incapable of telling a classy tale. Instead, they rely upon "harlotrie" – more low-brow humor – to enter the competition.

The Miller

[The Miller] swoor, "By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."

(Miller's Prologue 17 – 19)

By demanding that he be the one to tell the next tale, the Miller not only upsets the proper social order the Host has indicated he plans to follow, he also sets himself up in direct competition with the Knight. It would have probably seemed a little ludicrous to a medieval person that a Miller would think he could compete with a knight, even if only in tale-telling, but that's all part of the fun.

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