The “General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales” is often called a picture of its age and, frequently in the next breath, a satire. In English literature this usually draws a stern lecture about confusing the distinction between literature and history, but in this essay, unobserved by my sophomores, I propose to talk about the “General Prologue” as a picture of its age and then, tentatively, about some uses such history might be put to by historians and literary students.
The basic fact of life in the society of the ‘General Prologue’ is economic struggle. The pilgrims’ occupational labels are obvious keys to their individual struggles or exemption from struggle and thus to their social position.
The “General Prologue” has an obvious historical interest as a series of discrete bits of information about dress, customs, etc.; but if it is to be considered as a more general historical formulation, there is a question of coherence. Is Chaucer’s fictional society sufficiently coherent to warrant taking it seriously as fourteenth-century sociology? The best reason for an affirmative answer is rather vague. It is simply the strong sense most readers have that Chaucer is sampling, that his pilgrims are representatives. There are certainly omissions from his roll, but he does give good coverage to the middle segment of society The nature, he is imitating is social in a sense that is worthy of a sociologist’s regard. To put it rather grandly, Chaucer’s imitation has the same general ontological status as the sociologist’s model; both are representative fictions. This analogy serves my purpose by temporarily converting the literary fiction into a series of hypothetical propositions which may be examined and defined before they are verified. What are the hypothetical patterns of social organization? Then, were they truly descriptive?
The “General Prologue” suggests at least three different ways of pinning down my general sense of coherence to a more specific pattern of social organization. One would be to invoke the widely familiar theory of the three estates. Chaucer’s Knight, Parson, and Plowman do seem to exist as governing ideals, but the effort to classify the pilgrims in one or another of the estates makes it clear that this pattern has the same trouble with the world of the “General Prologue” as it has with the real one. It doesn’t account for the complexities of commerce. The second way would be to follow up Chaucer’s expressed intention to discuss each pilgrim’s degree, but once again Chaucer’s society is too complex for clear hierarchical classifications, as he himself suggests. The third, and I think the best, way of establishing a pattern of organization is to infer it from Chaucer’s practice and say the obvious: he presents his pilgrims by occupational labels, he is concerned with what men do. In the “General Prologue,” as elsewhere, what men do falls largely into the category of economics. There is certainly a generous provision on of economic information in the description of the pilgrims, and although there is a good deal of other information as well, the economic information is sufficiently cohesive to justify taking it as the basic matter of my argument. This focus certainly places the discussion within the historian’s purview, but it may seem rather less useful for literary study. However, the study of history can illuminate the norms that govern the irony of the “General Prologue,” and defining that irony is very much a literary question.
Taking the economic information as basic, then, I shall consider the sources of livelihood for the pilgrims and ask how they lived, according to the information Chaucer gives. These sources fall into three large classes: land, the Church, and trade (understood to include everything not in the other two, manufacture, commerce, and services). My intention is not to treat the pilgrims as representatives of classified occupations, but rather to regard them collectively and to infer patterns of life from their descriptions. I am not concerned to place the Miller either in land or in trade or to justify placing the Physician with the others in trade. I want to infer from the various descriptive information about the kind of life provided by land, the Church, and trade. For example, the Man of Law lives by his professional services and so I would classify him in trade, but I am mainly interested in some information his description gives about life based on land.
The descriptions of the Plowman, the Reeve, and the Franklin should provide detailed information about the economics of land, but except for the description of the Reeve the yield is slight. There is much detail about the Franklin but it has very little to do with economics. It shows more about spending than getting, a difference I shall come back to. The Reeve’s description, however, tells a good deal more. The first point is obvious enough, his expertise is managerial. It is founded on practical agricultural knowledge in that he can calculate exactly the effect of the weather on yield, and it is founded on a practical knowledge of human nature in that he knows the tricks of all the bailiffs and herdsmen. The two kinds of practical knowledge add up to the efficient operation of his lord’s establishment, but not necessarily to his lord’s profit. The tight control he maintains over his operations, stops with him; no one above him checks up on him as he checks up on those below him. As a result, “ful riche was he astored prively.” This leads to a second and less obvious point, a role change. He uses his personal gains as a landholder’s agent to establish himself as a landholder in his own right. That, I take it, is the meaning context indicates for the word purchase: “His wonyng was ful faire upon an heeth; / With grene trees yshadwed was his place. / He koude bettre than his lord purchase.” What is interesting about this role change is the change in the Reeve’s activities that it brings about. From hard-nosed managing, which causes him to be feared, he switches to giving and lending, which his lord mistakenly, or at least uncomprehendingly, regards as generous. From sharp practice to the image of generosity, the calculating agent has become a comfortably situated landholder.
This division of activities is significant in the world of the “General Prologue.” It shows the social implication of the economic pattern for prosperity: the profits from efficient operation go into the purchase of land, that is, into capital expansion; profits are earned by “operators,” the landholder is economically passive. This division of activity also brings into focus some pilgrims like the Franklin who are associated with land by their occupational designations, but whose descriptions contain very little practical economic information. Pilgrims deriving their livelihood from land fall into two Chaucerian sub-classes: agents, who see to the operation and expansion of agricultural enterprises; and principals, the landholders. The agents are described by the work they do, the principals by less clearly economic or non-economic activities, by their social activities, their life style.
In addition to the Reeve’s work there is another level of agency and another kind of agent’s work. This is the legal work of control and capital expansion. In the Manciple’s temple there are a dozen lawyers, so expert that they are “Worthy to be stywardes of rente and lond. / Of any lord that is in Engelond.” The agent’s expertise is still managerial but now the basic knowledge is legal. Even on the Reeve’s level the emphasis can be shifted from words like bynne, yeldynge , and dayerye, to words like covenant, rekenynge, and arrerage in order to show the lawyer’s concern in the stewardship of rent. Legal draughtsmanship is the crucial skill here. The Man of Law “koude endite, and make a thyng, / Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng.” The Man of Law was also expert in the second category of stewardship, land: “So greet a purchasour was nowher noon / Al was fee symple to hym in effect; / His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.” Because of the contextual emphasis on legal skill I read purchasour as implying agency; the lawyer buys land for his client by removing the legal restrictions to make it as available as if it had been held in fee simple. Chaucer has given more information about farm management than about dirt farming, and as a consequence his agriculture seems rather bureaucratic. Different kinds of agents work at different levels of removal from the land. but socially the important point is that they all work.
The other class of pilgrims deriving their livelihood from land do not work, at least not directly for their own monetary gain. The Franklin’s description dwells on the quantity and quality of his table with mention of its sources of supply in his pond and mew. Less noticed, because Chaucer emphasizes them less, are his public offices, which indicate significant service and a somewhat higher social station than he is often credited with. We have a landholder, then, who is defined not by the operation of his holdings but by his hospitality and public offices. The Knight and the Squire divide these tendencies, the Knight being defined by his service and the Squire by his style. The Monk, though not indicated as a landholder, enjoys the position of one. Hunting is an expensive sport and he is a great hunter, presumably because he can command some of his monastery’s wealth. The Prioress is a ladylike equivalent.
In the “General Prologue” landed wealth supports a variety of social activities. There are sports and entertainment, like the Monk’s hunting and the Franklin’s table. There are the Franklin’s political service and the Knight’s military service against the heathen. Somewhere between sport and service come the Squire’s activities, ostensibly directed to entertainment but carrying enough suggestion of probationary regimen to indicate a gentil imperative.
These activities, taken all together, do much to define the life style of gentlemen and ladies. The supporting wealth comes obviously from agricultural operations and less obviously from capital expansion, and it is earned by the agents who work for the landholders. The two groups are defined by different activities; the agents get and the principals spend, the agents work and the principals amuse themselves and render public service. This is the central pattern of Chaucer’s social structure.
This distinction between principals and agents disappears in the loosely assembled activities of commerce, manufacturing, and service that I have grouped together in trade. There, despite the wide social range from the Cook to the Merchant, each of these pilgrims shares a common necessity to- face the rigors of economic competition on his own. The Merchant buys and sells and dabbles in currency exchange. The Wife of Bath is a cloth maker. The Cook puts his culinary skill to hire. Yet somewhat surprisingly the yield of economic particulars is not great. Although we are not definitely told what the commerce of the merchant is, we are given an informal audit of his position, something none of his fellows could get. In other words, the thing that interests the narrator about the Merchant is his balance sheet. It is not perfectly clear whether or not the “dette” is ordinary commercial credit, “chevyssaunce.” It is clear, however, that the Merchant thinks his interest requires secrecy, implying an apprehension of vulnerability, insecurity. On a lower level the Shipman’s pilferage, the Miller’s gold thumb and the Manciple’s percentage show more directly predatory activities and indicate the rule of precarious individual interest. A more indirect suggestion of such a pattern of life occurs in the description of the guildsmen where the narrator’s emphasis falls on their appearance, which is consonant with ceremonial dignity. Each of them was “a fair burgeys / To sitten in a yeldehall on a deys.” That status is a reward is not especially illuminating, but the intensity of the competition for it does suggest sharp need and insecurity.
Everich, for the wisdom that he kan, Was shaply for to been an alderman. For catel hadde they ynogh and rente, And eek hir wyves wolde it wel assente; And elles certeyn were they to blame. It is ful fair to been ycleped "madame," And goon to vigilies al bifore, And have a mantel roialliche ybore. Likewise the Wife of Bath: In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she, That she was out of alle charitee.
In various ways, then, the descriptions of the pilgrims in trade betray an apprehensiveness. Their positions may deteriorate, and even those of high degree seem vulnerable to a greater extent than more or less equivalently placed pilgrims in the other categories.
Granting the fact of predatory competition and the implicit insecurity, one might still pause before characterizing Dame Alice as a neurotic status seeker. She may be sensitive about the due formalities of the offertory, but it is also true that “In felaweshipe wel koude she laugh and carpe.” Her Rome and Jerusalem probably had quite a bit of Miami about them. Since the Miller is a “jangler and a goliardeys,” the social life of at least some of the pilgrims in trade seems vigorous and uninhibited. The best sense of this tavern gemiitlichkeit is conveyed by the narrator’s description of the Friar’s social style.
His typet was ay farsed ful of knyves And prunes, for to yeven faire wyves. And certeinly he hadde a murye note; Wel koude he svnge and pleyen on a rote; Of yeddynges he baar outrely the pris. His nekke whit was as the flour-de-lys; Therto he strong was as a champioun. He knew the tavernes wel in every toun And everich hostiler and tappestere Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;
The Host’s primary qualification is that he is “myrie.” The Merchant, the guildsmen, the Man of Law, and the Physician may be too far up the social ladder for this kind of fun; at any rate they are more sedate. Among the pilgrims who make their living in trade, at least for those on the lower social levels, the reward of their struggle is a free, sometimes boisterous conviviality.
Such blatantly materialistic self-interest would ideally set the churchmen on the pilgrimage apart from the rest, but it is perfectly clear from their descriptions that they are more of the world than they ought to be. The Parson, of course, is an ideal, and though he does move in the world, his sanctity sets him apart. However, even in the Parson’s description two of the negative particulars indicate something of the practical economic operations of less saintly parsons who readily cursed for their tithes and would leave their parishes with curates to become chantry-priests or chaplains in London. There are churchmen who want to make money. In the descriptions of the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner this materialistic drive is given sharp focus because, with allowance for institutional differences, they are all selling a service–the remission of sins. The Pardoner also sells fake relics as a sideline. The Friar had to pay for his begging territory, which, presumably, would also have been his confessional territory. The Summoner is an agent, working for the archdeacon’s court. As a practical matter he took bribes, and so his remission of sins was simply escape from the archdeacon’s jurisdiction. The Pardoner sold papal pardons, a practical short circuit of the sacrament of penance. Such churchmen seem to live lives like those of the Shipman, the Miller, and the Manciple. That is to say, they live by their wits under economic pressure, and furthermore the descriptions of the Friar and the Summoner indicate that the tavern is the scene of their social pleasures.
The Monk and the Prioress are hardly in this class but neither are they as saintly as the Parson. We learn a great deal about the style of their lives but nothing of the economic bases for such lives. The Monk is a great hunter and the Prioress is a refined and delicate lady, so their style is unmistakably gentil. Though the narrator says nothing of their economic arrangements, both are associated with landed establishments and presumably base their style of life on that kind of wealth. The social pattern discernible among the pilgrims with a livelihood from land seems applicable among the churchmen also. Landed wealth exempts the beneficiaries from the economic struggle that governs the lives of the others, lesser, churchmen! The churchmen divide socially into those who live on the income from a landed establishment and those who earn their living directly. Of the latter group, the obvious generalization is that the remission of sins has become a commercial transaction. A less obvious but more interesting one follows: this commerce was highly competitive, the competitors representing different ecclesiastical institutions. It seems that Chaucer does not separate his churchmen into a special category. In other words, except for the saintly, ideal Parson, clerical occupations are social and economic indicators in the same way as lay occupations.
The basic fact of life in the society of the “General Prologue” is economic struggle. The pilgrims’ occupational labels are obvious keys to their individual struggles or exemption from struggle and thus to their social position. But there is little value in learning that the Knight does not have to struggle like the Cook and that his degree is higher. The pilgrims’ descriptions, however, do more; they imply a sharper general pattern for life in the world of the “General Prologue.“ This pattern is clearest among the pilgrims whose living comes from land. There the distinction between principals and agents marks a man as above the economic struggle or in the middle of it and consequently sets a gentil style of life apart from the others. Among the pilgrims making a living in trade the distinction does not appear because each one must struggle in his own interest. These pilgrims seem less secure and there is no gentilesse. Since the churchmen are not landholders, their case would seem to be similar; yet there is gentilesse among their number. The social implications of the distinction between principals and agents reappears, and once again access to landed wealth is determinative.
Pilgrims are what they do, and what most of them do primarily is work. They work competitively within the rules like the Man of Law or outside them like the Pardoner. This stress on hustle and competition creates a society quite different from that implicit in the pattern of the three estates with its stress on complementary self-subordination in a system of cooperation. To be sure, some of the pilgrims do transcend the common struggle. The exemplars of the three estates, the Knight; the Parson, and the Plowman, do so by a moral force unique to them; the Monk, the Prioress, and the Franklin do so because of economic advantage; their wealth is secure. If one can judge by the Merchant’s position on Chaucer’s ‘roster of pilgrims, his degree is fairly high, but he does not transcend the struggle, perhaps because in the world of the “General Prologue” his wealth is not secure. At any rate his style of life is different from those who are above competition because he has to compete, as do most of his fellow pilgrims. This difference between landed wealth and other wealth can be clarified by another comparison. The Reeve’s peculation links him with the Manciple and the Friar, and so my threefold division does not seem helpful here. If we move upward within the several groups, however, things look different in that the Merchant’s description sets his position apart from that of the Knight or the Monk, who both have the use of landed wealth. The Reeve’s switch in economic role and social style would seem to be possible only in land, because when the Reeve becomes a landholder in his own right he is more secure than the Merchant. Chaucer seems to hold with Fitzgerald against Hemingway; the rich, at least the landed rich, are different from the rest.
Just how different they are can be seen in what we learn of their sexual habits. They transcend sexual as well as economic competition. Though there is much less about sex than money in the “General Prologue,” there is a pattern to the relatively little we are told. We know nothing about the sex lives of the Knight and the Franklin, and we have only the slightest and most ambiguous hints about the Monk and the Prioress. In contrast, we do know something of the sexual activities and outlook of the Wife of Bath, the Friar and the Summoner. The Squire is the crucial case; he is a lover and he draws his living from the land. But his love seems more a matter of regimen than of sex. There is only one reference to a girl, and the focus is much more on his chivalry than on any practical consequences of his lady’s favor. In the “General Prologue,” sex, like money, seems to be lower class.
So far I have been talking about fiction and hypotheses. Chaucer’s imitation or model. There are still questions of fact. Historian’s questions deserve historian’s answers, which I shall not try seriously to provide. But one does not have to be a serious historian to question the general proposition that the landed classes were economically and sexually inactive, that there was a categorical distinction between most men who struggled to live and a smaller group of landholders who were above the struggle. Division of society into hustlers and gentlemen sounds questionable, and the Paston letters, to cite the most convenient text, clearly indicate that gentlemen were often effective hustlers. In short; historians are more likely to hold with Hemingway on the subject of difference from the rich. Granting that the most general rule for life in the world of the “General Prologue” does not hold true outside it, and deferring the question of how a shrewd observer like Chaucer went wrong, the historian might still be interested in some of the less general rules for life, For example, was “agency” an avenue of social mobility? If it was, was it equally accessible at all points? Could the Reeve make the change from agent to landholder that he did? Could he move apwards as easily at his level as the Man of Law at his? Could either one of them move upward as easily as the Pastons, smaller landholders serving as the agents of larger landholders? Another focus of interest might be the status distinctions in “public service.” Military and political offices went more or less naturally to the landed families, and in the cities a more limited range of offices also went naturally to the chief citizens, presumably because they represented important and separately identifiable interests. What were the status implications of public office? What were the status relations between men in public office because of an independent social and economic identification and those men who worked as career officials, the civil servants? Professor Thrupp has shown that at some career civil servants were gentlemen ex officio. It does seem clear that the civil service was an avenue of social mobility and that it provided a range of acquaintance, but acquaintanceship with landed families might simply underscore differences in social and economic security and in the practical possibility of providing for the future of a family. These questions should give some idea of the historical uses of the “General Prologue.” It is a credible fourteenth-century model of the middle range of English society; it sets questions for historical verification.
The major literary use of this model is to fill out or elaborate a connection between Chaucer the man and Chaucer the pilgrim-narrator. The poetic manifestation of a writer’s values is certainly an important literary question. Chaucer has been well served by Professor Donaldson, who has nicely described the narrative sympathies and ironies of the “General Prologue” in such a way as to clarify the fine combination of amiability and criticism that emanates from the narrator. The structure and descriptions of the “General Prologue” define the narrator’s position; he is diffident but central. They also define his values. His representatives of the three estates are moral and social exemplars; the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman all strive but they do it selflessly- rather than competitively. Less clearly, the two probationers, the Squire and the Clerk, are also selfless. The Monk, the Prioress, and the Franklin are hardly selfless but neither are they vigorously assertive of an economic or sexual interest. Although they fall short of true gentilesse , their manners and their life style are gentil in a lesser but still valuable sense because they show none of the antagonism inherent in competition. This pattern of approbation implies precepts of orthodox charity and social conservatism. But there is nothing rigid or insensitive about this espousal of establishment values because it is winningly mollified by the suffused amiability of the narration. The pilgrim’s tone is eminently charitable. No matter how antiseptic our critical practice is about separating narrator and author, the art work and life, we do look to an ultimate point of contact. Though Shakespeare’s sonnets do not tell us anything conclusive about his sex life, the proliferation of their metaphors does tell us about his mental and emotional life. The practical charity, orthodoxy, and social conservatism evident in Chaucer’s poetic narrative can likewise be referred to the poet.
The narrator-pilgrim’s amiability and clarity of criticism are the poet’s, but this connection is more interestingly elaborated by working in the opposite direction, from writer to narrator, to supply a deficiency in the scheme of the “General Prologue.” Chaucer the pilgrim failed to provide for himself what he gave for all the other pilgrims—an occupational designation. If we give the poet’s to the pilgrim and call him a civil servant, we have a supplementary and external definition of the narrator’s position.
This embellishment is attractive because it sets the values of the “General Prologue” in precise historical relief. It refers them to a historically identifiable perspective. I deferred the puzzling question of how a shrewd observer like Chaucer could have been so wrong about his basic distinction between landholders and the rest of society. Landholders were economically and, presumably, sexually competitive, as anyone with a career like Chaucer’s must have known. But to a civil servant their social position may well have looked far more secure than his own and their style far more negligent of practical economics than the evidence indicates. The civil servant’s perspective would certainly be affected by the mobility aspirations associated with that social role and by the limits on the possibilities for fulfillment of those aspirations. In short, both the distortion and the accuracy of Chaucer’s social description are plausible for a civil servant.
The details of Chaucer’s observation vivify his use of the commonplace scheme of the three estates by giving the charity of its exemplars a fuller and more realistic setting. In other words, he has asserted orthodox values, spliced them with mobility aspirations, and adjusted them to reality. The same social perspective can be fixed in the literary work and in the real world of the fourteenth century. Chaucer the pilgrim talks like a civil servant and Chaucer the poet is a civil servant. The historian gains a richer sense of a civil servant’s values than the usual documents afford, and the literary student gains a fuller sense of the social grounding of the norms that govern the irony of the “General Prologue.”
Source: R. T. Lenaghan, “Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ as History and Literature,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 1970, pp. 73-82.