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The Canterbury Tales is an estates satire, that not only points out the shortcomings and inequalities, but also the inauthenticity, that exist under feudalism’s code of social stratification. Examples of these characterizations of the estates are found widely throughout the general prologue and the pilgrims’ tales.
The first example of inequality in The Canterbury Tales that is encountered as a result of social stratification is religious, or clerical, inequality. The Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar are all ecclesiastics of the first estate and are the most inauthentic characters in the book. The Summoner and the Pardoner both work for the church and are the worst characters in the book. The Clerk, the Parson, and the Plowman are all of the lowest estate both socially and financially but all practice morality in such a way that would be expected of those of the first estate. The parallel drawn here is that clergymen were appointed by the King, the most powerful man in England save for the Pope. Professor Richard Abels states in his article “Medieval Kingship in Late Twelfth- and Early Thirteenth-Century England: the Reigns of King Henry II and King John” that “Henry II also wished to restore royal control over the English church as enjoyed by Henry I by…having at least a veto over ecclesiastical elections, controlling appeals from English clerics to Rome, and maintaining right to try clerics in royal courts under common law after they were tried in ecclesiastical court under canon law.” Thus, the closer one was to royalty, the less likely they were to ever have to face the consequences of their misdeeds.
The economic inequality between the estates prove to be just as the characters of the first estate all have financial prosperity at the sake of those that they are supposed to serve. For instance, the Pardoner says in his prologue, “I mean to have money, wool and cheese and wheat/ Though it were given to me by the poorest lad/ Or poorest village widow, though she had/ A string of starving children, all agape.” This is not in contrast with the fact that those serving the church during the Middle Ages under feudalism did not have to pay taxes. The church received its money in the form of tithes from those in the third estate. Those tithes were used to pay the clergymen, who were appointed by the King. Unchecked powered and an unlimited access to unearned money led to secularization of clerical officials. An example of such secularism is found in the description of the Prioress in the general prologue “She wore a coral trinket on her arm,/ A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green,/ Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen/ On which there first was graven a crowned A,/ And lower, Amor vincit omnia.” The Parson, by contrast, is the most morally upstanding character in the book and the least wealthy. “His business was to show a fair behaviour/ And draw men thus to Heaven and their Saviour.” The economic inequality shown due to unfair distribution of wealth is a common motif throughout The Canterbury Tales. It can even be argued that the more wealth, or higher social standing a character has, the more morally destitute the character is.
The third kind of feudal inequality as expressed in The Canterbury Tales is gender inequality. The Wife of Bath was scrutinized heavily as an overly sensual and immoral character, even though men in the book including the Pardoner and the Friar had sexual affairs of their own out of wedlock. During the Middle Ages, women were placed in the “feminine estates:” virgin, wife, and widow. Dr. Debora B. Schwartz, in her article “The Three Estates” states “it is interesting to note that a woman’s estate was determined not by her profession but by her sexual activity: she is defined in relationship to the men with whom she sleeps, used to sleep, or never has slept.” This is proven true in The Canterbury Tales by the fact that the Wife of Bath was not called by her real name, Alisoun, by any of the other pilgrims throughout the story. Her whole plot line was about her as a wife, and widow, and how she looks upon those who overvalued virginity with disdain. The Wife of Bath said of herself “I’ll persevere; I’m not pernickety./ In wifehood I will use my instrument/ As freely as my maker me it sent.” Her declaration is viewed as an act of rebellion, or even blasphemy, by the other pilgrims; however, when the men make the same confessions to enjoy extracurricular activities similar to Alisoun’s, it is regarded as unimportant.
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is definitely meant scrutinize and condemn the inequalities that were prevalent under feudalism in the Middle Ages. Chaucer speaks out against this inequality through the Wife of Bath, who herself detested the double standards and unfairness that followed as a result. He uses characters like the Monk, the Pardoner, and the Nun to further elaborate the point that the most privileged people under feudalism were those that had sworn to live lives without any luxuries. The Canterbury Tales is an effective estates satire because it examines the inequalities of society without overtly categorizing complex characters as either “good” or bad.” Through this work, readers are able to understand the inherent inequality that comes in social caste systems and that those inequalities are often facilitated by those of the highest social standing.
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