In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, to what class do many of the characters belong: upper class, middle class, or working class?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The characters in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales come from diverse social backgrounds. One of the most prominent in the story is that of the clergy—those who serve the Church. Some were born to the upper class. Of three sons born to a member of the nobility, the first would be the heir, the second would go into the military and the third would likely enter into service of the Roman Catholic Church. While these people were supposed to take a vow of poverty—giving up all their worldly goods—many enjoyed very comfortable lives—often bringing their wealth with them.

In Chaucer's story of the pilgrims traveling to the Canterbury Cathedral, in "The Prologue," we learn a great deal about the station in life in which the members of the clergy belong. The Monk is a man who would be considered prosperous. He enjoys hunting, which was a sport that only the wealthy could enjoy:

...hunting was his sport... (164)

...Many a dainty horse he had in stable... (166)

...Greyhounds he had, as swift as birds... (187)

...he spared for no expense. (190)

The Monk has expensive jewelry. He is fat, which indicates that he eats well (unusual for the common man during the Middle Ages). His clothing and his horse are very expensive. He is a member, by profession, of the upper class.

Likewise, the Friar is also well off. He hears confessions—"for a gift." The more "penance" he grants, the more money he makes. The people know they can be "well shriven" if they were willing to "...give silver for a poor Friar's care." The Friar has a purse with little gifts for the "pretty" young ladies. He cannot be bothered with seeing to the sick or poor, but associates with "the rich and victual sellers." At the time, a member of the clergy could beg (with a license) in an area assigned to him—this greatly supplements the Friar's income. In settling arguments, he makes more money. He is dressed like a "Doctor or a Pope." While he may not have been born into money, he lives like a member of the upper-middle class.

The Pardoner, another clergyman, is also living quite well. He is selling stolen pardons, fresh from Rome. He also passes off trash as holy relics:

For in his trunk he had a pillowcase

Which he asserted was Our Lady's veil. (681-682)

The Pardoner can make more money in one day than a poor parson (preacher) can make in "a month or two." He is also a great singer and fine preacher—so he is able to make even more money:

And [well he could] win silver from the crowd.

That's why he sang so merrily and loud. (700-701)

The Nun or Prioress is also a woman who is accustomed to fine living. It seems she has to work to come across as sophisticated—she has been well educated. She has little dogs that eat better than most people would have:

With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. (145)

(The bread of peasants was brown and coarse.) Her clothes are rich, she wears jewelry—beads, a "coral trinket," and a "golden brooch..." She acts like one who is wealthy: I believe her money has come to her in her service—she is upper-middle class.

There is, however, a Parson, and this man is one...

Who truly knew Christ's gospel and would preach it... (479)

He has taken a vow of poverty. His salary and Easter gifts go to the poor. He walks everywhere (there is no horse). Though he could make good money in other religious ways, he chooses instead to serve the people—without thought to himself. The Parson would be considered a member of the lower (or working) class.

Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

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