(a) Analyze: From what segments of medieval society do the pilgrims come? (b) Draw Conclusions: What does their participation in a common pilgrimage suggest about the times?
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The pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales come from different parts of society— the court, the Church, villages, the feudal manor system. To prevent discord, they create an informal company, making themselves a guild of storytellers.
The description of the Squire establishes a pattern that runs throughout the General Prologue, and The Canterbury Tales: characters whose roles are defined by their religious or economic functions integrate the cultural ideals of courtly love into their dress, their behavior, and the tales they tell, in order to give a slightly different twist to their roles. Another such character is the Prioress, a nun who sports a “Love Conquers All” brooch.
The pilgrims represent a diverse cross section of fourteenth-century English society. Medieval social theory divided society into three broad classes, called “estates”: the military, the clergy, and the laity. (The nobility, not represented in the General Prologue, traditionally derives its title and privileges from military duties and service, so it is considered part of the military estate.) In the portraits that we will see in the rest of the General Prologue, the Knight and Squire represent the military estate. The clergy is represented by the Prioress (and her nun and three priests), the Monk, the Friar, and the Parson. The other characters, from the wealthy Franklin to the poor Plowman, are the members of the laity. These lay characters can be further subdivided into landowners (the Franklin), professionals (the Clerk, the Man of Law, the Guildsmen, the Physician, and the Shipman), laborers (the Cook and the Plowman), stewards (the Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve), and church officers (the Summoner and the Pardoner). As we will see, Chaucer’s descriptions of the various characters and their social roles reveal the influence of the medieval genre of estates satire.
A pilgrimage is a religious journey undertaken for penance and grace. As pilgrimages went, Canterbury was not a very difficult destination for an English person to reach. It was, therefore, very popular in fourteenth-century England, as the narrator mentions. Pilgrims traveled to visit the remains of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170 by knights of King Henry II. Soon after his death, he became the most popular saint in England. The pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales should not be thought of as an entirely solemn occasion, because it also offered the pilgrims an opportunity to abandon work and take a vacation.