Perceptions of class in the late Middle Ages
in Literature and class
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Chapter 2 examines issues of class, hierarchy and class consciousness in the late fourteenth century, principally through a study of three major works: William Langland’s Piers Plowman, in particular the relationship between this literary text and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and its relationship to the genre of medieval estates satire as well as social reality; and John Gower’s Vox Clamantis. Piers Plowman emerges as an excoriating attack on the corruption of English society in the late fourteenth century, as principles of profit threaten to sweep away the last vestiges of society’s moral order. Langland celebrates the dignity of ordinary labour but concludes that a self-sufficient, functioning society cannot be achieved until a point in the distant future, if at all before the return of Christ. Instead, the task of the dutiful Christian citizen must be to save souls not society. Chaucer has often been contrasted to Langland as a poet who sneered at the pretensions of social climbers. Through an analysis of The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale the chapter shows that, like Langland, the more urban-focussed Chaucer also saw a society in disarray, falling prey to the forces of greed and commercialization. His satirical attacks are less concerned with individual classes than the failures of the collective whole. In contrast, Gower has no problem in blaming the rebellious peasants for England’s social ills and, accordingly, he dehumanizes them as ignorant beasts.

Literature and class

From the Peasants' Revolt to the French Revolution

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