This week I’m returning to another occasional series. This time it’s the one based on things I’ve found interesting or confusing in The Canterbury Tales. Today, it’s one of the pilgrims: the Franklin.
In The Canterbury Tales the Franklin is a symbol of the upward mobility that was a feature of the late fourteenth century. Franklin was a term used for a man of free birth. He wasn’t a serf, but he was still someone who held and worked land on a manor, even if that work was done by men he employed. The exact social status of Chaucer’s Franklin isn’t clear and has been argued about for decades. He might have been a member of the gentry, or, more likely, he might be someone who made a lot of money that enabled him to move among the gentry. The term ‘franklin’ covered a lot of possibilities. This franklin seems to have been fairly wealthy, or he at least gave the appearance of being wealthy.
He had a permanent table set up in his hall. Usually, tables were just a board on some trestles and they were taken down between meals. The implication is that the Franklin was always ready to eat, or, to put a more charitable interpretation on it, to give food to the poor who came to his door for alms.
Franklins held land, but were not generally well-off. In the poll tax of 1379 they were supposed to pay 6s 8d or half of that depending on the size of their estate. Some franklins seem to have paid even less than the lower amount, but most paid 3s 4d. Very few paid 6s 8d. It would be interesting to know how much poll tax Chaucer’s Franklin paid.
Franklins held land, but weren’t noble. There’s a very large gap between a serf and a noble and a franklin could, in theory, be anywhere in it. He could have been a step up from a serf or a member of the gentry.
Like Chaucer, the Franklin was a justice of the peace and (briefly in Chaucer’s case) a knight of the shire, or Member of Parliament. It’s possible that he was the lord of a manor. He might even have been a lawyer, as he was accompanying the Serjeant of Law. Then, as now, there was serious money to be made as a lawyer. People were very litigious in fourteenth-century England.
Wealth didn’t have much to do with freedom or serfdom. A serf could be wealthy and a freeman could be poor. A rich serf was more important in a village than a poor freeman. A serf, or villein, owed labour services to his lord of the manor and he had to pay fines or fees to that lord at various stages of his life. He would be tried in the lord’s manorial court for any misdemeanours or crimes. Freemen were simply free from most obligations to the lord of the manor. They had to pay homage to the lord for their land since no one, except the king, owned land, and they paid rent in money to the lord of the manor. They were not subject to manorial courts.
Given all this ambiguity, it’s no surprise that scholars haven’t been able to pin the Franklin down.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
A Social History of England ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The English Manor c.1200 – c.1500 by Mark Bailey