Chaucer and the pilgrimage landscape
The English Peasant’s Revolt took place in 1381, and saw land-workers ‘running’ from Kent and Norfolk to London, to burn tax-records, empty prisons, and behead the Archbishop. The route most rebels took was along the pilgrim’s way.
Half the country had recently died in the Black Death, and the remnant were overworked and overtaxed, without access to courts or justice. A hated poll tax had been declared, to pay for the English army’s manoeuvrings abroad. The rebellion was an act that struck against enforced subservience, a struggle toward freedom. The rebels were not thieves, and all valuables found by the mob were destroyed. A man found with concealed loot, a silver chalice, was thrown in the river Medway as a lesson to others.
Watt Tyler, the famous rebel leader, met the child-king Richard II in London. Tyler was promised redress to the many wrongs that had sparked the revolt. But promises were reneged, and the Mayor of London stabbed Tyler through the neck. The City of London’s heraldic Arms today show the emblem of a red dagger, in memory of this deed.
Declaring himself the natural leader of rebels, dispersing their intent and sending them home, young King Richard had almost fifteen hundred rebels hanged over the next year.
Chaucer was at this time the customs controller for London, living in lavish apartments above the gates through which the angry mobs entered the city. His Canterbury Tales were written a few brief years after this event, but he didn’t mention it.
So we say the Canterbury Tales was an act of ‘Stalinist’ airbrushing, a rewriting and disappearing of protest. Chaucer never even graced the story with a proper beginning (it starts in a pub in London), nor an ending (the pilgrims never arrive in Canterbury). Despite all this, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is today often quoted as a unique authority on the ‘reality’ of Medieval English pilgrimage.
That’s the problem with beautiful language. It hides, like paint and perfume, all kinds of stinking realities.