Chaucer's Pilgrims: The Allegory 

Excerpts from the Introduction, Chapters VIII and IX

 

This Introduction tells how my whole adventure began.

This feeling for allegorization, for double and triple levels of
meaning, is one of the features which distinguish the great
works of imagination in the Middle Ages from the mediocre. . . .
Only in the hands of the great poets does this world become
a reflection of all things human and divine and then only
to the perceptive reader who observes, as the medieval
audience, at least in part, did, the different
levels of understanding.
--W. T. H. Jackson, The Literature of the Middle Ages (1960)

I. Introduction

I’ve been given the answer to a six-hundred-year-old riddle that you’ve probably never heard—but it’s time you did. Knowing the answer won’t make you rich. It won’t make you irresistible to men or women. But it does have the power to change the world—at least a tiny segment of it. Here is how my quest began, and how the answer came to me.

At the beginning, I was like any other English major reading the Canterbury Tales. Then things just began to happen. As I read, I was distracted by questions about the pilgrims. What made this precise group necessary? Chaucer’s reputation was too well known, his skills too well recognized for me to think that the group was a haphazard collection. Why was there one pair of brothers—not from a religious order, but two men related by birth? Why not three brothers or no brothers? Why was there a wife—but no husband and wife? Why no children? Why so few women?

When I raised the question of the make-up of this assortment of travelers, I was told, “That’s just the way it was in the Middle Ages.” End of discussion. But that never satisfied me, nor did it stop the never-ending tape loop that had begun playing in my head. No matter what I was doing, in some little compartment of my brain, the images of the pilgrims were always on screen. I knew there had to be an answer to the selection of exactly this group, and my need for the answer was unrelenting. And then it happened.

Picture, if you will, that what’s going on in your mind is projected on a TV screen, and at the bottom of the screen there is a narrow tape running—rather the was stock market numbers are displayed. (That’s the best image I’ve come up with to illustrate what was in my head.) That tape at the bottom ran on and on with the pictures of the pilgrims. And then—without any warning—a second tape of images began running just above the pilgrim-tape, and, in a few moments, they meshed. They matched. The pilgrims were identified. The tapes stopped running, and I sat there overwhelmed, contemplating the matched identities. It was like checking you lottery ticket against the winning numbers printed in the newspaper—and realizing they are the same. Amazing! Chaucer presents the first group described in terms of the second group.

Before we meet Chaucer’s characters, it would help to learn about typical quarters for pilgrims. One sentence from a booklet about Canterbury Cathedral gives a simple, class-conscious description of medieval hospitality.

The poorer pilgrims lodged in [the] Norman hall; the next [step]
up the scale went along a covered way . . . to the Cellarer’s Hall
near the south-west corner of the court; while the most important
were lodged at Meister Omer’s, a house east of the Cathedral.

Each level of society had its own expectations and accommodations. Arrangements just detailed were the norm.

Now examine Chaucer’s account of the arrival at the Tabard where all his pilgrims will spend the night before their departure for Canterbury. (All of Chaucer’s poetry in Modern English is my own rendering, with no attempt to maintain a rhyme-scheme. The meaning alone is what is important.)

At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine-and-twenty in a company,
Of sundry folk, by chance (or fate) come together
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all,
That toward Canterbury would ride.
The chambers and stables were wide,
And we were provided for most excellently.

(A 23-29)

Chaucer’s lines certainly don’t create an atmosphere of class distinctions. His travelers behave more like old friends on tour together. In contrast, the statement from the cathedral booklet, the “poorer,” “next step,” and “important” pilgrims are hardly seen as unified. With them, it seemed like everyone kept themselves more than an arm’s length away from those who were not their equals. In Chaucer’s group we find a prestigious knight, a humble plowman, a clever lawyer, a dishonest miller and a refined nun all in close association.

To look further into Chaucer’s account of the arrival, he tells us it was late when the nine-and-twenty companions appeared.

And shortly, when the sun was at rest,
I had spoken with each of them
And was of their fellowship immediately.

(A 30-32)

Is it likely that Chaucer could actually have spoken with each of the twenty-nine and formed a close acquaintance with them by the time the sun had set? That seems to stretch the truth. If the truth is what we’re after, let’s consider the scene once more.

Picture how unlikely it would be, under any circumstances, for twenty-nine people all to arrive at their destination just as the sun sets. No matter the distance traveled, the quality of their means of transport, their personal stamina and ability to plan ahead—twenty-nine of them, from whatever direction, reach the hostelry during that brief period we call sunset.

And when they do arrive simultaneously, there are no details of confusion, congestion, rudeness, noise. We learn nothing of horses, belongings, physical necessities, selection of sleeping arrangements —nothing complicates the smooth transition from their entry on the scene to our poet’s association with them in a friendly social atmosphere.

The impression is like the special effects in “Star Trek”—“Beam them up, Scottie.” Presto, the crowd begins to mingle and to chat with the poet/interviewer. Chaucer’s fantasy-like scene becomes even more fantastic when he acquaints us with the individuals who had just arrived.

What I experienced with the pilgrims was so exciting that I will try to guide you along a path that will allow you to share that feeling of discovery. So, before I begin to point to the clues woven into the Tales, the clues to a hidden identity for each pilgrim, I’m going to indicate some sign posts. For centuries, indications of distance-traveled from London to Canterbury have existed; a second level of indicators, strangely parallel, lead into another dimension.

Those of you who know Chaucer well will probably have more difficulty understanding the language of the signs than those with limited knowledge of the Tales. The cause for the difficulty is that prior knowledge of the pilgrims inhibits the range of vision, restricts possibilities. Chaucer’s audience actually needs to enjoy “seeing double.” It’s a bit confusing at the outset—but quite fascinating once you accept the aberration.

Now let’s turn our attention to the pilgrims. It is understood that the group will be journeying together. That fact and your own basic knowledge is all you need to negotiate the twists on the trail. Let me assure you that you all have at least a nodding acquaintance with the “characters” familiar to Chaucer. What we are dealing with is very much like pictures that have come on the market in recent years, the pictures that hold a clear image, but, with concentration, a second image can also be seen. That’s what we are aiming for—to see that second, alternate image.

Before we look at who (or what) is there, let’s understand a placard that relays restrictions in the course ahead.

There are no children.
There are no married couples.
The group is almost all men (only three women).
One pilgrim has no physical description, is identified only by a function—purchasing agent.

Next is a well-illumined sign detailing the most energetic personality, who has

broad shoulders
wide, black nostrils
and could knock a door off its hinges by running into it with his head.

A little past the door-crasher, a marker points to

one pair of brothers.

Mention is also made of a slender journeyer who

is easily angered
has long, extremely thin legs
is as dreaded as death
and lives in the shadows on uncultivated land.

A modest sign directs us to a man who calls for water.

Another man is denoted as one who rides very high on a horse.

The directions I read, which lead to dual personalities for the pilgrims, become prominent at sunset and remain so throughout the night.

Associated with the characters already mentioned, two others are symbolized with a more complex design. Chaucer portrays the guide of the pilgrimage as having a solicitous attitude toward

a man dedicated to war
and a woman whose motto is “love conquers all.”

They arrive as part of the group and remain for the night, of course.

Now it’s time to give your imagination permission to experiment, to be unorthodox as you try to interpret what Chaucer is communicating. Are there pictures in you mind? Perhaps outlandish pictures? Can you see the door-destroying, broad-shouldered character alongside the two brothers, alongside the man who calls for water, alongside the dreaded, slender, long-legged character, alongside the man who seems to be very high on a horse? Is there an image of the important man dedicated to war and the special woman dedicated to love, who also arrive at sunset and come to stay for the night?

(There are many other personalities, for a total of twenty-nine. I’ve chosen only those easiest to visualize. This visualization was tried a number of times with small groups of friends in an effort to guide a spontaneous recognition.)

If you simply want to continue the explanation, skip the hints below and go on. But, if you see yourself as something of a trailblazer and want the personal accomplishment of interpreting the connection between the signs referred to, try reviewing the particulars. After you’ve read the hints, close the book and cogitate.

SMALL HINT: Think about the tape analogy. All the figures are, loosely speaking, an organized group that arrives at sunset and remains for the night. How many “groups” that come for the night existed for Chaucer and still exist today?

BIGGER HINT: Concentrate on forming a mental picture of the door-smasher. (Almost every successful interpretation began with this identification.) Then the relationships of the others quite readily fall into place.

* * *

For the traditional reader, the explanation of Chaucer’s second pathway follows. For the trailblazer, here’s your confirmation.

The essential key to alternate identities is concealed in the fact that—instead of arriving amid hustle and bustle—they all appear at sunset. When I realized the importance of this apparently trivial “detail,” I was astonished. This redirects our concentration, our point of view. It lifts our eyes to recognize that there is an alternate path being traveled by stars and planets visible in the night sky. The poet’s descriptives listed above introduce the constellations Taurus (the bull, the door-smasher), Gemini (the two brothers), Aquarius (the water-carrier), Scorpio (the slender, dreaded creature), and Sagittarius (the centaur, the torso of a man joined atop the body of a horse). The planets Mars and Venus are the other two characters. A pilgrim was also mentioned that Chaucer gave no physical description at all. That’s Libra, the Scales, not a living creature.

It will be the purpose of this book to show how Chaucer, in the finest allegorical fashion, concealed the images of heavenly bodies behind/within the specific details associated with each pilgrim.

The poet had expertise regarding astronomy/astrology. (It was more or less one science when he lived.) He wrote a text book (left unfinished) about how to calculate time, geographic location, etc., by using measurements derived from observing stars and planets. Terms used to refer to these figures in the sky may have influenced his choice of a pilgrimage.

The word pilgrim (wanderer), for example, could refer to a planet. Planets were wandering stars—“wandering” because they always change position in relation to the fixed stars. In a broad sense, planet could even mean “heavenly bodies,” in general. Then the night sky is truly “peopled” with many pilgrims all on a journey. The poet, in his seemingly boundless imagination, accompanies them. His becoming part of their “fellowship” so immediately (as he relates in the General Prologue) is no longer surprising. Because of his background in astronomy, he already knew each of them well—he’d just never met them in “person” before.

Late in the pilgrimage, another character rides in, accompanies the group for a while, and then departs. Cosmic events of the 1990s— Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp--give us the insight to see him as a comet. Identity is confirmed by Chaucer’s account of the “person” and “his actions.”

The poet chose signs of the zodiac and planets (the ones known when he lived) as his traveling companions. By the time we have looked at the concealed clues and considered relationships described, we may have a firm idea about why he used this plan and what new information is revealed from the "double" identity of the pilgrims.

I almost forgot. Here is the old riddle: When are people on a journey the same as stars in the sky? You probably already have the answer: When they are pilgrims.

Now, let’s begin. We will concentrate on one surface image at a time, as with those newfangled pictures, and assume that the “second, alternate image” will define itself as we examine the intricate outlines inscribed by Chaucer.

You know how my adventure began; this is how it ends.

from Chapter VIII. Reflections

I have nothing more to explain or identify about the journey. I've enjoyed Chaucer's pilgrimage (and my own) more than I can say. Road signs to look for, accommodations to be arranged, strangers to get along with, mishaps, surprises, and delays to handle. The experience has been grander and more all-encompassing than I ever could have dreamed.

When the Tales are thought about, there is often an accepted way of dealing with the content seen or understood from the face value of Chaucer's lines, his obvious images. I can't say strongly enough that, with all that is new in the world of medieval scholarship, it's time to reevaluate, to begin to examine his words as if they have never been read before. Oberman (dealing with fourteenth-century religious thought) and Bloomfield (writing about Langland's fourteenth-century Piers Plowman) make the same point in regard to assumptions about material we've read: "We have only just begun to discover… assessment at this point is perforce premature and provisional"; and, "The time is not yet ripe… Much more needs to be known about the intellectual life of fourteenth-century England."

We owe that same degree of respect, of dedication, to the assessment of our first great English writer. Without thorough knowledge of daily life in the fourteenth century (not just its literary tastes), we cannot really know what is concealed within this allegory of "major importance" from a master of the genre.

Chapter IX follows and ties up the ends of the whole adventure.

The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some
people and inside others. Only after the writer lets literature
shape her can she perhaps shape literature.
--Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989)

Chapter IX. Closure

Who could have known how amazing and far-reaching the pilgrim adventure would be when it started.

Chaucer’s host: Up-so doun had strength added to its basic assumption by the publication of Miri Rubin’s Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture in 1991.

Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage gained one more clue to the overall riddle when new legal evidence about Chaucer’s court case was found by Christopher Cannon, and published in Speculum in 1993.

Chaucer’s Pilgrims: The Allegory, this volume, was given a timely aid to understanding in at least one area when Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp burst on the scene—as did Chaucer’s Canon.

I’ve found the answers to my original questions—and much more. I’ve traveled so many by-ways, followed so many of the poet’s clues in search of treasure. Some clues continue to elude sleuthing. But many turned out to be pure gold. How exciting! I hope you’ve shared some of the excitement.

Those with greater depth of medieval knowledge would have conducted the search differently, I know. But they wouldn’t have had more passion for the task.

There is much more to be done, but—about the Pilgrims—this is my closing word.

Thank you, Geoffrey Chaucer.

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