What was the religious significance of the journey to Canterbury (in The Canterbury Tales) for each of the pilgrims?

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jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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In the General Prologue to his "Canterbury Tales," Geoffrey Chaucer states the general motivation of the pilgrims.

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end(15)
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.

This quotation seems to indicate two different reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage.

One reason is that people "go seeking out strange strands, / To distant shrines well known in sundry lands."  They are primarily concerned with adventure, with the novelty of seeing new shores (strands) in various (sundry) lands.  Their journey is less a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, and more like a modern-day vacation.

Other people go (wend) to Canterbury,

The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.

Their journey is truly a pilgrimage, where they visit the gravesite of the "martyr," whose heavenly intervention has helped them in the past when they were ill.  The martyr referred to is Thomas a Becket, who was murdered in Canterbury in 1170.   

By carefully studying the General Prologue and the individual tales, one can determine, at least in part, the exact motivations of each character.  One can assume, for example, that the motivations of the Wife of Bath are less pious than those of the Knight.

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