A Chaucerian Invitation

At night was come in-to
      that hostelrye

Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,

Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle

In felawshipe, and pilgrims were
      they alle …

SO DOES GEOFFREY CHAUCER describe the convening—at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the southern bank of the River Thames—of twenty-nine pilgrims. The next day they would ride southeast from London to Canterbury, “the holy blisful martir for to seke [seek].” For in the year 1170, Canterbury had been the scene of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the unbending archbishop of Canterbury, slain by four knights in service to King Henry II. The martyr’s bones were kept in a jewel-encrusted shrine in the cathedral where he had been murdered, and from them was believed to emanate miraculous healing power. All over England people prayed to Becket, invoking his intercession with God “whan that they were seke [sick],” as Chaucer tells us. Those who were cured of their maladies would then make their promised pilgrimage to Becket’s bones.

All across Europe, a pilgrimage in company with others was a life-defining event and one of the principal satisfactions of a well-tuned life. A man or woman went on pilgrimage in thanksgiving for a favor granted or to ask a member of the court of Heaven for something greatly desired or as penance for sins committed. But even a penitential pilgrimage was full of incidental pleasures. The pilgrim joined with other pilgrims for safety and companionship, and each pilgrimage offered its promise of adventure. One was, after all, traveling farther into the world than one had ever ventured before. Most medieval wayfarers had never gone beyond the nearest market town, so every pilgrim could look forward to marvelous sights and strange encounters. Whether you journeyed to a national shrine like Canterbury, to an international destination like Santiago de Compostela in Spain, or to the most exotic goal of all, the Holy Land itself, you would have enough stories to tell on your return to fill what remained of your span of days.

Especially from your fellow pilgrims, mostly people previously unknown to you, you could expect to receive an unparalleled learning experience. For these were people from other places, places you had never seen, who had life stories quite unlike the ones you were familiar with. “A crowd is as exciting as champagne to these lonely people, who live in long glens among the mountains,” John Millington Synge once wrote of rural Irish folk, who had managed even in his day to maintain many medieval customs and who still bore a medieval mind-set. Not all medievals lived in long mountain glens, but most lived among what would seem to us but a handful of other humans. So though pilgrimage was a religious duty, it also became a glorious—and sometimes picaresque—experience.

I invite you on a pilgrimage, dear Reader. Come along with me (and many others) to places we have never seen before and to people we could otherwise never have expected to know. We are surely sundry folk, as Chaucer would have called us, and we shall meet sundry folk even more exotic than ourselves. “By aventure”—by happenstance—we have fallen into fellowship.

In the Prelude that follows we must spend a little time in late antique Alexandria, for it was a place of cultural percolation that would have untold influence on the making of the Middle Ages. Then in the Introduction, we shall quickly navigate the intervening centuries from the death of antiquity to the budding of the high Middle Ages. Do not be troubled if all this seems far removed from our principal quest. By starting in late antiquity and then by turning, however briefly, to the uncertain beginnings of the medieval period, we learn by contrast: how different are the seeds from the soil that nourished them, how splendid will be the flowers compared with the seeds. And like a hearty breakfast taken at the Tabard, these early courses will stand us in good stead as we venture forth in Chapter One to the solemn and merry mysteries that will constitute our chief employment.

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