Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
Pardoner's Prologue and Tale
THE OPENING LINES of the Canterbury Tales powerfully give voice to the desire to go on pilgrimage: the return of spring not only stirs the world of nature to grow and procreate, it stirs people to “longen” for pilgrimage (1.12). Curiously, while these opening lines depict the urge to go on pilgrimage as an almost natural, universal force, the closing lines of this prologue describe a more specific purpose for undertaking the journey to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury: “The hooly blisful martir for to seke, /That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke” (1.17–18). Although people in the Middle Ages went on pilgrimage for many reasons, including for as disparate purposes as religious renewal or as an expression of social status, the seeking of health, particularly of a miraculous restoration to wholeness, animated many visits to saints’ shrines. The lists of miracles attached to various saints tell the story, repeatedly, of individuals with far more severe conditions than Chaucer's pilgrims being cured. Some shrines had a greater reputation for miraculous healing than others, but we need only look to Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend for a description of visits to the tomb of the “hooly blissful martir” St. Thomas Becket:
And the pope thanked God that it pleased him to show such miracles for his holy martyr, at whose tomb by the merits and prayers of this holy martyr our blessed Lord hath showed many miracles. The blind have recovered their sight, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, the lame their limbs, and the dead their life.
Though Chaucer raises the possibility of travelling to Canterbury for health reasons, most of the pilgrims do not easily conform to the catalogue of disabilities listed in The Golden Legend. The Wife of Bath is partially deaf, but none seem lame, blind, or mute. And yet, the Wife is nevertheless one of several figures of embodied difference. Looking just at the pilgrims, the Wife's deafness stands alongside the Pardoner's indeterminate gender and possibly phlegmatic condition, the Summoner's diseased face,and the Cook with his ulcerous leg.