Daily Life in Chaucer's England

By Jeffrey L. Singman; Will McLean | Go to book overview

2
Chaucer's World

SOCIETY

At the time of Chaucer's birth in about 1342, the population of England was around 3.75 million, although the ravages of the plague reduced it to about 2.25 million by the latter part of the century. This population represented a wide range of conditions, from the king to the destitute pauper.

Medieval political theory divided society by function into three "estates." The first estate was the clergy, who were responsible for people's spiritual well-being. The second estate was the aristocracy, who were supposed to defend the nation through their military might. The third estate was the commons, whose role was to labor and produce the country's wealth.

In theory, every English man and woman had a well-defined position in the social hierarchy, reflected in forms of address, in clothing, and in precedence in public places. People's positions in the hierarchy were considered to be of great importance, but sometimes the precise gradations weren't entirely clear. A wealthy commoner might live more richly than a poor aristocrat. It was generally clear who held an actual title--bishops, knights, and other titled persons received their titles through a clearly formalized system. However, it might be hard to tell whether the local miller was a more important man than the local smith. Disputes about who had the right to go into church first on Sunday could sometimes come to blows.

Social confusion was aggravated by social mobility. It was possible, although hardly easy, to rise in social rank. Sir John Hawkwood, the

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