Gentilesse For The Masses In General Prologue And The Canterbury Tales

2387 words - 10 pages


    In the 14th century, class distinction was of great importance. The class to which one belonged determined the clothes one was allowed to wear, the color of that clothing and even behavior. In Geoffrey Chaucer's General Prologue and The Canterbury Tales , we can find any number of characters with these behavior distinctions if we examine them. The Knight, for example, is described as a worthy man of "trouthe and honour, freedom and curtesie" (I, 46). He is of a noble rank, and therefore his behavior is one of good reputation (honour). Conversely, Both the descriptions of the Reeve and the Miller in the General Prologue are quite unflattering; their verbal cutting into each other's tales demonstrates the stereotypical "churlish" behavior of the lower class. The word gentilesse, which comes up several times in the Canterbury Tales, is most often defined as descriptive of nobility -- so those from noble class are "gentil man" and "gentil woman." The Knight as a member of the noble class is gentil because of his title. Members of the clergy can also fit into the gentilesse category. Though the Reeve and the Miller being crude and churlish would not fit into this category, Chaucer does not limit gentilesse to the noble class alone. He instead broadens the definition to include those characters who are patient, steadfast and able to endure great hardship and who will give their will over to the will of God. The hag in the Wife of Bath's Tale and Griselda in the Clerk's Tale are both perfect illustrations of Chaucer's view of non-nobility gentilesse. The hag and Griselda exhibit gentilesse because they are virtuous, dedicated to God and positive forces of change for those around them.

 

In the Wife of Bath's Tale, the hag delivers a hundred-line speech in which she argues that gentilesse is defined by one's good deeds and not by one's social status. The hag and the Knight, newly man and wife, are lying in bed when the hag asks her husband what she has done wrong that he "walweth and he turneth to and fro" (III, 1085). His response is that he acts that way because she is so loathsome and of such low lineage; this prompts her long speech on gentilesse. She tells her husband that gentilesse is not determined by one's birth, "descended out of old richesse" (1110), but is the title given to one who is almost always virtuous and tries to do as many good deeds as he or she can (1113-15). Examining Chaucer from a historical perspective in "Chaucer and Gentility," Nigel Saul states: "Chaucer's Avoidance of economic criteria to define gentility was wholly in accord with the contemporary outlook. Gentility was viewed at the time as a quality, and was accordingly assessed in qualitative terms" (49). In lines 1117-24, the hag then explains to the Knight that the quality of gentilesse can come only from God. Ancestors cannot hand down their virtuous character that made others call them "gentil men" (1123); they can only give their descendants the...

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