To Be A Pilgrim: The Canterbury Tales


It is about a year ago that I took myself off on a “pilgrimage”, albeit an unintentional one. I had to visit Norfolk, where my elderly parents still live, as well as children and grandchildren. It is almost 600 miles away. The journey is not so much the destination in some senses, as the experiences of the process of the journey and to fully immerse oneself into that is to take a pilgrimage. Over the next posts I am going to explore pilgrimage to a much greater depth, both historically and socially and will use some of the many photographs I have taken to illustrate the various places I have been a pilgrim too. There are many I still wish to travel to, and many I have visited and wish to visit again. But for me, just as my mysticism is best described as Living In A Monastery Without Walls; so life can be described as a pilgrimage, this journey we take each day of our lives. Some places though do hold a special sacred attraction, and have done for hundreds of years. These communal spaces are ones which I will focus on to start with. Perhaps my first “Oh Wow” encounter took place when I was 13 and my parents took me on the “European Tour”. We covered about 8 countries over 2 weeks and the highlights were the Church of St Francis of Assisi, the artistic work of Giotto, Venice and Rome and the Vatican which utterly blew my socks off! Coming from a small rural village, near the city of Norwich which did not even have an art gallery, my brain was literally blown off with the artwork and architecture that I was witnessing. There I met for the first time, the works of Michelangelo, De Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, Raphael, and Fra Angelico.  Nothing could compare with the Sistine Chapel for this young child/woman mystic…and I was to be totally hooked on Art and History for the rest of my natural life! So I would now like to bring some of this into my blog, influences that have enlarged me, expanded my appreciation of the sublime, given me aids to meditate and reflect upon and built tiny steps that aid us as we clamber to the heights of the passionate beauty of the Divine.

The first book written in English [we are taught, although this is not strictly true] was The Canterbury Tales, which all A level English Literature students here in the UK have had to study in part. It’s almost a rite of passage! When I studied it, we looked at “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”  The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.

When we first come across studying this book nowadays, it is completely inaccessible to the modern mind and reader. The language itself is a major barrier, it is not easily read or understood. Then there is the whole concept of the medieval mind as to what pilgrimage meant for them in context, what they were doing, and what their religious beliefs were. Then, perhaps finally, set against todays growing secular society and especially to the average 16-18 year old, why on earth would these people want to do this anyway? In this way this work of literature matches the experience of pilgrimage itself strangely, as pilgrimage is itself, difficult to enter and absorb, and certainly to explain, it is as much an interior process as it is an exterior journey and one has to go deeper, to fully enter its hidden revelations. Pilgrimage never does what it says its going to, it never acquiesces to just conforming to  “what’s on the label”. It is much more complex than that.

No other work prior to Chaucer’s is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen “master of ceremonies” to guide them and organize the journey. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio contains more parallels to the Canterbury Tales than any other work. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Plague).

While the structure of the Tales is largely linear, with one story following another, it is also much more than that. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes, not the tales to be told, but the people who will tell them, making it clear that structure will depend on the characters rather than a general theme or moral. This idea is reinforced when the Miller interrupts to tell his tale after the Knight has finished his. Having the Knight go first, gives one the idea that all will tell their stories by class, with the Knight going first, followed by the Monk, but the Miller’s interruption makes it clear that this structure will be abandoned in favour of a free and open exchange of stories among all classes present. General themes and points of view arise as tales are told which are responded to by other characters in their own tales, sometimes after a long lapse in which the theme has not been addressed. This again mimics the experience of pilgrimage. It is the people who one journeys with or meets, that are the key to the individual’s experience. It is this that ignites and opens one to the wholeness of it. On pilgrimage, people meet in a small fracture of time, and enter an almost womb like atmospheric consensus together, where secrets are told, tales recounted, in absolute anonymity. It is almost the ultimate sharing. Lastly, Chaucer does not pay much attention to the progress of the trip, to the time passing as the pilgrims travel, or specific locations along the way to Canterbury. His writing of the story seems focused primarily on the stories being told, and not on the pilgrimage itself. And it is these stories and journey and sharing which still today, make pilgrimage so rewarding and rich.

Before modern-day travel or allotted holiday time off work around the world became accessible and possible for the masses, pilgrimage played a part in ordinary people’s lives for the quite simple process and desire to “get away from it all”, have “a change of scene”, and “have a break” from the routine. When days off from work were rare, to say you were going on pilgrimage was one of the only acceptable methods of gaining time off from your boss. So it had an appeal in quite simply getting away from the daily grind. It was accepted by all that pilgrimage to a site of relics or saints was a very good and necessary thing to do. Not everyone that went off on a pilgrimage held a deep religious conviction for going, for some it was quite simply…a holiday. Some went for healing, some to hope that a particular saint could help them with a problem, or help bolster their own faith, fulfil a vow, or gain a blessing.

The world of the medieval pilgrim was for the most part isolated, quite oppressive and ruled by monotonous regularity and overpowering conventions. Certainly before the black Death changed the social and cultural landscape of England, people belonged in a very real sense to their church and all life was lived out under its shadow. An individual was baptised, married and buried in that church of his village. He was not allowed to take the sacraments at any other church. No strangers were allowed to be buried in that church. It was not unknown for those who died outside their own parishes to be exhumed and brought back to their own churchyards. In 1215, the Lateran Council reinforced this bond to the church by making every layman confess his sins once a year to his parish priest and no-one else. Only permitted travellers and those in danger of death were permitted to confess to a strange priest. And so, pilgrimage gave the only opportunity to step outside the norm and see something and somewhere different.

So, to return to the dear old Wife of Bath, whose tale I struggled with so valiantly at college. She was rude and raucous, had a strong voice for a woman of those times as they were depicted, had seen off some three husbands and made it quite clear that she dominated both the household and the bedroom. Rather a character to say the least! At  17 years old I had not the faintest idea of what she was talking about! But we are told that before taking the road to Canterbury,

“thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

She hadde passed many a straunge strem;

At Rome she haddeth been, and at Boloigne,

In Glaice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne.

She koude muchel of wandrynge by the way.”

She was therefore an extremely well-travelled international pilgrim, who in addition to visiting the three major shrines, [The Holy Land, Rome and St James de Compostela] had venerated the Virgin Mary at Boulogne and the Three Magi in Cologne Cathedral. Many English men and women will have shared at least some of her journeys. But the long haul pilgrimage to an overseas site was the exception rather than the norm, and for most folk, pilgrimage would have made to places within a week or so walking of where they lived for a major one, for example Canterbury, and much more regularly to places near to where they lived and could access within a couple of days or so. A few daring freedom seeking souls were on almost permanent pilgrimage and could hardly be distinguished from the vagabonds.

So I intend to start tomorrow with the Tale of my Pilgrimage to The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, a shrine which is known internationally and was one that was right on my doorstep as I grew up. I will also cover Glastonbury, Iona, Rosslyn [of De Vinci code recent fame], St Julian’s Cell in Norwich and some others that I have visited and photographed and I hope you will enjoy.  The photo in this blog was taken at The Bull Inn at Walsingham, a place where pilgrims have perhaps stayed for hundreds of years, and which I spent a wonderful few nights in. It is a wall painting in the upstairs dining room by a very talented former owner. I hope that this series on pilgrimage encourages or reminds you of its joys and tempts you to decide to go on one again yourself…sometime soon!

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Photograph (C) Stephanie 2012

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