April Means Pilgrimage

April means so many things -- taxes, springtime, poetry, baseball and, naturally, a pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Come again on that last bit? Pilgrimage? Well, yes, if you were a medieval person with a) a guilty conscience, b) the means to travel, and c) the ability to leave family and work for months at a time, you might view April as prime time to hit the road and get thyself to the nearest holy site for redemption. Given the general lawlessness of 14th century England, it would be preferable to find a group of well-armed, like-minded souls heading in your direction. Along the way, you might share your history and tell a few stories to pass the time. Just this scenario forms the basis of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Written near the end of the 14th century, the title says it all; this is a collection of stories told by pilgrims on the way to Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. Scholars will tell you that they're remarkable for being among the first texts written in English, as opposed to the power languages of the day, French and Latin. And what English it is! Middle English to be precise, and quite a challenge to the average modern reader. Here is an excerpt from the Prologue, the bane of English Lit. majors everywhere who have been forced to memorize it:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath pierced unto the root,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour...


When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower...

Chaucer's life was an adventurous one -- captured and ransomed by France during the Hundred Years War, astronomer, alchemist, poet, lawyer and bureaucrat in the court of England's Edward III. Don't be put off by the word "bureaucrat." Chaucer made excellent use of his varied experiences to create memorable characters to tell his tales, which veer from funny (really) to tragic, romantic and most definitely racy. He also didn't shy away from exposing the hypocrisy of his day, particularly where the church was concerned. 

We've arrived, at last, at the heart and purpose of this blog. I want to encourage you to check out two outstanding editions of the Canterbury Tales, one available to anyone in the world with internet access; the other located right here in Denver at your public library. The British Library owns the two earliest copies of the Tales, printed by William Caxton in 1476 and 1483. Happily, both have been digitized and can be viewed online. Closer to home, DPL's Western History and Genealogy Department's Douglas Fine Printing Collection includes a beautiful, 4-volume copy of the Canterbury Tales published between 1929-31. What makes this edition special are the exquisite, engraved illustrations by Eric Gill and the fact that it is number 11 of only 15 copies printed on vellum. Bibliophile alert!

Of course, Denver Public Library has other, less illustrious versions that you can check out, listen to, or watch in film adaptations -- links to some are below. I've also included some information on modern pilgrimage just in case you have a) the means to travel, and b) the ability to leave family and work for months at a time. The guilty conscience is optional.

Canterbury Tales -- books -- scroll down for titles.

Canterbury Tales -- books on CD -- scroll down for titles.

Canterbury Tales -- film on DVD -- scroll down for titles.

A Canterbury Tale -- 1944 film based on the classic stories.

Contemporary pilgrimage -- books and film -- scroll down for titles.

One more film -- The Way.


If you'd like more information on this or any subject, contact Reference Services, located on Level 3 of the Central Library:

Written by CJ on April 5, 2013


J. Wendel Cox on April 11, 2013


Cathy, this is a wonderful post, but I have to add Chaucer's greatest screen portrayal: Paul Bettany's hilarious embodiment in A Knight's Tale, which is laced with allusions to Canterbury Tales and Chaucer's characters.

bsbrazell on May 4, 2013


Sent this on to my two favorite pilgrims, one of whom literally pushed me up the last mile of the steepest climb of the Camino de Santiago years and years ago. Almost makes me want to dust off the old hiking boots!


Sounds like you have some good friends there, Beckie! I hope to walk the Camino myself someday. In the meantime, I can watch (and weep my way through) The Way. Thanks for commenting!

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