Saturday, May 14, 2011

a Canterbury tale

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for the seke

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke

Cathedral and St. Augustine Abbey ruins
If you don't know already, those are the first lines from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. I had to memorize these first lines in Middle English and recite them in a class I took on the 14th Century, and it was actually really fun. (If you've never heard anyone read these lines in the Middle English before, I've included the youtube video at the bottom of the page.) For the few of you who don't speak Middle English, here's the gist: Once spring comes along in April, and the weather starts getting really nice, people grow a little antsy and start thinking about leaving the house and going on a pilgrimage. A lot of those people, from all over England, head out to Canterbury to visit the cathedral where St. Thomas a Beckett was martyred. And there you have it.

Today I joined in that very long tradition of pilgrims to the shrine in the Canterbury Cathedral.  Just like Chaucer explains, once the weather turns nice and the warm breezes blow I get antsy and feel compelled to leave the city, enjoy the clean country air, and visit some cathedrals.  Today was the loveliest day I could have chosen for such a pilgrimage.  My journey was actually quite short. Since I took the fast train from London, it was only a 50 minute, rather comfortable and boring, pilgrimage.  There certainly wasn't enough time to tell any tales (and I was alone anyway), but I did enjoy the beautiful countryside.

I met up with a friend for lunch and he asked me what on earth had brought me to Canterbury. (I guess like most people he doesn't see the value of his hometown.) "I just wanted to see the city and the Cathedral," I said. "Ohh. Are you doing research?" He still seemed puzzled that I would make a trip from London just to see the Cathedral.  I had to explain that no, I've wanted to see Canterbury for most of my adult life.  I honestly couldn't imagine a more pleasant afternoon than wandering around Canterbury Cathedral.  I guess I'm a nerd that way.

After Sam and I parted ways I went to the Roman Museum and saw some very interesting Roman ruins under the current city. When Canterbury had been bombed in the war they discovered the floor of a Roman townhouse with the mosaic tiles still intact.  I loved it.  Roman ruins are always a treat.  (See? I'm a giant nerd.)  Then after getting lost for spell, since I decided I would not need a map for some reason, I finally found the ruins of the St. Augustine Abbey.

Red Roman brick used to build St. Pancras Church
Although my pilgrimage to the city was for the cathedral, the ruins of the Abbey were actually the best part of my day.  After the nervous and friendly cashier sold me a ticket I wandered around the ruins completely alone. There's something rather melancholic about ruins, but in the bright sunshine I had a difficult time feeling anything but peace and pleasure at being alone on the spot where Christianity had been established in England hundreds and hundreds of years ago. I love being in places that contain a depth of history.  It fills me up and grounds me to the place where people lived, worked, and prayed hundreds of years ago.  That's why I love being in London. The history of a place fills my soul. Plus, unlike inside the Cathedral, there weren't a million French school children disturbing the calm mood in the Abbey. I wish I had stayed there longer.

The reason the Abbey is in ruins is because of lovely old Henry VIII who, once he took over the Church of England, set out to reclaim all of the wealth that the abbeys in England had built up.  He tore this one down and then built a palace using one of the church's walls.  Someone inherited or bought the property afterwards, buried the rubble and made the space into a lovely garden, and then the next generation just kind of abandoned it.  The city people used the land for grazing cattle, and also for parties and all kinds of debauchery, until a man in the 18th century realized what that land had originally been used for, bought it, excavated it and tried to preserve what he could of the abbey.  And now we can visit it!  I highly recommend doing so if you ever get the chance.  

Finally I spent a few hours in the Cathedral and on the Cathedral grounds, wandering about the cloister, walking up and down the nave, meditating, sketching, writing.  Despite the annoying French school children, the beauty and history of the Cathedral really inspired me, and by the time I left I felt incredible.  I've taken classes on Medieval architecture, religious architecture, and 14th Century literature and history, and I feel that I have some grasp on what that building is all about, what the experience of the pilgrim might have been like to go there, and what sacrifices the townspeople and the workers made to build such a magnificent church.  It's one thing to study those things, and quite another to be there, to be filled with the history of a place, the thousands and thousands of people who have walked there over hundreds and hundreds of years.

1 comment:

  1. I'm totally with you, that sounds like an absolutely fascinating place to visit. Shame on all those non-nerds for questioning us! I'm totally jealous -- I *really* need to pay a long visit to England some time.