How does Chaucer both invoke and challenge the three estates model of society in the "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales?
In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer clearly uses the common medieval idea of the “three estates” to help contribute to the poem's structure and meaning. The three estates consisted of clerics in the church; high-ranking secular figures (such as knights and the nobility); and those who worked at lower-level secular tasks (such as the peasantry). Chaucer clearly uses characters from all three of these “estates” in his poem.
The narrator begins by describing the Knight, a high-ranking person in the “estate” consisting of eminent soldiers, aristocrats, and nobles. The knight seems to be an exemplary human being and an exemplary representative of his own particular estate. The narrator continually describes the knight (without obvious irony, Terry Jones’s book notwithstanding) as a “worthy” man (43), and indeed he seems worthy in numerous ways: he is brave, strong, wise, thoughtful, loyal, modest, and considerate of others. He is a deeply devout and dedicated Christian, and in all these ways he sets a very high standard by which the later pilgrims can be judged, and by which many of them are found severely lacking. Indeed, it almost seems as if the knight would make a better cleric than some of the actual clerics who are later presented.
Most of the clerics who are presented seem anything but exemplary Christians. In fact, it is especially unfortunate that they are such poor Christians when they hold positions of real responsibility within the church. The Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner – all these characters fall far short of the moral and religious ideals of the middle ages. Chaucer makes no effort to disguise the corruption that was rampant within the medieval church. By satirizing the characters just mentioned, he sought to teach, by mockery and irony, what the church ideally should be and how Christians in authority should behave. At one point, however (when describing the Parson), Chaucer lays out in fairly explicit and positive terms how a cleric should ideally conduct himself. Thus the narrator describes the Parson as a man “riche . . . of holy thought and werk” (481) and says that “Cristes gospel trewely wolde [he] preche (483). Such praise runs all throughout the description of the Parson and is memorably epitomized in the following lines:
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf [that is gave]
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught. (498-99)
The Parson is a Christian cleric who inspires others to be good Christians. He does so as much by his own behavior and example as by his mere preaching.
Finally, the Plowman can be offered as a worthy example of a member of the third estate. Although he is at the complete opposite end of the social spectrum from the Knight, the Plowman is one of the most admirable of all the pilgrims described. His job may involve a great deal of literally dirty work, but he is a thoroughly admirable human being and an exemplary Christian, “Living in pees and parfit charitee” because “God loved he best with al his hoole herte” (534-35).
One senses that if people such as these three (the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman) were typical of the conduct of people in each of the three estates, Chaucer would have much less to mock and satirize than he does. The Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman represent each of the three estates at their moral and spiritual best.