Part One

The Canterbury Tales Pilgrims

haucer began writing Canterbury Tales between 1385 and 1389, during one of the darkest periods of his life. His wife and several close friends and patrons were dead, he was suffering financial troubles, King Richard's court was in turmoil, and Chaucer was living in Kent, missing his former home in London. At first the writing was simply an escape from outward and inward pressures, but then he found amusement in it. In Canterbury Tales he could think about and laugh at the society that seemed to be falling in pieces around him. By the time his life did get better, the book was a reality. The audience for Canterbury Tales was therefore not intended to be the members of the courts and upper classes that his past poems were for, but instead he had a new audience in mind, a national one that would understand the social framework of his pilgrims and would notice that it did not include royals and upper nobility, nor serfs, nor (except for the Ploughman, who is an idealized character) common agricultural workers. The pilgrims of the highest rank are the Knight (a member of the lesser nobility, or gentry), his son the Squire, and the Monk and the Prioress, who hold monastic offices and came from upper-class families. Those of the lowest rank are the Manciple, the Cook, the Reeve, the Miller, and the Ploughman. The pilgrims that best reflect Chaucer's actual audience were those that have been called "the new men," those who came from emerging sectors of society, who had literary skills and interests and whose tales drew upon the the new European literary cultures. It was for this new and quickly growing population of gentry, freemen, merchants, and people from the new "middle" classes that Canterbury Tales were written for, and are about.

The Prioress and the Squire

When Chaucer introduces the pilgrims, he arranges them so that we can better see their social relationships. The Knight rides with his son and a retainer, the Prioress with another nun and three priests, the London Guildsmen with their wives and hired cook, and the crooked Pardoner with his cohort the Summoner. The Sergeant of Law and the Franklin, both purchasers of land, ride together. Others are mentioned as if they rode together: the Miller and the Merchant, and the Shipman, the Physician, and the Wife of Bath. Chaucer also arranges the groups of pilgrims in a similar manner. First came the Knight and his small retinue, the Prioress and hers, and the Monk and the Friar; then followed the Merchant, the other members of the merchants class, and those pilgrims of "middle" rank; and in last came the commoners, the "churls," those freemen of the lowest rank, the same category in which Chaucer wryly includes himself.

The Knight

As the leader of this group's social structure, the Knight was the highest of rank and was probably the wealthiest of the pilgrims. He would've earned in battle about 2 shillings a day, the same price as a pair of good leather boots, or 1 pound in ten days. There is little doubt that he was also a landowner, for he tells us, "I have, God woot, a large feeld to ere," and he would've received at least 4 pounds per annum rent for every twenty acres that he owned. 

Compare this to the poorest of the pilgrims, the Ploughman, who probably only earned about 2 or 3 pounds per year, 1 pound of which was spent on bread for his family. As wages, he would have earned sixpence for an acre of land that he had ploughed three times, a penny an acre for hoeing, and fivepence an acre for reaping.

The rest of the pilgrims had incomes that fell somewhere between the two, and they were all probably fairly well off. The regular clergy, which was the Prioress and her company, the Monk, and the Friar, all would have received a generous stipend from the church; the Wife of Bath owned a clothmaking establishment; the Merchant, Shipman, and Guildsmen all owned businesses; the Franklin was a country land-owner; and the Man of Law was a high-ranking legal officer.



Pilgrims Passing To and Fro © James L. Matterer

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