Today in 1387 is when scholars claim that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begin.
The pilgrims start in Tabard Inn where the Host suggests that there be a competition in storytelling between the 31 pilgrims (counting the Host) to entertain themselves on their way to and from Canterbury. The Host says each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. The winner will be treated to a free dinner at the Tabard upon their return and the Host will be the judge. There are only 24 stories recorded (There should have been 120 in all.)
The stories are miraculous, bawdy, reverent and irreverent, moralistic, preachy, raucous, and philosophical, tragic and romantic, comic and saintly. While there’s some misogyny and anti-semitism, there is also a great deal of humanity and a variety of storytelling styles and content evoking negative and positive responses, playful teasing and joking, anger and compassion, even blunt interrupting and censoring from the other pilgrims. The stories reveal as much about the storytellers as they do about characters in the stories themselves. The stories tell us about the ethos of the time and its complex and varied culture. Rivalries and anger between the storytellers emerge, as well as camaraderie and good cheer. In other words, it’s a pilgrimage with interaction that is genuine and real, supportive and sometimes offensive, open and vulnerable, risky and humbling, sobering and comedic. There is no information about the pilgrims’ progress toward Canterbury, just the stories themselves and the pilgrims’ responses to them that lead us through the narrative.
The whole notion that while making a sacred pilgrimage to a holy site, that those on this journey would be entertaining themselves with the bawdy as well as the reverent has always been fascinating (and so very real) to me. I couldn’t help but find an old copy of this poem and begin to read it again.
And, of course, I can’t help but think of my own life’s pilgrimage and all my bawdy and raucous, serious and philosophical, truthful and fantastical, humorous and high-spirited companions along the way. Some of them have been riding with me for most of the trip. Others have gotten on and off the road at various points. Some have disappeared altogether and some have magically reappeared. Like Chaucer’s characters, the whole point is not in reaching Canterbury per se, but rather immersing ourselves in the wonder, mystery, and pure enjoyment of the relationships and the stories on the way.