Half-course in the sign of the Ram!

In our journey in 2014 we will try and follow as near as possible to the route taken by the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales as well as the same time of year.

The thing is that it is not exactly clear which road the pilgrims took

It’s also unclear exactly when they went as well, as the dates for Easter change every year.

There is even mystery over how long the pilgrims took to get there too, as some of the tales hint at stops that could range from a journey of 3 to 5 nights and 6 days, coinciding with arriving for Easter  falling on a Sunday any time between April 7th to April 18th.

We do know that the journey was taken in April due to it being seen as more temperate as indicated in the following in The Prologue at the very beginning where Geoffrey Chaucer tells the following:

When in April the sweet showers fall

And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all

The veins are bathed in liquor of such power

As brings about the engendering of the flower”

However to get a true indication of when the trip took place it is necessary to look beyond the immediately obvious mention of April to a combination of understanding something more about the time from the rhyme in the opening Prologue.

As such, note carefully the end of the paragraph, as Chaucer continues:

When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath

Exhales an air in every grove and heath

Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun

His half-course in the Sign of the Ram has run”

Chaucer shows an appreciation of astrology and the mystic side to him through his mention of “the Sign of the Ram”.  This refers to the star sign of Aries, whose dates fall between March 20 to April 20. Moreover, the fact that he says in The Prologue that its “half-course….has run” indicates a start date for the journey some time after the end of the first week of April.

To get a more precise idea of what year and what date we have to know something about Chaucer’s life itself – and what may have led him to taking the journey.

It is most likely because of the unhappy coincidence of Chaucer having lost the patronage of John of Gaunt in the late 1380′s, and income that came from a pension tied to that – thus giving Chaucer cause and pause to reflect. As such, the journey must have been taken at a time after 1385.

Moreover, given that we know it is not in the first week from “the half-course of The Ram” indicating a time later than 7 April, the two dates left for Easter between 1385 to 1390 are therefore April 18th or April 22nd.

Given that 22nd April is outside the end-date for The Ram having taken its course then the only date remaining is 18th April, which is indicated in Introduction to The Man of Laws’ tale as follows

“He knew quite well it was the eighteenth day

Of April that is messenger to May”

This suggests that this was the last tale told before they arrived in Canterbury for the Easter feast. There seems to be an implication in this Introduction that the tale may have been told  after midnight on the seventeenth, as it seems to me that Chaucer is implying that “The Man of Laws” was taking his time getting on with it, such that even the month of May was drawing nigh (given “April that is messenger to May”), and that they had all perhaps better get to bed instead with it now being the Sunday morning, and that The Man of Laws “knew quite well” that was officially “Easter” and a day of celebrating both Christ’s resurrection as well as the sacrifice made by St Thomas À Becket.

So how does this affect the start and end date of our journey in 2014??

The challenge for us is that the dates for Easter do not exactly coincide, now in the 21st Century.

Nevertheless, in keeping within the course of The Ram (i.e. arriving on or before 20th April) and assuming that the number of tales is accurate as being 24 (as may have been subliminal) – then we will look to arrive between 18th to 20th April, coinciding with the time that Easter fell in 1389.

The next challenge is when do we start?

This is where I believe there may be a subliminal hint to days and dates travelled in the very number of tales included in The Tales.

Assuming that the number of tales published in The Tales is actually accurate – and so 24 rather than 120 that there ought to be if each of the 29 or 30 travellers lived up to the challenge to tell two tales on the way there and two on the way back – then that would suggest a six day journey there and six on the way back. If so, then our intention should be to depart on either the 12th or 14th of April.

All of this is subject to debate of my analysis. The key is that my analysis seeks to go beyond what’s overtly stated in The Tales themselves to learning and seeing the importance of the tale of the architect of The Tales himself,  Geoffrey Chaucer. So next we perhaps have to explore what may have led him to decide to leave the comfort of London, and his place in Aldgate, to travel a country road for 10 to 12 days with a bunch of total strangers.

The Spell of Britain

As a visitor to Britain, perhaps now a perennial one, and one from New Zealand – a country with perhaps just a little more days of sunlight in the year and slightly more temperate climate - it has always amused me when the locals ask “Why do you want to come here?”.

Of course, I could equally reply:  “Why do you stay?”

The fact of the matter is that this country has a veil of mystery to it that draws travellers from near and far to it, and the travellers may not even know why they come as much as why the locals choose to stay.

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Glastonbury Tor – a place of mystery

While it may not be the weather that brings the traveller here - perhaps its a mix of the history and legends that it has amassed over such a short period of time by contrast with countries whose heritage seems to go back a lot further in terms of physical years in development. Of course, it does also have a resilient and somewhat stoic ability to weather the storm as well – be it literally or economically speaking – and have a few beers or wines into the bargain over it with a laugh or two. The latter three things especially help, methinks! ;-)

Certainly it has been to discover and experience things like that for me, when deigning to grab that overseas experience, I first came here in 1991.  The fact of the matter is that I did not know where to start – as there were so many things about the history and the legends of Britain that had drawn me in.

For me back then it was the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with their quests, as well as the mysteries surrounding Merlin and whether he ever existed, that was a big drawcard. Actually, the mysteries around whether any of them existed. Certainly as a lad in my mid to late twenties I was seeking something more of a mystical adventure rather than a real one.

Later on, when I returned here with my wife and seeking to rekindle some of that joie de vie and wanderlust I had experienced first time around, reality bit and I realised that I had to get under the skin of this place I now found myself in – because it (and I realised “me”) had changed so much in just ten years away, just like the economy….

Of course on this second time around in Britain, I came to realise that the most I really knew was merely a few fairly reliable facts about English and British history from my high school - which included the first Elizabethan period (and note I say “first”!) - as well as some facts from my university studies too about developments from the time just prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the enclosure movement, through to the First and Second World Wars.

So I realised I had to rethink what had brought me back to Britain, and what could make me want me to stay here.

I therefore decided to take a journey to retrace my first steps in this great, green and pleasant land.

In taking that journey, I found it equally surprising to see as much what I had missed too, that first time around.  One of those things was about the significance to the political and religious psyche of this country of a road that is sometimes travelled, although perhaps not as much nowadays as it was just over 100 (or even 700) years ago. That road is known as The Pilgrims’ Way and goes from the early political and religious Anglo-Saxon capital of Winchester through to the modern day religious heart of England:  Canterbury.

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Gatehouse to Canterbury Cathedral

For those people who want to better understand this country – irrespective of whether they are people like me from faraway lands, or those who have lived here all or most of their life and perhaps even for several generations – I can recommend both learning about and taking the road to Canterbury. It is truly a very English, if not British road to take. Some might even now dare to call it a pilgrimage, like it once was considered to be….

Indeed, I would like to invite you to please join me as I blog  understanding and discovery about the people who have taken this road and why, as well as who take it now and the places of interest along the way.

You also may even like to consider joining me in Easter, 2014, when I will take a physical journey to seek what it could have been like to first take this road, like is discussed in between tales of Geoffrey Chaucer and his pilgrims in “The Canterbury Tales(which is incidentally one of the first books printed in English), as well as discover why it could be good for citizens and travellers alike to start taking it again now.

Our journey in 2014 will start from some time around Easter. It will begin at this road’s “modern day” head near the centre of London and go through to where its heart, and perhaps soul, resides – in Canterbury.

Whichever way you choose to travel with us - be it virtually, physically or both – go well and stay well!

Namaste,

Matt