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  1. In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (NAEL 8, 1.218–38), Chaucer's narrator sets out to describe the "condicioun," "degree," and "estaat" of each of the pilgrims and apologizes for failing to list them in their correct social order. Yet Chaucer's pilgrims do not always conform to their traditional roles, and many of them seem dissatisfied with their degree in society.
    1. Can the pilgrims as described in the General Prologue be divided between those who conform to their estate and those who do not? How does Chaucer's narrator view those whose lives do not match their traditional roles? Does he seem more critical of those who challenge the social order or of the social order itself?
    2. How should we judge Chaucer's own career, and the rapid social progress of his family, within the context of estates theory? How would the narrator of The Canterbury Tales describe the "estaat" of the historical Chaucer if he were another pilgrim on the journey?
  2. Like most theoretical models, the clearly defined estates and orders of medieval theory stand at a far remove from a more complex and ambiguous reality. This is especially true in regard to woman's estate. How does The Book of Margery Kempe (NAEL 8, 1.384–97) reveal the social and spiritual dilemmas of a woman — even a mayor's daughter — who feels a religious vocation but is not in a religious order or an anchoress's cell?
  3. From Saint Benedict's attack on disgraceful monks to John Gower's satire of gluttonous prelates and greedy friars, criticism of hypocritical religious men abounds in medieval texts. Yet the authors in this section did not see themselves as rebels against the Catholic Church. What similarities can you find between their critiques of the church and those which were voiced by Protestants in the English Reformation?
    1. The hermit Archimago in Book 1, Canto 1 of Spenser's Faerie Queene (NAEL 8, 1.719–32) represents a Protestant view of Catholic hypocrisy. What similarities exist between Archimago and medieval images of hypocritical holy men?
    2. On the positive side, compare the Christ Knight of Ancrene Riwle (NAEL 8, 1.157–59) with Spenser's Redcrosse Knight. What similar themes and images mark these two parables? Are there significant differences?
  4. In the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood (NAEL 8, 1.27–29), Ancrene Riwle, Part 7, and Piers Plowman, Passus 18 (NAEL 8, 1.357–67), Christ is portrayed in the figure of a warrior.
    1. How does each of those portrayals reflect the society of that period? What characterizes the ideal warrior in the Anglo-Saxon period, the Anglo-Norman period, and the late fourteenth century?
    2. In each case, how would you characterize Christ's "condition," "degree," or "estate" in his human incarnation?
  5. Had they been familiar with Ancrene Riwle, how might Julian of Norwich (NAEL 8, 1.371–82) and/or Margery Kempe (NAEL 8, 1.383–97) have responded to the author's Prologue and the Parable of the Christ Knight? Try expressing these responses in an imitation (in modern English) of a chapter in the Showings or in The Book of Margery Kempe. Compare these hypothetical responses as a way of comparing the spirituality of these two women.
  6. The Romance of the Rose was a hugely popular and influential poem. Chaucer translated it, and its influence lies behind many of his works. The influence of the Advice of the Old Woman can be clearly seen in Chaucer's portrayal of women in The Canterbury Tales.
    1. Make a close comparison of the Old Woman in The Romance of the Rose and Chaucer's Wife of Bath (NAEL 8, 1.256–84). Look particularly at Chaucer's use of passages from the Romance. Does either author reveal any sympathy for woman's estate, and, if so, how can you tell?
    2. The Old Woman's advice on table manners reappears in the description of the Prioress in Chaucer's General Prologue (NAEL 8, 1.221–22, lines 119–62). Do the Old Woman and the Prioress share the same motives for their behavior? Are there any other ways in which they appear similar? How does knowledge of this source change your understanding of the Prioress?
  7. Compare Chaucer's "Nun's Priest Tale" (NAEL 8, 1.298–312) with Gower's allegory of the Uprising of 1381 in Vox Clamantis, Book 1.
    1. In each text, do animals occupy a single estate or several estates? How do the estates of the animals relate to the estates of the humans in these texts?
    2. Both Gower and Chaucer condemn the Uprising of 1381. Do they condemn it from the same perspective? Are there significant differences in their versions of the peasants' motives and actions?
  8. The centuries that followed the Uprising of 1381 saw a host of economic, regional, and religious rebellions.
    1. Compare the 1381 rebels' chant and slogans with the song and oath of the Pilgrims of Grace who rose up in 1536. Pay attention both to the aims of the rebels and to their means of expressing and disseminating their views.
    2. Compare Gower's description of the Uprising and its defeat with John Newton's and William Snelgrave's accounts of slave rebellions in the Middle Passage between Africa and America.
  9. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have much in common with the genre of estates satire exemplified in Gower's Vox Clamantis and Mirour de l'Omme.
    1. How does Chaucer make comic and dramatic use of friction among the three estates in the links between the tales? Consider one or more of the following: the Miller's Prologue (NAEL 8, 1.239–55) and the Interludes in the Wife of Bath's Prologue (NAEL 8, 1.257–75).
    2. How do the pilgrim narrators, such as the Miller, the Wife of Bath, and the Franklin, express their class orientations within their prologues and the tales themselves?
  10. While Ramón Lull asserts that the duty of a knight is to "defend women, widows, and orphans," the knight of Arthur's court who appears in "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (NAEL 8, 1.256–84) begins his adventures by committing rape. Read "The Wife of Bath's Tale" alongside Lull's Book of the Order of Chivalry, Gower's satire of knights in Mirour de l'Omme, and Adam Murimuth's account of fourteenth-century Arthurianism.
    1. What light does each of these versions of knighthood shed on the progress of the knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?
    2. How relevant are any of these models of knighthood to the ideals and behavior of the knights who participated in the First Crusade and the knight described in Chaucer's General Prologue?
  11. The texts in this section were originally written in English, French, Latin, and Catalan; John Gower himself wrote in three of these languages. What factors might influence an author's choice of language? What indications can you find in the texts in this section that texts in different languages are addressed to different estates?
  12. Women who wrote in the Middle Ages belonged to a wide range of degrees and estates: religious and secular, royal, noble and common. Consider the writings by medieval women collected on the Medieval Women Web site. How important is their estate as women to these writers, compared to the other degrees, orders, and estates to which they belong? Is it appropriate to generalize about the lives of "Medieval Women"?

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