Ask any English major if he has read “The Canterbury Tales” and he will tell you proudly that he has, or admit sheepishly that she managed to avoid it without the academic sky falling in. I believe it was one of the first tomes I tackled during my freshman year at the University of Montana, but I can’t really remember anything about it except that all the ffs stand in for ss and middle English was very different from modern English.


Pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England Canterbury was a popular destination. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers. Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a disagreement between Church and Crown. Miracle stories connected to his remains sprang up soon after his death, and the cathedral became a popular pilgrimage destination.


In the text, two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose roles apply the church’s secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner in Chaucer’s day was a person from whom one bought Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners were often thought guilty of abusing their office for their own gain.


Chaucer’s Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. The Summoner brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and other penalties. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them in order to protect their interests. Chaucer’s Summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very kinds of sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner. In The Friar’s Tale, one of the characters is a summoner who is shown to be working on the side of the devil, not God.


Last Saturday we signed up for another excursion outside London to see the famous cathedral and take in the other historical sites associated with what is, historically, one of key birth places of England. Our London Walks guide showed up right on time and let us know that we were going to be taking the fastest train in the British Isles, thanks to the fact that the route toward Canterbury shares the same track as the Chunnel train to Paris.


Canterbury is only 87 km (54 miles) from London, but the journey takes an hour even on a train that is capable of speeds up to 200 kms an hour. Go figure. The town acquired its English name from the Old English Cantwareburh (“Kent people’s stronghold”). In 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert King Ethelberht of Kent to Christianity. After the conversion. St Augustine founded an episcopal see in the city and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.


The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by knights beholden to King Hentry II led to the cathedral becoming a religious destination from his death in 1170 to this very day. According to Simon, even Henry II felt compelled to make the pilgrimage, enduring the faint-hearted whipping of the local citizens as he approached the cathedral.


The literary heritage of Canterbury continued with the birth of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century. There are those who question whether Shakespeare really existed, putting forth Marlowe as an excellent candidate for having written the plays after his strange, some say staged, murder.


As soon as we set foot on solid ground in the town, we modern-day pilgrims are on the move, hastening to keep up with Simon’s speedy stroll and condensed commentary. His is a thankless task, covering too much history in too little time. In short order, we are introduced to the Greyfriars and the Blackfriars, St. Augustine and Aethelberht, Archbishop Alphege and William the Congueror, not to mention Dane John and others I have already forgotten.


It will surprise none of you to learn that the word “canter” comes down to us from the middle-ages, when the pilgrims would spur their horses forward after sighting the towers of the cathedral in the distance. By the 17th century, Canterbury’s population was 5,000; of whom 2,000 were French-speaking Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution and the war in the Spanish Netherlands. The Huguenots introduced silk weaving into the city, which by 1676 had outstripped wool weaving.


In 1620 a man named Robert Cushman negotiated the lease of the Mayflower in the village for the purpose of transporting the Pilgrims to America. The first scheduled railway service in the world began in Canterbury. Many historical structures remain, including a city wall founded in Roman times and partly rebuilt in the 14th century, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and the walls of a Norman castle. The Cathedral and a handful of other sites in the town make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The town of Canterbury is one of the most visited communities in all of England. Fortunately, many of the streets in the centre of the town are traffic free. It is a very busy place on weekends, uncomfortably crowded with tourists like us. I suspect it is not dissimilar now to what it was like in the middle ages, when pilgrims arrived in droves, seeking food and shelter and souvenirs to bring back home. At least there is refuge available in the many pubs, restaurants, coffee shops or in the spectacular cathedral itself.


Much of the cathedral’s stonework is damaged and crumbling, the roofs are leaking and much of the stained glass is badly corroded. It is thought that if action is not taken now, the rate of decay and damage being inflicted on the building will increase dramatically with potentially disastrous results, including closure of large sections of the cathedral in order to guarantee the safety of the million plus worshippers, pilgrims and tourists who visit the cathedral every year. Needless to say, there is an ongoing fund raising campaign. One of the “Harry Potter” producers wanted to rent it as film location, but the Archbishop decided the cathedral was not a set.


Once the Evensong service begins, the cathedral seems to undergo a metamorphosis. The hordes of visitors settle down. Music is the purest form of transport and the vast stone structure resonates with a waterfall of voices in this little town in England.