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February 22, 2018

Chaucer's Pilgrims

On this day (or possibly the next) in 1394, Geoffrey Chaucer's twenty-nine pilgrims met at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to prepare for their departure to Canterbury. Chaucer's poem condenses the four to five day trip into one, and scholars have used various textual references and astrological calculations to establish that day as the day before Easter, thus allowing the pilgrims to arrive at Canterbury Easter morning, after a fifty-five-mile hike through a pleasant English springtime:
    When April with his showers sweet with fruit
    The drought of March has pierced unto the root
    And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
    To generate therein and sire with flower;
    When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
    Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
    The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
    Into the Ram one half his course has run,
    And many little birds make melody
    That sleep through all the night with open eye
    (So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
    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. . . .

    (trans. J.U. Nicolson)
Weather and good company aside, the game established at the Tabard the night before is a competition for the tale "of best sentence and moost solaas," the prize being "a soper at oure aller cost." Chaucer leaves no doubt that some of his pilgrims would rank the prospect of a free meal more highly than the feast promised at the Cathedral: a view of not only the St. Thomas a Becket relics, but the whole arms of eleven saints, the bed of the Blessed Virgin, fragments of the rock at Calvary and of rock from the Holy Sepulchre, Aaron's Rod, a piece of the clay from which Adam was made, and more. As Chaucer does not get all his tales told, or his pilgrims to their destination, neither earthly nor spiritual nourishment is realized.

In the eyes of one enterprising 15th century writer, the incompleteness of Chaucer's journey presented the opportunity for a sequel. "The Tale of Beryn" purports to be told by the Merchant as Chaucer's pilgrims make their way back to the Tabard. In the Prologue to this tale we learn that while the others were busy with their own amusements during the one night layover in Canterbury -- Knight and Squire to see the battlements, Prioress and Wife of Bath a tour of the gardens, etc. -- the Pardoner attempted to romance and rob a barmaid. Perhaps appropriately for a dealer in sham relics, he not only fails but is beaten up, and spends the night in a dog's kennel.

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