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What about the importance of pilgrimages, which certainly are important in Chaucer's Tales? You must realize, first of all, that pilgrims were ordinary people, not even necessarily very religious (as you can see from the Prologue), who visited religious shrines as much for a holiday as for the heavenly benefits. Such trips even took on the qualities of holidays at the shrines, with people like Chaucer's Pardoner selling holy "relics", and souvenir stands set up along the route. For some people, like the Wife of Bath, it was the only way to escape the pressures of home, especially for a woman. (We suspect that the Wife may be along for other reasons as well.) Spring was a particularly popular pilgrimage time in England, and Chaucer duly begins this report of a pilgrimage with a description of the spring.
It's also not unusual to have a large, oddly assorted mixture of people heading out on a pilgrimage together, sort of a medieval tour bus. Travel was slow, roads were rutted, and there were highway robbers, accidents, and illness. Then, as now, there's company and comfort in numbers, so why travel alone when you could travel with others, especially if they told such entertaining stories? Because of the festive atmosphere of many pilgrimages, some clerics frowned on them, but neither Chaucer nor his pilgrims cares about such matters.
By using the format of a pilgrimage, however, Chaucer reminds us that behind all the jokes are the serious truths that he and his pilgrims believed in. Amid the clamor of different characters and different points of view, he's reminding us that earthly truth has as many aspects as there are pilgrims, and that the pilgrims are trying to find a single truth that is impossible for mortals to find. It doesn't matter that the tales are chaotic and unfinished; what matters is that God's truth existed for Chaucer beyond the chaos of everyday lives and explanations.
A NOTE ON THIS GUIDE
Although Chaucer did not complete the Canterbury Tales, he managed to write 24 of them, plus the General Prologue and a Retraction. Not every character mentioned in the Prologue has a tale, and no character gets to tell the two tales that Chaucer intended each to deliver. Even so, most editions of the Canterbury Tales that you'll come across include a limited number of the 24 tales.
This guide presents and analyzes in depth the five tales most often read, plus the General Prologue. These are the five you are most likely to be reading and studying. They are representative of Chaucer's varied styles. The Knight's Tale is often considered to be Chaucer's best romance; the Miller's Tale, his funniest; the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, his best- drawn characterization; the Pardoner's Tale, an excellent allegory and study in contrast between pilgrim and tale; and the Nun's Priest's Tale, a clear philosophical statement and a wonderfully charming mock-heroic fable. As for the General Prologue, most students know that it's essential reading as an introduction to the Canterbury Tales.
The other tales-though not treated here in depth, and not read as often in the classroom-certainly have their merits.
These other tales are presented in summary, following the in-depth presentations, and for each, special elements are highlighted that deserve consideration when you read the stories.