As Today in Literature reminds us, yesterday, April 18, was the day Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury. Appropriately, my block was packed with pilgrims passing to and fro, some of them heading to the zoo, the hooly blisful pandas for to seke, others hiking up the hill to our friendly neighborhood Gothic cathedral.
The cathedral grounds were in full bloom today: camera-toting tourists, elderly couples asleep in the grass, wedding parties, flirting lovers, romping puppies, children fleeing bees, even bagpipers, as if to lead us grandly out of town. Beauty intermingled with chaos; Chaucer no doubt would approve.
But not every medieval poet took the path of the pilgrim for granted. Writing six centuries before Chaucer, that old wit Theodulf, bishop of Orleans during the reign of Charlemagne, rolled his eyes at peregrinatory pretensions:
Qui Romam Roma, Turonum Turonove catervas
Ire, redire cupis cernere scande, vide.
Hinc sata spectabis, vites et claustra ferarum;
Flumina, prata, vias, pomiferumque nemus.
Haec dum conspicies, dum plurima grata videbis,
Auctoris horum sis memor ipse dei.
Here, inspired by an afternoon on the green alongside the Bishop’s Garden, is a shamefully loose translation:
You clamor for the crowd, for something more;
So take your tour of Rome, and roam to Tours.
The tender crops are all we gather here,
By berries, brooks, and barns, and byways clear.
So go—for if you stay, you’ll just recall
In simple sights the one who made it all.
I know! Spring fever is my only defense. The tulips made me do it.
In denying the pilgrimage instinct, Theodulf fought, with snide futility, the tide of human nature. Geoffrey Chaucer better understood his fellow man—in fact, I think Geoffrey better understood a great many other truths as well—but Theodulf was right about one thing: Some days, whatever it is you’re looking for, that unnamed source of fulfillment and beauty which seems like it ought to be elsewhere, may turn up outside your own door.