Chaucer Geffrey 1340?-1400LIFE Photo Collection
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is one of the most widely publicised books in English, having never gone out of print. Written between 1387-1400, a time when Latin and French were the languages of sophistication, Chaucer insisted on using the common language of Old English.
Lit Chaucer (1832)LIFE Photo Collection
The Tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims, from millers to knights, travelling from London to pray at the tomb of St Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. To pass the time, they take turns telling tales ranging from the morally uplifting to the downright rude. Scroll on to follow the pilgrim’s on their route...
Our journey begins in London. This is the original site of the Charing Cross, which marked the exact centre of the city, and from which all distances were measured. A statue of Charles I has replaced the cross, but a replica stands outside Charing Cross Station.
It's perhaps a little more ornate than the original due to Victorian artistic licence. But it gives an impression of what Chaucer and his fellow pilgrims would have known. From here, its over 70 miles, or four days' travel, to Canterbury. Let's get a move on.
Our next stop is not far away, on the south bank of the Thames. This grimy little backstreet appears unremarkable, but this is where the Canterbury Tales start, as the narrator describes meeting a group of 29 pilgrims at the Tabard Inn, which once stood here.
"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
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,"
Nearby is Southwark Cathedral, but Chaucer would have known it as Southwark Priory. The building has stood here for nearly 1000 years, but was very nearly lost in a fire that occurred only a few years before the Canterbury Tales were written.
St Thomas a Watering
Nearby modern-day Burgess Park was a stream known as St Thomas a Watering. Here the pilgrims stop to work out who will tell the first tale.
"And there our host bigan his hors areste,
And seyde; 'Lordinges, herkneth, if yow leste
Lat se now who shal telle the firste tale."
A few miles down the road, Deptford gets a brief mention in the tales as the group's host tells Oswald the Reeve to hurry up with his story, as it's mid-morning already.
"Sey forth thy tale, and tarie nat the tyme,
Lo, Depeford! and it is half-way pryme."
Greenwich is the next named stop. In the late 1300s, it would have been far from London. Perhaps this is why the host doesn't have kind words for the area, which he says is 'full of scoundrels'.
"Lo, Grenewich, ther many a shrewe is inne"
"Lo! Rouchestre stant heer faste by!"
It's the second night of our journey and we're across the Medway and now on the battlements of Rochester Castle. This formidable fortress was built in 1127 and still in use in Chaucer's day.
"'Now elles, Frere, I bishrewe thy face,'
Quod this Somnour, 'and I bishrewe me,
But if I telle tales two or thre
Of freres er I come to Sidingborne,
That I shal make thyn herte for to morne;
For wel I wool thy patience is goon.'"
Here, the pilgrims bump into a church canon, who's revealed to be a thief and swindler.
"Whan ended was the lyf of seint Cecyle,
Er we had riden fully fyve myle,
At Boghton under Blee us gan atake
A man, that clothed was in clothes blake,
And undernethe he hadde a whyt surplys."
One final stop at the village of Harbledown, which Chaucer notes was called, "Bob-up-and-down".
"Wite ye nat wher ther stant a litel toun
Which that y-cleped is Bob-up-and-doun,
Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye?"
Finally, we're at perhaps the most holy site in the whole of England. In 1170, Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered by King Henry II's knights while praying in the cathedral. He was quickly made a saint, and pilgrims have been visiting ever since.
Sadly, the Canterbury Tales were left unfinished on Chaucer's death in 1400, so this is where our journey ends. We'll just have to imagine how the Wife of Bath followed up her first tale. While we're here, take a moment to rest in the cathedral's gardens and cloisters.
The harvest (June 1888 - 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum