Same place, different time: Appreciating today’s London through Chaucer

Literary works ,art, poetry and other creative forms of discourse always offer interesting insight into the history of great cities: what shaped them in the past and what has sustained them to the present.

I just noted that the area that I set up camp a few days of the week in London, close to Southwark Cathedral, held significance as a space where spiritual seekers would embark upon pilgrimage to recover their sanity, and re-center themselves spiritually. It was a starting point for people seeking absolution, peace of spirit and mind, and wellbeing.

While I am not qualified at all to comment on whether this remains true, my first impressions are that perhaps the purpose of the space around Southwark has somewhat changed since then. If anything, it does not seem to primarily draw crowds seeking to find themselves, or ay particularly lofty aspirations. The meaning of the space no longer carries the spiritual promise that one catches a glimpse of when you read the excerpt of Chaucer that I came across.

This is neither a bad or good thing, it simply says, to me, that space, and its meaning, are always evolving. We construct and project meaning onto spaces, our experience of living or using a space are purely what we make of them. The experience of being in London meant one thing in Chaucer’s day, means another today, and will be something completely different in the future. I take that as full license to create the meaning and experience of being in London that I so desire – seeing as after all, all space is what we decide it is!

Enough of that rambling. As said, Southwark is mentioned in the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is interesting to notice the urban dynamics and associations described in this short poetic extract, and to perhaps think about how the meaning of the same space has changed today:

Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, extract:

Befelle, that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury with devoute corage,
At night was come into that hostelrie
Wel nine and twenty in a compagnie
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felawship, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Canterbury wolden ride.
The chambres and the stables weren wide,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was gon to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everich on,
That I was of hir felawship anon,
And made forword erly for to rise,
To take cure way ther as I you devise