Since the nineteenth century discovery of the Chronicles of William of Gloucester (1473?-1532), medievalists have suspected the received version of the Canterbury Tales is incomplete, that Chaucer composed another group of tales told by his pilgrims upon leaving Canterbury. The speculation of the existence of these stories, suppressed by the church, is based upon a curious passage in William’s MS referring to “ye Canterbury adferensyons of Geoffrey Chaucer, tayles I tell thee I was hard presed to fynd, of pilgrims that dyscovered Canterbury ful of falsnes, ye religioun of Jezebel and ye prophets of Baal.”

Recently what is believed to be one of these came to light when excavating the undercroft of an ancient church in Wales, which I have here put into modern English.

The Bishop’s Tale

There went down from Canterbury with us a holy bishop, a thin [maigre] man of grave aspect, earnest to teach us daily from the scriptures–not like our merry prelates who, with the favor of all, assure all men of heaven and God’s approval.  One night after our good bishop had closed the Holy Book on the history of Susanna, he took his turn in the round and gave us this tale:

It is said that once a group pilgrims seeking heaven together came upon a fork in the road, and called upon their elders to instruct them on which branch to take. The right branch was narrow and steep, but well worn, and had clearly been taken by most pilgrims in the past. The left branch was broader, much newer, and in many ways more easy–a gentle descent.  Most of the elders were for taking the older, narrower path, pointing out that the Pilgrims’ Guide, while not giving explicit instructions on this particular fork, seemed to favor the right path quite strongly, and that almost everyone who had gone before them had thought so as well.

The elders who favored the leftward path pointed out their Master had said “every teacher instructed in the ways of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings both the old and the new from his treasury,” so that those who favor new and different paths should not be ill-treated for that reason. They also said the new path did not differ substantially from the old, and that there were many reasons based in charity, fraternal amity, and good sense for those who chose it to take the new road.

Most significantly, they said the pilgrims on both the old and new roads could travel as one within easy sight of each other, could stop together on the common ground between them as often as they pleased, to be fortified mutually in the unity of their association. Those who favored the older path were inclined to doubt the wisdom of this, but they valued the friendship of the others so much that they cooperated in hiring a firm of Clever Men to obscure the “Which Fork?” question the elders had been asked by the people.  The Clever Men produced a very long, complex answer of four parts which, reduced to its sum, was that because parting company, as we pilgrims must sadly do each day, is unthinkable, the only solution was the one proposed by Left Fork party: the Right Fork People had to plant one foot firmly on each branch and very prayerfully move forward. After finally receiving the report of the Clever Men, the elders met to deliberate.  After their deliberation the Eldest Elder issued this letter:

Dear People:

I tell you first of all that there is a lot of bad weather about these days, and we are distressed by it.

I go on to say that at our meeting each of us shared his Fork In the Road position frankly with the rest. Because we disagree on which branch to take, our discussion was often poignant and painful, so instead of taking upon ourselves the burden of deciding which to travel, we together worked ourselves into the fog the Clever Men recommended by the well-traveled road of pious evasion—by praying and meditating mightily as though God hadn’t already told us all we needed to know to make a decision. It is hard to describe the elevated frame of mind into which this put us, but be assured our continued indecision on this matter is a very good and godly thing for which I expect you all to be grateful, and in which I expect you to cooperate. This implies, of course, that if you won’t, you’re not a good pilgrim.

Religiously Yours,

The Eldest Elder

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“Now I, my children,” the sober bishop said, “think this is a very old story that has been acted many times, and am not tempted, on the strength of what the prophets have said, to believe that prayers, fastings, pilgrimages, flagellations, silence before God, or any number of pious exercises can stand in the place of simply doing what one has already been taught is right.”  And here he ended his discourse.