As some of you may know, quite a few years’ back now I developed a fascination with Geoffrey Chaucer and not only his significant contribution to the English language – his book, The Canterbury Tales, was the first book to be printed in English – but also what led him to write it and influence at least one of the many Kings of England, who he served, to adopt the language in it. The contribution was so significant to the development of English culture, that Caxton to choose to print it as one of 4 choices with him introducing the printing press to England at the end of the 15th Century. The other choices were in Latin and French.
Part of that fascination also comes with the nature of the book itself, in capturing an account of over a dozen tales told on a journey to Canterbury near the end of the 14th Century and a feel for medieval culture in England at that time. As such, the tale tellers were a diverse and mottley crew of people travelling together to Canterbury in honour of Thomas a Beckett, a man who had stood up to the King and become a martyr – and thereafter Saint – for all those who steadfastly stand up for their principles.
Chaucer himself was perhaps inspired to both do the journey, and capture these people’s stories, from both living in Aldgate around the time of The Peasants’ Revolt, when he would have heard the angry and so-called peasants talking to one another as they marched under his rooms there to London to protest how the poll tax was levied, but also from his days working as a Customs and Excise man in having to collect taxes himself from people who would have spoken a mix of different European languages and so having had to find one common language with which to communicate readily with them.
I wanted to capture the feel of that journey, a few years back, and so visited quite a few of the well-known sites which the pilgrims stopped at along the way where I captured some of the local people’s tales. and got a feel for what it might have been like stopping off for a night and meeting people to share in experiences on the road.
To add to the feel of it, a few years later at Easter time, I managed to convince some of my friends who I have blogged about on this site to join me on walking the last leg into Canterbury, as well as rounding it off by attending an Easter service at Canterbury Cathedral followed by a meal afterwards at the suitably named “Millers Arms”
It was great discovering the places along the way, and getting a feel for what it must have been like, but something was missing from what I had felt on trying to read The Canterbury Tales as well as learning more about Mr Chaucer – or Sir Geoff, as I like to call him – and his account of the people he met in the prologue to each tale.
Possibly it’s down to the fact that King Henry VIII endeavoured to put an end to pilgrimages, or just the fact that the roads there are not as clear in this day and age to allow such eclectic travel on them, but it was not enough of a feel about the value and importance of this journey for me from just visiting the sites, attending service and eating a few good meals with good friends.
So something more was needed to truly get the feel for the road and the type of camaraderie that a group of people might feel in walking, riding or driving towards a common destination based on a figurehead – even if their reasons for doing so were disparate, and not necessarily so spiritual.
In keeping with my Robert Frost maxim of “way leading to way”, it was some time around that second visit to Canterbury, along with my friends, that I had learned about a much bigger and still active set of trails across Europe in tribute to yet another saint – and how the Canterbury trail, from either London or Winchester to Canterbury, is just one of those.
It was then I started to read up about another saint who had inspired many to walk “in his name” as part of a personal or spiritual journey. His name was Saint James, and I learned how people from Britain and Ireland and all across Europe for many centuries now have taken one of many trails to seek some sort of resolve or sanctity from visiting the site of his remains which are reputedly held in The Cathedral in Santiago De Compostela in Northern Spain.
With clearly marked routes marking the way, and people actively taking pilgrimages there, at least one of these many roads would seem to be ideal for catching the genuine feel for what that pilgrimage to Canterbury may have been like for who you meet on the road as much as what you see there. So it was just a question of when, rather than if, I got the chance to go there…..