The following illustrates the levels of late 14th c. English society from plowman to duke. It generally follows the ranks used in the 1379 Poll Tax, supplemented at the lower levels by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363. The first estate is in italic, the second in bold. Laborers were not the bottom of medieval society: below them were those who were unable to work because of age, illness or injury, reduced to a precarious existence dependent on charity.
Most of the ranks are followed by relevant sections of the sumptuary law of 1363. This was apparently never seriously enforced and may have been repealed the following year, but does give an idea of what was considered thrifty and restrained costume for each level of society. In reality, most people who could afford to indulged in some of the luxuries this law reserved to the level above them.
The ranks are illustrated by portraits from the Canterbury Tales, from the prologue unless otherwise noted. In many cases I have had to make educated guesses as to the wealth of the people described. Just how wealthy was the merchant or the prioress?
In some cases I have been guided by Russell’s Book of Nurture, a 15th century work on etiquette and manners. At dinner he would sit a prior with a knight, and so I have placed the prioress at that level. The monk is “to been an abbot able” but currently manages a cell, or subsidiary house, so I have placed him one level lower. The Wife of Bath is, or considers herself to be, the most substantial woman in her urban parish, and I have ranked her as a “sufficient merchant”
Chaucer doesn’t say what town the guildsmen, “shaply for to been an alderman”, are from. London aldermen were quite wealthy, with an implicit property qualification that was codified in the 15th c. as £1000 in goods or in money loaned out. This would suggest an income of over £100 a year. However, London aldermen were almost always from richer and more prestigious trades than Chaucer’s pilgrims. I suspect that they are either from a smaller town than London, or Chaucer is suggesting that they have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, or both.
Edith Rickert and other writers have noticed that Chaucer’s merchant corresponds in many details to Gilbert Maghfeld, a London merchant who handled goods worth £1,150 in 1390, and loaned money to Chaucer and many others. That would put him in the upper ranks of London merchants. Records from the Court of orphanage, 1350-1497, suggest a median estate of £200-£400, so even a more typical merchant would expect an income like a substantial squire.
A mark was worth 2/3 of a pound sterling.
1) Laborers. Many peasants had only a little land, or none, and depended on paid labor for others to survive. The income from such work could be very sporadic. In household service pages had a similar position at the bottom of the household hierarchy of pay, benefits and status. Also: Monks, etc, from houses worth less than 40 pounds and other clerks without advancement.
Income: £1 10s.-<£3
Carters, ploughmen, drivers of the plough, oxherds, cowherds, shepherds, deyars (dairymen) and swineherds, and all other keepers of beasts, threshers of corn, and all manner of people of the estate of a groom attending to husbandry, and all other people that had not forty shillings of goods, "shall not take nor wear no manner of cloth, but blanket and russet (wool) of twelve pence; and shall wear the girdles of linen according to their estate; and that they come to eat and drink in the manner as pertaineth to them, and not excessively."
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
2) Husbandmen. A holding of 30-15 acres of arable land, a yardland or half yardland, was generally reckoned enough to support a peasant farmer and his family. A groom in household service would live about as well, perhaps receiving somewhat finer clothes than the husbandman in livery as a matter of display. Also: Poorest landed lesser merchants or artificers. Pleaders. Monks and canons from lesser houses.Income: £3-<£5
….grooms, as well servants of lords as they of mysteries and artificers, shall .... have clothes for their vesture or hosing whereof the whole cloth shall not exceed two marks (26s. 8d.), and that they wear no cloth of higher price, of their buying nor otherwise, nor nothing of gold, nor of silver embroidered, aimeled (enameled), nor of silk, nor nothing pertaining to the said things; and their wives, daughters, and children of the same condition in their clothing and apparel, and they shall wear no veil, nor kerchief, passing twelve pence a veil.
3) Yeoman. A yeoman farmer would hold substantially more land than the minimum required to support a family: perhaps 100 acres or more. A skilled craftsman like an ordinary master carpenter would live about as well. The middle rank of household servants, between the grooms and the squires, were ranked as yeomen or valets. While this was a common term for servants of this rank, it doesn’t seem to have been regularly used to describe the free farmers from whom those servants were recruited until the 15th century. Also: middling to poor innkeepers, married pardoners or summoners, farmers of manor or parsonage, wholesalers dealing in stock and other lesser trade, and landed lesser merchants or artificers. All other benificed curates, and parish and annual chaplains. Monks and canons from middling houses.Income: £5-<£10
People of handicraft and yeomen are not to wear cloth of more than forty shillings the whole of it, 'by way of buying nor otherwise,' nor may they wear precious stones, 'nor cloth of silk nor of silver, nor girdle, knife harnessed, ring, garter, nor owche, ribband, chains, nor no such other things of gold nor of silver nor any embroidered work or silk. The wives and children of such persons to be liable to same restrictions, it being also expressly forbidden them to wear a kerchief of silk, or of anything but' yarn made within the realm, nor no manner of fur, nor of budge, but only lamb, coney, cat, and fox.
And he was clad in cote and hood of grene.
A sheef of pecok arwes, bright and kene,
Under his belt he bar ful thriftily,
(wel koude he dresse his takel yemanly:
His arwes drouped noght with fetheres lowe)
And in his hand he baar a myghty bowe.
A not heed hadde he, with a broun visage.
Of wodecraft wel koude he al the usage.
Upon his arm he baar a gay bracer,
And by his syde a swerd and a bokeler,
And on that oother syde a gay daggere
Harneised wel and sharp as point of spere;
A cristopher on his brest of silver sheene.
An horn he bar, the bawdryk was of grene;
A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse.
Carpenter’s Wife: Miller’s tale
A ceynt she werede, barred al of silk,
A barmclooth eek as whit as morne milk
Upon hir lendes, ful of many a goore.
Whit was hir smok, and broyden al bifoore
And eek bihynde, on hir coler aboute,
Of col-blak silk, withinne and eek withoute.
The tapes of hir white voluper
Were of the same suyte of hir coler;
Hir filet brood of silk, and set ful hye.
And sikerly she hadde a likerous ye;
And by hir girdel heeng a purs of lether,
Tasseled with silk, and perled with latoun.
In al this world, to seken up and doun,
There nys no man so wys that koude thence
So gay a popelote or swich a wenche.
A brooch she baar upon hir lowe coler,
As brood as is the boos of a bokeler.
Hir shoes were laced on hir legges hye.
Parish Clerk: Miller’s tale
Ful streight and evene lay his joly shode.
His rode was reed, his eyen greye as goos.
With poules wyndow corven on his shoos,
In hoses rede he wente fetisly.
Yclad he was ful smal and properly
Al in a kirtel of a lyght waget;
Ful faire and thikke been the poyntes set.
And therupon he hadde a gay surplys
As whit as is the blosme upon the rys.
Miller: Reeve’s Tale
Ay by his belt he baar a long panade,
And of a swerd ful trenchant was the blade
A joly poppere baar he is in his pouche;
Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.
A sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.
The person of the toun hir fader was.
With hire he yaf ful many a panne of bras,
For that symkyn sholde in his blood allye.
She was yfostred in a nonnerye;
For symkyn wolde no wyf, as he sayde
But she were wel ynorissed and a mayde,
To saven his estaat of yomanrye.
And she was proud, and peert as is a pye.
A ful fair sighte was it upon hem two;
On halydayes biforn hire wolde he go
With his typet bounden aboute his heed,
And she cam after in a gyte of reed;
And symkyn hadde hosen of the same.
Ther dorste no wight clepen hire but dame;
Was noon so hardy that wente by the weye
That with hire dorste rage or ones pleye,
But if he wolde be slayn of symkyn
With panade, or with knyf, or boidekyn.
4) Landless Squire’s estate. Landless Squire in Service or Arms. A damoisele or damsel was the female equivalent of a squire in household service, a woman of gentle birth and status, but not necessarily young or unmarried. Poorer franklins or sergeants of the country. Richest innkeepers and married pardoners or summoners. 2nd rank of farmers of manor or parsonage, wholesalers dealing in stock and other lesser trade, lesser landed merchants or artificers. Clerics as below with appropriate income, monks and canons from the wealthiest houses.
Esquires, and all gentlemen under the estate of a knight, and not having land or rent of the value of £100 a year, were to wear suits costing no more than 4 1/2 marks (£3). They were not to wear any 'cloth of gold, nor silk, nor silver, nor no manner of clothing embroidered, ring, broche, nor owche of gold;' they were to use 'nothing of stone, nor no manner of fur.’ The wives and daughters of these gentlemen were under similar restraint, an injunction being added against their having 'any turning-up or purfle.'
Merchants, citizens, and burgesses, artificers, people of handicraft, as well within the City of London as elsewhere, having goods and chattels to the value of £500, they, their wives and children might dress as esquires, etc., and their belongings, who had 'land to rent to the value of £100 by the year'
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede
Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede.
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day;
He was as fressh as is the month of may.
Short was his gowne, with sleves longe and wyde
5) Squire of lesser estate, or widow of one. Other sufficient merchant, or widow of one. Apprentices of law and attorneys of lesser estate, Middling or poor mayors of small towns. Richer franklins or sergeants of the country. Richest farmers of manor or parsonage, wholesalers dealing in stock and other lesser trade, lesser landed merchants or artificers. Cleric as below with appropriate income.
Income: £20-£66 13s. 3d
At sessiouns ther was he lord and sire;
Ful ofte tyme he was knyght of the shire.
An anlaas and a gipser al of silk
Heeng at his girdel, whit as morne milk.
A monk ther was, a fair for the maistrie,
An outridere, that lovede venerie,
A manly man, to been an abbot able.
Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable,
And whan he rood, men myghte his brydel here
Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere
And eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle.
Therfore he was a prikasour aright:
Grehoundes he hadde as swift as fowel in flight;
Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.
I seigh his sleves purfiled at the hond
With grys, and that the fyneste of a lond;
And, for to festne his hood under his chyn,
He hadde of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn;
A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was.
His heed was balled, that shoon as any glas,
And eek his face, as he hadde been enoynt.
He was a lord ful fat and in good poynt;
His eyen stepe, and rollynge in his heed,
That stemed as a forneys of a leed;
His bootes souple, his hors in greet estaat.
Now certeinly he was a fair prelaat;
Wife of Bath
Of clooth makyng she hadde swich an haunt,
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she
That she was out of alle charitee.
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground.
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.
Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe...
Upon an amblere esily she sat,
Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe,
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.
In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe.
6) Knight bachelor, squire that ought to be knight (40 pounds or more from lands), widow of these, Commander of Hospitalers, Middling apprentice of law or attorney, rich mayor of small town, municipal officer of large town, great merchant, or cleric as below with appropriate income.
Income: £66 13s. 4d.-< £200
…esquires having two hundred marks a year and upwards in land or rent might ' take and wear clothes of the price of five marks (£3 6s. 8d.), the whole cloth, and cloth of silk and of silver, ribband, girdle, and other apparel reasonably garnished of silver. Their wives and children might also wear ' fur turned up of miniver, without ermine or letuse but they might not wear any precious stones, except upon their heads.
Knights who had land or rent within the value of £200 by the year might wear six-mark cloth, but 'of none higher price. They might not wear cloth of gold, nor cloak, mantle, or gown that was furred with miniver nor sleeves of ermine, nor anything that was set with precious stones, excepting the head-dress; they were not to use any 'turning up of ermines, nor of letuses, nor clieres.'
Merchants, etc, who had goods and chattels to the value of £1000 might dress as esquires and gentlemen who had rent in land to the extent of £200 a year.
All clerks whose degree in college or church, and the clerks of the king whose position required the use of fur, might do according to the constitution of their society. All other clerks having 200 marks a year out of land might do as knights having the same rent; and clerks having less than this amount from rent were to be subject to the same restriction as esquires with £100 a year of rent. It was also provided that 'all knights and clerks who by this ordinance may wear fur in winter, shall wear lawn in summer.'
His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gypon
Al bismotered with his habergeon,
For he was late ycome from his viage,
And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.
A marchant was ther with a forked berd,
In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;
Upon his heed a flaundryssh bever hat,
His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
His resons he spak ful solempnely,
Sownynge alwey th' encrees of his wynnyng.
Guildsmen: Dyer, Haberdasher, Weaver, Tapestry Maker, Carpenter.
Ful fressh and newe hir geere apiked was;
Hir knyves were chaped noght with bras
But al with silver; wroght ful clene and weel
Hire girdles and hir pouches everydeel.
Wel semed ech of hem a fair burgeys
To sitten in a yeldehalle on a deys.
Everich, for the wisdom that he kan,
Was shaply for to been an alderman.
For catel hadde they ynogh and rente,
And eek hir wyves wolde it wel assente;
And elles certeyn were they to blame.
It is ful fair to been ycleped madame,
And goon to vigilies al bifore,
And have a mantel roialliche ybore.
Ful fetys was hir cloke, as I was war
Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned a,
And after amor vincit omnia.
6) Baron, banneret, widowed baroness or banneress, knight able to spend as baron, Prior of Hospitalers in England, Alderman of London, mayor of great town, sergeant or great apprentice of the law, married advocate, notary or procurator, abbot without mitre, prior, prioress, dean, archdeacon, provost, precentor, chancellor, treasurer, or parson with benifice or office worth appropriate income.
Income: £200 £.-<£340 .
All knights and ladies having land or rent exceeding the value of 400 marks by the year, and not more than £1000 a year, might wear what they liked, except ermine and letuse, and apparel adorned with pearls and precious stones, though they might wear jewels in their head-dresses.
Man of Law
He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote.
Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;
Of his array telle I no lenger tale.
7) Earl, widowed countess, mayor of London, Justice of either of the two Benches and former justices, the chief Baron of the Exchequer, bishop, mitred abbot or prior, abbots or priors who are peers or priors of cathedral churches.
Income: over 340£
8) Dukes and Archbishops
Income: thousands of pounds.