In this Talking History, Professor Valerie Allen from John Jay College of Criminal Justice talks about the roads/routes to Canterbury in the Middle Ages using Chaucer. Before divulging into her talk about the roads/routes, she gave some historical context about the time period. The historical setting of her lecture was set many years after the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury and his conflicts with King Henry II of England. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury tales the pilgrims are making a journey to the Cathedral in Canterbury to see the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. These pilgrims on horseback began their journey from Southwalk on well known pilgrim routes to Canterbury. Allen then begins to talk about the impact of seeing something of religious importance for the first time. Allen uses christian mystic, Margery Kemp, and her pilgrimage to Jerusalem as an example. She says the Kemp upon seeing Jerusalem for the first time after her long journey had changed her life. It was like Kemp had gained a sense of peace and worldly understanding by just gazing at the city of Jerusalem. Then she talked about pilgrim badges, which were cool little things that took the image of the things that were significant to a specific religious location. She brought her mock Canterbury pilgrim badges for us too look at—–one of them was an image of Saint Thomas Becket.
Going back to the routes/roads the pilgrims took to Canterbury, she talks about how those roads/routes had originally a different purpose. These roads/routes were old Roman roads that was mainly used by the Roman militia. She continues talk about how the Romans constructed their roads by using the environment around them and how they were famed for their straightness. However, in the pictures she showed us of these routes/roads there were multiple trackways. She said the reason for why there were multiple trackways is because during the medieval period people would start new paths that were parallel to the original for numerous reasons—–like for an oncoming cart or because of the weather. She then goes on to mention that these roads/routes had some sort of synchrony with the surrounding landscape. By this she meant that the looking at these routes/roads from an aerial view, they perfectly blend and flow with their surrounding environment. After that Allen then begins to talks about the impact roads have on the mind. To medieval people roads had many meanings but a common meaning a road to them was that it was a rite of passage. The act of journeying down a road creates such a personal relationship between a person and the environment. It is during their journey on the road that they think, learn and sometimes even find peace.
Overall, I really enjoyed Professor Allen’s talk about pilgrimage. It was very interesting to learn/understand how travelling impacted a persons psyche—especially in the Middle Ages. As well as learning that a pilgrimage does not have to be just physical but can also happen in the mind.