I hadn’t realised until I began re-reading the Canterbury Tales that Chaucer’s 14th-century ‘‘road trip’’ poem – 29 pilgrims heading off from the Tabard Inn in Southwark for a story-telling spring jaunt to Canterbury – would never have been written were it not for the Florence plague of 1348. It was this disaster that inspired Boccaccio to compose his Decameron – a social comedy based on the idea of a small group of young Florentines exchanging witty, human and risqué stories to pass their time of exile from the ravaged city.
Chaucer read Boccaccio closely and may even have met him: working as a diplomat for the English court, Chaucer travelled to Italy in the 1370s. He was a part-time poet.
Having hardly left our ancient hamlet of Upton Cressett, in Shropshire, for several weeks, I am reminded how today’s forced isolation has enabled those of us lucky enough to be holed up in remote country boltholes – not unlike being snowed in for weeks – to experience the joys of an almost medieval cycle of life, in which people rarely travelled beyond their immediate landscapes and feudal villages. As a result, our forebears were more connected to each other, to the identity of their landscape, and, I think, to God.
Living like a medieval Freeman has re-focused both mind and spirit. When you aren’t rushing to catch a train, watching a Google calendar fill up months in advance with engagements, attending endless social events, and dealing with an avalanche of daily emails, you start to view the ‘‘Wheel of Life’’ – or Rota Fortuna – in a different way. I have found reading Chaucer in my very rusty Middle English, connecting back to the clearly structured medieval view of the world, has been refreshing for the soul. A world in which God came first and everything else had its natural rank and position.
Nobody could ever describe Chaucer as a rootless Davos-style global “Citizen of Nowhere”. I’m ashamed to say that I have often felt like one as I rush around (pointlessly) on business or just social rat-racing.
The more I’ve self-secluded in our little hamlet, visiting when possible our tiny Norman church of St Michael and its lead tub font with carved sides that feel like rough stone cheekbones, or tramping alone through our deserted medieval village (we were also visited by the Black Death), I’ve felt a strange spiritual kinship with the medieval mindset. It’s as if I’ve stepped into some morality play where one is forced to look at the world – and one’s values, and life – differently.
Suddenly the invisible and ‘‘unseen’’ is more important than the ‘‘seen’’. Yet the paradox is that neither diplomat-poet like Chaucer, nor a humble author/publisher such as myself, can survive for long in self-isolation.
Chaucer sat at the high table of what historian Marc Girouard calls the ‘‘high-low’’ social mess of medieval society, which was probably less elitist and money-shielded than today’s apartheid of the Rich v the Rest. The reason Chaucer, the upper-middle class Christian son of a wine merchant with court connections, became such a court celebrity was because he was a poet of the world.
When he writes in “The Knight’s Tale” that the nobleman’s cotton tunic had rust-mark stains from wearing chain mail after coming back from war, we feel we are stepping into the 14th century world of the Canterbury pilgrimage; although Chaucer makes it clear that most soi disant ‘‘pilgrims’’ regarded such a journey as a form of holiday, or even a marriage market (the Wife of Bath has gone through five husbands, and is maybe looking for a sixth).
Like those today paying expensive tour companies to have their designer ruck-sacks ferried to comfortable hotels as they ‘‘walk the Camino’’ in Spain, Chaucer’s pilgrims are driven by baser motives than the piety they declare as they ride along in the April sunshine, mocking each other and exchanging bawdy gossip. Plus ca change.
The Canterbury Tales are chastening today as a ribald satire on the very idea of going on a pilgrimage, a form of travel often revived in times of plague or war. Indeed, the Herald plans to offer a reader’s walk to Canterbury in the footsteps of Chaucer – once the Covid-19 travel ban is lifted – to mark the 850th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket.
One tragedy of the pandemic is that Canterbury cathedral is postponing its events to encourage pilgrims to visit the famous cloisters where Becket was murdered in 1170. Exhibits were to have included the famous blood splattered ‘‘tunicle’’ that Becket reputedly wore, and which was being sent over from Rome. This holy relic can usually only be seen inside a glass reliquary in the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Chaucer’s art was forged the hard way. Not just on the actual battlefield (Edward III paid a £16 ransom for him after he was taken prisoner near Rheims), but more importantly, he had to fight even greater life trials. In November 1386, through no fault of his own, he found himself suddenly out of a job as the king’s chief wool customs officer. He was ‘‘denounced’’, forced to resign and turfed out of his London home. He then began seven years of penniless seclusion in Kent, cut off from his courtly audience.
Yet Divine Providence works in mysterious ways. It was this reversal of fortune that was to make Chaucer the father of English poetry, as he was forced to write for a wholly new audience outside the court: the public. Despite their racy fabliaux comedy, the tales were born out of adversity.
Although never rich – Chaucer’s last work was a begging letter to the king called ‘‘The Complaint to His Purse’’ – he had at least self-invested in that most critical form of capital for an artist: human experience.
William Cash is chairman of the Catholic Herald
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