Along the Road to Canterbury

Last month I related the description by Chaucer of some of the pilgrims starting along the Canterbury road. Now I propose to look at the remaining pilgrims, the laity. They might possibly be described as ordinary people, from middle class to working class, in today’s parlance. Chaucer writes as if he was one of the group and so could describe his companions.
So we start with a Merchant with a forked beard, a Flemish beaver hat and daintily buckled boots. He discussed his increasing capital, how he was expert in exchanges and administration of loans, bargains and negotiation, and the need for sea-police between Harwich and Holland, which sounds very modern. But no one knew he was in debt. He was an excellent fellow, all the same.
There was an Oxford Cleric, still a student, who had studied logic long ago. His horse was thin and so was he and his overcoat was threadbare. He preferred books rather than clothes and had not found preferment in the church and was too unworldly to look for other work. Although he was a philosopher he could not turn base metal into gold and if friends gave him money he would spend it on more books and pray for them. He said little but was pleased to learn and to teach.
Another, a Serjeant at Law used to meet his clients discreetly at the entrance of St Pauls. He had often acted as a Justice of Assize and was knowledgeable about the law, without question. But for this journey, he had left his robes and wore a homely partly coloured coat tied by a silken pin-striped belt. He was accompanied by a Franklin, that is a freeholder of land, but not of noble birth. His beard was white and he had a high colour and lived for pleasure and entertaining with a well-stocked larder and cellar. He was well thought of as Justice at Sessions and had often been Member for the Shire and carefully checked audits as Sheriff. On his girdle hung a dagger and silk purse in white.
A Haberdasher, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Weaver and a Carpet-maker all wearing the livery of their impressive guilds also travelled with the party. They all looked trim and their clothes would pass for new and their knives made with pure silver, displayed on their girdles and pouches. They each appeared to be a worthy burgess, wise enough to be an alderman. Their wives believed they should be called “Madam” and carried their mantles like a queen when going to church.
An excellent Cook in the party could tell London ale by flavour, as well as cooking, all one could ask for. But Chaucer thought it a pity that the Cook had an ulcer on his knee.
Riding a farmer’s horse as well as he could was a Skipper from Dartmouth who owned a barge named The Maudelayne. He wore a woollen knee length gown with a dagger on a lanyard around his neck and down under his arm, and he was suntanned brown. The Skipper was an excellent seaman, but had little conscience, drinking wine at Bordeaux while the traders’ backs were turned and if he took enemies prisoners he made them walk the plank.
Along the road it was clear that the Doctor could talk well on medicine, surgery and astronomy, drawing horoscopes for his patients, then prescribing drugs. He was careful with his own diet and wore blood-red garments, slashed with bluish grey, lined with taffeta. However, he was tight with money and loved gold, which is said to stimulate the heart.
The Wife of Bath was deaf but was skilled with cloth better than the French. She was haughty and no one dared to reach the altar steps before her. Her kerchiefs were the finest, especially those she wore on her head on Sunday, her hose were of the best scarlet, gartered tight and her shoes were soft and new. Her handsome face was bold and red. She had married five husbands, apart from other company in youth! She was widely travelled and would wander. She had gap-teeth which she said suited her as a mark of Venus. Laughing and talking about love, she rode easily on an ambling horse. Her wimple was topped with a hat as broad as a shield and her large hips were hidden by her flowing gown.
There was a Ploughman, the Parson’s brother, honest and hard working, whether carting a load of manure, thrashing corn or digging a ditch. He would help the poor for the love of God. He paid all his tithes promptly and wore a tabard smock whilst riding a mare.
Another man entirely was a Miller, a stout man of sixteen stone who could win the prize at any wrestling match. His red beard was spade shaped and his nose had a hair tufted wart and wide black nostrils. He had a large mouth and he told “pub” stories, usually filthy. A blue hood topped his white coat and at his side hung a sword and buckler. His favourite instrument, the bagpipes, he played as they left the town.
From the Inns of Court came the Manciple a man very careful with his money who watched the market closely. He had over thirty masters in the College full of legal knowledge, but none could match him financially.
The Reeve could match the Manciple, but in his care of his master’s estate, when he presented his annual accounts better than any auditor. He knew the yield from the land and animals and was feared by all the employees. He had a lovely dwelling, shaded by trees and had become rich, but would give his lord loans or gifts to ingratiate himself. He rode a dapple grey stallion-cob at a slow trot at the rear of the party, wearing a bluish shade, overlong overcoat, tucked under his belt and a rusty blade slung at his side.
The final member was their Host at the tavern. He welcomed them to the Tabard and gave them a fine supper and strong wine. A striking man, well built, merry and proposed that each should tell two stories towards Canterbury and two more on the return journey, to while away the time. He would judge the best story and the teller would have a free meal on their return to Southwark, paid for by all the pilgrims. This was agreed and the Host said he would ride with them and they set off next morning at slightly more than a walking pace.
Then began the stories, some of which are quite long and so I can only provide a flavour of them. The first was the Knight’s Tale which is long and intricate with allusions to early Greeks. This was followed by the Miller’s Tale, humorous, but perhaps too rude for a family publication. Several of the stories have similar crude material. Perhaps in Chaucer’s time attitudes were different. However the Reeve’s Prologue spoke out against the Miller, but was interrupted by the Host and told to stop preaching. The Reeve continued with a story of a miller who tricked two young customers, who eventually “turned the tables” by ending up in bed with the miller’s wife and daughter.
The Cook started by laughing at the Miller in the Reeve’s story but was told by the Host to get on with his story. The Cook, Roger, replied referring to the Host as Harry Bailey and proceeded with his tale of a no good apprentice, but this story was not completed by Chaucer.
Chaucer parodies himself by writing in the Man of Law’s tale who said “Chaucer, clumsy as he is at times, in metre and the cunning use of rhymes” and then requested by the Host to tell a tale, he commenced “Sir Topaz” and was stopped by the Host for his “doggerel rhyme” and commanded to try prose. Chaucer then commenced “Melibee” but ends it abruptly.
You will recall that we were told originally that there were around thirty pilgrims, to each tell one tale on the way to Canterbury and another on the return, but I have only found twenty three in total, including Chaucer’s. Because of their length and complexity I have not been able to even precis them all, so all I can suggest is that if you “have the stomach for it” you apply to your local library, or book shop for a copy. Perhaps they keep it on the top shelf! Just to give a final flavour of it, our west country woman, the Wife of Bath, implied that each of her five husbands and those outside wedlock all agreed that she “was good in bed”.
Next meeting of Bridport History Society will be in Bridport United Church Main Hall, East Street at 2.30 pm on May14th when Stuart Morris will talk about “Weymouth Piers and Pavilions”. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £3.

Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.