Church, Nobility, and Peasantry
The Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the fourteenth century by Geoffrey Chaucer, is considered an estates satire because it effectively criticizes, even to the point of parody, the main social classes of the time. These classes were referred to as the three estates, the church, the nobility, and the peasantry, which for a long time represented the majority of the population.
Because of increased social mobility, (which greatly helped Chaucer himself) by the time Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, a person did not necessarily belong to an estate by birth, but rather by their work or actions. In addition, many of Chaucer's characters do not fit into any of the estates but are actually a part of the middle class.
First Estate: The Church
Made up of the clergy, this estate essentially encompassed those who spent a great deal of time in prayer. In this time, clergy held a somewhat different function than what we think of today, with many members laboring outside of the church or having a family in addition to their clerical duties.
The character of the Parson is probably the best example of the first estate. While some of the other travelers also belong to the clergy, they show evidence of emerging changes in social structure, such as intellectualism and social mobility, and reflect influences outside of those stereotypically associated with the clergy.
The Parson, by comparison, is mainly concerned with "holy thought and work" as the clergy ideally should be. Because he is described as a poor man who doesn't threaten ex-communication to extract tithes, his work within the clergy appears to be his prime focus.
Second Estate: The Nobility
This estate includes large landowners, knights, those with extensive time for leisure, and those who spent time in battle.
The character of the knight is a good example of the second estate. The knight is concerned with travel, battle, chivalry, and fame. He does not work for a living, nor is concerned with such menial tasks as making a living, money, or labor. As a nobleman, these tasks all lie outside his realm and are taken care of by others, notably those of the third estate.
In a notable departure from earlier works focusing on the nobility, the knight is never described in terms of his lineage. For example, much of the text of the Beowolf epic is taken up by describing each character's ancestry at length. By contrast, all we know of the knight in Canterbury Tales is that he has served as a warrior in the Crusades.
Third Estate: The Peasantry
Peasants are people who worked for a living under a feudal system. The third estate performed the work necessary to support and enable the income and lifestyle of members of the Church and Nobility.
This estate is well-represented by the plowman, who is very much concerned with toil and work. He is depicted as hardworking and poor, but most importantly, does not complain about his poverty, and seems to have no desire for riches. The plowman is obedient and accepting of his lot. He has no problem doing the work so that others can profit. The plowman literally carries dung for a living, the bottom of the proverbial barrel.
Although Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales as an estates satire, the majority of the characters actually belong to the emerging middle class. During Chaucer's time, the middle class was an emerging phenomenon, and many people did not know how to make sense of this new, and decidedly anti-feudal social class. Because of this, the travelers that actually do belong to one of the three traditional estates stand out in sharper relief.
Chaucer uses the concept of nonpareils (peerless characters) in constructing his characters, which already signifies that these characters are meant to serve as stand-ins for larger social concepts. The overall effect of using nonpareils combined with limited representatives of each estate is a clearly definable estate satire-- the reader is distinctly aware that Chaucer is not working with characters here, but elements of society and social convention.
Chaucer, Geoffry. "The Canterbury Tales." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume 1. Eighth Edition. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Schwartz, Deborah B. "The Three Estates." California Polytechnic University. 2009. Web.
Scarlet Scrivener on November 10, 2011:
Excellent! You know, it would be almost impossible to understand the development of the English social classes by the time you get to the 16th through 19th centuries without the information given by Chaucer in this poem.
Here in the States, a lot of us whose ancestors came from England are descendants of the disenfranchised members of the noble class. That is why we are all sovereigns in this country. There was such a deadly struggle for power and religion where our ancestors came from, especially among those of the noble class.
I love Chaucer and this article.
Voted up and accolades!
Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on October 19, 2011:
This is interesting and useful to me.I also voted it beautiful because it was well explained.The United States is always called a middle class society but most people don't know what that means. It is because it is the middle class that established this county. The same middle class you discuss here. Although I have read some of the Canterbury Tales in college I'll have to take another look.
FloraBreenRobison on October 18, 2011:
Thanks for another trip down memory lane for me with this work.