A Mirror From Long Ago: The Pilgrims of ‘The Canterbury Tales’

January 21, 2020 Updated: January 24, 2020

On New Year’s Eve, four of my five siblings, their spouses, and I gathered to ring in 2020. At one point, our conversation turned to long-ago college classes, and my sister, who is a wife, mother, grandmother, and a banker, suddenly said: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

Our talk of college had brought back her memories of English literature, when her professor had made her class memorize the first 18 lines of the Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales.” Here are those 18 lines in full and in the original Middle English:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eke with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye —
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages;
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrymages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Title page of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” circa 1400. National Library of Wales (CCO 1.0)

Sounds like a foreign language, yes? Here are the lines rendered in modern English:

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower.
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run.
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger stands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands.
And specially, from every shire’s end
In England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick to give
His help to them when they were sick.

Straunge Strondes

Written some 600 years ago, these lines remain some of the most famous in English literature. And like my sister’s professor, I required the homeschooling students who took my English History and Literature class to memorize these lines. I wanted them to taste Middle English, to understand that our language changes, that 600 years from now we might have the same difficulty understanding what today passes for English as we do understanding Chaucer, and that we too should seek “straunge strondes,” or foreign shores, in our study of literature.

I would explain to them that English is always in a state of swirl and flux; our invention of new words and our adoption of words from around the globe are one of the glories of our language. I would explain that when I was a child, had someone told me that I would one day “homeschool” my children or operate a “bed-and-breakfast,” both of which I have done, the terms would have been incomprehensible to me. I pointed out words and concepts that didn’t exist in the 1960s but which we use all the time today: blog, cellphone, speed dating, email, cybersafety, Facebook, chai latte, and many more.

To Caunterbury, They Wende

The textbook we used for this course was the splendid “Prentice Hall Literature: The English Tradition” (Second Edition), which included the complete Prologue in modern English—that is the modernization used above—and two of the stories, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”

Because of its brilliant thumbnail depictions of a wide array of English men and women of the time, ranging from a knight to a prioress, from a miller to the Wife of Bath, we focused our attention on the Prologue.

Here were the pilgrims, among whom Chaucer counted himself, who were bound on a spring journey to Canterbury Cathedral, the site where four knights of Henry II had two centuries earlier martyred Thomas à Becket.

The landlord of the Tabard Inn suggests to this company that they all tell tales both going and coming on the pilgrimage, and though Chaucer never completed all the tales, we find in his Prologue a cross-section of English society and culture that tells us much about 14th-century England.

Let’s look at just a few of these characters.

From Every Shires Ende

First up is the Knight, a “true, a perfect gentle-knight.” Here is a warrior worthy of the Round Table, a man who “had followed chivalry” and who was “ever honored for his noble graces.”

Here is the Nun, a Prioress, who “would wipe her upper lip so clean that not a trace of grease was to be seen.” We soon meet the Monk, who fits the caricature of the day, “a fat and personable priest” who loves hunting and luxury.

We meet the Merchant, an “expert at currency exchange”; the Oxford Cleric, a student who spends his money on books and who “would gladly learn, and gladly teach”; the Reeve, a subordinate estate manager whom “no one had ever caught in arrears” and “a better hand at bargains than his lord.”

The Wife of Bath provides an excellent example of Chaucer’s descriptive powers. She’s all decked out, from the handkerchiefs she wore on Sunday to her fine scarlet hose and soft new shoes. She’s buried five husbands, growing wealthier with each marriage, and has traveled three times to Jerusalem, and also to Rome, Boulogne, Compostella, and Cologne. She sits “easy on an ambling horse, “had a flowing mantle that concealed large hips,” and “in company she liked to laugh and chat, and knew the remedies for love’s mischances, an art in which she knew the oldest dances.”

Reflections in a Looking-Glass

When we meet these people from so long ago, we notice how different they are from us. On their pilgrimage, for example, the tales they tell often derive from mythology, folk wisdom, or religion. Were we moderns on a similar trek, we would probably talk politics and culture.

Yet if we examine them more closely, we find in these pilgrims people very much like us, human beings who possess traits and emotions in common with us, who seek the good life, and who work hard, for the most part, at what they do.

A portrait of the English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. (Public Domain)

Chaucer knew well those of whom he wrote. His father was a wealthy wine merchant, and as a youth Chaucer served as a page at the court of King Edward III. In addition to writing other poetry, the best known of which is “Troilus and Criseyde,” he served as a justice of the peace, a controller of customs, a one-time member of Parliament, and a supervisor of construction and repair over such buildings as the Tower of London and Westminster Abby. At his death, he was buried in the Abby in what is now known as “Poet’s Corner.”

In his novel “The Go-Between,” L.P. Hartley wrote the famous line, “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.” True enough. Few of us go on pilgrimages, and many of the professions found in Chaucer’s company of travelers disappeared long ago. But in Chaucer’s vivid portraits of these men and women, we can easily find reflections of our own humanity.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.