ven though Chaucer does not tell us how the pilgrims traveled, it is easy to trace the way they must have gone. The street leading from Southwark is an old Roman road and today is known as Old Kent Road, and eventually becomes New Kent Road. In Chaucer's day it was called Watling Street, and it can still be followed to Canterbury or to Dover. (Interestingly, Chaucer writes of Watling Street in his poetry, but only in its usage as a common Medieval nickname for the Milky Way.) Leaving Southwark, the travelers would have passed through Deptford, Greenwich, and ended their first day in the town of Dartford. From Dartford they would have traveled to Rochester, crossed the river Medway, then gone on to Sittingbourne, Ospring, and Boughton-under-Blee. From here they would have either continued on Watling Street straight to Canterbury, or would have taken a southerly shortcut through Bob-up-and-down, depending on which road was in the best condition. Once they had reached Canterbury, the pilgrimage was over, for to Medieval man the pilgrimage was a symbolic journey that represented the course of human life, from one's home on earth to one's true home in the universal order. A pilgrimage was therefore declared over at its destination, and the return home was not part of the ritual act.
The Pilgrim's Path from Southwark to Canterbury
It would've taken at least four days to complete a trip such as this, but Chaucer has his pilgrims seemingly do it in one day. They leave Southwark in the morning, pass through certain towns during the day, then arrive in sight of Canterbury as the sun is setting. Nothing is said of stops for meals or overnight, and the trip seems to pass in a strange way from morning to night - much is made of the sun's position, the length of the shadows, and such.
Critics argue that Chaucer meant the story to be more realistic than it is, that he just didn't have time to do it right, but this way of interpreting Canterbury Tales means that it must be read for what is missing and not for what is there. That is not the case. Canterbury Tales is not a work of realism, and the ending comes exactly where it does. Even those tales that remain unfinished do so for a purpose, such as the Squire's. The Squire is fresh and young, not yet through with life, and his incomplete story represents that.
We are all pilgrims, Chaucer says, and all of us have many tales to tell, some finished and others still in the making. And what was true in Chaucer's time is still true today, six hundred years later. We are, all of us, pilgrims on the journey through life.
"This world nis but a thoroughfare full of woe,
Pilgrims Passing To and Fro © James L. Matterer
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