Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



Literature of the Estates


Literature of the estates is the most comprehensive form of complaint literature, with its examination of society by groups based on class, occupation, function, status and other designations.  It is more commonly known as “estates satire,” memorialized by Jill Mann in Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.   However, that term is problematic in definition and application, and is avoided here.1  As will be seen, not all literature that critiques estates uses the jovial Chaucerian satire of his General Prologue, if at all; in fact, it is absent in many of his own Tales.

Prior to Mann, Ruth Mohl studied the “literature of the estates” and describes its characteristics, which include a catalog of estates aimed at completeness; criticism of their failings and remedies for those failings; the divine ordination of the three estates, the dependence of the state on all three for stability, and the necessity of their preservation by maintaining the status quo (7). This form, which was established in Latin and French by the twelfth century and appeared in English in the fourteenth century, has its limitations; because of their lack of completeness, both the General Prologue and Piers Plowman do not strictly qualify for the genre,2 but its stability provides a stronger analytical framework than Mann’s definition of estates satire as “any literary treatment of social classes which allow or encourage a generalized application” (3). Mohl’s model also allows portrayal of social classes in modes other than satire and is preferred here, though with some flexibility.

Since the aim of literature of the estates is to critique members of society en masse and offer correctives, author and audience require discussion.  The audience is especially problematic, since the wide spectrum of social observation in the literature makes appeal to a specific audience difficult to determine.  The common offering is the middle class, which is fairly safe due to its broad and burgeoning membership.  However, rather than using the usual criteria, another way of contemplating the audience composition is to ask who would be interested in hearing others and, moreover, themselves criticized?

The easy answer is that few would take the accusations personally, which is simple enough when institutions such as the crown and the church are attacked, but more difficult when narrowed down to groups and occupations.  The avoidance strategy would be recognizing sinfulness and guilt in others but not oneself, a penchant observed by the Simonie-poet.  Fellow moralists would be among the audience, which is like preaching to the choir, but the poet undoubtedly hoped he would reach at least a few folk who needed awakening and would take his message seriously.  Since they would be powerless to reform institutions, they must look inward.  And indeed, that is the message of much estates and complaint literature in general: change starts with the individual, from king to plowman.

Imaging authorship of estate literature, like all medieval works, is problematic and usually conjectural based on style, apparent level of education and social status, familiarity with cultural milieus, dialect, historical references (which also aid in dating works), references by other authors, and other factors.  Though most poets remain anonymous, several who examine the estates are known and illustrate the diversity of authorship: Chaucer the civil servant, diplomatic emissary and knight of the shire; William Langland, probably an itinerant preacher and possibly a cleric in lower orders; and John Gower, wealthy squire and real estate investor, and tenuously theorized to have been associated with the legal profession in some way.3  All three were reformatory, to varying degrees, but not revolutionary and supported the institutional structure despite their criticism of its faults.

A few examples from three works that critique society by estates will give a brief demonstration of different approaches: Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Langland’s Piers Plowman, and Gower’s Vox Clamantis (The Voice of One Crying)  The following snippets don’t represent the poems in full but do illustrate the diversity of authorial voice, from Chaucer’s veiled mockery and sarcasm, to Langland’s condemnatory correctives, to Gower’s bitter invectives.  There are other differences as well, particularly in estate representation.  Chaucer is selective, concentrating on the middle strata and avoiding the upper and lower echelons.  As he states, he does not “set folk in their degree” (GP 744), which may be  a reflection of the shifting class structures. Langland is more comprehensive but chaotic, with social characterizations sprinkled among didactic allegory.  Gower misses almost no group from top to bottom, and uses occasional personification that does not interrupt his methodical survey of society.

We start the illustrations with that most popular target, the clergy. All levels were charged with a multitude of misdeeds, but of all the types of clergy, mendicants were the most censured.  Although the four orders (Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and Augustinians) had different aims and rules, they were commonly held to share the observance of poverty and service to the communities in which they settled, which were primarily urban.  Unlike cloistered orders, they traveled among the populace, preaching, teaching, and ministering to other spiritual needs.

Chaucer’s portrait of the jolly Friar Huberd is one of the longer in the General Prologue and one of his more satirically caustic, full of praise for the friar’s corruption.  Huberd is sociable and “beloved and familiar with franklins all over his area and with worthy women of the town” (GP 215-17) who can afford to pay for his absolution and easy penance; “Giving to a poor order signifies that a man is well shriven” (GP 225-26).4  His hat full of “knives and pins to give to fair wives” (GP 233-34) and his ability to “sing and play on a psaltery with a merry note” (GP 235-36) make him seem more like a peddler or minstrel than a holy man.  His image is further tarnished by his familiarity with “every tavern, innkeeper and barmaid in town” (GP 240-41).

Though his order is “poor,” he is dressed “like a master or a pope” (GP 261) in expensive clothing.  He panders to the wealthy, but as the “best beggar in his house” (GP 252)5 he wrests money from the poor; his preaching is so pleasant that “he would have a farthing before he left” (GP 255) from a poverty-stricken widow.  His most egregious misconduct is his refusal to serve the poor, for he is too good to mix with lepers or those in poverty, since “it will not be profitable to deal with such poor people, only with the rich” (GP 246-48).  This is the worthy and virtuous Friar Huberd.

Without Chaucer’s joviality, criticism of the mendicants, though conventional, stings with realism.  Langland introduces them as part of the crowd milling about in his Prologue.  The dreamer sees “friars of all four orders, preaching to people for profit of their bellies.  They interpreted the gospels as they liked out of greed for clothing” (PP BProl 58-63), which they can afford since their earnings and purchases are equal.  Disaster is foreseen due to the friars’ greed: “Since men of charity have become merchants and are chief in shriving lords, many strange things have happened in a few years.  Unless they can hold better to Holy Church, the greatest grief on earth is gathering fast” (PP B Prol 64-67).

Friars are seen again briefly during the trial of Lady Meed,6 when Falseness is disguised as a friar.  This allows him to roam abroad at will, and he is welcome to live with the friars often.  Another friar makes a longer appearance to hear Lady Meed’s confession:

He said softly as though in confession, “Even if you have lain with both learned and ignorant men and been accompanied by Falseness for fifty winters, I will absolve you for a load of wheat and be your beadsman, as well as your messenger among knights and clerks to cloud their conscience.”  Then Meed knelt and confessed her wickedness—without shame, I believe—told him a tale, and gave him a coin to be her beadsman and agent.

He absolved her immediately and then asked for funds to glaze and engrave her name on an expensive stained glass window his order was building.  In return, her soul would certainly go to heaven.7  Meed promised to be his friend forever if the friar would tolerate lords and ladies who indulge in lechery, for it is a natural frailty of the flesh and the soonest of the seven sins to be excused.  In return, she would see to it that the church had a roof, cloisters built, walls painted, windows glazed, and her portrait painted as patron so all would know she was a sister to their house.  (PP B III 35-63)

Gower opens his criticism of the mendicants with an attack on their greed and their claim to be disciples of Christ:  “They are now acting like people who have no property, yet under a pauper’s guise they grab everything.”  They will bury only dignitaries to whom they ministered, but not the poor since there is no profit: “Both life and death bring money to them” (IV, Ch. 16).  The friar damns sin in his sermons but glosses in private to promote sin, for he “knows well that when sin dies,  then his revenue dies for all time” (IV, Ch. 17).  They visit only the wealthy host: “Ants never make their course toward empty granaries, and a wandering friar will not come near when one’s wealth is lost.  With no thought of the blooms which it bore before, they disdain the thorn when the roses have fallen off” (IV, Ch. 17).

The poet charges the friars with following the devil, relying on deceit and trickery that subverts the household, promotes strife, inflames quarrels into anger, fosters ill will and envy, and breaks  the bonds of peace and ties of nuptial love.  He suggests incest, urges violation of chastity, dissolution of marriage and defilement of the marriage bed.  He  conceals his deceit by wearing coarse wool over his fine linen clothing, and “makes honey into poison” with his “venomous mouth,” motivated by the desire for “money or the attainment  of some empty honor.”  While the mendicant orders were fashioned with “piety and love,” friars are motivated by mad ambition and are “Hatred, which took its origin in hell and abhors the bonds of peace” (IV, Ch. 22).

The next example of the poets’ scrutiny is the lawyer, commonly accused of corruption and refusal to represent  the poor.  Chaucer’s Sergeant-at-Law is extensively educated and high-ranking, with rights to plead in the Court of Common Pleas and to serve as justice in the assizes that heard civil cases in the counties.  His knowledge and ability are flawless, and Chaucer’s portrait evokes the imperious presence of the lawyers who might stand at the bar.  The portrayal seems benign, but as in many others in the General Prologue, it has subtle suggestions of critique.  His collection of “many fees and robes” (GP 317) while he “seemed busier than he was” (GP 322) recalls those who take payment and then do little.  And, again as in the other portraits, Chaucer’s praise hints at exaggeration, which may have been taken as irony by those aware of critical commentary in harsher works, or from personal experience.8

Langland sees them in his “fair field full of folk” (PP B Prol 17), a hundred of them with silk hoods: “Sergeants who served at the bar, who pleaded for pennies and expounded the law but would not loosen their lips once for the love of our Lord.  You could measure the mist on Malvern Hills better than get a word from their mouths until money was shown” (PP B Prol 211-16).

Such lawyers share little in the pardon given by Truth to Piers and his followers:

Men of law who pleaded for meed had the least pardon, for the Psalter will not  save those who take gifts, especially from innocents who know no evil. . . . Lawyers should plead for such people and help them, and their fees should be paid by princes and prelates. (PP B VII 39-43)

Though some scholars find it “likely” that Gower was somehow connected with the legal profession (Coleman 129), others doubt it due to the poet’s chastisement of lawyers “at every opportunity” (Stockton 5).  And Gower’s treatment of lawyers is quite vicious, likening them to predatory animals such as a hound after its quarry: “When it seizes its prey with its teeth in order to devour its flesh, the hound does not strangle its prey more than the lawyer strangles his client with the law, in order that he may get himself a fee of money” (VI, Ch. 2).

Driven by an insatiable desire for land, a lawyer will “poison with his words a law which is quite sound” to trick his clients and strike fear into them “by some trumped-up law in order to turn a man of reason into a brute.”  When a client is sure of the clear law and justice regarding his case, the lawyer “makes bitter gall out of the sweetness of honey and pretends a rose is like a thorn.”  Gower wonders that “the counselor who ought to defend legally the causes of the poor instead aggravates their need.”  Instead he stirs contention to profit from disputes, but is never satisfied: “When he has his right hand full, then he stretches out his left” (VI, Ch. 3).

Lastly, we will look at some tradesmen and craftsmen, using Chaucer’s fraternity members: a haberdasher, carpenter, dyer, and weavers.9  They are prosperous, seemingly fit to be a “burgess sitting at the dais in a guild hall, and wise enough to be an alderman” (GP 369-72), though this may be self-perception.  Their “fresh new decorated gear and knives not of brass but finely wrought silver” (GP 365-67) reek of ostentation and self-importance, as do their wives, who expect to be called “Madame” (GP 376) and walk at the front of the procession “royally bearing a banner” (GP 376-77).

Langland looks at the underbelly of trade and craft through the personification Greed, who is as disgustingly clothed and slovenly as the guildsmen are resplendent.  Greed first apprenticed in dishonest merchandising at the fairs, then joined the drapers to perfect his craft.  He learned to “stretch the selvage so that it seemed longer” (PP B V 206) and torture the material until “ten or twelve yards seemed like thirteen” (PP C V 210).  His wife was a weaver who had the spinster spin the wool loosely so that “the pound she paid for weighed a quarter pound more” (PP B V 213).  Both were masters of fraudulent weighing and passing off adulterated goods.

Gower describes the dishonest dealings of tradesmen and craftsmen through Fraud: “Now that barren Honesty has departed from the city as an exile, Fraud is more and more fruitful.”  She allures citizens deceitfully to buy wares all put at double price and is so clever that “If a smart man enters, she is smarter than he; and if a fool goes in, he goes away a bigger fool” (V, Ch. 13).

Fraud adulterates wine, sells worn out clothing as new, and gains her tithe through clever weighing of goods.  She has authority over craftsmen and makes cups out of impure metal and jewels out of glass, keeping the best for herself.  Meat, fish, bread, beer, chicken and eggs are under her control and for her benefit, and “even though Fraud is ruler, her activity does not further the common profit” (V, Ch. 14).

When reading literature of the estates, it is helpful to keep in mind that the framework based on the three-estate system rests on a traditional ideal that did not accord with social reality, and never did fully.  Poets clung to the outmoded paradigm, perhaps out of insecurity in a shifting culture, and individuals were expected to perform the functions of their estate.

But “estate” is a multivalent word.  Chaucer states his intention at the beginning of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales to describe the pilgrims: “I think it is reasonable to tell you of the condition of each of them, as it seems to me, and of their  degree, also how they were dressed” (GP 35-41), and ends with “Now I have accurately told you briefly of the estate, array and number of this company, and why they were assembled” (GP 715-17).  He appears to be using “condition” and “estate” interchangeably, and indeed, this is within keeping with the Middle English definition of “estaat” (“estate”).  According to the MED, among its many meanings are state or condition, rank,  social class and status (all of which Chaucer addresses).

Chaucer does not set out a social model but acknowledges its theory when he apologizes for not presenting the pilgrims in their proper “degree” (rank).  Of the three poets, he seems most aware of (or most willing to discuss) the expanding social structure with the emergence of the “middle class” and groups that don’t fit into the traditional scheme, such as merchants and yeomen who neither pray, fight or plow.

Langland uses personification to portray the creation of the hierarchical system:

Then there came a king, led by the knighthood; the might of the commons made him reign.  And then came Natural Wit and made clerks, to counsel the king and protect the commons.  The king, knighthood and clergy devised that the commons should produce provisions; through Natural Wit, the commons contrived crafts, and for the profit of all the people ordained that plowmen should till and toil as honest life asked.
                                                            (PP B Prol 111-120)

In the C-text revision of the B-text, the king rules through the might of knighthood (C Prol 140).  This change is somewhat puzzling, and Pearsall doubts that the poet intended a less democratic interpretation in the C-text and suggests that he may have wished to avoid association with the Peasant’s Revolt [sic] (37).  Piers Plowman had been taken up by the rebels, and the revision from “common people” to the “knighthood” may have been an attempt to defuse that appropriation.  In the B-text, Piers lectures a knight on his proper conduct and role; his main responsibility is the protection of the church and the common man, in return for which Piers will “labor for your love all my lifetime” (B XI 26).

Gower prefaces his critique of the estates with a succinct description of the orthodox system as though it were social reality.  There are the clerks who teach, the knights who fight, and the peasants who till the fields (the first, second, and third estates, respectively).  Gower is noted by critics for his conservatism, but he considered himself the “voice of the  people” which he envisioned broadly.  However, scholars construe the “people” as the middle class, the expanded second estate; Coleman sees him as a “remarkable spokesman for the emergent gentry and bourgeoisie” (129).  Stockton observes that Gower is so bound to the traditional view of society that he was unaware of how important his own group, the entrepreneurs, would become to the country; for Gower, “the three traditional classes were immutably fixed” (17).

While poets may have set forth standards of behavior based on the traditional tripartite system, they also expected adherence to the societal norms of morality associated with their rank, class, and condition such as occupation or group affiliation, including those that did not fit into the rigid model but into the broader ethos that supported personal and social well-being for the good of both man and his culture.


1  The terms “satire” and “complaint” have become, questionably, interchangeable to many critics.  See John Peter, Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956) for distinguishing characteristics between the two; though his approach has been countered, it remains clarifying.  Coleman offers a balancing perspective in her detection of a “satirical sense, a scornful comparison of what is the case with what ought to be” (93) in Langland and  Chaucer, and a “satirical stance” in alliterative poetry “that operated through a critical social realism in the service of a theoretical ideal that did not exist in the reality around them” (168).

2  Mohl considers The Simonie to be probably one of the earliest pieces of literature of the estates in Middle English.

3 Gower wrote three major works: Mirour de l’Omme in French (1378), Vox Clamantis in Latin (1379-81), and Confessio Amantis in English (1390).  His criticism of the estates is frequently mixed with other didactic discussions that earned him the epithet “moral Gower” bequeathed by his friend Chaucer.  Vox Clamantis is used here for its systematic, comprehensive and relatively direct review of the estates from king to peasant, prelates to preachers. Quotations are from The Major Latin Works of John Gower, ed. and trans. Eric W. Stockton (Seattle: U of Washington P, 1962).

4  Endowing religious houses in exchange for the clergy’s prayers for the benefactor’s soul was not unusual, but obviously not within the spirit of religious tenets.

5  There was controversy whether mendicants, particularly Franciscans, should beg.

6  “Meed” is an ambivalent word meaning both reward and bribery, and can be used both positively and negatively.   Langland devotes several sections (passus) on the debate, couched in a trial of Lady Meed, whose overall portrait is damning.  The standard work is John A. Yunck, The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Mediaeval Venality Satire (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1963).

7  Sponsorship of stained glass windows decorated with the patron’s identity was common, for spiritual security as well as for worldly recognition.

8  See London Lickpenny in the Literature of Complaint translations.

9  A fraternity was a group, usually composed of different occupations often related by location.  The parish guilds devoted support to a specific saint and its church, and their purpose was mainly mutual support and religious dedication, while craft guilds regulated the practices and conduct of its business and members in addition to religious and community commitments.

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