Perhaps the best-known pilgrim work in literature, Chaucer's poetic telling of the pilgrimage of a group of people of all classes and interests to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral is a classic of the English language. He creates a disparate group of characters who travel together for security against robbers and amuse themselves by telling tales that reveal their personalities. The stories are pious, straightforward, or bawdy in turn and provide insights into popular attitudes toward English society and religion in the high Middle Ages.
The book was written around 1390 but first saw print in 1478 after undergoing many copyists, so that there are dozens of versions. The fact that it could be circulated in handwritten copies for a century and a half is a testimony to its popularity. Once printed, it has never gone out of print, and there are many editions available today. It is a standard piece of literature familiar to any English-speaking high school or university student.
The context of the Canterbury Tales is the fractured society of Chaucer's time. The Black Plague had decimated Europe, killing off a third or more of the population. The Catholic Church was in schism, divided between two popes and with its authority under question at all sides due to corruption among the clergy. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 laid bare the exploitation of the poor.
Among the pilgrims in Chaucer's stories are several church professionals: a monk and a friar, a priest, a summoner (one who brought cases in Church courts against heretics and others), a pardoner (who sold indulgences), and a nun and a prioress. Only one nun acquits herself well as a faithful Christian. The others, in their stories, reveal their failings and insincerity. Not only the Christian religion but also the feudal social system is exposed and ridiculed in the tales.
To what extent are the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales typical of medieval pilgrimage, and to what extent are they a literary device that enables Chaucer to expose the fragility of English society at the time? Or were these flawed characters embarking on a pilgrimage in order to seek pardon for their sins or out of devotion? Both aspects are shown, although the former predominates.
The Canterbury Tales do reveal some of the typical elements of medieval pilgrimage. The travelers have banded together for protection; having a knight and a squire in their number must have been a relief to the others. The group is mixed, with several layers of feudal society represented. While groups of all upper-class dignitaries might have gone together, or all common folk, practicality dictated that when they assembled at a tavern in Southwark, they would gather whoever was available, regardless of social class.
Another common theme is the variety of motives that bring them on pilgrimage—some pious, others venal. The Pardoner was probably hoping to make a little money off the gullible pilgrims at the shrine. A couple of the men are not above seeking some innocent or not-so-innocent flirtation. Several are openly lecherous.
They amused themselves with a storytelling contest, a typical entertainment of the time. The “winner” received the acknowledgement of the rest and was treated to a dinner, as happens in the Canterbury Tales. This provides Chaucer with a framework for the book, but one that would have been familiar to all his readers.
As for the motives of the pilgrims, Chaucer deliberately twists them from the beginning. The Host gets the group to agree to his terms for leading the pilgrimage, something he evidently has done before. Each is to tell two tales, and he will judge the winner. He is also to be sole arbiter of everything that happens on the trip. Subtly, then, he has changed the terms of the pilgrimage from religious to mercenary, as he comments that the saint will pay back their devotion and offerings. Only the Parson and his brother, the simple Plowman, remain motivated by faith. Some almost rise to that level, like the Knight, a man of stern duty and military bravery. What is striking is that no one seems to be on the pilgrimage seeking either a miracle or forgiveness for sin. So much of the pilgrimage seems to be about displays of wealth and success. The Wife of Bath, one of the most colorful figures, “collects” pilgrimages; she has been to Jerusalem three times and to other exotic shrines.
The Canterbury Tales ends as a commentary on pilgrimage as a symbol of human frailty and the state of contemporary society.
See also: Canterbury Cathedral, Pilgrimage, Pilgrim's Progress
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