An era of social and economic change

Social and political unrest

In the post-plague society, there were demands for higher wages. Estate-owners often had to agree to these demands in order to secure workers. However, the government attempted to peg wages at the pre-plague levels, through the 1351 Statute of Labourers. The government tried to prevent people with ‘unfree' status (bondmen and bondwomen) moving away from the estates where they owed regular stints of labour during the year. The statute caused resentment. It also seems to have had little effect.

Another cause of anti-government resentment was taxation. In particular, a series of ‘poll taxes' (poll means ‘head': these were taxes everyone had to pay) aroused particular anger and led to the English Rising of 1381 (also known as the The Peasants Revolt). There were uprisings in several areas, especially in the south-east and East Anglia. A march into London by men from Kent and Essex issued demands regarding:

  • An end to the taxes
  • The removal of ‘unfree' serf status
  • A number of other reforms. 

After enjoying some success initially, the Rising was crushed. 

The power of the monarch

Medieval societies were not democracies. England was ruled by the king. At the same time, great lords wielded enormous power. Throughout Chaucer's life, English kings were engaged in a virtually continual struggle for power against the great landowners and nobles — dukes and earls. Richard II tried to centralise administration in certain respects, to bolster his own rule. One method of achieving this was to increase the administrative importance of gentry (knights, franklins, other landowners) in the counties. This meant that the landowning upper-middle class, as opposed to the aristocratic lords, were becoming an increasingly prominent sector in English society, as were merchant elites in towns. The growing importance in society of franklins, knights and rich merchants is reflected in The Canterbury Tales.

Challenges to the Church


By the late Middle Ages, the Church had amassed enormous wealth. This all too often had the effect of turning it into a worldly organisation. The Church frequently tolerated abuses which raised money, including displaying false relics and the selling of indulgences

John Wyclif

John WyclifJohn Wyclif and his followers argued for a number of far-reaching reforms in the Church. Wycliffites called for the Church's wealth to be reallocated to the Crown. They also opposed many practices of the Medieval Church, such as:

Wyclif and his followers maintained that Christ and his followers had been poor and the Church should follow that example.

An English Bible

John Wyclif and his followers also produced the first close translation into English of the whole of the Latin Bible (known as the Vulgate). Previously, there had been vernacular paraphrases that told many of the most important biblical narratives, but not in close, exact translation. As well as these paraphrases, there were:

  • Legendary and apocryphal material
  • Doctrine and interpretation, which lacked support from the Bible itself.

Wyclif's translation meant that ordinary people could read and understand the Bible for themselves, rather than rely on what they were told by the priest. This had the effect of destabilizing traditional beliefs, many of the contemporary Church's practices and doctrines had no clear support in the Bible. See Aspects of Literature > English Bible translations

Chaucer's attitude to the Church

Chaucer's views seem far from simple. His writings include beautiful prayers and a saint's life, the story of St Cecilia. However, he also exposes many of the contemporary abuses which Wycliffites, and concerned conservative churchmen, condemned:

  • His Pardoner is a grotesque caricature. He exposes the business of encouraging gullible people to think that paying money for bogus relics and indulgences can help to offset the spiritual consequences of sin
  • This character is the focus of contemporary disgust at a Church that often seemed absorbed in extracting money from people by dubious, fraudulent and superstitious claims. 

In contrast, the Parson of The General Prologue embodies many of the Wycliffites' ideals for the Church:

  • He follows Christ and the Apostles, both in contented poverty and in service to his parishioners
  • His preaching is based on the gospel.

Yet this idealised figure is no revolutionary. On the contrary, the Parson and his virtuous, charitable brother, the Plowman, are models of a conservative social ideal, of uncomplaining, obedient and hard-working peasants.

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