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Medieval Society in The Canterbury Tales


The work and organization of the medieval society proposed in the Canterbury Tales by Charles Chaucer can be easily connected with the organization of modern society. This is a point that can be established if the two settings were to be compared. Chaucer depicts a society wherein work is taken seriously and therefore assigned its special time. Society is also marked by orderly undertakings with proper assignment of duties to various individuals. Like any society, the people who are given various responsibilities exhibit various degrees of competence. There are those who do their work to the best of their ability, and there are those who are a complete letdown. This may not be expressly stated by the voice in the general prologue but through the actions of the knight, the monk, the prioress, the yeoman, and the other characters, we can easily tell who is doing his or her job and who is not (Ellis 59).In this research paper, the work in the tales as well as the general societal organization will be examined. The main claim that appears in the examination is that the Tales of Canterbury presents to us a well-organized and effective society where work is not only equally and appropriately distributed but also effectively done. But the fact that other characters behave in a way that undermines this standpoint is a possible opposition to this claim.

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To start, the society in the Canterbury Tales has its activities set for specific times. This is exemplified by the way the people are ready to go for a pilgrim to thank the revered saint, Thomas, for all that he has done for them. This is taking place in the month of April when the soothing rainfalls and clears the dryness of the March sun. This is the time that the person who is telling the story joins the rest of the people who are on a pilgrimage (Pearsall 23). It is from this experience that he is able to tell us the behaviors of all the other members in the group who he is able to analyze as deeply as possible. The fact that these people are proceeding for the pilgrimage at this time means that it’s the season when they actually do this, and therefore the society is set in such a way that each takes place at its own time.

Leaving the above aside, the society in the Canterbury Tales has ranks that signify the honor bestowed on an individual. This is based on the achievements made by someone or the profession one is in. For example, the knight is highly respected because of his military prowess (Ellis 64). He has earned his respect on the battlefield, and he is determined to live up to the good name that is associated with the position. Chaucer tells us that he therefore walks, talks, and dresses with dignity (Pearsall 36). The monk, the friar, and the yeoman are religious people and the esteem that they are held in by the society is purely based on the nature of their profession. They are however not as perfect as one would expect servants of God to be as shown by the begging nature of the friar and the rebelliousness of the monk who rides horses even though this is an unacceptable activity for monks in the monastery in England at the time captured in the Canterbury Tales. In the line of ranks, the prioress appears to be the one holding the most humble position. In some cases, the yeoman may be considered the most humble but the prioress is comparable to a house servant. Therefore, the society in the Canterbury Tales is organized in such a way that the work done by various people affects the respect they are accorded by the larger community and the most respected are those who have dedicated their lives to public service especially in the battlefield as shown by the knight.

Thirdly, there is a clear sense of specialization or professionalism in the society as far as work is concerned. In other words, different people in the Canterbury Tales society are assigned unique roles. They are expected to fulfill the requirements of these roles to the best of their ability. For the people whose jobs are discussed in the prologue, no one individual is assigned two roles. Each has his or her own function. In modern times, division of labor and specialization is the mode of the market whereby people are allowed to specialize in areas where they are best suited in. The result is that an individual becomes an expert in his or her area. This is a concept that Chaucer brings out very clearly in the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales. What are the examples for this? The knight has his role clearly explained. He is a military man whose duties are at the battlefield. The prioress does home duties such as the ones performed by Madame Eglentyne. The monk carries out religious work in the monastery, the friar carries out religious work too while the merchant is basically a businessman. It is possible that people can be assigned roles in this manner but yet turn out to be incompetent. This is true for such characters as the friar who engages in begging by using his charm instead of carrying out productive religious duties. But this does not erase the fact that this is a society with a clear assignment of roes to the various members in the society.

Besides the above, there is a clear sense of law guiding the work in particular and the life in general in the society. Law is important for any society, and this is an aspect this society has not left out. How do we know this? We are told that the monk is supposed to avoid the riding of horses as clearly stated by the laws governing the monastery. This means that this section of society has its set of laws. The friar is also begging, an undertaking that is not supposed to be carried out by someone in this profession. He uses his gifts to popularize himself to people who can give him gifts and handouts; something that is against the expected conduct of a friar. This tells us that the society that Chaucer is talking about through his tales is one that is under the law. Note that having laws is different from following the laws. The fact that these laws are not being followed to the letter does not mean that they do not exist. Is this society as organized as it has been presented above?

Contrary to the above colorful or rosy presentation of the work and organization of the society in the prologue of Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, there are numerous areas that depict both low organizational aspects as well as lack of proper controls. The two most pronounced examples for this are the rebelliousness of the monk and the begging of the friar. Chaucer clearly tells us that the monk is not supposed to ride horses but we see him doing this. Lillian Bisson says that this is disobedience to the law (Bisson 47). Is he rebuked for this? We are not told so. The mere fact that he has the courage to break the law means that he knows the possibility of escaping the consequences. The friar is also engaging in despicable acts such as seeking gifts and popularizing himself; actions that present him as an uncommitted servant of the church.


In conclusion, the work and organization of society presented in the prologue of Canterbury Tales is shown by the performance of certain acts in specific seasons, the specialization and division of labor among the various members of the society, the existence of ranks signifying honor such as the knight, the friar and the monk, and the presence of laws governing each undertaking. The misbehavior of some characters depicts weakness of controls which undermines the claim to perfection in this society, albeit, to a lesser degree. Thus the society depicted in the Canterbury Tales has clear structures with a well established system that points out the work that is supposed to be done and the people who are supposed to do the work.

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Works Cited

Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Print.

Ellis, Steve. Chaucer at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.

Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1985. Print.

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