By Judith M. Bennett
Yearbook of Langland Studies, Vol. 20 (2006)
Introduction: Despite Chaucer’s reputation as an acute social observer, he did not have much to say about the vast majority of English people in his time—that is, the peasants who lived and worked in England’s villages, hamlets, and isolated farms. Among the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales is only one bona fide peasant — the Plowman, who merits one of Chaucer’s briefest and most idealized portraits and whose tale Chaucer never wrote. In the tales of other pilgrims, we get glimpses of peasants — the old widow harassed by the summoner in the Friar’s Tale, another poor widow whose farmyard is the home of Chanticleer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and, of course, Griselda, who began life in the most humble of circumstances in the Clerk’s Tale. But these are glimpses only, background figures or settings that allow a main tale — one unassociated with peasants or their lives — to unfold. All told, I think it is fair to say that the Canterbury Tales (and Chaucer’s other works, too) offer us rich and subtle commentaries on elite courtly culture; on the gritty mores that governed life in the streets, lanes, and workshops of England’s towns and cities; and on various religious livings and professionals … and remarkably little about the roughly 90 per cent of English people who, in Chaucer’s time, lived and worked on the land. Thus, taking the Canterbury Tales as a sort of portrait of English life in the late fourteenth century would be roughly equivalent to taking Manhattan as a portrait of the United States today. In both cases, the portrait is rich and full, but very, very partial.
Although Chaucer’s depictions of peasants are few and brief, they are remarkably sympathetic. Paul Freedman has shown us in his book on Images of the Medieval Peasant how ambivalently medieval elites viewed peasants, seeing them both as justly subjugated people who were beneath contempt and as simple, good folk whose hard labour brought them closer to God. Chaucer fell on the ‘good folk’ end of this spectrum, and his perfect plowman — who worked hard, loved God, helped his neighbours, paid all his tithes fully, and dressed and rode as appropriate to his humble station — was an ideal representative of ‘those who work’, a good third player to Chaucer’s seemingly perfect (or perhaps all-too-perfect) parson and knight. But the figure of the plowman resonates in medieval literature far beyond Chaucer’s prologue, and, indeed, plowmen so proliferate in late-medieval poetry that there is even a sort of plowman’s genre — Piers Plowman, of course, but also the Complaint of the Plowman, Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, and the plowmen celebrated in such poetry as God Spede the Plough, the Song of the Husbandman, and I-blessyd Be Christes Sonde.