Reading Chaucer: A Tale about Canterbury

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Many years ago, as a school student studying for my A Level in English Literature, I was required to read sections of Chaucer’s poem The Canterbury Tales.


Inevitably, this work presented great difficulties. As a relatively inexperienced reader I found the language a formidable and often insurmountable barrier. Little made sense – or, at least, little made immediate sense.


One thing that did make sense to me, though, was the idea of wending my way to Canterbury. After all, this famous city was only twenty or so miles away from Ashford, the town in which I grew up and went to school. As such, I had gone there many times myself. Not that I had ever travelled there as a pilgrim, you understand. It was usually as a Saturday shopper that I would visit the city. I was less interested in ancient Christian and architectural history than in the toys I might be able to buy from the department store, and the fast food I might be allowed for lunch.


On one or two other occasions my peers and I made our way up the A28 to Canterbury on a school trip to the cathedral. Here, we searched for the gory details of St Thomas à Becket’s death.


I have not, now, been to Canterbury for many years. However, a few days ago I did have the opportunity to visit another old English town – Newark, in Nottinghamshire, a town with links to the story of Robin Hood. Here, in a small second hand bookshop, I found a copy of The Canterbury Tales for just £1. In a moment of nostalgia, prompted no doubt by the river, the church, and the sight of the town’s old castle walls, I bought it.

The Church in Newark

Newark Castle


I wandered back down to the riverbank. There, in the sunshine, which had temporarily replaced June’s depressing ‘showres’, I once again began to read about the twenty-nine pilgrims ‘that toward Canterbury wolden ride’. To my surprise and joy the text seemed immediate and accessible.

Reading Chaucer in Newark 1

 Reading Chaucer in Newark 2


So, encouraged by this initial success, I now feel able to read Chaucer’s text in the same manner that he has his Canterbury pilgrims travel: ‘with full devout corage’. I will follow Chaucer and his companions back to the city in which I spent so many happy Saturdays.



© James Holden