"What Man Artow?" The Narrator as Writer and Pilgrim

Katharine M. Wilson

in Chaucer's Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to The Canterbury Tales, ed. Laura and R.T. Lambdin. Westport: Greenwood Press (1996).

I. Introduction

The little narrator in the Canterbury Tales is an enigma. He turns his searching gaze on everyone on the pilgrimage except himself, finishing up in a rush with "Ther was also a Reve, and a Millere, A Somnour, and a Pardoner also, A Maunciple, and myself -- ther were namo" (542-4). Not a word about what he himself does for a living, or where he stands socially. To find out who he is and what he does, we must look for clues in the text.

We know he's not just a talker who's telling a story once, but a writer who has produced a written copy of the story, and knows it may survive to be read by others. His promise to produce a word-for-word transcript of the pilgrimage, to "reherce as ny as evere he kan Everich a word" (732-33), would be a difficult promise to keep if he hadn't been taking notes the whole journey and writing up the stories to be read later. Perhaps the promise to produce a perfect copy is just hyperbole. What isn't hyperbole, however, is his caution before the Miller's Tale. He acknowledges that his audience might "list it not yheere" (3176), not want to hear what he has to say, but then directs them in that case to "Turne over the leef and chese another tale" (3177) and to choose responsibly: "Blameth not me if that ye chese amys" (3181). His audience is not just composed of hearers but also of readers who are responsible for their own choices in a way that they could not have been if they had simply been listening while he talked.

Besides being a poet who both recites his work and writes it down, the narrator is also a pilgrim. He says it clearly: "in that seson on a day, In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage" (19-21). But the fact that he is a pilgrim gives no clue to what he does in real life; beggars and kings alike could be pilgrims.

So we know the narrator not by his vocation, but by his avocations: writer and pilgrim. So what? Why not short-circuit this elaborate search for textual clues as to what the narrator does, and just equate him with Chaucer? After all, the narrator and Chaucer are both literate, so they belong to a relatively small segment of Medieval society and are likely to have had similar interests, jobs, and education. Also, to Chaucer's contemporary audience, Chaucer and the narrator could have been one; it's possible that Chaucer read his own poems aloud to the court. As Chaucer read the words of his narrator, "I was of hir felaweship anon" (32), his listeners easily could have merged the government employee with the narrator of the poem, and Chaucer the courtier could have ridden wrapped in pilgrim's robes.

But while Chaucer's hearers may have conflated him with the narrator, we can't know exactly how. It's impossible to question an audience that's been dead for 600 years, and without knowing more about author or audience, it's dangerous to equate an author automatically with his/her characters; Shakespeare was not Hamlet, Herman Melville was not Ishmael even though Moby Dick begins "Call me Ishmael," and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was not a hodgepodge of resurrected body parts. Neither was Chaucer identical with the narrator in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was at various times a courtier, civil servant, ambassador, and prisoner of war, but the text doesn't indicate that the plump little narrator tagging along with the jingling, colorful group speaks as any of those. The narrator remains a writer and a pilgrim, and it is as a writer and pilgrim we must consider him.

II. The Writer

Calling the narrator a reciter and writer is a redundancy, because the first thing the narrator would have been prepared to do as a writer is to read out loud. Medieval writers were not only wordsmiths but also performance artists. William Woods considers the Medieval connection between silent reading and vocalization so strong that reading silently to oneself in the Middle Ages would have seemed as insufficient as reading musical notation would be to a modern music lover (166). Modern authors are rarely adept at communicating their works vocally, but to the Medieval author, writing a manuscript was only half the job; the other half was reciting it.

The narrator is like Chaucer in that Chaucer may have introduced the Canterbury Tales to the world by reading them out loud. While there's no absolute proof of Chaucer's performing his works aloud, there are two pieces of circumstantial evidence. The first is simply that many other authors read their own works out loud, so there's no reason to suppose Chaucer didn't. The second is more individualized. A frontispiece of Troilus and Criseyde, painted shortly after Chaucer's death, shows a man who resembles Chaucer, standing behind a lectern declaiming to an audience. Of course, though the narrator of the Canterbury Tales might have had an audience, he wouldn't necessarily have had the apparently noble one pictured in the frontispiece. Recitations appealed to the citizenry and peasants as well, and the entertainers known as jongleurs made their livings off that fact.

A significant difference between modern writers and Medieval ones is that Medieval authors made no money with their pens. Only scriveners (copyists) made money from writing. For authors, there was no market and no reading public, because the number of people able to read was relatively small. And even if a writer could have captured the imagination of every reader in England, other writers could have copied his work freely. There were no copyright laws, so every writer, including Chaucer, freely borrowed from other written works; such borrowing benefited the public because borrowers, by retelling others' tales, made information available to a wider audience than the original authors could reach. Between the lack of readers and the lack of exclusive rights to any story, the narrator of the Canterbury Tales never could have paid his bills by selling copies of his work. Few would have bought it, and many would have copied it.

Even if literacy had been universal and copyright laws had existed, the narrator still could not have earned money by writing: there was no way to flood the market with books because there was no quick way to reproduce them. The first book printed in Europe with movable type emerged from Johann Gutenberg's press more than 50 years after Chaucer died. Until then, books had had to be written out individually by hand -- a labor-intensive process that could take months per copy, and put the price of books beyond the reach of any but the most dedicated reader.

Therefore, authors had to do something besides write if they were to earn a living. Once men had become educated, they had three choices of jobs: Church, government, or, if they were free-spirited or desperate and one doesn't define "literacy" too strictly, the itinerant entertainer's life of the jongleur.

For centuries the source of literacy in England had been the Church, which not only taught its clergy to read and write, but taught them to teach others to do so. ("Clergy" here refers to male clergy. Literacy doesn't seem to have extended as uniformly through the nunneries as it did the monasteries, and nuns confined themselves to teaching their novitiates, while male clergy could instruct members of the secular world as well.) The literacy of the humbler village clerics was often barely above that of their flock, but still, until the end of the 12th century education was connected with monasteries or cathedrals so inextricably that to be a scholar was to be religious: G. G. Coulton tells of a religious official who entered religious life only to have a teaching career. "Samson, abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, told Jocelin frankly that, if he could have made bread and cheese by teaching outside, he would never have become a monk" (Medieval 580).

Great numbers of grade schools, universities and colleges were founded throughout England during the 14th century. Children of both sexes could receive some schooling, but higher education was reserved for males; if females continued past the grade-school level, they generally did so at home. Many grade schools and "public" (privately funded) institutions were supported by individual philanthropists, churches, and workmen's guilds. The institutions of higher learning were for the most part at least nominally under religious control, but at least the Oxford students were such dedicated drinkers and brothel-visitors that in 1355 they clashed in open warfare with the citizens of the town. Still, even in Chaucer's time, secular teachers owed their abilities to the religious masters who had taught them, or to the religious masters who had taught those masters before. One didn't have to intend to enter the Church to receive an education, but the education available was strongly flavored by that Church.

Writers in the Church not only taught in grammar schools, cathedral schools, and universities; they also preserved old manuscripts and produced new ones. For hundreds of years the high ranking church and monastic officials (who were generally the most educated of the churchmen) acted as the wardens of books, and kept Greek and Latin alive so that ancient documents could be read. The churchman had a double intellectual duty: to protect this storehouse of wisdom, and to add to it by writing new texts on history, theology, and philosophy.

But, because of the technical demands of producing books, not every writer in the Church was a writer as we think of writers now. Rather than creating new books or even cataloguing old ones, many writers were copyists. With no copy machines, no typewriters, and no printing presses, the only way to multiply manuscripts was to copy each one out by hand. Many monks spent their lives doing just that. They glorified God, and relieved what must have been unutterable tedium, by "illuminating," or illustrating, appropriate places in their manuscripts with ornate lettering, Biblical figures, animals, angels, and demons.

If the narrator of the Canterbury Tales were a cleric at all, the life of a copyist/monk, or of a frugal parson like the "Poor Parson" on the pilgrimage, would be his most likely niche. He would be of fairly low rank because it's unlikely that a bishop, say, would have joined such a ragtag crew, or that he would have been treated as informally by the innkeeper if he had. He's certainly placed no higher than the Priest because the innkeeper addresses even the Priest casually, reserving nominal deference for the Knight, and teases the narrator unmercifully; the only way it's conceivable for the narrator to be a high-ranking churchman is if he has first deliberately disguised himself and then left that fact out of the Canterbury Tales altogether.

Even though the Church educated writers, it did not retain every one it taught. If the narrator wasn't a cleric, he could have been one of many Englishmen of letters who clustered in the courts to become either courtiers or government officials.

A courtier's duties in the royal household were wide-ranging; for instance, a Yeoman of the King's Chamber (as Chaucer once was) was a live-in high-class servant/attendant who carried messages, went on errands, made beds, and did whatever else the chamberlain told him to. Squires (the rank Chaucer eventually achieved) might execute these same housekeeping duties, taste the King's food to test for poison, or entertain royalty, nobility and visitors by singing, harping, and telling stories.

A government official's job sometimes overlapped with that of the courtier, and also depended upon literacy -- either an instant familiarity with Italian and French literature (to which he could refer in elaborate ambassadorial speeches) or an ability to write (which he would have needed in a job such as customs-official or comptroller, both of which Chaucer held).

But whether a writer became a civil servant or a courtier, he wasn't limited to legal writing. Courtiers, of course, might have needed to be expert creators of tales and poems for entertainment on long evenings. But civil servants, too, produced not only import/export documents and bills of lading, but also translations, romances, and poems for the amusement of their peers. And "for the amusement of their peers" is an important qualifier; poetry might have won a writer favor or prestige in the English court, but it's not certain that such poets were paid any money.

In fact, even Chaucer may not have earned anything for writing. Though some authorities believe that Chaucer received grants and pensions for his poems, others point out that there's no inevitable cause and effect between Chaucer's writing for the court and his receiving money from it. V. J. Scattergood deduces from the value of Chaucer's pensions (about what any competent government man would get) that Chaucer wasn't a paid writer but rather a paid public official, and that he wrote as a sideline (32). Again, D. W. Robertson, Jr., asserts that Chaucer "was always a member of the court first -- whether as squire, customs official, or Clerk of the Works" (London, 217).

The narrator could have been, like Chaucer, a non-nobly-born citizen who became a courtier or civil servant, with the pensions and grants attached to such a position. But no matter what court connections or pensions the narrator had, he probably was not a writer with a patron. Patrons were the rich and influential who paid money -- sometimes irregularly, sometimes like any other wage -- and even offered room and board in their households to writers. In return for financial support, a writer saturated his works with compliments to his patron. But although the custom of patronage was established in the French court by Chaucer's time, the English court didn't embrace the practice until well afterward, when John Lydgate was financed for his praises of Henry V. Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess did commemorate the death of John of Gaunt's wife, but even if John of Gaunt rewarded Chaucer for that particular poem, patronage probably would not have been a steady source of income for either Chaucer or the narrator.

Besides the writers in government and religion, another kind of writer/reciter existed. The jongleur, "half-minstrel, half-buffoon" (Coulton, Medieval 581), was a travelling entertainer for occasions such as funerals and weddings. Whether or not he could actually write, he had to be familiar with the classical, romantic, and popular sources that informed Medieval literature, and able to rapidly adapt and recite stories from them at will. He had to be good at gauging his audience, too; he subsisted by passing the hat after his performances, and a performance that didn't please didn't pay. Jongleurs drifted from house to house and village to village, pursued by the imprecations of clergymen, who regarded them as ministers of Satan. It's unlikely that the narrator is this impoverished kind of entertainer. He has enough money to stay at inns during his pilgrimage (no easy task on the usual income of a jongleur). And though Bailey teases the narrator remarkably freely, he does not describe the narrator as a jongleur. Bailey does not say the that the narrator is ragged or a crowd-pleaser, or that he pesters people for handouts. Rather, Bailey sketches the narrator as a small, silent, doll-like man who stares at the ground as if to search for rabbits, and who probably shrinks from the very kind of hearty cheer Bailey thrusts upon him.

And thanne at erst he looked upon me,

And seyde thus: "What man artow?" quod he;

"Thou lookest as thou woldest fynde an hare,

For evere upon the ground I se thee stare.

"Approche neer, and look up murily.

Now war yow, sires, and lat this man have place!

He in the waast is shape as wel as I;

This were a popet in an arm t'embrace

For any womman, smal and fair of face.

He semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce,

For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce."


The narrator could indeed have been a courtier or a cleric (albeit not very high-ranking in either profession), but here on the road he is quiet, teasable, merely one of a crowd of pilgrims. And that's the second part of what the narrator does. Not only is the narrator a writer; he's also "Redy to wenden" (21). He's a pilgrim.

III. The Pilgrim

Like saying prayers or giving alms, a pilgrimage was a devotion to God. It was a road trip to one of various holy places, planned for one or more reasons. The pilgrim

omight have been ordered by a religious leader to make a pilgrimage as a penance for sin; omight have vowed, in the midst of sickness or trouble, to go on a pilgrimage as a kind of bargain with God to "buy" better times; omight have survived sickness or trouble and wanted to thank God more tangibly than with prayers; or omight simply have wanted to go on a journey.

In theory, the purpose of a pilgrimage was religious. In practice, especially by Chaucer's time, pilgrimages could be excursions with a sense of religious duty scarcely more, and a noise level scarcely less, than a vanload of students setting out for spring break. Despite a handful of devout companions, the narrator has joined a rowdy bunch: the Summoner drapes himself in flowers and food, the Pardoner is a shyster, the Friar is a lecher, and at one point the Cook is so drunk that he falls off his horse, requiring "greet showvyng bothe to and fro To lift hym up" (53-4). Even the Miller's "baggepipe," with which "be broughte us out of towne" (565-66), is noisily inappropriate to play on a holy trip, or so one complaint (by a Lollard called Thorpe, discussed below) would have us believe. Bagpipes at the beginning of a journey are the Medieval version of slapping a raucous cassette into a car's tape player, turning the volume up, and roaring onto the highway.

Despite extremely secular distractions, a pilgrimage was supposed to pay a debt to, or fulfill a contract with, God. Making a pilgrimage entailed much more than worshipping at the destination: travelling itself was usually so difficult that the journey itself was privation for the Lord's sake. The expense, danger, and time involved in a pilgrimage of course increased dramatically when the pilgrim travelled overseas to the most holy of holy places, Rome or Jerusalem, but even a local pilgrimage like the Canterbury trip had great potential for unpleasantness and danger.

The dangers of travel began with the daunting logistics of simply getting from point to point. Roads were not paved outside London; beyond the city gates, the flat, wide strip we think of as a road degenerated into the weedy ruts of cart-tracks, and those cart-tracks degenerated into mires. In 1499, bad road conditions actually killed one unfortunate glove-maker who had started out at night from Leighton Buzzard to Aylesbury on a horse laden with panniers of gloves. In the dark, neither rider nor horse saw a huge hole that had been dug in the middle of the road by a miller who had needed some clay to repair his mill. The pit that the miller left had filled with rain, and both rider and horse fell in and were drowned (Coulton, Medieval 323-24). Though the records don't indicate that this particular kind of disaster was common, or that clay pits dotted England's roads, travel was quite dangerous enough anyway. Besides being so dark at night that it was indeed possible for travellers to blunder into danger, even during daylight travel wasn't easy. Bridges and roads were muddy, rocky, desolate, and so subject to ruinous bad weather that maintaining them was a charity and a duty to God.

Bridge and road maintenance was charitable and holy because it mitigated the terrible problems travellers had to face, and therefore relieved human suffering. Since maintenance work was charitable and holy, who better to do it than monks? Their tasks were sometimes shared by merchants, who had a financial interest in reliable transportation. But though monks and merchants worked diligently to serve God and their purses, travel could not be made entirely easy. Rain turned dirt roads into soup; the mud caked walkers' shoes and spattered riders' clothes; if streams had no bridges, sometimes the shallow spots were not obvious, so people and horses blundered into deep water; when streams did have bridges, the bridges could collapse; wolves lurked in the forests, waiting for stragglers; and, generally, the outdoors often got closer to the traveller than the traveller wanted it to.

Even if travellers could keep Nature at a safe distance, they still had to deal with fellow humans, including convicted thieves and murderers sentenced to walk the main road to the closest seaport for passage out of England. Any offender so sentenced had to dress like "a felon condemned to death -- a long, loose white tunic, bare feet, and a wooden cross in his hand to mark that he was under protection of Holy Church." (Coulton, Medieval 375) But though these criminals were thus easily identified, nobody accompanied them to be sure they kept wearing their felon's robes, behaved well on the journey, or reached the seaport at all. A criminal might set up an anonymous life in another town, become a mercenary soldier, or live in the wilds by scavenging, hunting, and preying on travellers.

Not every dangerous person on the road was a white-robed felon. Some were employed by the most powerful people in the area. Any man or woman who could afford the wages could hire retainers to defend his/her administration, land, or person, but protectors often became a kind of goon squad or mini-Mafia that robbed, vandalized, raped, and assaulted. A traveller set upon by these brigands had no legal recourse, because the local authorities either supported the brigands or were intimidated into silence. This practice of employing quasi-hit-men was called "maintenance," and was so widespread in Chaucer's day that both Edward III and Richard II constantly issued edicts against it. The number and frequency of edicts shows how little attention anyone paid to them. Townspeople and travellers alike feared maintenance, but at least the townspeople knew when and where to be on the lookout. Travellers could be taken by surprise.

Yet despite bad weather, dangerous roads, marauders, and other perils, the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales are so unconcerned that they tell stories. Why aren't they worried? Because these pilgrims are dangerous. Setting out from the Tabard Inn, fully half are bristling with blades, are experienced brawlers, or are accustomed to bloodletting. The group includes:

oThe Knight, armored, armed, and fresh from battle; oHis son, who at an early age has already fought in several cavalry expeditions; oThe efficient, silent Woodsman who is a walking armoury: arrows, bow, sword, and dagger; oThe Monk, who, even if not a fighter, is a huntsman; oThe Friar, whose neck "strong was as a champioun" (239) and who has a collection of knives to hand out to pretty matrons; oThe Frankeleyn, who carries an "anlaas" (357) (a broad, double-edged dagger that tapers to a sharp point); oThe Haberdasshere, Carpenter, Webbe, Dyere, and Tapycer, who own "knyves ... chaped ... al with silver" (366-67); oThe Shipman, who carries a dagger under his arm and dispatches losers quickly, sending them "hoom to every lond" (400); oThe Miller, who carries a sword, is a champion wrestler, and can rip a door off its hinges or smash through it with his head; oThe Reve, armed with "a rusty blade" (618); oAnd the innkeeper Harry Bailey, who boasts, "I am perilous with knyf in honde" (1919).

Even the Wife of Bath reminisces about her free-for-alls. "I with my fest so took him on the cheke That in our fyr he fil backward adoun. And he up stirte as dooth a wood leoun, And with his fest he smoot me on the heed That in the floor I lay as I were deed. ... And neer he cam, and kneled faire adoun, ... I hitte hym on the cheke" (792-808). She's a strong, dirty fighter: she punches hard enough to knock a man into fire, and when he returns the blow, she plays possum until she can get a good shot at him.

Nor are the other pilgrims pushovers. The Summoner "quook for ire" (1667) at the Friar, the Friar insults the Summoner as "a rennere up and doun With mandementz for fornicacioun" (1283-84), the Cook "wax wrooth and wraw" (46) at the Manciple ... this group is a 14th-century Magnificent Seven.

The narrator wasn't an original member of this group; he joins them after they arrive at the Tabard. He had started on his journey alone. But he doesn't fit the picture of the stereotypical solitary pilgrim, who travelled on foot, wearing a traditional gown or hair shirt and carrying a staff topped with a shepherd's hook or a cross. Such pilgrims were protected without weaponry; the robe and staff stated clearly that God's eye was on them. Human predators must have respected the robe and staff at least occasionally, because some professional pilgrims spent their lives on the road travelling alone from shrine to shrine, and couldn't have spent much time in solitary humility if doing so always meant being beaten, robbed, and left to die.

It would have been suicidally foolish to start out alone on a journey with neither a weapon nor an obvious sign of God's patronage, and the narrator doesn't seem to possess either. He doesn't say he carries a weapon himself, and we can be sure that he's not dressed in the attention-getting garb of the professional pilgrim because Harry Bailey teases him unmercifully about his appearance but doesn't mention the narrator's clothes. So with no spiritual or physical weaponry, the narrator wasn't intending to travel alone the whole way to Canterbury. He certainly ingratiates himself with the group quickly enough -- between its arrival "at nyght" (23) and the time that "the sonne was to reste" (30), he is "of their felawshipe anon" (32). And since the group includes people as ill-assorted as a Prioress, a Miller, and a group of tradesmen rich enough to bring their own cook, this pilgrimage (despite warnings issued in Medieval travel books against making friends with travelling strangers) seems to have made a practice of picking up stragglers.

So the fierce, armed pilgrims, fortified with weapons, noise, jokes, and religious purpose, start out from the Tabard. It's unclear how long they spend travelling, but a four-day trip would mean they could keep a reasonable pace and still have time to argue, jostle for position on the road, and retrieve the Cook when he falls off his horse. Four travel days from Southwark (just outside London) to Canterbury could have been apportioned like this:

o1st day: Southwark to Dartford (15 miles) o2nd day: Dartford to Rochester (14 miles) o3rd day: Rochester to Ospringe (18 miles) o4th day: Ospringe to Canterbury (9 miles)

(Timetable from Coulton, Chaucer 154-168; distances are my approximations from Jennett's map of the Pilgrim's Way, facing 296.)

This well-used route was dotted with inns and places to hire horses. One could ride a horse from Southwark to Rochester for twelvepence, and another horse from Rochester to Canterbury for the same price. But even if travellers owned their horses, travellers (and horses) needed food and places to sleep, and therein lay the next travail of travel: night-time lodging.

Inns were usually set up with the sleeping quarters on the second floor, directly above the dining room, and smells and noise could filter up through the floorboards. A fifteenth-century manuscript (Coulton, Chaucer, 139) illustrates the casual way strangers slept naked side by side on featherbeds or straw mattresses, or on straw pallets on the floor. The straw in the bedchamber and the food in the kitchen so often attracted bedbugs, fleas, lice, and rodents that travellers addressed the issue as matter-of-factly as modern road manuals warn of speed traps. J. J. Jusserand mentions a 14th-century manual of French conversation that includes a sample exchange between an innkeeper and a potential customer.

The servant sent forward to engage the room utters the fond hope "that there are no fleas, nor bugs, nor other vermin." "No, sir, please God," replies the host, "for I make bold that you shall be well and comfortably lodged here -- save that there is a great peck of rats and mice." (62-3)

Lodging was not only uncomfortable but also expensive, especially when combined with meals. The 1331 expense account of six travellers from Oxford to Durham is instructive. One night's food, horse fodder, beds, fuel to heat the bedroom, and candles to light it, cost each traveller "about four times a ploughman's daily wage" (Woods 67-8). However, every pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales seems to have brought money to spare. They agree to Harry Bailey's suggestion that they all chip in after their return to buy the best storyteller a supper at the Tabard. This is a shrewd move on Bailey's part, for he isn't giving the supper away, just spreading the cost among himself and the 30 paying members of the party in such a way that they will be tempted to buy supper from him for themselves as well. After that, who knows? Some pilgrims may then eat and drink until it's too late to start back home, and must spend yet another night at the Tabard at still more profit to Bailey. No matter who gets the free meal, there are two winners in this bargain: the storytelling champion, and Bailey himself.

Pilgrims could spend hefty sums for food and lodging on the way through town, but local residents weren't always happy to see the pilgrims coming. In 1410, a Lollard called Thorpe complained of how disruptive pilgrimages could be. His complaint should not be taken as the last word on the subject, because Lollards disagreed with the religion that sent pilgrims through town in the first place. Still, Thorpe's vivid description could have come straight out of the pages of Chaucer, from the Miller's pipes to the Monk's bells to the Pardoner and Summoner as they sing "Com hider, love, to me!" (672):

I know well that when divers men and women will goe thus after their own willes, and finding out one pilgrimage, they will ordaine with them before, to have with them both men and women that can well sing wanton songes, and some other pilgrimes will have with them bagge pipes; so that everie towne that they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their Canterburie bels, and with the barking out of dogges after them, that they make more noise, then if the king came there away, with all his clarions, and many other minstrels.

(Coulton, Chaucer 142-43.)

Religious or irreligious, holy journey or pleasure trip, the pilgrimage eventually ended at the shrine: a church, monastery, abbey, or convent that purportedly could heal body or soul. The shrine's curative powers derived either from its location -- usually where a miracle had occurred -- or from something it possessed. This possession could be a piece of religious artwork or, more importantly, a relic, which was a tangible scrap of anything connected with a holy person or event. The list of relics at various shrines reads like a combination junk shop and natural disaster: it's a jumble of the property, bodies, and severed limbs of the devout. Canterbury possessed the following:

oThomas Becket's coffined body ohis severed head, which the privileged could kiss ohis haircloth underclothes oa jewelled statue of the Virgin, which was said to have spoken to Becket when he prayed to it othe whole arms (not weaponry, but body parts) of eleven saints including St. George ofragments of the arms of two other saints oAaron's rod (Rome also claimed to own the original) ofragments of the Holy Sepulchre, the manger, and the rock on which the Cross stood; othe column to which Christ was tied to be whipped othe stone on which Christ stood before the Ascension othe bed of the Virgin owool woven by the Virgin oa piece of the clay from which Adam was made

Of all the English shrines, Canterbury was the most enduringly popular. Others went in and out of favor as they acquired different attractions, but Canterbury was a constant draw. Its resident saint, Thomas Becket, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, by four of Henry II's knights. In penance for this murder, Henry II journeyed to the shrine, thus initiating the tradition of other British kings' doing the same; this royal luster and Becket's dramatic martyrdom attracted thousands of pilgrims annually.

Canterbury Cathedral lived up to the pilgrims' expectations with an extremely theatrical presentation of the blessed relics. The Cathedral itself was good theater, because upon entering it, the first thing the pilgrim saw was an awe-inspiring series of steps with Becket's coffin looming distantly and magnificently at the top. After recovering from this sight, the pilgrim would be shown various relics. Which relics were shown depended on the rank of the pilgrim, with rarer relics exhibited as the rank increased, but everyone saw the bejeweled statue of the Virgin. Then the pilgrim would ascend the steps to the altar, perhaps crawling on his or her knees. At the altar, the coffin supported on arches held the remains of Thomas Becket. Derek Brewer describes the dramatic ritual that attended the viewing of the shrine:

... sick and lame pilgrims were allowed to place themselves between these [arches], rubbing their afflicted limbs against the marble which held the body. The shrine proper was at first invisible, concealed by a wooden canopy; at a sign this was raised, and the shrine appeared blazing with gold and innumerable jewels. While the pilgrims knelt, an officer of the monastery came forward and pointed out the various jewels with a white wand, naming them in English and, for the benefit of foreigners, in French, telling their values and the marvellous magical properties which were normally attributed to jewels in the Middle Ages. (215-17)

After the official finished the lecture, the wooden canopy was again lowered over the shrine. The pilgrims were then free to pray and exit past an offering-box strategically located at the foot of the stairs. Religious demands on the pilgrim's purse continued long after the offering: outside the Cathedral, souvenirs were available for purchase. Each shrine sold a distinctive style of medallion or amulet, made of lead, silver, or pewter, and meant to be sewn onto clothing or worn as a necklace. To anyone familiar with the symbols of the various shrines, it would have been immediately obvious where any pilgrim had journeyed.

oCanterbury: St. Thomas, miniature jar oSt. James's Compostella: shell oAmiens: head of St. John the Baptist oRocamadour: Holy Virgin oRome: a "vernicle," or reproduction of the cloth with which St. Veronica wiped Christ's face when he was on his way to Calvary. The cloth miraculously received the imprint of Christ's features. (A vernicle was sewn to the cap of Chaucer's Pardoner.)

Canterbury sold two styles of amulet. The little lead or silver jar sometimes held holy water. The St. Thomas was a sketch in lead of a full-face view of the mitered head of Becket, in a circular frame or against a background of decorated arches that provided plenty of open spaces through which to pass needle and thread when sewing it to cloth.

If the pilgrim wanted something besides religious souvenirs, the town of Canterbury could provide it. If a pilgrim needed to eat but didn't want to stop at an inn, a long row of street stalls sold food and drink. And if the sight of the relics within the Cathedral hadn't been enough, the pilgrim could see more relics outside. Local residents, or itinerants like Chaucer's Pardoner, sometimes passed off common objects as relics, selling glimpses of the objects -- or sometimes the objects themselves. Chaucer's Pardoner is an effective salesman with a good stock in trade:

For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer,

Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl;

He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl

That Seint Peter hadde, whan that he wente

Upon the see, til Jhesu Crist him hente.

He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,

And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.

But with thise relikes, whan that he fond

A povre person dwellynge upon lond,

Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;

And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,

He made the person and the peple his apes.


Suitably purified, decorated, gorged, and entertained, the pilgrims would retrace the path homeward, still travelling together. Harry Bailey assumes that nobody will depart from the group until after they reach the Tabard.

ech of yow, ...

In this viage shal telle tales tweye

To Caunterbury-ward, ...

And homward he shal tellen othere two ...

And which of yow that bereth him best of alle -- ...

Shal have a soper at oure aller cost

Heere in this place ...

Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury.


Bailey's game depends on everyone's returning to the Tabard together. Company would lessen the dangers and increase the potential pleasures on the second half of the journey as well as on the first; it would have been common sense to travel both ways in a group.

So the little narrator is a writer and a pilgrim, but that still doesn't tell us what his actual job was. He's not indubitably Chaucer, or a civil servant, or a courtier, or a cleric, or in any obvious career path; he's not even labelled by his marital status as is the Wife of Bath. The only thing that the narrator indubitably is, is the man who went on an ordinary pilgrimage and then preserved the memory of it in an extraordinary way. But perhaps that, after all, is his job. The job of entertainer existed before the job of Reeve or of Summoner, and has outlived them as well.

As an entertainer, the narrator isn't necessarily a member of the ragtag class of jongleurs, just as he isn't necessarily a courtier passing the long winter evenings away, or a cleric stealing time from recopying the Book of Matthew to scribble his own words. He is son to the Old English scop, the honorable minstrel-poet who entertained the Anglo-Saxons; he's brother to Scheherazade, to Sherlock Holmes's Doctor Watson, even to Uncle Remus -- any fictional retailer of others' stories.

Ultimately this narrator's spare-time amusement is his full-time profession. All the other characters tell stories only if there's a supper to be won, but the narrator tells and tells even if there's nothing to tempt him. His entire narration of the Canterbury Tales is not an entry in the pilgrimage's storytelling contest, because he couches not only the stories but the pilgrimage itself in the past tense. Presumably the pilgrimage is over, along with the contest, by the time he starts telling about it. But even though the journey and the free supper are both a memory, he still revels in stories. For him, and for us, that is enough.


Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

Brewer, Derek. Chaucer in His Time. 1963. London: Longman Group Limited, 1973.

Coulton, G. G. Chaucer and His England. New York: Russell & Russell, 1957.

---. Medieval Panorama: The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation. 1938. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974.

The Pilgrim's Way. Map. The Pilgrim's Way from Winchester to Canterbury. By Sean Jennett. London: Cassell & Company Ltd, 1971. Facing 296.

Jusserand, J. J. English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages. 4th ed. Trans. Lucy Toulmin Smith. London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1950.

Robertson, D. W., Jr. Chaucer's London. New Dimensions in History Series. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1968.

Scattergood, V. J. "Literary Culture at the Court of Richard II." English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages. Eds. V. J. Scattergood and J. W. Sherborne. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. 29-43.

Woods, William. England in the Age of Chaucer. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

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