Pilgrymes, Passing to and Fro: Chaucer Got it Right

Photo credit: Paul W. Locke

Springtime stirs up feelings of wanderlust in me, banishing the tiresome plague of cabin fever. I want to throw a fresh toothbrush and a fat book into my backpack and take off.

I want to go on pilgrimage.

To begin again: that’s the meaning of pilgrimage, which – let’s face it – is what travel is all about. Leaving behind old ways, the interminable rut, filthy habits, worn-out relationships, the stultifying everyday sameness of routine, breaking out of the box, and becoming new.

Travel writing plays up this longing, taking us places we dream of and whisper about on nights of the full moon, when anything seems possible, when the world lies before us, sparkling like rubies in a queen’s crown.

 And smale foules maken melodie,
That slepen alle night with open eye,
So priketh hem nature in hir corages;
Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages.
          Canterbury Tales. Prologue. Line 9.

So I’ve been pondering pilgrimage a lot lately, prodded in part by repeated viewings of Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez’s film, “The Way,” about the Way of Saint James (1), the ancient and challenging 500-mile sliver of road stretching across northern Spain. In all accounts of the Camino, the scallop shell – the “logo” of St. James – symbolizes a journey, sometimes religious, sometimes secular, but always spiritual on some level.

The shell marks the path.

A whole range of writers have grappled with the idea of the Camino and pilgrimage. Some of my favorite chroniclers of the slow get-away include Paulo Coelho, Shirley MacLaine, Joyce Rupp, David Gitlitz, Jennifer Lash, Jack Hitt, and Phil Cousineau – all very different seers, all with very diverse interpretations of The Way.

All, however, speak of being transformed somehow by the brutality of walking fifteen miles a day for months. They emphasize the discipline of getting up each day and setting out on the journey, despite sword-grey skies and needle-sharp rain. Without walking, there’s no going forward toward the goal, is there?

So, do writers not venture out on pilgrimage every time they tap the keyboard or grip a pen? The journey is not always physical. Pilgrimage requires traveling some distance, either interior or exterior. Hungers of various textures goad writers, hounding them until they comply and release their words into the world. Henry Miller encapsulated this process when he wrote:

“It [writing] is all that we put into it out of hunger for that which we deny every day of our lives.” (2)

What do we hunger for when we make “gastronomic pilgrimages” (3) to France or Italy or India, seeking “authenticity,” especially in regard to food, dishes glorified by food writers in magazines like the now-defunct Gourmet or the slick Food & Wine or that Gourmet wannabe, Saveur?

In our physical hunger and search for the authentic, we’re really seeking a sense of belonging, as poeticized by John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (2000).

But might we not also be looking for a sense of transcendence?

One reason why M. F. K. Fisher’s work deserves a higher place in America’s literary canon, Harold Bloom notwithstanding, comes from the sense of transcendence, of coincidence and serendipity and, frankly, spirituality that arises with nearly every reading of her work.

Imagine my elation when I read the following passage, taken from “Conclusion: Lecture to a Viewer,” from Bareacres Journal (1940-1941), written while she and her second husband, Dillwyn Parrish, lived near Hemet, California:

“One day he [Leonardo, of the Palas tribe] said that my husband and I should go down to Pala to stay in the cemetery for a few hours. It seemed to be a message, and we obeyed it. …  On the dry mounded graves, out past the few small Anglo-style tombstones, there were shells that had come up from the Sea of Cortez. … We knew nothing should be touched, but I would have liked to take one faraway shell to help me remember these days of return, of farewell.

Then, the last day, an aged man climbed down from the stubby crude bell tower. He walked toward us, with a shell in his hand, and he was smiling confidently. He came right toward us and put the shell from his hand into my husband’s. They looked deeply at and into each other. Then he went back toward the mission. …

Once there [home], he [Parrish] painted the message, the shell. And I have the canvas, very reassuring and beautiful, and I have the shell, not as a fetish but perhaps as a kind of guarantee of peace or fulfillment.”

We been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro …


(1) See also my earlier post on the Camino de Santiago

(2) Henry Miller on Writing (1964), p. 23.

(3) M. F. K. Fisher used the phrase “gastronomic pilgrimage” in a letter to Rex Kennedy on December 9, 1929:

“… our progress from here to Cassis and back sounds more like a gastronomic pilgrimage than anything else. That’s very French … . These people can tell you about the oyster pie in the tiniest village in France.”

Photo credit: Francisco J.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen



  • Hi Cynthia,

    I love the MFK Fisher quote – thank you. If you want to read another Santiago book, try Nicholas Luard’s Fields of the star – the thriller writer (married to Elisabeth Luard, one of our best UK food writers – well, writers about things that are around food), who did the pilgrimage whilst their eldest daughter was dying. It’s magnificent – probably out of print but Abebooks.com should be able to find it.

    Thanks – Sue


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