So many of us fondly remember our first reading of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but do we understand why, beyond being a collection of compelling stories, this work continues to resonate with legions over the centuries? And, although Chaucer’s pilgrims are fictional, was it only absolution that compelled throngs of pilgrims like them to make the journey to Canterbury? We investigate these questions by traveling the pilgrims’ route from London to Canterbury, uncovering medieval artifacts along the way to situate us in the era of Chaucer and the pilgrims – in the midst of the Hundred Years War, intertwined with the complexities of social and religious maneuvering, and with England’s separation from Europe and burgeoning national identity taking hold. Professor David Raybin, editor of The Chaucer Review, guides us as we unearth and immerse ourselves in the England of the Middle Ages.
We begin our enlightenment in Chaucer’s home of London. Although much of Chaucer’s life remains a mystery, we do know that, as a courtier of Edward III and Richard II, Chaucer found success not only as a poet, but also as a diplomat conversant in multiple languages, a foreman, and a Member of Parliament – a true Renaissance man before such an ideal had a name! From our base of operations in the City, near London’s Financial District where Chaucer served as Comptroller of the Customs of Wools, we spend three days investigating Chaucer’s haunts, soaking in the political, cultural, and social climate of the Middle Ages. Our trip would be incomplete without a visit to Chaucer himself, and we pay homage to the inspiration for our sojourn as we visit Westminster Abbey where Chaucer was the first author lain to rest in what would later be the famed Poet’s Corner.
Combing the city’s medieval history allows us to uncover a much different London than the city we know today. Our tour includes visits to select London pubs such as Southwark’s George, which stood adjacent to the now-destroyed Tabard Inn, the starting point for Chaucer’s pilgrims. More than drinking establishments, London’s pubs were the social gathering spots for neighborhood inhabitants. And so it continues for us: the Anchor pub will provide an evocative backdrop for an evening seminar focusing on Chaucer’s works, with Professor Raybin vividly recreating Chaucer’s life while underscoring what life was like in this stage of the Middle Ages.
Leaving London, imbued with the sensibilities of countless Canterbury pilgrims before us, we begin the journey to Canterbury ourselves. We follow the route the pilgrims took, walking stretches of the breathtaking North Downs Way through England’s grand and storied countryside. As respite from and reward for our journey, we stop first in the cathedral and castle town of Rochester, spending the night at a country inn on the Downs. Our next day’s journey finds us in Kent, visiting the stunning and genteel Leeds Castle, a potential stop for pilgrims from the noble class.
Like our forebears, our pilgrimage culminates in Canterbury where we spend two days exploring this multilayered city – a Neolithic settlement, an outpost of the Roman Empire, and later a center of Christianity with the conversion of the Kingdom of Kent. Canterbury’s myriad medieval landmarks – bridges, buildings, and the city walls – allow us to remain enveloped in the world of Chaucer’s pilgrims. We visit the Eastbridge Hospital of St. Thomas, a hostel and the oldest surviving building in the city, and experience the refuge and quiet awe the pilgrims must have felt gazing up to the ceiling’s mural of Saint Thomas à Becket’s martyrdom, the impetus for their long journey. Exploring the World Heritage Site comprised of the Canterbury Cathedral itself, the Abbey of Saint Peter and Paul, and the Church of Saint Martin, we share in the majesty that has brought visitors to the site for centuries and, in this humbling setting, come to understand Canterbury’s storied and often dramatic history.
As we traverse London, the English countryside, and Canterbury, Professor Raybin ably helps us unlock the clues to medieval life that abound by interweaving stories from The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s life, and medieval society into our journey. Like the pilgrims, we join this sojourn seeking much more than just a walk through the countryside to a cathedral. We find instead a journey that communes our senses with the lives that preceded ours through a shared experience that transcends time. The pilgrimage evokes a sense of place and an era past, leaving us enriched with a greater understanding of the author and the world in which his work exists. To borrow Dryden’s sentiment of Chaucer’s work, “Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God’s plenty.”