The Canterbury Tales & the “Nature” of Authority & Dissent

Vim, Ph.D.
35 min readDec 2, 2016

The following is a lecture I wrote and delivered December of 2016 before the students and faculty in a course called “Culture and Expression,” in my university’s Honors College program. The centralizing concept for the semester’s readings — texts that are basically canonical works for courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences — is “the delicate dance of authority and dissent.” The edition of Chaucer I cite from is Sheila Fisher’s The Selected Canterbury Tales (Norton, 2011). When I refer to “you” in the text below, I’m addressing students directly; they are mostly freshmen.

Because of the context in which I delivered this essay, I was not aiming for my readings to break new ground in the field of Chaucer studies; though I study English institutions that began & developed in the middle ages in my research, I am not at all an expert in the middle ages broadly nor in Chaucer. It is entirely possible that when I am correct about something, it’s probably something that other scholars in have said elsewhere in some fashion, though it’s also unlikely that I have read their work — the timeframe I have to research and write a lecture on texts that aren’t in my area of specialization is pretty narrow. I share it here to say thanks to all the friendly Medievalists that make my days better and hope I haven’t done too much injustice to your field and work!

Content Warning: Stabbing in images, references to rape.

This lecture was delivered to C&E students on 12/1/2016.

Like the funeral for Arcite, “Much great labor and much great preparing” (Canterbury Tales, The Knights Tale, 2056) went into this lecture; over the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a lot of time debating with myself about how to best to begin and what to include. During that time, we were learning from my colleagues about medieval Castile, Cordoba, Florence, France, Morroco and Egypt; now it’s finally my turn to present my area of expertise, the literature and culture of England.

Two maps of England from 13th & 14th centuries. Go to this page to explore the Gough map.

But how England does not share land mass with these other places on or connected to continental Europe;

how it is part of the United Kingdom and a group of Islands we now refer to as the Atlantic Archipelago, separated by bodies of water from where Christine de Pisan, Dante, and the poet of The Cid built their cities of women, warriors, and sinners, and still further from the birth and resting place of Ahmed Zarruq;

I don’t actually recommend reading The Mirror (it’s a tabloid)

Nor how its centralized system of government — so glorious that its leaders think it can now exist independently of the European Union —

Map here (yes, this site is indeed written for children. But it is useful in illustrating the lack of a centralized government)

was once non-existent, no monarch or ministries or parliament: just centuries Germanic tribes arriving and battling for territory and supremacy;

Not actual vikings. But watch this video by Joel Veitch because it is awesome.

Nor how those tribes were further unsettled by Norse invasions from Scandinavia;

Nor how another invasion in 1066 from Northern France ushered in a period of great change;

From the Bayeux Tapestry at the Reading Museum. See:

Starring William of Normandy, who defeated a weak King Harold in the Battle of Hastings,

Full scene here:
Detail of William I From Matthew Paris’s Epitome Of Chronicles (1255); see the larger image here

And was himself crowned king;
And revitalized Latin literature and culture;
And established French instead of Anglo-Saxon English as the official language of government and Legal communication;
Nor how he made radical changes in property distribution, confiscating English estates and giving them over to Frenchmen;

And purged the Catholic Church of English prelates, including the standing Archbishop of the Church at Canterbury, and replacing them with French officials;

And spent years building fortifications, including parts of the Tower of London, in order to fend off rebellions by those in opposition to his rule;

I don’t care to say.

I could have started with all of that, and other things too.

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Michael White Productions, 1975). Image from this article.

But I won’t mention that Monty Python’s The Holy Grail was almost certainly the movie I watched the most number of times when I was your age and in college;

Nor that, despite my enjoyment of that film, I did not become a scholar who researches and publishes on medieval English Literature, though I have studied and taught it enough to recognize that Medievalists are some of the smartest and funniest people* on Twitter:

Karl Steel, Megan Cook, Kathleen Kennedy, Jonathan Hsy, Sjoerd Levelt, Johan Oosterman, Erik Kwakkel, Emily Steiner, Damian Flemming, Damien Kempf, Simon Doubleday

Damian Fleming is also one of the authors of the blog post I mention below.

And many others, like the people who tweet under the pseudonyms of medieval writers, like Geoffrey Chaucer himself,

with the pictures of cats and other animals that they post from manuscripts;

And the way they caption pictures from 13th and 14th century manuscripts with 21st century critiques;

And then there’s the fact that medievalists take on problems in our current time by way of Medieval literature in longer forms, such as this blog post comparing Trump to Handy Nicholas from Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, which got picked up and reported on by

Visit this site for more images and information.

And that’s not even to mention their social justice Tumblrs, like the one Professor Dardis mentioned the other week, People of Color in European Art History, AKA Medieval People of Color, a reminder that that as much as normative American culture imagines the regular human as fair-skinned, people living in medieval Europe could be as dark as or darker than me.

Now: if you’re feeling a bit lost after that long list, I don’t blame you;

Nor would I blame you for not having the ability to keep track of all the ways I could have started this lecture but chose not to. It might even be understandable if by this point you didn’t remember that these roads not taken were the larger umbrella that held together all the different things I was listing. But despite the length and apparently idiosyncratic nature of these last 5 minutes, I hope you were able to notice a few things:

First, those weren’t exactly roads not taken. Though I said I wasn’t going to start my lecture by talking about those things and that I didn’t care to mention some of them, I actually did give a nod to each of them.

Second, I hope you noticed that even though my opening to this prologue was a run-on sentence, it nonetheless had a clear structure, relying on repetition to tie items together and distinguish the two main parts. The first included items on England’s status as a geographical and political entity in the middle ages and the second paid homage to my engagement with the middle ages on 21st- century social media each day.

More specifically, I held together the items within each part through repetition, the poetic device of Anaphora, starting each of these clauses in the first part with a “Nor” or an “And, ” often preceding a clause beginning with “How.”

I used the same device in the second part, and I also listed several Medievalist friends of mine in a row, using the device of Systrophe, to define Medieval Twitter and demonstrate why I like these scholars so much.

A third thing I hope you noticed, then, is that I used some of the same forms of repetition and listing that Geoffrey Chaucer deploys throughout the Canterbury Tales.

If you thought this was an irritating way to get started today, I’ll defend my methods by noting that I was merely submitting to the authority of the poem’s narrator, who insists in the prologue:

Whoever tells a tale after a man,
He must repeat, as closely as he can… (730–1).

That is, if you found my opening annoying, you can blame the most annoying story-teller on the pilgrimage (I won’t name names, but he’s the one in The Knight’s Tale).

Even more than other narrators, this speaker exalts in anaphora and systrophe as well as the negative constructions that framed the beginning of my prologue. Just in case you didn’t notice these constructions on your first read, here’s an example: this is from the part where he describes the paintings in the Temple of Venus , noting all the figures who are painted there by explaining who was not left out:

For truly all of the Cithaeron’s mount
Where Venus has her principal dwelling
Was shown on the walls there in the painting.
With all the garden and its lustiness.
Nor was forgotten the porter, Idleness,
Nor Narcissus, from time past the fair one,
Nor yet the folly of King Solomon,
Nor yet the mighty strength of Hercules — …
Nor Turnus, with coureage… (1980., ff)

We also see his use of negative constructions again on pages 183 and 184 of your edition, which I’ve taken a picture of because I was not about to type out the portion in which the Knight takes two whole pages to tell us everything he’s skipping over at Arcite’s funeral. At the beginning of this section he says, “But how the fire was built to be so tall”… & ends it 40 lines later with “…I don’t care to say.”

In between these two lines, he gives us many additional things he also doesn’t care to say — but says anyway — in 17 lines beginning with Ne/Nor, and these are connected with still other things he’s not telling us in 8 lines lines beginning with “And.” And of course, he also insists in those lines that he “won’t go telling now” (2064–2066) about the trees that supplied the wood, although he mentions, nonetheless, a list of 19 different trees. Even when he professes not to care enough to say these things in line 2103, he still continues for another 3 lines, giving us 2 additional “Nor” clauses before promising: “shortly to the point I will wend / And of my long tale I will make an end.” I hope we can all agree that this man does not ever get “shortly to the point.”

Know your meme!

The point of my own somewhat lengthy prologue has been to alert you to some key features of Chaucer’s style that I hope you noticed already and to make the point that these elements of style often bear on our perceptions of the speaker who deploys them as much as our sense of the poet’s skill. In each tale, the preoccupations and proclivities of the teller are on display. In drawing attention to the long-winded Knight, in particular, Chaucer offers us a way to think more deeply about the nature of a story-teller’s authority, both in terms of his status as an author of a tale — the likes of which Chaucer typically undermines with occasional mild jabs — and as an authority on, or representative of, a particular social position.

At the beginning of the Miller’s prologue, we are given the impression that people approved of the Knight’s tale when it’s finally over:

When the Knight had thus his whole tale told,
In all the group was no one, young or old,
Who didn’t say it wasn’t a noble story,
One worthy to be kept in memory,
And namely, the gentlefolk even more.

The idea that it was memorable seems nice, but the agreement that it was a “noble story” is constructed with a double negative, and even if it were not, it’s ultimately not a positive appraisal so much as a recognition of the rank of its narrator — that is, of course it’s noble, because Knights are members of the landowning class, which is to say, the nobility; by definition, any tale a nobleman tells is a noble tale. In the words of a popular internet meme, redundant adjective is redundant.

Again, know your other meme!

Beyond noting the this figure’s propensity to go on and on — and the way he constrains us all to listen anyway — we can also infer something else from these long, overly stylized portions of the poem:

I think these parts suggest that Chaucer imagined The Canterbury Tales for an audience of readers who would be consuming the text as a text and in private, a prospect that complicates the main premise of the poem, which is that storytelling was, in the middle ages, an oral performance and public act. I’ll have more to say about the poem’s circulation as a written text towards the end of my time today, but to end this Prologue and once again adopt the style of Chaucher’s Knight, I’ll leave these topics momentarily here to dwell, so that this lecture’s structure I can tell.

I have divided what remains of my lecture into three parts. In the first, I will use a close reading of the General Prologue’s first 12 lines as a way to think critically about the enterprise in which Chaucer storytellers are all engaged. More specifically, I will discuss the political rather than spiritual underpinnings of pilgrimage in the middle ages. The basis of the particular journey the Pilgrims take is a subject that brings us into a long history of conflict between the church and the monarchy, the two institutions that held the greatest authority in 14th century England.

In the second part, I will turn to intersectional conflicts amongst the monarchy, the nobility, and the commons, conflicts that, because of / and along with the plague, altered the dynamics of political and economic power in the period. What I discuss in these two parts will provide context for the conclusion, in which I put a little pressure on the perspective on human behavior and social change that Chaucer appears to authorize in his Tales.

[Slide] WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

Like the Old Castillian in which El Cid was composed, Chaucer’s language is a great deal older than the English we use now. Chaucer’s English is “Middle” English — spoken in the Middle Ages, a term of convenience we use to describe an unwieldy set of centuries between the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD to the end of the 14th century. Chaucer probably began composing the poem after 1386.

You don’t have to be able to read the poem aloud in middle English to see that our edition’s translator, Sheila Fisher, has labored to preserve the structural and aesthetic features of Chaucer’s English in her modernized version on the right-hand side of the page; you also don’t need to be able to read the middle English in perform a close reading of the text. Like any English professor, I’m going to use close reading as a necessary first step, because once we catch on to the structures that make meaning in the poem — we can then go on to think more deeply about that meaning and the values that underpin it.

If we look at the broad structure of these 12 lines I just read, we can see two clauses to start with that work together to form the premise of the General Prologue: They are basically a big when X…then Y statement: “When April Comes,” then so too, inevitably, come the pilgrims. But because there are two somewhat lengthy “When” clauses, we don’t learn what will happen in April right away. First we are forced to imagine what April is like and what it does. According to lines 1–4, it rains, bathing every plant that was dry back in March, giving birth to flowers. Though we have a complete thought and a complete mental image of the process here, the sentence is still grammatically incomplete. But instead of the necessary parts of speech for a full sentence, we get another incomplete clause that follows a similar pattern, but is even longer. In this second “When” clause, we are presented with another image of April: this time, an allusion to the Greek God Zephyrus, the West Wind. Like the showers that “pierce” the dry soil down through the roots, the weathery emissions of Zephyrus are both disruptive and productive; wind here creates movement, even as it is described as a sweet breath; its trajectory through fields offers much needed inspiration for the tender shoots of plants to grow. It shakes things up, but in the end things are alright.

From this poetic license with the dispersal of seeds and a pre-modern understanding of photosynthesis, Chaucer turns to the effects of spring on little birds. They start to make melodies not just because they are prompted by the sun to come out of their relative hibernation, but also because their little hearts are “pricked by nature.” As in the first part, we are invited here to imagine the almost-painful mechanics of Spring, wherein apparently difficult processes engender growth, melody, and business as usual. In all these lines, Chaucer hints at the violence of seasonal change but eases us into it; the piercing, blowing, pricking are unavoidable parts in a cycle of change that ends — at least until next year — in harmony.

The songs of the birds is the last image we get before Chaucer finally presents the “Then” clause to finish out the sentence, which is: “Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” If we remove all the descriptive clauses about spring that I just discussed, the claim of the opening lines in the stanza looks something like this: When April arrives, people want to go on pilgrimage. Now, you’ve read this Prologue in its entirety, so you know that the primary point of the thing is to introduce you to the people in question. So why doesn’t Chaucer just start with the opening line I just re-wrote for him and get on with the business of telling us about each of the pilgrims? If you’re answering “because poets, like English professors, are annoying and like to hear themselves talk,” you may be correct, but that’s not the only reason and it’s a kind of a boring way to think about things. So what else might be observed about these two opening clauses?

First, we might note that there’s a progression from effects on plants to animals, and then onto people: we see him moving from simple natural phenomena responding to time to the responses of more sophisticated entities. In that move, Chaucer identifies seasonal changes as cyclical, verifiable and therefore inevitable, with clear and expected effects on all forms of life. It is natural for each of these things to happen — a personified, pokey Nature is even there in those lines, pricking those little birds’ hearts so that they know to sing. Each of these images is there to suggest that a human longing for pilgrimage is also a natural response to Spring.

Sure, when the weather gets better, we might find it easier to get out of the house. Maybe that is a “natural” reaction. And April is sort of a Holy month of cycles if we think of Good Friday, Easter, and Passover. But the calendars for some of these moveable feasts are set by human councils as much as the movement of the sun…and do we really believe our desires are seasonal? Unlike little singing birds, we have the individual wills that come with having high-level brains. Those brains and all our other proclivities within a social world are not neatly natural. Even as human nature may seem to be a subset of nature, or, like other natural phenomena, subject to forces in the natural world, our actions are not determined by nature alone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that pilgrimages are not #actually “natural”, but rather human-devised rituals forged in response to human actions and institutions. Why might Chaucer and his readers want to imagine them in other terms?

The premise that the idea to go on a pilgrimage is as natural as the coming of Spring is a textbook definition of what social and literary theorists understand as ideology: the presentation of social behaviors and structures as “natural” — and therefore right, predictable, and inevitable — in a manner that, whether intentionally or not, justifies a culture or group’s worldview. So rather than fall into the trap of trying to count the ways that going on a pilgrimage is like wind blowing through a field, I want to instead think more about its status as an inherently political act.

As your translation’s editor, Sheila Fisher, notes, Chaucer’s group outing has resonances with a long literary tradition of epic poetry — the Illiad, Odyssey, Inferno — organized around a long journey. It is also more closely connected to poems like the French Song of Roland, purportedly composed by an unknown poet on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which I was very lucky to visit this past summer. 2 years ago, I visited Canterbury, the Archdiocese, or the seat of the highest religious office in the Church of England. It was indeed a popular place to go for English subjects who were unable to travel to Rome or Jerusalem; few people had the resources that the Wife of Bath lays claim to in her prologue. As Fisher does well to note, the notion of pilgrimage had great spiritual import in the middle ages, with “overtones of penance & remorse, and the hope for purification, absolution, and redemption” (xxxv). Yet it was also “falling into disrepute” by the end of c.14 (xxxv), when the motives for undertaking such a trip typically extended beyond a simple desire to pay homage to the godliest of people and repent for sins. According to Fisher, “Going on pilgrimage for some could have as little connection to religion or spirituality as going on spring break for college students has a connection to a passion for cultural anthropology” (xxxv).

Chaucer is perhaps as guilty as anyone of using the spiritual journey for a secular purpose. Although we are told these pilgrims are on their way to pay tribute to “The holy, blessed martyr they all seek / Who has helped them when they were sick and weak” (17–18), that unnamed martyr remains a distant figure and seems to simply be an excuse to share some dirty jokes and stories. After all, that martyr, Thomas Becket, gets only these two lines, a reference to a fountain named for him, and a few exhortations of his name when pilgrims swear. Almost equally guilty of eliding Becket’s suffering is our text’s translator, who tells us in a brief note that “Saint Thomas was killed by Henry II’s henchmen on December 29th, 1170, in Canterbury Cathedral.” This note merely repeats the single sentence that she writes about him in her introduction, and both leave us guessing: our edition tells us almost nothing about Becket or Henry II nor why the latter had the former murdered.

But even if Chaucer and Fisher leave the details of Becket’s martyrdom untold, the pilgrimage site for which the poem is named is a de facto invocation of his death for readers; and his murder, committed two hundred years prior to Chaucer’s poem, forms a significant pre-text for the social world the Canterbury Tales presents. To fully understand this world, we need to know more about both men and the complex dynamics of political and religious authority in medieval England.

Remember in my prologue I mentioned the Norman conquest in 1066, an event that had significant impact on how governance worked in England. One of the consequences of King William’s reign was to remove English officers in the Church and appoint some from France in their stead, and to strategically bring its powerful Bishops under the authority of the crown in England rather than the Pope in Rome. Over time, monarchs in the Norman and succeeding Angevin dynasties clashed with current Bishops over appointments of new Bishops and were occasionally engaged in disputes over doctrine and Church policy. Dissenting bishops rarely came out well in those clashes; a case in point is St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109, exiled twice under two different monarchs and appealing to the competing authority of the Pope in each case.

But the most significant case, of course, is St Thomas Becket, once a dear friend and loyal chancellor to King Henry II, but later murdered by his henchmen. Because Becket had served Henry in his secular government, the king perhaps assumed that his former chancellor would bow to his authority and allow the king to exercise more control over Church policy when he become Archbishop of Canterbury. But Henry was wrong. According to Michael Staunton,

[link to campus library copy removed]

Like Anselm a half century before, Becket was forced into exile, gaining safe harbor and the support of Louis VII of France and Pope Alexander III, who helped arbitrate the dispute and enabled Becket’s return to England a couple years [?] later. But the period of compromise didn’t last, and after Becket crossed Henry and defied his authority in lieu of the Pope’s, the King complained to his most loyal nobles about the Archbishop, the son of a merchant, who no longer understood his place

This account is offered by one of the earliest biographers of Becket, William Fitzstephen. As a clerk who served the Archbishop, he couldn’t have possibly been in the room with the King and the four barrons who would turn to murder. But he and several others were eye-witnesses to the murder itself, and scholars generally take them as reliable sources. As Staunton notes,

[link to campus library copy removed]

Here’s Grim’s account of the murder itself:

[link to campus library copy removed]; image: Alabaster carving, from The British Museum
The image is much shinier in the original! Take a look here!

The factors leading to Becket’s murder are varied and complex, and, Staunton’s assumption of accuracy aside, Grim gives us a careful and stylized presentation of his martyrdom. What we see in his murder is the price for dissenting against the monarchy, and the lengths a King might go to in order to get his way; we also see the quickness with which his servants are willing to commit violence on his behalf. Yet we also see in it the limits of the king’s authority. Because these heinous acts were undertaken by his apparent command, Becket’s standing and perceived virtue at his death exceeded that of the living Henry.

We also see in his murder the way human conflicts are circumscribed within and alongside social hierarchies and institutions — both of which were assumed to be “natural” in the period, but were also created by people and were in constant state of negotiation. Chaucer’s treatment of the event presents a marked contrast to Grim’s; whereas the latter elaborates, the former evades. All we learn in the opening lines of the General Prologue is that it’s only natural for people to long for a visit to Becket’s shrine in April some two centuries later.

I’ll come back and try to explain why I find this noteworthy before I finish up today, but I now want to move on to Part II , in which we move from conflicts of authority between the monarchy and the church in the middle ages to consider conflicts amongst monarchs, the nobility, and the Commons.

In the case we just saw, Henry’s land-owning barons were so loyal to him that they were willing to take out a consecrated clergyman in a sacred place. But the interests of the elite members of English society were not always so aligned with the King’s in the middle ages. Zooming forward 45 years after Becket’s murder, we find an Archbishop of Canterbury once again ensconced in a feud with the King — this time John I. This time, the Archbishop appears not as the primary antagonist but as an intermediary trying to effect peace between John and his rebel barons. These barons were wealthy landowners or magnates mostly from the Northern counties, endowed with the fortune that came from the rents of those who lived and worked on their great estates. Failed military campaigns and heavy taxation to pay for them made these Barons loathe the King, and they not only accused him of ruling like a tyrant, but also marshaled the help of the Archbishop to limit his authority over them. The document he drafted was the first form of the Magna Carta, which not only set the rules against illegal imprisonment (the writ of habeus corpus), but also prohibited new taxes without consent of a council, and it also laid the foundation for the jury system and the two Houses of Parliament.

(You may recognize King John better as a Disney villain & Magna Carta as a Jay Z album, but there were precedents…)

By the time Chaucer was born in the early 1340s, these two Houses gave the people of England representation in the House of Lords, whose members were automatically conferred a place by their titles and hereditary offices, and also the House of Commons, whose members were elected from the counties — though only men, and only certain men, were eligible to vote). These developments were initiated out of conflict, but we should not see them as a great victory for democracy, nor great step towards inevitable progress and liberty. In all cases, these were moves that enshrined only the rights and privileges of an already privileged class, and rather than curb the will of the monarch, these apparatuses within government often provided the means to extend the power of the crown in English counties.

Moreover, the existence of these institutions were not in and of themselves enough to ensure stability in the government; as we move between the Magna Carta and the statutes in place during Chaucer’s lifetime, we continue to see conflicts between kings and the aristocracy, including violent uprisings that led to the deposition of two Kings, Edward II, and Richard II. In addition to using force to circumvent the authority of the monarchy, members of the nobility also used the less violent means afforded by Parliament and the justice system to exercise harsh laws on the commons.

Now, I should take a moment to explain what I mean by the Commons, since simplified media representations have conditioned us to think that all “Commoners” are peasants.

This still shot is from scene from The Holy Grail which portrays a peasantry equipped to critique the system. Watch it! It’s really quite funny/satisfying and in line with the claims I make in this lecture.

It is true that the they were the social inferiors of the first two estates, consisting of members of the clergy, ‘those who pray,’ and landowners and wealthy elites, described sometimes as ‘those who fight” because the land they held was part of the contract with the king to follow him in his wars in exchange for their place in the property. in the same parlance of convenience, the third estate consisted of “those who worked the land” that was owned by those in the first estate. No matter how hard elites in the period worked to tell us these hierarchical relationships were natural, we can see how these relationships are forged primarily out of political expedience and a desire to keep land and wealth in the hands of an elite few.

The complexity of the Commoner status, as covered by the Washington Post in 2010.

But also remember that the “fabulously rich” wife of the current Prince Henry is of common stock, for, Like the middle ages, the commons is term of convenience but also too simple to really get at the diverse range of people who comprised the third estate. It included the majority of people in England, what we’ve called, in the age of Occupy Wall Street, the 99%.

Though it’s not quite that high a percentage, the bulk of the pilgrims we are introduced to in Chaucer’s General Prologue are members of this estate, and one of the things the Prologue attunes us to is that the “commons” was not really adequate for describing the range of social positions one could occupy in a nascent market economy. There are indeed agricultural laborers on the pilgrimage, but there are more people who represent emerging forms of global and domestic commerce and who have positions within the institutions I described and related civil services. (See? Even when it’s dysfunctional, government can indeed create jobs.)

Now, the state of the commons is an important context for The Canterbury Tales not just because most of the pilgrims are represented in this group, but also because it informs how we understand Chaucer’s own social status. These existing and long-standing hierarchies based were being challenged by those who acquired wealth and access to goods based on market economies rather than the ownership of land, something that Chaucer benefited from directly as his father was a wine merchant. The old hierarchies were also disrupted by something else: The Bubonic Plague, whose effects you can imagine from what you read in Thucydides and Lucretius. In England, the so-called Black Death decimated England’s population by more than half between 1348 and 1372, and it radically changed the social and literal landscape. As Fisher writes,

Farming…was crucial not only to sustaining the population with food but also to providing the aristocracy with revenues from food production. Fewer peasants to farm the land meant fewer revenues for members of the aristocracy, some of whom became impoverished to the point of selling off family landholdings. Rich members of the commons, like Chaucer’s Franklin, could acquire social ascendancy by buying lands and set out to imitate the aristocracy….What is more, with a shortage of agricultural labor, peasants were able to bargain for greater pay…

Here too, Chaucer benefited from disruption: an unexpected death in his mother’s family allowed her to inherit expensive city property.

As an adult, and as he moved through various government positions over time, these shifts also enabled Chaucer’s personal fortunes as a civil servant and page to influential members of the court. He got a position serving the household of John of Gaunt, the uncle of the King Richard II, and this position gave him an opportunity to travel on diplomatic missions and to dedicate his first collection of poems, The Book of the Duchess, a volume commemorating John of Gaunt’s first wife Blanche, who also died of the plague. His fortunes were affected as Richard II and his uncle presided — rather poorly — over foreign war and domestic unrest.

As I already suggested when I mentioned Richard’s deposition, members of the nobility weren’t happy with increased taxation that came with foreign military campaigns; nor were the happy with the stirrings of the workers who were empowered by the population shifts to push for better conditions. Since their authority over the third estate was easier to exercise than overpowering the King, these nobles worked through the processes of Parliament to ensure the laboring classes were kept in their place. They passed The Statute of Labourers (1351), which contains the following:

“Because a great part of the people and especially of the, workmen and servants has now died in that pestilence, some, seeing the straights of the masters and the scarcity of servants, are not willing to serve unless they receive excessive wages, and others, rather than through labour to gain their living, prefer to beg in idleness: We, considering the grave inconveniences which might come from the lack especially of ploughmen and such labourers, have held deliberation and treaty concerning this with the prelates and nobles and other learned men sitting by us; by whose consentient counsel we have seen fit to ordain: that every man and woman of our kingdom of England, of whatever condition, whether bond or free, who is able bodied and below the age of sixty years,…shall be bound to serve him who has seen fit so to seek after him; and he shall take only the wages…or salary which…were accustomed to be paid in the twentieth year of our reign of England…if any man or woman, being thus sought after in service, will not do this, [by] the sheriffs or the bailiffs of our lord the king, or the constables of the town he shall be taken and sent to the next jail, and there he shall remain in strict custody until he shall find surety for serving in the aforesaid form.”

Statutes are difficult reading, but in this brief excerpt we see that it made the refusal to work and requests for higher wages punishable offenses, holding employers accountable to workers only at rates that were offered several years prior and trapping workers by curtailing their right to choose the employer for which they worked. If a landholder wanted to employ them, they were forced to comply. While it is uncertain how easy the statute was to enforce, we do know that it fostered greater resentment than already existed between the different estates, and by 1380, when Parliament introduced a flat poll tax that over-burdened the poor, that resentment sparked a full on revolt by the commons.

Composed of middle-class landholders as well as artisans and workers, the Rising of 1381 took various forms in different parts of the country; in London, these rebels burned down Savoy Palace, the residence of Chaucer’s former employer and patron, John of Gaunt; while the young Richard attempted to quell the unrest in meetings outside the city, others broke into the Tower of London and beheaded the King’s treasurer as well as Simon Sudbury, the chancellor and, you guessed it, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Still other rebels laid siege to a manor in St. Albans, a prosperous estate notorious for seizing the mills owned by those who worked in grain production and forcing them to pay to use the larger millstones provided on the manor some 50 years prior (Patterson).

According to an account of the 1381 Rising from the Abbey chronicler, the rebels broke into a parlour where the millstones were and removed them, “breaking them into little bits and pieces and giving a piece to each person, just as the consecrated bread used to be broken and distributed on Sundays in the parish churches, so that the people, seeing these pieces, would know themselves avenged against the abbey in that cause” (Quoted in Patterson). The same account includes the remarks of one William Grindcombe, probably a miller, who was indicted as the leader of the rebels:

Read Patterson’s Lecture in its entirety here.

Fellow citizens [he said], for whom a little liberty has now relieved the long years of oppression, stand firm while you can and do not be afraid because of my persecution. For if it should happen I die in the cause of seeking to acquire liberty, I will count myself happy to end my life as such a martyr.”

Commenting on these last words, Lee Patterson contends, “the use of the religious word ‘martyr’ to describe a political rebel is surely significant; as a contemporary verse put it, “The stool was hard, the ax was sharp / the iiii yere of Kyng Richard’ What has this to do with Chaucer, probably nothing personally: he was living in London at the time, and doubtless witnessed the invasion of the city by the rebels — an event to which he refers in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in a tone that is pretty much unreadable. But much more important is the role he grants to his miller in the Canterbury Tales. For Chaucer’s Miller is not only allowed to interrupt a monk without retribution — unlike martyred William Grindcobbe — but also allowed to tell a tale that is a scathing and funny parody of the Knight’s Tale.”

In the lecture in which this contention appears, derived from several important studies of Chaucer, Patterson goes on to place Chaucer more specifically in what he describes as “a crisis of governance that afflicted England in the fourteenth century,” in the three years preceding the time he probably began composing the Canterbury Tales. Patterson describes the struggle I alluded to earlier between Richard II and the wealthy magnates who attempted to challenge him in Parliament. In 1386, Chaucer was selected to represent Kent, in the house of Commons. Remember that this body is the one into which people could be elected in their county; in subsequent years, Richard was accused of attempting to stack the commons to shift the balance away from members of Parliament who despised him and were working actively to remove his loyal favorites from positions of power. But regardless of how Chaucer found his way into Parliament in 1386, the nobles who opposed the King seized control of the government and instituted a purge that sent him and other possible loyalists out; shortly thereafter, they impeached and executed some of Richard’s servants and supporters, and though the King regained power and retaliated against his enemies, he was eventually murdered and deposed.

Patterson argues that these events are relevant to the study of the Canterbury tales with the following logic:

Read the whole lecture here

I’m generally in agreement with Patterson in this assertion and want to add some additional comments that I hope will bring us back to where I started.

Chaucer’s familiarity with instruments of English governance pervades the poem in myriad references even in places where they don’t need to be; for instance, at the end of the Knight’s Tale, Theseus refers a “parliament” at Athens (20970), which doesn’t really seem in keeping with the terms of Athenian democracy; the Wife too makes note of a “statute” in order to invoke her legal right to divorce an impotent husband. In the General Prologue’s the Sergeant of the Law knows “the precedents for everything / The law had done since William was the king” and “Every statute, he could recite by rote” (324–329) — but he uses this knowledge for his own personal profit.

We might think that Chaucer’s offering a critique here each time, but if he is, it’s pretty weak sauce. The overall effect of these multiple voices is to disperse the political perspectives and project them away from the poet himself in the same way that the first 12 lines of the General Prologue deflect the violent story behind the pilgrimage and instead suggest the journey is a depoliticized, cyclical part of human life.

There are many variations on this phenomenon in the poem, wherein we see a momentary disruption of hierarchies only to find that resistance is inconsequential:

In the Miller’s Tale, the Miller describes Handy Nicholas’s groping of Alison’s “mount of venus” as clearly non-consensual, only to assure us ten lines later that “he spoke so fairly and pressed himself so fast” that she submitted — and swears an oath to Thomas Becket that she will “act by his commandment.” At first, we are encouraged to be alarmed, but then we must submit along with Alison, and say oh well, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, it’s April.

Or in the Knight’s Tale, where Emilia tells Diana she’s uninterested in marrying either knight, but is told by Diana to suck it up and just accept it.

Or in the General Prologue, the narrator apologizes for not introducing the pilgrims in the General Prologue by their degree, but he starts with the Knight all the same.

Or in the impulse we see towards democracy or meritocracy that we see in the bet laid out by the Host, wherein the premise is that any one of the pilgrims could win a free dinner by telling the best story, and the pilgrims even draw straws to determine who goes first. But of course, we know who ends up winning the draw — and who gets to talk the longest.

Now, if you’re thinking we should be applauding Chaucer for his shrewd diplomacy and tact with powerful people in sensitive times, you’re not wrong. Knowing where your bread is buttered is indeed an important quality in a person who held a number of different civic and service positions in his lifetime — a long-time servant of the nobility who also weathered storms in the reigns of three separate monarchs. He even survived being charged with rape. This ability to entertain with broadly appealing, hey, everybody-does-it, kind-of- jokes is no doubt why, in 1476, William Caxton chose the Canterbury Tales to be the first book printed from his press in English. The printing and wider circulation (see the post by Adam Hooks on an important later edition) of the book ensured that the poem, already beloved in manuscript, would became the first English work to find entrance in the literary canon, establishing both the arrival of the vernacular as well as Chaucer’s claims of literary paternity.

It may not be wholly fair to judge Chaucer for being insufficiently political, and I’d like to think that to make these claims is not to diminish or detract from his fame as a world-class poet. And to be honest, the history I’ve just relayed does start to seem cyclical, with patterns of authority, dissent, rebellion, and a return to the usual authorities in power. It’s also not hard to imagine that Chaucer was jaded by his experience in an engineered parliament or, alternatively, that he was convinced by that experience to simply keep calm and carry on.

Still, in light of his acceptance of disparate events as part of the natural course of things, it is essential that we as readers think critically about such claims — whether we see them in literature or in real life. Both are inescapably political, even if we cannot imagine the political problems within them deeply affecting us. Even if we ourselves — especially if we ourselves do not feel vulnerable in light of those problems, we should be wary of accepting pat narratives where social unrest and inequality are good or just the natural state of affairs.

If we are encouraged to accept all human behaviors are “natural,” and at the same time, accept that social tensions and inequality are equally part of the natural order of things, there’s not much for any one of us to do really. After all, whatcha gonna do if you believe that those in power belong there?

If we are encouraged to accept all human behaviors are “natural,” and at the same time, accept that social tensions and inequality are equally part of the natural order of things, there’s not much for any one of us to do really. After all, whatcha gonna do if you believe that those in power belong there?

Know your meme, from “haters gonna hate”

Our options in this mind-frame are limited: We can passively submit to forces that beyond our control or leverage what we can in the position we have; the idea that we can be deserving of equal access to basic goods with those of lesser or superior status — the conviction of the “middling” landowners that participated in the rising— finds little support in Chaucer beyond the notion that we’re all equally flawed. As The Knight claims “Truly it’s said neither Love nor lordship Wants willingly to have a partnership.”

This mode of poetic engagement isn’t exactly the neutrality that Dante condemned in Inferno, but it is something that can seem at times to be just as problematic: Chaucer turns keen observations of human darkness and frailty into equal-opportunity jokes or mild critiques, and they ultimately work to normalize and make comforting what should be unsettling. This is not to say that I think literature has to be morally upright or didactic, of course, or that we should be relieved rather than perplexed to find Chaucer’s retraction of the poem at the end of The Canterbury Tales (see page 733).

Still, what worked for Chaucer may not work well for us. There is a danger in following this reliance on nature and time to return things to a familiar state. We should not easily accept as patterned and familiar what is actually forged by humans and unknown.

Nor should we take comfort in narratives that reinforce the idea that things are normal and ok simply because they have happened before. Phenomena we perceive as cyclical, or as long-term patterns of behavior, should not be accepted as so “natural” that we should complacently wait for, or simply expect, them to happen again. via Fleming & Drimmer

Nor are assaults on justice and decency so inevitable so that we should allow them to happen with regularity.

Lucretius taught us that, as humans, we are composed of Atoms like all other things in Nature and effected by Nature external and internal to us. But we are also endowed with the intellectual sophistication to recognize the labored artifice inherent in our rituals and the complexity of human agency — both light and dark — behind our social structures and institutions. As an institution in and of himself, Chaucer could both swerve and dodge.


  • Medievalists are some of the smartest and funniest people, period. Especially on Twitter, but not just on Twitter. If you don’t know any, change that!
  • I owe some of my thoughts here on the Prologue to a brief conversation with Karl Steel; for my access to Patterson’s lecture, I’m indebted to Megan Cook; and, though I didn’t end up getting to talking about the Wife & Carpenter’s wife here in detail, I very much appreciate what I learned about rape laws from Kathleen Kennedy.

Some fun/useful/important links in and related to this lecture:

Learn about Thomas Speght’s Chaucer in a blog post by Adam Hooks (Associate Professor of English at Iowa University)

Access the Ellsmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales! Read it as readers in Chaucer’s time (more likely within a couple decades after his death, 1400) from The Huntington Library.

Access the first and second printed editions of The Canterbury Tales! Read it as 15th century audiences would have read it, from the British Library.

How cosmopolitan is The Canterbury Tales? Check out this Mapping Chaucer Project!

You can access The vvhole volume of statutes at large (1587) by accessing Early English Books Online from our library’s Databases: search by title or for STC 533:01. You need to log in through the portal to access the database.

Here’s an essay written by Kathleen Kennedy (Associate Professor at Penn State — Brandywine) on rape in Game of Thrones and in the middle ages. Kennedy has a chapter on rape laws in her book on Medieval law, culture, and literature, Maintenance, Meed, and Marriage in Medieval English Literature.



Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.