The Canterbury Tales: Week 3
The Third Estate: Commoners, Workers, and Scoundrels
[The Merchant in the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; source: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/EL26C9.html]
"Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” – Simone Weil1
The last group of pilgrims presented in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales are members of the third estate: the laborers or commoners (“those who work”).
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As in the previous two groups, the pilgrims are presented in descending order of social status according to their profession. (I also said they were presented in descending moral order, but I may have second thoughts on that. Let’s see where that goes in what follows.)
The Merchant is the first presented in this grouping. If you recall from the first post in this series, I explained how Chaucer the poet came from a family that was part of the growing mercantile class and that those connections gave Chaucer a place at court. Trade and commerce offered the medieval world a new source of wealth that was practically infinite in potential, especially compared to land, which has obvious limits because it runs out. Like the other pilgrims, the Merchant is very good in his role. He always has his financial increase in mind. He dresses well, speaks confidently, and sits high on his horse (literally and metaphorically!). He plays his part so well that no one knows that he actually is in debt (line 282).2 This duplicity of the Merchant is reflected in the first detail of his description: his forked beard (line 272), a physical feature that signified being “two-faced,” a double-minded man, a characteristic further reflected by the Merchant’s “motley” (multi) colored clothing (line 273).
The Oxford Clerk (a student who, being at Oxford, is studying to become a cleric in the church), is—not surprisingly—another favorite of mine. He is a stereotypical student (in today’s terms, think more of a graduate student): skinny, riding a skinny horse (today’s equivalent to an old, beat-up car), supported financially by friends and patrons (Hey! It’s me!), preferring to buy books over food and clothing. The Clerk is a good student in being slow to speak but, when he does, he offers engaging and lofty thoughts. He exemplifies the best kind of student: “gladly would he learn, and gladly teach” (line 310).
I won’t mention all the pilgrims remaining but will point out some of the most delightful details about some of them. Collectively, the Guildsmen represent that growing mercantile class I already mentioned that was part of the transformation of the Middle Ages into the Modern Age. The Cook who travels with them is a talented cook but also “knows” a draft of London ale quite well, too (line 384). The narrator is taken aback (as am I, dear reader) that the Cook has some kind of ulcer or a running sore on his leg. The Miller is colorful in every way: he is stout, has a red beard, and a hairy wart on his nose. He cheats his customers and tells coarse stories (as his later tale exemplifies).
The breadth of membership in this estate and some of the particular occupations represented might confuse modern readers. For example, today we don’t think of a physician (the Doctor of Physic) as a commoner. But if we remember that the scientific revolution had not yet occurred and that the practice of medicine at this time was not only quite rudimentary (involving ample guesswork, a lot of superstition, and occasional leeches) but was also very “hands-on” and labor-intensive, it makes more sense. The Doctor of Physic is steeped in the pseudo-science of the four bodily humors (basically the medieval version of the Enneagram3) and could treat every malady accordingly (lines 421-26).
The Parson is another character who complicates everything in the General Prologue. First, we wonder why he is presented here rather than earlier with the rest of the clergy. There are a few possible reasons for this. First, a parson wasn’t necessarily connected to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He could have been a non-Catholic parson in the pre-Reformation era. He might also not simply have been ordained in the church but hired by a priest to do the priest’s duties for him. Or he might have been independent or outside the Church’s parishes for some other reason. Whatever the case, he is not among the formally recognized members of the Church hierarchy reflected in the previous group of pilgrims included in the clerical estate.
But even more important, the Parson is one of the most morally upright characters in the General Prologue. (So, here again, the schema that assumes the pilgrims are arranged in descending moral order breaks down.) The Parson is poor in material means but rich in good works and thinking. He faithfully preaches the gospel and serves his people faithfully, in poor health and in poor weather. He is a good shepherd to his sheep. He wrought (practiced himself) what he taught (line 499).
The Parson’s mere presence and his placement here upsets the order and calls attention to the stark contrast he offers. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I’m sure there is ample research on this I have yet to uncover (or remember). Perhaps we will return to this or discover more as we go along.
But lest you think I have forgotten the Wife of Bath, do not despair. We turn to her now (her description, anyway—more on her prologue and tale to come!). And because I will cover her more later, I will try to restrain myself for now and cover just the essentials. Alison, her name as we later learn, has had five “legal” husbands (“at church door”) (lines 461-62), not counting the men she had in her youth. She is a skilled cloth-maker—and important detail in terms of understanding her remarkable agency and independence for a woman of this time. She is wealthy enough to have been on several pilgrimages, something most people struggled to undertake just once, if at all. She is deaf (the cause of which we will learn in her prologue). Now we arrive at the delicate parts, dear reader (lines 470-78). She has a gap between her two front teeth, which symbolically suggests easy access to another gap in the body. (Chaucer is not considered bawdy for nothing! He was no Victorian, heh. “Earthy” is another apt word to describe his work.) The Wife of Bath has large hips, sits easily upon her horse, and wears spurs (another sexual symbol). She is amiable in (ahem) fellowship and knows all the remedies of love and all the tricks of that particular “trade.” She is, ladies and gentlemen, very good at being a wife.
Let me remind you at this point that The Canterbury Tales is a work of humor and satire (sometimes called estates satire because of how Chaucer is correcting the errors and excesses of the social order). So don’t worry, friends, the Wife of Bath is much more than a “house” for the male member, as a certain pastor once declared about women.4 Chaucer knew better than that.
Now to the Summoner and the Pardoner, some of the most corrupt hacks in the medieval world. The Summoner “stinks” as much as the garlic, onions, and leeks he loves to eat. His face is so ugly it scares children. The incurable blotches on his face are probably from a sexually transmitted disease. He travels with the Pardoner (whose tale we will read), who has no beard but has a voice like a goat. The narrator says of the Pardoner that it was hard to tell if he is a “gelding” (a castrated male horse) or a mare (a female horse) (line 693). Summoners had the power to bring offenders of church law before the ecclesiastical court but corrupt ones simply blackmailed people with the threat of a summons. Pardoners had even greater power—and greater propensity to corruption. We will learn more about that when we read the Pardoner’s prologue and tale. As I write in The Evangelical Imagination, “We may not have pardoners in the post-Reformation church, but we still have grifters.”5
Lest we end on this dark note, let us turn to the delightful Host, who serves as kind of a tour guide on this journey. Like the rest, the Host is good at what he does: he serves the best food, he is seemly, merry, and wise. And it is the Host who comes up with the brilliant idea to pass the time along their way by each person telling two tales each. He even offers a little prize to make it a friendly competition: a supper for the winner “at all our cost” (line 801).
And with that, let me propose the next several readings, in order (of course):
Hoo boy. We are going for a ride!
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. By Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (London: Routledge, 2002), 117.
The Merchant brings to mind a certain uber-rich New York businessman and real estate mogul being tried in court right now for making his financial worth appear to be much more than it is.
No hate! Just having fun. I’m an 8!
If you don’t believe it, here you go. But I suggest you just take me at my word and don’t click on the link. (Don’t worry, it’s only R rated.) Chaucer works this kind of material far better.
Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis (Brazos Press, 2023), 232.