In the early months of 1387 Philippa Chaucer lay ill; she would die that summer or early fall. Her husband of twenty years, the courtier and author Geoffrey Chaucer, may have resolved to invoke spiritual aid for Philippa by journeying some sixty miles from their home of Kent to the cathedral at Canterbury, with its shrine to Saint Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 and canonized three years later. By the late fourteenth century it had become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. As the English winter yielded to spring in mid-April, perhaps Chaucer joined other pilgrims “the hooly blisful martir for to seke,/ That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke [sick].”
A genuine journey may thus underlie the most famous fictional pilgrimage in English literature, the one recounted in The Canterbury Tales. The “General Prologue” sets the scene for this jaunt. The action unfolds in mid-April, a month that inspires both lust and wanderlust. In England both impulses lead people to venture to Becket’s shrine.
The tone of the first sentence of eighteen lines of iambic pentameter rhymed couplets, which provides the setting, is formal and objective. Like the pilgrimage itself, this stately mood quickly vanishes in the subjective and colloquial. In homely language, though still in rhymed couplets, the narrator explains that he is preparing to embark on a journey to Canterbury. To that end he has lodged for the night at the...
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