Powerful Satire in The Canterbury Tales
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 thus exposed to some of the deepest contradictions that affected the middle strata of his society" (Strohm 13). As Paul Strohm has stated, the issue of falling between the classes as an Esquire en Service was clearly a powerful force in Chaucer's life. A lack of classification in a society based almost entirely on the concept of rigid class structure is an alien concept in feudal society, and yet, as Strohm states, "Chaucer's stratum of gentlepersons 'en service' eludes confident characterization" (13).
It is vital to understand that, despite the apparently volatile nature of Chaucer's commentary on the estates, he was in no way suggesting a radical departure from its structure. Modern perspectives make one assume that Chaucer intended his work perhaps as some bold statement on the need for democracy or even simply as a call to overthrow the status quo. In truth, however, the system Chaucer critiques is the only possible system a man in his situation could comprehend. Though he clearly calls for reform to some aspects of society, it would be foolish to associate his intentions with the viewpoint of modern man.
In a sense, Chaucer's satire becomes all the more poignant when considered as a call for reform rather...