RGS Guildford courtyard with students

A Chaucerian Pilgrimage to Oxford and London

On Sunday 17 March, the Sixth Form A-Level English Literature students undertook their very own Chaucerian pilgrimage to experience a day of activities centred on the “Father of English Poetry”.

Last year, Professor Marion Turner, the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford, published a widely celebrated “biography” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famed pilgrim: Alisoun, the Wife of Bath. The book examined this professional wife’s contribution to The Canterbury Tales: her famously lengthy prologue and comparatively short Arthurian tale, both of which are set texts for our students. Also explored were the many afterlives Alisoun has spawned, having been reprised as various figures in the centuries since her creation.

Professor Turner’s continuation of this premise, that Chaucer’s work has perennially been reinvented depending on its reception over time, is expertly curated in the Chaucer Here and Now exhibition at the Weston Library, the modern wing of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. On display was the oldest manuscript in existence of The Canterbury Tales, the “Hengwrt Chaucer”, dating from the fourteenth century and on loan from the National Library of Wales. The manuscript lay open in a glass cabinet on the very page The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale begins. Also on display were manuscripts in which medieval scribes have glossed multiple misogynistic quotations alongside Alisoun’s opinions, which Professor Turner refers to as early examples of “mansplaining”. Being the most celebrated of Chaucer’s characters, the Wife of Bath is afforded an entire wall dedicated to the numerous reincarnations she has enjoyed, most recently as Alvita in Zadie Smith’s The Wife of Willesden, a play seen by our Upper Sixth students at the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn last year.

Another special moment in the exhibition is the inclusion of artist Ronald King’s 1967 modernist abstractions for his publication of The General Prologue. Our students have been able to see a rare edition of this text in the Chained Library and so, seeing it in an exhibition impressed on them how fortunate they are to have the same item in Dr Cox’s office.

Following a short wander around Oxford city centre, we made our way to London, where we met our guide for a walking tour detailing Chaucer’s life during the medieval era. Starting off in Aldgate, where Chaucer would have encountered the Peasants’ Revolt, we headed to the north bank of the River Thames and the site of the first Custom House in which Chaucer served as a customs official. After crossing London Bridge into Southwark, we ended the tour at the Blue Plaque commemorating the site of The Tabard Inn from which Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims begin their expedition to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury.

Like Chaucer’s fictional pilgrimage, our journey was filled with much travelling and storytelling.