The Canterbury Tales and Pilgrimages

The characters in The Canterbury Tales meet while on a pilgrimage, which is a journey taken for a spiritual purpose to a spiritually meaningful destination. Among Christians of the Middle Ages, pilgrimages to Israel were particularly popular. Pilgrims who undertook the journey hoped to prove their devotion to their faith and find spiritual fulfillment by being in the same places they believed Jesus once lived.

Another popular pilgrimage site for English Christians was Canterbury, about sixty miles southeast of London, or about a week-long journey. Canterbury’s cathedral became a popular pilgrimage site following the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 by supporters of King Henry II. The English particularly loved Becket as a saint due to his English heritage and they believed he could cure illness. While the pilgrimage itself receives scant attention in The Canterbury Tales, the fact that the characters are on a pilgrimage to Canterbury draws out key themes: the showy, hypocritical nature of many religious actions and the characters’ widely varying moral commitments. Furthermore, the pilgrimage offered Chaucer a setting in which to depict people of various social classes, making it an ideal context for examining and satirizing English society as a whole.