In the description of the the franklin, one of the pilgrims, I came across a term I’ve skimmed over in the past when I’ve encountered it. I didn’t really have much of an idea of what a knight of the shire was, but the notes of my edition of The Canterbury Tales told me that it was a member of parliament and that Chaucer had been one. So I did a bit of reading.
Two knights were chosen to represent each county at a parliament. They were supposed to be elected, but usually they were chosen by the county’s sheriff. As representatives of people in a certain location, rather than invited directly by the king, they were in the Commons. Parliaments were called by the king, usually when he needed to raise money by means of taxes. They could meet anywhere in the country, depending on where the king was, but Westminster was often its location under Edward III and Richard II.
Chaucer was MP for Kent in the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ from 1 October to 28 November 1386. It met in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. Chaucer was only an esquire, however, not a knight. Knights weren’t always keen to act as knights of their shires, finding the obligations burdensome. Men like Chaucer, however, who was the son of a merchant and would never be knighted, were often extremely happy to take their place in parliament, since it was a great honour for them. Chaucer was paid 4 shillings a day for attendance and was never an MP again.
The other thing that I learned from the description of the franklin is what an up-and-coming gentleman had for his breakfast. The franklin was fond of a sop in wine for his first meal of the day. A sop was a piece of bread and it was dipped into the wine. This was, apparently not an unusual way for people with the necessary means to break their fasts. The wine would have been fairly weak, as was the ale that people lower down the social scale had with their breakfasts.