The Bourgeois Social Class in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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It is clear that Geoffrey Chaucer was acutely aware of the strict classist system in which he lived; indeed the very subject matter of his Canterbury Tales (CT) is a commentary on this system: its shortcomings and its benefits regarding English society. In fact, Chaucer is particularly adept at portraying each of his pilgrims as an example of various strata within 14th century English society. And upon first reading the CT, one might mistake Chaucer's acute social awareness and insightful characterizations as accurate portrayals of British society in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Further, one might mistake his analysis, criticism, and his sardonic condemnation of many elements of British culture for genuine attempts to alter the oppressive system producing such malevolent characters as the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Prioress. If one believes, however, that Chaucer attempted to in any way alter the dominant social paradigm for the betterment of the lower class victims portrayed in the CT (the Old Widow from The Friar's Tale, or John from The Miller's Tale), one is grievously mistaken. While appearing to criticize the more obvious deficiencies of his society, Chaucer actually endorses the overall structure of the Estates system, merely suggesting a broader definition of the structure to include his own bourgeois class of merchants - thus reinforcing the classist society that gave rise to working class rebellions such as the Peasant's Revolt that paralyzed London in 1381.

If we accept the CT as a portrayal of Chaucer's society (regardless of its accuracy or intent), we must also recognize and explore the obvious and distinct ideological contradictions that pervade his text; for Chaucer's attack on the more ...

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...sing the industrial revolution because of its horrendous effects on London workers five hundred years later. Chaucer merely saw his society quickly changing and recognized the need for a more complex approach to the world around him. The most effective method available to the poet was his ironic commentary on the Estates system and its unwieldy ability to handle modern day problems. Unfortunately, for the lower classes of Chaucer's society, his biting commentary, while questioning the dominant social paradigm, did little to change its adverse effect on the exploited members of the system. Rather, Chaucer created a literary masterpiece that threw rocks at the established economic structure just long enough to allow for a smooth transition of the bourgeois from outside element to key participant in the classist society of the 14th and 15th centuries.

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