illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Why does Chaucer include both positive and negative representations of people from different estates in The Canterbury Tales? Give one example of a positive representation and one example of a negative representation. Explain how each character shows either positive or negative traits.

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The Knight is a mostly positive example of the second estate, the nobility. He is an aristocrat, yet he dresses simply and does not abuse his power among the group members. While some critics have argued that he might be a glorified mercenary, having fought in the Crusades, the Knight is a more humble fellow than the flamboyant clergy and appears to be averse to unpleasantness and fighting. He is also the one who gets the Pardoner and the Host to stop fighting, insisting they apologize to one another. So, ironically, the Knight is a humble, gentle person of peace rather than a combative warrior.

A negative example of the third estate (merchants, tradesmen, and peasants) would be the Miller. The Miller is drunken and bawdy, as well as unhygienic in appearance. Though he hasn't the power that the negative members of the clergy or nobility in the party have, he is their equal in corruption, stealing grain and overcharging on his goods.

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Chaucer has both positive and negative representations of characters from different estates because his intentions, while didactic and satirical, were not to criticize the estates themselves but the corrupt members of them. To take the example of the clergy, Chaucer has the Prioress, the Monk and the Friar—none of whom seem particularly good representatives of their estate. The Prioress gives evidence of being worldly and vain. The Monk is interested in little but hunting and horses. As for the Friar, he is as far as can be imagined from the ideals with which the mendicant orders were founded. He lives a rich, licentious life: eating, drinking and womanizing, selling indulgences to the rich and ignoring the poor.

If the Friar is the most negative representation of the clergy, they have a positive model in the Parson. Chaucer describes him as financially poor but rich in holy thought and work. He is contrasted with the Monk and the Friar in his refusal to seek out wealth and finery, and Chaucer remarks pointedly that he preached Christ's word to others but followed it himself first. His presence shows that Chaucer's ire is directed at the sins of individual clergymen, not at the estate itself.

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Since Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales as an estate satire, he pokes fun at certain people belonging to the three estates in England: (First Estate) the clergy, (Second Estate) the nobility, and (Third Estate) the merchants and peasantry. In his work, Chaucer also satirizes the abuses of the various classes, particularly the clergy, that existed in England at the time. Chaucer's humor is in play with the descriptions of certain pilgrims, such as the Wife of Bath, the Miller, and the Franklin. But, Chaucer also wishes to present others, especially the ordinary man who is easily recognized but rarely praised for his virtue.

One negative representation of a person is apparent in the description of the Prioress (the Nun), who is a member of the First Estate. When people enter the religious life, they take vows; one of these vows is that of poverty and another is chastity. However, the Prioress appears to have violated these vows because she wears a cloak that is well made with "a graceful charm." On her arm, she wears "a coral trinket," and instead of a plain rosary, the nun has a set of large green beads.

Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen
On which there first was graven a crowned A,
And lower, Amor vincit omnia. ("Love conquers all)

These items display her vanity and enjoyment of costly material possessions. The brooch may have been a gift from a paramour.

A positive representation is that of the Plowman from the Third Estate. He is described as "an honest worker," who lives in "peace and perfect charity." He truly loves his neighbor, and he helps the poor whenever he can. Faithfully, this man

paid his tithes in full when they were due
On what he owned, and on his earnings too.

He loves God "with all his heart, / No mater how his own life ran." He works for his neighbors, "digging and pouring" without pay for any man who needs his help. He pays his tithes to the church through his labor and his goods.

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