If one theme can be considered overriding or defining throughout Medieval European society, it would most likely be the concept of social class structure. During this early historical period in Europe, most of society was divided into three classes or 'estates:' the workers, the nobles, and the clerics. By Chaucer's time, however, the powerful estate structure had begun to wear down. Weaknesses in the system became apparent, as many people, such as Chaucer himself, seemed to no longer belong to any one of the three estates. Wealthy merchants sometimes had more power and influence than poor noblemen, but the merchants technically remained mere workers or peasants. Even Chaucer, who was given the title of Esquire en Service, the lowest ranking of the noble class, was never truly considered a nobleman because he wasn't born into his title. With social structure failing the society and putting pressures on the already fractured classes, it isn't surprising that authors of the time such as Chaucer began to make commentary on the estates in their works. Driven by his own feelings of class isolation, and his observations of the ludicrous behavior of the other classes, Chaucer clearly intended his work, The Canterbury Tales, to be a satire upon the estates.
Central to understanding Chaucer's work is, one can see, coming to an understanding of Chaucer himself. Unlike modern works of fiction, which frequently lack any real sense of meaning beyond simple entertainment, Chaucer works a number of social critiques into The Canterbury Tales. His motivation is relatively clear: the social issues he chooses to address were the issues that largely shaped his life. "Chaucer and some of his peers were...
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...trates an enlightened commentary on the three estates. By humorously satirizing the societies faults with pilgrim's such as the Summoner or the Pardoner, and applauding the positive influences on society, the true representatives of the three estates, the Knight, the Parson, and the Ploughman, Chaucer makes a bold and lasting statement on his society.
Benson, Larry D. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Brewer, Derek. Writers and their Background: Geoffrey Chaucer. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975.
Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Kellogg, Alfred L. Chaucer, Langland, Arthur: Essays in Middle English Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972.
Strohm, Paul. Social Chaucer. England: Harvard University Press, 1989.
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