Written by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the fourteenth century, The Canterbury Tales and more specifically it’s prologue, shed a great deal of light on the rising middle class in (fourteenth century) England. Despite the fact that some readers may not know a lot about the time period today, Chaucer’s writing in the prologue elaborates on topics such as occupations, wealth, education, and political power. Scholar Barbara Nolan writes of the prologue, “it is more complex than most…It raises expectations in just the areas the handbooks propose, promising to take up important matters of natural and social order, moral character, and religion and outlining the organization the work will follow” (Nolan 154). In other words, while noting the distinct complexity of the writing, Nolan points out that Chaucer’s prologue gives the reader a lot to digest when it comes to both background information and overall form of the following writing. Focusing on the background information supplied in the prologue, readers quickly become educated about middle class England in the fourteenth century despite having been born hundreds of years later.
As previously mentioned, the prologue to The Canterbury Tales carries a lot of weight about the emerging middle class of England and a large part of that is the variety occupations the class worked at the time. The prologue introduces the narrator and the twenty-nine pilgrims he will travel with. A pilgrim, defined as a person who journeys for religious reasons, the thirty travelers as those who would soon become the new middle class in England. Separate from the nobility and the poor, the middle class worked the in between jobs which are listed in the prologue. Middle class “members included yeomen, prioresses, nuns, friars, merchants, clerks, lawyers, cooks, sailors, and several other occupations” (Chaucer). As one could imagine, the prologue begins to paint the picture that the middle class are simply “average” when it comes to areas such as income, education, etc.
Wealth, a major characteristic of the middle class in England, was a popular topic in Chaucer’s prologue although it takes some reading between the lines. Despite the actual terms of “wealth,” “income,” or “money” seldom being used in the prologue, each character did in many ways give hints of their financial standings by the way in which they led their lives. For example, the Prioress seemed to live a comfortable middle class life based on descriptions such as “speaking French fluently,” “had meat on which to dine,” and “she was so charitable” (Chaucer 124-143). Based on simple assumptions, it seems fair to say that the prioress made modest wages to fund her style of living. While she may not have been bathed in riches like the nobility, she certainly had the resources to be educated (literate), eat meat for dinner, and donate to the poor who certainly did not have what she had.
On the topic of the Prioress’ literacy and “fluent French,” it seemed as...