Canterbury Tales as an Estates Satire

Updated on February 22, 2018

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 in to any of the estates, but are actually a part of the middle class.

The Parson is the only traveler representing the church that practices what he preaches.
The Parson is the only traveler representing the church that practices what he preaches.

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 excommunication to extract tithes, his work within the clergy appears to be his prime focus.

The Knight is an aristocrat who tells a tale of courtly love.
The Knight is an aristocrat who tells a tale of courtly love.

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.

The Plowman becomes an idealized figure of the laboring class.
The Plowman becomes an idealized figure of the laboring class.

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.

Character Types

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.

Sources

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.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Scarlet Scrivener 

      6 years ago

      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!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      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 profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 

      6 years ago

      Thanks for another trip down memory lane for me with this work.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)