A five-part NPR series retraces the steps of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales to explore Britain in the early 21st century. It offers a portrait of a changing nation some 600 years after the pilgrims made their colorful journey from London to Canterbury. Read an overview of the series.
Great Britain has changed substantially since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which described life in late 14th century England. For this five-part series, Rob Gifford retraced Chaucer's steps, walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, to give a snapshot of Britain in the early 21st century.
For many Americans, Britain is the land of Masterpiece Theater and Jane Austen novels. Literature and popular films have captured England in amber: a Victorian place of starched collars, proper manners and 19th century mores.
But an extraordinary mix of colorful characters populates Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, reflecting English life in the late 14th century. And as any American high-schooler required to read the tales will tell you, many of the stories — such as "The Wife of Bath" — are delightfully bawdy.
A More Relaxed, Naughtier Britain
Modern Britain is no less diverse, and sometimes downright dirty. The walk along the modern-day route from London to Canterbury reveals characters who reflect a changing country. They embrace the earthy sexuality from Chaucer's day, along with more staid British traditions.
"The crudity that is rife in England now is back to Chaucerian times and much, much, much worse than Chaucer times. It is there like it has never been before," says retired academic Trevor Eaton, now a traveling actor who for 22 years has been performing Chaucer's works.
In an impromptu performance for a reporter, Eaton uses empty wine bottles placed on a table to represent characters, and green shoe boxes as the beds to act out — in Middle English — the medieval bedroom farce "The Reeve's Tale." And you don't need to understand Middle English to be reminded just how coarse it is.
No doubt every generation laments the loose morals of the next, but it sometimes feels like the Noel Coward song "Anything Goes" could be the theme of modern Britain.
Consider the nice middle-class ladies of Royal Tunbridge Wells — a conservative stronghold just off Canterbury Road.
What are they doing on a Thursday night? It is not ballroom dancing.
Dancing To A Different Tune
Advertising executive Emma Mitchell, 37, is giving a pole-dancing lesson to a group of young women in the side room of a pub. This isn't some seedy gentlemen's club; it's all very middle class — doctors, lawyers, professionals all come to Mitchell's classes.
She instructs one of her students: "You're going to throw that leg up and make contact with your thigh on the pole, and tuck your inside leg under the pole."
Mitchell has a master's degree in 18th century English literature. But when a long-term relationship ended, she decided to reinvent herself as a part-time teacher of what she calls "pole fitness." She and her friends also perform in burlesque shows across Britain.
"One of the reasons why I love the 18th century is because it's pre-Victorian, and there's none of that ridiculous prudery or niceties about sex," Mitchell says. "Sex was part of everyday life for everybody, and we're slowly coming out of the dark ages of the Victorian era."
Mitchell is part of a broader sexualization of British culture that has taken place over the past decade.
Feminists and conservatives alike have opposed lax laws on establishments like lap-dancing clubs (there's one just across from Canterbury Cathedral), and lamented the general trend in public morals and on television.
Traditions With A Twist
But conservative Britain still exists on the road to Canterbury, amid the gentle rolling hills that are typical of rural Britain. It is a world apart from the cities, with their immigration and their lap-dancing clubs. And the pastimes here are more traditional, too.
On the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, Sarah Leggat and her horse Barney are out fox-hunting with a group of about 20 other riders.
But there is a catch. Fox hunts were banned by the Labour Party government in 2004. So they rush about the countryside on their horses but do not catch foxes — or at least that's what they say.
They are angry that ancient British traditions — not just fox-hunting — are being attacked by the government, and by the new, multicultural nature of much of Britain. The government does not understand the rural lifestyle, they say.
But these fox hunters are not the archetypical, upper-class British — known in the local slang as toffs.
Huntsman Paul Saunders, sitting erect on his horse, holding his bugle, dressed in his bright red coat, says that in that sense, Britain has changed greatly. Now farmers, plumbers and electricians join the hunt.
"I'm definitely not a toff. Years ago it was a sport for the gentry. Those times are passed," Saunders says.
A fox hunt made up of riders from various walks of life seems to say much about diversity and the end of class struggle in Britain today. Yet the idea of fox-hunting without a fox also seems to be a metaphor — for the state of confusion about being British.