Clothing in The Canterbury Tales

Diane de Arden

In The Canterbury Tale, part of Chaucer’s attention to detail is the clothes of the pilgrims and of the characters of their tales. He uses the clothing to indicate the social status, the desired social status, of the movement between social classes of various characters. A look at the sumptuary laws of medieval England is needed to illustrate the differences in social classes that Chaucer shows through the use of cloths and accessories.

In the later Middle Ages, the borders between different social classes began to blur. Sumptuary laws were an attempt to legislate the appearance and behavior of people to conform to their social status. Part of a sumptuary law reads, "Item, for the outrageous and excessive apparel of divers people against their estate and degree, to the great destruction and impoverishment of all the land, it is ordained...(Amt, p. 76)" These laws were not attempting to keep a person in one social class his whole life. As one changed positions in society, by marriage or by holding an office for example, a person was allowed to wear different things in accordance with his new social status. Often these laws were made dependent on how much money a person has as income as well as the person’s social class. Specific knowledge of some of these laws will help understand how Chaucer uses clothing in his tale.

Sumptuary laws in England in the year 1363 forbade craftspeople from buying or wearing cloth that cost more than 4 shillings and that cloth could not be made of silk, silver, or gold. Their clothes could not be embroidered and their accessories could not be made of silver or gold. The veils of their wives could only be made of cloth that was made in English lands that was not made of silk. They were also forbidden from wearing furs except for lamb, rabbit, cat, or fox.

Squires, whose land and rent was worth less than 100 pounds, and their wives had much the same restrictions as craftsmen with the difference being�� that their cloth could cost 4 and a half marks. If the squire had land and rent that was value 200 marks or above, he and his could wear cloth that cost 5 marks. In addition, he was allowed to wear silver, any fur except for ermine and letuse, and gems on his headdress. Merchants who had goods valued at 500 pounds could wear what squires worth 100 pounds could and merchants whose goods were valued at 1000 pounds could wear what squires valued at 200 pounds could.

Knights whose land or rent are worth up to 200 pounds could wear cloth worth 6 marks. They could not wear gold, ermine, or gems except for their headdresses. A knight worth 400 to 1000 marks could wear anything except ermine fur and gems on their clothes (Amt, pp. 76-8).

Sumptuary laws passes in 1463 made it illegal for anyone except for parliamentary peerage to wear gold. These laws also started to define the style of clothes worn as well as the fabric of the clothes. Yeomen were not to pad their doublets or wear shoes with long toes (Horrox, p. 152).

Chaucer knew the sumptuary laws of his time and made good use of them. the Wife of Bath says, quoting her husband, "In habit maad with chasitee and shame/ ye wommen should apparaille you," quod he/ "and nought in tressed heer and gay perree/ as with perles, ne with gold, ne clothes riche."(ll. 342-345)

In the descriptions of the pilgrims in the general prologue, Chaucer discusses their apparel, often talking just about one piece of clothing. the clothing and ornaments that violate sumptuary law give us an indication of what social class these people are from or aspire to be in. It also gives us a look into the personality of the characters.

The Prioresse is described as wearing a brooch of gold. Gold was forbidden for all except for the highest knights and nobility. Along with her fine table manners and her knowledge of French, this indicates that she had been nobility of a sort. She is unable to give up all of the luxuries of the social status she held before becoming a nun.

The Squire has embroidery on his clothes that is specifically forbidden for squires unless his income was over 200 pounds a year. Chaucer emphasizes the embroidery implying that the Squire’s clothing was embroidered excessively. This show is part of the Squire’s way he attracts women. the embroidery not only makes his clothes look more handsome, but it makes him appear to be well-to-do and more desirable. His clothing shows him as a vain man indulging in minor illegalities to attract the attention of the opposite sex.

The Merchant and the friar deliberately violate sumptuary law to brag about their successes and wealth. The merchant wears a Flemish beaver hat when the people of his class cannot wear beaver fur unless their property is worth more than 1000 pound. With the hat, the merchant is showing that hi is successful enough to be able to wear it or at least successful enough to replace it if confiscated. It also shows others in the story, if they are knowledgeable, and Chaucer’s audience, that the merchant trades with the Flemish. The Friar, although his clothes are not specifically described, violates the spirit of the sumptuary laws. By wearing clothes worthy of a magister or pope when he is just a lowly friar, he is showing of his ill gotten wealth and success. Sumptuary laws attempted to make a person’s appearance fit his profession and social class. The Friar definitely dresses contrary to that ideal.

Looking at the dress of the pilgrims as a whole, a of pattern appears. Chaucer uses sumptuary laws to illustrate the corruption of his pilgrims. The virtuous Knight and Clerk wear nothing that violates the sumptuary laws of their respective social classes. In fact, they do not wear all that is allowed to them. The Knight wears a coarse cotton tunic and a soiled coat of mail. He is allowed to wear much nicer fabric, fur , and silver ornaments. The Clerk wore a threadbare coat, that being all that he could afford. That is well within what he is allowed to wear.

The amount that a pilgrim violates sumptuary laws shows his or her level of corruption. The Prioress is only mildly corrupt while the Friar can by looked upon as totally corrupt.

Within the pilgrims’ tales, Chaucer uses clothing to mark changing, or a desire to change, social classes. In the desire to enter a different class, one first dresses the part.

In the Miller’s tale, the wife is not happy with the social status she derives from her husband, the carpenter. As a carpenter’s wife, it is illegal for her to wear silk, embroidery, or gems. Alison appears to use these sumptuary laws as a guide on how to dress herself to appear to be of a higher class. She wears a girdle of striped silk and her chemise is embroidered on both the front and back. Her collar is silk and as well as her bonnet strings. Although her purse is made of leather, it has silk tassels and it is decorated with beads in imitation of gemstones. as a young woman married to an older man, Aloson is using her apparel to attract a richer man most likely of a higher social class. To rise in social status, she feels she must dress the part first.

Instead of indicating a desire to change social classes, clothes are used in he Clerk’s tale to indicate an actual change in social status. Through out the tale, clothes, and the knowledge of what is allowed to be worn, keep track of Griselda’s social fortunes. The Marquis orders for and dresses Griselda in broaches and rings of gold, gems, and blue enamel. He gives her rich new clothes as well as other ornaments. This signifies her rise in social status from peasantry to nobility. Only the nobility are allowed to wear gold and gems in such a way. When the Marquis tosses Griselda out of the house and sends her back to her father, she is stripped of all of the finery in accordance to the laws about what a peasant is supposed to wear. A person who worked with animals could wear only wool or linen. When she arrived at her father’s house, he gave Griselda an old coat of a rough cloth. When restored as the Marquis’ wife, Griselda was once again dresses as nobility with gold and a crown of many jewels.

Chaucer’s attention to the clothing of his characters brings in facets of the plot that many modern readers might miss. The knowledge of what people were allowed to wear adds another dimension to the subtlety of Chaucer’s work. In addition, if Chaucer’s characters are typical of people in the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws appear to have been used as a how to dress for success manual. Sumptuary laws were an ineffective attempt to closely define a social classes appearance.






Ed. Amt, Emilie. WomenÕs Lives in Medieval Europe: A sourcebook. Routledge, New

York. 1993. pp. 76-78.

Ed. Horrox, Rosemary. Fifteenth-Century Attitudes: Perceptions of society in late

medieval England. Cambridge University Press, London. 1994.


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