English literature, that most beautiful of British possessions, begin with these lines from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales: "When April with his showers sweet with fruit. The drought of March has pierced unto the root...Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage, and palmers to go seeking out strange strands, to distant shrines well known in sundry lands. And specially from every shire's end of England they to Canterbury wend". His tomb in Poets' Corner Westminster Abbey (where he was the first poet to lie) is itself a destination of pious pilgrimage.
What, you may ask, is a pilgrimage? According to the authorities it is a journey made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation". And why Canterbury? Because in medieval times, it was the most famous English shrine. First, as the birthplace of Saxon Christianity, secondly, as the scene of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. But more importantly, Canterbury, then as now, was accessible from the great metropolis of London. If you were rich or very devout, you might go to the Holy Land for the good of your soul (and to get some sun). But for ordinary people the people who at all times and all places make up the bulk of the 'travelling public' the journey has to be convenient; a break that will fit painlessly into a busy working schedule. A three-day jaunt to the South Coast was ideal who knows, you might get some nice weather as well as a few days remission from purgatorial fire.
One of the great thrills of reading Chaucer is looking back six centuries to see that, as the French proverb puts it, the more it changes, the more it is the same thing. With just a little squinting of the eyes, we can see the Chaucerian world around us today. What, for example, does one see in The Canterbury Tales but the first celebration in our literature of tourism, the package holiday Middle-Ages style?
What happens in spring 1400? Exactly what happens in spring 2007. Punters, with time in their hand and money in their pockets, feel they need a vacation to get the winter out of their system. They get the travel bug and a faraway look in their eyes. Look down the rows of passengers in a 737 or 747 jetliner. How many people do you suppose have to be making the trip? In the nature of things, some of our travelling companions will be driven by the universal necessities of birth, marriage, death, and business. For the others, it is travel for travel's sake. Of Chaucer' pilgrims, as we may guess, only two (The Knight and the Parson) are motivated primarily by religion to make their trip to Canterbury. For the others it's a 14th century spring break. Why do we travel in such huge numbers? For the same reason those who could did so 600 years ago. Human nature and restlessness haven't changed over the centuries (the only change is that more of us can nowadays afford what has become a cheap luxury). We may fool ourselves that there is some spiritual or improving motive for the journey (we like to say "it broadens the mind") But as Chaucer notes, and as we ourselves will admit if we are honest, we "long to go on pilgrimages": wanderlust.
Part of the fun is having the organisation and the practical details taken care of by professionals travel agents, airlines, airport authorities, cabin crew, flight crew, air traffic control all the complex apparatus of modern travel. The departure terminal for Chaucers band of pilgrims is slightly more homely: the Tabard Inn, by the Bell at Southwark very handy for the Dover Road (the M2, as it now is).
At the Tabard, the band of pilgrims come into the care of their host, or pilot, Harry Bailey. Like all good pilots, Bailey realises that he must begin by giving instructions and licking the pilgrims into shape as a group. When the steward gets you to listen to the safety instructions, put your seat backs and tray tables up, and buckle your seatbelts, as well as the purpose of a safety drill, this habituates the passengers into thinking of themselves as a single entity.
There are, of course, no safety instructions for the pilgrims departing for Canterbury. But Bailey who has evidently been in business long enough to know the ropes lay down the rule of the road. He insists on each pilgrim delivering two stories to entertain the group on the way and two on the way back. (Those who have read Chaucers poem will realise that this huge design was nowhere near fulfilled).
The aim in getting the pilgrims to tell tales to each other is itself twofold. To unify them into a band. This may well be crucial if there is an emergency. Secondly and more importantly perhaps the tales will provide that necessary element of all protracted travel; inflight entertainment. Nowadays, our stories on long-haul flights come in the form of movies. When I fly from Los Angeles to London, as I do several times a year, I watch two going and two coming, a nice Chaucerian number.
Before we get to Chaucers tales themselves, we have whats is called the General Prologue, some 858 lines that introduce us the two-dozen or so members of the company. It is attractive to see the Prologue as Chaucers version of the passenger check in very much a first class pilgrim is the Knight. This nameless dignitary has clocked up an impressive number of frequent travel miles. No man, the poet says, has ridden more, in Christendom or heathen country.
Even by modern standards, he is well travelled: the Knight has visited Prussia, Russia, Turkey, Latvia, Spain. Terry Jones, the Monty Python veteran and medieval scholar, suggests plausibly that the Knight may have done dubious things on the crusades campaigns. Be that as it may, the Knight is recognisably the kind of VIP you will see leaving the plane ahead of you, slipping into some exclusive suite in the airport lounge.
Doubtless the Miller and the Reeve know the feeling, as they checked into the overnight inn at Ashford and the knight got the private dining room and the good bedrooom. Second on Chaucers manifest is the squire, the Knight son. A lover and a lusty bachelor, this young fellow (20 years old, the poet guesses) has still to commit the sins for which he will need absolution. He`s along for the ride. The first things we are told about him is that his hair is curled as it had been in a press. Long hair was in 600 years ago. And when you`re 20, hair is a big deal. With the Knight and his squire-son is a Yeoman. This sturdy fellow is euphemistically called a servant, but the stress in the poet`s description is on weapons mighty bow, feathered arrows, sword, buckler and his evident skill in how to use this fearsome armory. What do we have here? Security. The Knight is not merely the company`s figurehead, he and his bodyguard represent protection for the company from bandits.
Behind the Knight and his entourage comes the next VIP in the hierarchy; the Prioress. She stands out among her sex as a woman who has made it to a `”A” status in a man`s world. Chaucer is at pains to stress that not only has she made it, she flaunts it. The Prioress (no wow of austerity for her) brings with her two little lap-dogs which she feeds roast meat and white bread (as much a delicacy as fresh croissants in Chaucers time). On her wrist, this fashionable religieuse has a string of beads, from which hangs a brooch of golden sheen, whereon there was first written a crowned A, and under, Amor vincit omnia (Love conquers all). A woman of the world, we deduce, and very much a first-class passenger in life.
The prioress has a nun with here to serve as chaplain (anything a man can have, she can have to), and three attendant priests. What is their function? They are the cabin crew, making sure that everything is as it should be on the journey for the Prioress. Following behind these top people is the solidly successful monk. He has done better for himself than a monk should (how else could he afford this pleasant spring break?)
The Poet notes the unmonastic grey fur (“the finest in the land”) decorating his habit (like other fashion-conscious passengers, he likes to look good when he travels). You will see him in business class, doing very well, thank you, perhaps helping himself rather too generously to the inflight refreshments.
Next, in descending order, come the friar, The Merchant, the Clerk, the Franklin, (a self-made man, who has made his pile and risen in the world), the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Dyer, the Weaver, the Arras-Maker (i.e. tapestry maker), the Cook, the Sailor, the Physician (not, at this period in history, a terribly respectable line of work), The Wife of Bath (a well-left widow, the most talkative member of the company, and a character whom Chaucer most admires), the Ploughman, the Miller, the Manciple (steward), the Reeve (land agent) and the summoner (one of many officers of the church who did who knows what).
There are many reasons for us to read The Canterbury Tales: to pass exams (alas the commonest reason nowadays), to impress our friends, or simply because the stories are even after 600 years such good reading. Start with the unbelievably bawdy Miller`s Tale and graduate to the super-subtle Franklin`s tale.
But for me, the most rewarding aspect of Chaucer`s Canterburys Tales is the fact that things look so familiar. The human species was the same six centuries ago, and it will, one expects, be the same six centuries hence. I find that very comforting. As Dryden said of Chaucer work all life is there all travelling life, certainly. Look around next time youre in the departure lounge you`ll see them all, from the Knight in his Savile Row finery too the Miller in his shell suit.
High Life, October 2000