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.

3 Responses to “Chaucer and the pilgrimage landscape”

  1. Bleak says:

    A fantastic tale of how things go (who knows?), how they are recorded (disparately, and corrupted by individual recorder’s needs), and remembered (how can we be sure?).

    Thank you, Ed and Will, for the things you are doing. Of course you will succeed. You are doing all the right things, and need only persistence and honesty.

    On a separate note, and addressed to another…

    Relativism; not just the academic’s escape. See above comment, of March, where it is applied. Anyone can do this trick (perhaps not wishing to live?), to justify a relativistic whitewash via their own supposed `sophistication’. The last sentence is particularly charming, it’s patent superiority intended to make one feel small for doubting the message… So, I ask: What is wrong with the mundane?

    After all, what more do we have, than to find beautiful harmonies arising from, and within, the mundane? Are we not made of the earth?

    Perhaps, ‘High’ literature is that which lifts us to appreciate the beauty within our world. Other literature would be that which, perhaps with beautiful language, hides the truths from us; we can continue comfortably debasing ourselves, acting from unhealthy, half understood, motivations.

    In any case, I ask the March contributor, not to debate, but just to consider… Your intellect is grand, but still, how happy are you, truly, with your lot? Quoting Tyler D, `Clever. How’s that working out for you?’

  2. Julson says:

    I can’t remember the last time I saw something like that…bookmark ftw =)

  3. Bindi D says:

    This is certainly my favourite post on your interesting website. I had not considered the politics (politik?) behind Chaucer’s Tales, least of all the idea of propogandist airbrushing. You mention, however, that such whitewash is ‘the problem with beautiful language’. Is it, perhaps, not the brilliance of it? Must we indeed be subjected to all the ‘stinking realities’ inevitably encountered in this life? I question whether literature is really there to document or whether its higher purpose is to lift us above the mundane. Still, a very informative and thought-provoking piece.

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