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  • Subject area(s): English Literature
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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and many other famous pieces of British Literature, has shown a special talent for writing from the views of different social classes in his literary works.  Chaucer was able to accurately portray and break through every social class in his writings from lifelong experiences where he grew from a merchant’s son to a member of royal households, member of Parliament, and as a Clerk of the King’s Works.  

During the fourteenth century, rapid change took place among economy, politics and social classes and in an era where an individual’s, “birth, wealth, profession and personal ability” determined social status, Geoffrey Chaucer and his writing were surely influenced by the changes going on around him (Greenblatt 238).  Chaucer was born into the middle class and as the son of a successful wine merchant, it is likely that Chaucer spent his days exploring “the mercantile atmosphere of London’s Vintry” (Greenblatt 238). At this loading dock Chaucer would have interacted with people from all walks of life “become fluent in French and received schooling in Latin” (Greenblatt 238).  Unlike many others with a similar background to that of Chaucer’s, instead of apprenticing under his father, Chaucer was placed in one of England’s greatest aristocratic households.  It was in the presence of that household where Chaucer learned the skills required to obtain a career in the ruling class.  From there, Chaucer many different jobs such as, attending diplomatic missions to Spain, France, and Italy, financial book keeper, Justice of the Peace, Knight of shire, and Clerk of the King’s works (Greenblatt 238-239).  It has been stated in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, that it is likely that Chaucer’s diplomatic trip to Italy in 1372 was a “milestone in his literary development” (Greenblatt 240). It is fully evident that Chaucer had a good idea of what life was like in the middle class, what it would have been like to be royal and what life would have been like to work for a royal family.

The stories within The Canterbury Tales were about a group of people from a variety of social classes on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  There are several examples that show Chaucer’s ability to vary his writing from one class to another in the different stories.  The first example which showcases Chaucer’s understanding of other social classes come from The Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath was portrayed as a self-made business woman who has definitely been successful in cloth making judging by the elaborate handkerchiefs and fine hats, “Of cloth-making she haddle switch and haunt, She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt… I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound, That on Sonday were upon hir heed” (Greenblatt 254).  From lines such as these in The General Prologue, Chaucer obviously knew what attributes made up a woman of her social standing and in turn, this allowed Chaucer to create The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

The second example of Chaucer’s unique life experiences reflecting in his writing can be found in The Miller’s Tale. In this tale, the story of a love square and the competition among three men for one woman’s heart unfolds. What is truly special about The Miller’s Tale is the variety of backgrounds between the main characters.  The Miller, a sloppy, drunk, lowerclassman, Nicolas, a wealthy, Oxford student, John, an uneducated old carpenter who is married to Alisoun, a kind, yet promiscuous young woman and lastly, Absolon, a parish clerk who also desires Alisoun (Greenblatt 266). The story continues to unravel with deception between husband and wife, and games of revenge between the men.  Regardless of the outcome of the story, Chaucer was able to vary his writing from one class to another orchestrate dialect among the different classes in this particular story because of his extensive background and experiences with all sorts of people beginning with his time at the market and shipping dock with his father and later in life as he held many positions in higher social classes.

It is from Chaucer’s many hours alongside royalty that made the accurate portrayal of so many different social classes possible.  Throughout his lifetime, Chaucer was immersed into different cultures, languages and professions, all of which allowed a poet of his time to write beyond his original middle class social status.

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