Pilgrims by Matthew Kneale

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The golden age for pilgrimages from what we now call Britain to Rome was the thirteenth century.  The reasons for persons undertaking a long and onerous – and sometimes unsafe – journey to Rome were multi-fold ranging from the personal to the public.  The most common reason was to do penance for various sins or for actions which may have offended powerful people.  Often, undertaking a pilgrimage was imposed on the person by the Church and the greater the sin the further the person was required to go.

Perhaps the most famous fictitious pilgrimage was that by the characters in The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 13th century.

It is within this historical context that Pilgrims by Matthew Kneale is set.  A ragtag group of pilgrims sets out on a journey from England to Rome.  The individual and personal reasons for their pilgrimages are as varied as the members of the group: a rich farmer believes he will go to hell for cheating his neighbours; a mother believes that her ‘fornication’ with her better-looking cousin the night before her marriage to a rich farmer caused her son to become seriously ill; a landlord is sent on pilgrimage by his priest after the landlord struck an Abbott; and a young poor villager is convinced his cat is trapped in Limbo and needs intercessions to get to heaven.  As the pilgrims begin their respective journeys from their local villages or towns, they gradually meet on the road to London.  Others on the same journey but for reasons which are not quite so penitent join up with the group.  One woman is travelling with her husband on pilgrimage only to collect pilgrims’ badges to show off in church; while one man is standing in for a richer man – and being paid for his trouble.

This pilgrimage commences in 1289 and each chapter is narrated by one or other of the pilgrims.  Thus, the reader learns not only the individual’s reason for undertaking the pilgrimage but something of the social and economic milieu from which the pilgrim comes – and of course something of their personal history.  Tom son of Tom – as he is introduced to the reader – has had a pleasurable experience or two in his short life as he informs the reader by describing an incident which occurred on the day ‘Pale Liz was thrown over by her sweetheart’.  Liz called Tom to her and said ‘Even you will do today, Simple Tom’ [23] and what then transpired between the pair was sinful and ‘worse again for being done on a Wednesday’ [23].

But of course, a pilgrimage is about penance and forgiveness and the journey alone, as it is palpably described by the author, required courage and fortitude to survive very poor accommodation, lack of adequate food, exposure to the weather and travelling almost always on foot.  Through the description of the pilgrims’ progress, the reader feels every bite by the ‘biters’, every stone on the path, every drop of freezing rain as it trickles down the back of the pilgrims; and smells every farmyard odour of mediaeval Europe.

Also to be endured are the interactions between fellow pilgrims perhaps not as holy or uplifting as one would expect – as the following passage when three of the women discuss a fourth demonstrates:

Dame Lucy had slain her first husband by throttling him as he ate his dinner and then, though she still wasn’t divorced from her second husband, she’d lived sinfully with two dozen lovers, and another she’d murdered with spells.

That’ll be why she wanted you [three men] on this venture today. So she can start on you three.  [153]

Woven into one chapter [Iowerth – who betrayed his lord Dafydd ap Gruffudd to save his family] is a brief history of the conflict between England when ruled by King Edward I and the Welsh as they struggled for the protection of their national identity.  The history is so seamlessly immersed into Iowerth’s own story that the reader moves on to the next chapter with some regret.  So much more could be written here about each chapter and the added pleasure each brings to the reader as the pilgrimage unfolds.

The author also captures a subtle humour running through the pilgrimage as in one pilgrim’s description of her first sight of London:

It seemed that every step we took there was somebody begging or trying to sell us trinkets or shouting that we were blocking their road.  Or we had to squeeze past a crowd watching a juggler throwing balls in the air, or a big pig that scampered by and almost knocked us down, or we were nearly murdered by a cart racing by.  [53]

Verisimilitude is added through the use of language which resembles to the extent that is reasonable the rhythms and cadences – and the words – of mediaeval speech.  As the author says in his Note on Language ‘an attempt to write a whole novel in thirteenth-century English is likely to appeal to a very small readership indeed’ [339].  There is a handy glossary to explain those very few words whose meanings are not clear from the context.

Matthew Kneale has written a fine book which seamlessly brings together a real sense of the era, some historical information and a subtle humour which fully engages the reader from the first to the last page.



by Matthew Kneale

Atlantic Books

ISBN 9 781786 492371

$34.99; 342pp

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