Medieval society was divided into three estates: the Church (those who prayed), the Nobility (those who fought), and the Peasantry (those who worked). The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is an estates satire. In the Host’s portraits of the pilgrims, he sets out the functions of each estate and satirizes how members of the estates – particularly those of the Church – fail to meet their duties. By the late fourteenth century, the rigid organization of these three estates had begun to break down. A merchant class had begun to rise and was quickly gaining money and power throughout secular society. An intellectual class was also rising – people trained in literature but, unlike monks, not destined for church life. As the son of wine merchants and clerk to the king, Chaucer belonged to both of these new suborders of society. Chaucer puts all of society on parade, and no one escapes his skewering.
The social satire that the Host sets up in the General Prologue continues throughout the tales that the pilgrims tell. The Nun’s Priest’s tale satirizes courtly love by putting chivalry in the setting of a barnyard. Supposedly pious religious figures are shown to be corrupt and greedy just underneath the surface. In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath presents a parody of religious logic, giving her own readings of Scripture to back up her view that experience is the only authority.
Even though the Tales are fictitious, Chaucer draws directly on real people and real events in his satire of human life. Chaucer presents his characters as stock types – the greedy Pardoner, the hypocritical Friar, etc. – but he also presents them as individual people who exist in the world around him. The most famous example of this is Chaucer himself. The author of the Tales does not remove himself from his own satire. On the contrary, Chaucer depicts himself as a bumbling, clumsy fool. Chaucer also draws on real-life settings and events to emphasize the social commentary. In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer compares the climactic battle among all the farm creatures to the Jack Straw rebellion, a peasants’ revolt that took place in England in 1381. The clash between the nobility and the peasants gets played out in miniature version between the fox and the rooster.
The rigid hierarchy of the medieval estates is frequently inverted and subverted throughout the Tales. Even though the Host sets forth each of the characters in order and in a procession in the General Prologue, the whole company of pilgrims is mixed. Pilgrims of all levels of society respond directly to each other. The Miller jumps in right after the Knight to tell his tale instead of waiting his place in line. In a pilgrimage, members from all three estates share the same primary function: all of them, great and small, are going to Canterbury.
Social Satire ThemeTracker
Social Satire Quotes in The Canterbury Tales
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages
And specially from every shires ende
OF Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blissful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they they were seeke.
Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne
Entuned in hir nose ful seemly,
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,
Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees,
Is likned to a fissh that is waterlees––
This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre.
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster.
Nowher so bisy a man as he there nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.
For May wole have no slagardie anyght.
The sesoun priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh it out of his slep to sterte.
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour
That gretter was there noon under the sonne.
Ful many a rich contree hadde he wonne;
What with his wysdom and his chilvalrie.
He cast his eye upon Emelya,
And therwithal he bleynte and cride, “A!”
And there, at the kynges court, my brother,
Ech man for himself, ther is noon oother.
The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
Whan he first made the fair cheyne of love,
Greet was th’effect, and heigh was his entente.
Wel wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghes tale.
And therefore, whoso list it nat yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale;
For he shal fynde ynow, gret and smale,
Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse,
And eek moralitee and hoolynesse.
Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.
The Miller is a cherl, ye know wel this.
This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent.
Thus is the proude miller wel ybete,
And hath ylost the gryndynge of the whete,
And payed for the soper everideel
Of Aleyn and of John, that bette hym weel.
His wyf is swyved, and his doghter als.
Low, swich it is a millere to be fals!
And therefore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth,
“Hym thar nat wene wel that yvil dooth.”
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynough for me.
Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, without lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye,
That gentil text kan I wel understonde.
By God! if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.
Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel as over hir housbond as hir love
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
For gentilesse nys but renomee
Of thyne auncestres, for hire heigh bountee,
Which is a strange thing to thy persone.
Thy gentilesse cometh fro God alone.
Thanne comth our verray gentilesse of grace;
It was no thing biquethe us with our place.
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves,
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soon verray pestilence!
But shortly myn entente I wol devyse:
I preche of no thing but for coveityse.
Therfore my theme is yet, and evere was,
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.
Listeth, lordes, in good entent,
And I wol telle verrayment
Of myrthe and of solas,
Al of a knight was fair and gent
In bataille and in tourneyment;
His name was sire Thopas.
For al so siker as in principio
Mulier est hominis confusio,––
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.”
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made never shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
For seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To our doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stile.