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- In the General
Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (NAEL
8, 1.218–38), Chaucer's narrator sets
out to describe the "condicioun," "degree," and "estaat" of
each of the pilgrims and apologizes for failing
to list them in their correct social order.
Yet Chaucer's pilgrims do not always
conform to their traditional roles, and many
of them seem dissatisfied with their degree
- Can the pilgrims as described in the General Prologue be divided between
those who conform to their estate and those who do not? How does Chaucer's
narrator view those whose lives do not match their traditional roles?
Does he seem more critical of those who challenge the social order or
of the social order itself?
- How should we judge Chaucer's own career, and the rapid social
progress of his family, within the context of estates theory? How would
the narrator of The Canterbury Tales describe the "estaat" of
the historical Chaucer if he were another pilgrim on the journey?
- Like most
theoretical models, the clearly defined estates
and orders of medieval theory stand at a
far remove from a more complex and ambiguous
reality. This is especially true in regard
to woman's estate. How does The Book
of Margery Kempe (NAEL 8, 1.384–97)
reveal the social and spiritual dilemmas
of a woman — even a mayor's daughter — who
feels a religious vocation but is not in
a religious order or an anchoress's cell?
- From Saint
Benedict's attack on disgraceful
monks to John Gower's satire
of gluttonous prelates and greedy friars,
criticism of hypocritical religious men
abounds in medieval texts. Yet the authors
in this section did not see themselves
as rebels against the Catholic Church.
What similarities can you find between
their critiques of the church and those
which were voiced by Protestants in the English
- The hermit Archimago in Book 1, Canto 1 of Spenser's Faerie
Queene (NAEL 8, 1.719–32) represents a Protestant view of Catholic
hypocrisy. What similarities exist between Archimago and medieval images
of hypocritical holy men?
- On the positive side, compare the Christ Knight of Ancrene Riwle (NAEL
8, 1.157–59) with Spenser's Redcrosse Knight. What similar themes
and images mark these two parables? Are there significant differences?
- In the Old
English poem The Dream of the Rood (NAEL
8, 1.27–29), Ancrene Riwle, Part
7, and Piers Plowman, Passus 18 (NAEL
8, 1.357–67), Christ is portrayed in the
figure of a warrior.
- How does each of those portrayals reflect the society of that period?
What characterizes the ideal warrior in the Anglo-Saxon period, the Anglo-Norman
period, and the late fourteenth century?
- In each case, how would you characterize Christ's "condition," "degree," or "estate" in
his human incarnation?
- Had they
been familiar with Ancrene Riwle,
how might Julian of Norwich (NAEL 8, 1.371–82)
and/or Margery Kempe (NAEL 8, 1.383–97)
have responded to the author's Prologue
and the Parable of the Christ Knight? Try
expressing these responses in an imitation
(in modern English) of a chapter in the Showings or
in The Book of Margery Kempe. Compare
these hypothetical responses as a way of
comparing the spirituality of these two women.
Romance of the Rose was a hugely
popular and influential poem. Chaucer
translated it, and its influence lies
behind many of his works. The influence
of the Advice of the Old Woman can be
clearly seen in Chaucer's portrayal
of women in The Canterbury Tales.
- Make a close comparison of the Old Woman in The Romance of the Rose and
Chaucer's Wife of Bath (NAEL 8, 1.256–84). Look particularly at
Chaucer's use of passages from the Romance. Does either author
reveal any sympathy for woman's estate, and, if so, how can you tell?
- The Old Woman's advice on table manners reappears in the description
of the Prioress in Chaucer's General Prologue (NAEL 8, 1.221–22,
lines 119–62). Do the Old Woman and the Prioress share the same
motives for their behavior? Are there any other ways in which they appear
similar? How does knowledge of this source change your understanding
of the Prioress?
- Compare Chaucer's "Nun's
Priest Tale" (NAEL 8, 1.298–312)
with Gower's allegory of the Uprising
of 1381 in Vox
Clamantis, Book 1.
- In each text, do animals occupy a single estate or several estates?
How do the estates of the animals relate to the estates of the humans
in these texts?
- Both Gower and Chaucer condemn the Uprising of 1381. Do they condemn
it from the same perspective? Are there significant differences in their
versions of the peasants' motives and actions?
- The centuries
that followed the Uprising of 1381 saw a
host of economic, regional, and religious
- Compare the 1381 rebels' chant and slogans with the song and oath of
the Pilgrims of Grace who rose up in 1536. Pay attention both to the
aims of the rebels and to their means of expressing and disseminating
- Compare Gower's description of the Uprising and its defeat with John
Newton's and William
Snelgrave's accounts of slave rebellions in the Middle Passage
between Africa and America.
- Chaucer's Canterbury
Tales have much in common with the
genre of estates satire exemplified in
Clamantis and Mirour
- How does Chaucer make comic and dramatic use of friction among the
three estates in the links between the tales? Consider one or more of
the following: the Miller's Prologue (NAEL 8, 1.239–55) and the
Interludes in the Wife of Bath's Prologue (NAEL 8, 1.257–75).
- How do the pilgrim narrators, such as the Miller, the Wife of Bath,
and the Franklin, express their class orientations within their prologues
and the tales themselves?
- While Ramón
Lull asserts that the duty of a knight
is to "defend women, widows, and orphans," the
knight of Arthur's court who appears
in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (NAEL
8, 1.256–84) begins his adventures by
committing rape. Read "The Wife of
Bath's Tale" alongside Lull's
Book of the Order of Chivalry, Gower's
satire of knights in Mirour
de l'Omme, and
Adam Murimuth's account of fourteenth-century Arthurianism.
- What light does each of these versions of knighthood shed on the progress
of the knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?
- How relevant are any of these models of knighthood to the ideals and
behavior of the knights who participated in the First Crusade and the
knight described in Chaucer's General Prologue?
- The texts
in this section were originally written in
English, French, Latin, and Catalan; John
Gower himself wrote in three of these languages.
What factors might influence an author's
choice of language? What indications can
you find in the texts in this section that
texts in different languages are addressed
to different estates?
- Women who
wrote in the Middle Ages belonged to a wide
range of degrees and estates: religious and
secular, royal, noble and common. Consider
the writings by medieval women collected
on the Medieval
Women Web site. How important is their
estate as women to these writers, compared
to the other degrees, orders, and estates
to which they belong? Is it appropriate to
generalize about the lives of "Medieval