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Pilgrims Reviews

Pilgrims by Matthew Kneale


Matthew Kneale

3.80 out of 5

7 reviews

Imprint: Atlantic Books
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 4 Jun 2020
ISBN: 9781786492371

A sweeping tale of intrigue and suspense from the award-winning and Sunday Times bestselling author of Sweet Thames and Rome: A History in Seven Sackings.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
Justine Jordan
29 May 2020

"Linguistically, Kneale treads lightly, with a chatty, modernised version of medieval English that slips down easily"

Kneale’s aim is immediacy and recognition, and he brings the characters as close as possible with much millennium-spanning humour. There’s a running joke about the disappointments of travel; when they finally make it to Rome, Constance remarks that St Peter’s is “very fine, but Norwich is longer, don’t you think?” (Kneale’s previous book was a history of Rome, and here he shows us the hectic medieval city, loomed over by ruins “like the bones of a huge dead beast”.) The characters all share a down-to-earth, proto-Canterbury Tales worldview; the religious ecstasies of Matilda the mystic are entirely played for laughs, and some episodes, particularly a night in a nunnery (“It’s only a bit of kissing”), veer into the realm of the romp.


4 stars out of 5
Stephanie Merritt
15 Jul 2020

"...witty, thoughtful medieval tales"

Twenty years after his bold and original novel English Passengerswon the Whitbread prize, Matthew Kneale has returned to similar territory with Pilgrims, another polyphonic historical tale following a group of English men and women on a long journey into the unknown. His cast this time is a collection of 13th-century penitents travelling to Rome to seek absolution for a colourful variety of sins. Though Kneale’s pilgrimage is set in 1289, a century before The Canterbury Tales, it’s impossible not to have Chaucer’s bawdy band of storytellers in mind as you read... There’s an undercurrent of casual antisemitism echoed unthinkingly by most of the characters, and the novel ends as it began, with a glimpse of further persecution of England’s Jews that casts a chill after the rumbustious rewards and comeuppances of the pilgrimage. Kneale doesn’t probe too deeply into the psychology of his medieval characters – perhaps to do so would have felt anachronistic – but he captures an ingrained sense of English, Christian superiority over those who are not considered to truly belong that feels all too uneasily familiar.

4 stars out of 5
12 Jun 2020

"A motley crew of penitents heads for Rome in Matthew Kneale’s historically provocative yarn"

Kneale also sends up the belief systems of the pilgrims. Even the seemingly pious can’t help but judge the others and, in the spirit of the times, most of the characters are deeply anti-Semitic . Just as English Passengers shone a light on the racism of colonialism, Pilgrims highlights religious persecution. The book opens with a flashback to the massacre of some 500 Jews in London in 1264 and ends with crowds cheering the news of King Edward’s edict expelling all Jews from England. As onlookers jeer and spit on a passing procession of crowded carts of Jews, Tom son of Tom hesitates to speak up: “For a moment I wanted to say something and it was like it was there on my tongue, waiting to be said. But it didn’t seem wise to make a fuss. So I just kept very quiet.” For all of the hilarity of the pilgrims’ capers, Kneale does a good job of showing us the darker side of British history — and reminding us that in silence lies complicity.

4 stars out of 5
Peter Kemp
7 Jun 2020

"Hovering over Pilgrims is the genially ironic spirit of The Canterbury Tales"

Here the medieval city is vividly brought alive as the pilgrims rove round it. As they return home there is a virtuoso handing-out of happy rewards and pleasing comeuppances. But, for all his book’s euphoria, Kneale never ignores an evil that pervades its period. Opening with a flashback to a pogrom and ending with a glimpse of spat-upon Jews being expelled from England by royal edict in 1290, its narrative is laced with reminders of their persecution. Humane outrage pulses through this novel along with comic ebullience.

4 stars out of 5
James Walton
4 Jun 2020

"rich and absorbing"

Such heavily worn learning is especially intrusive given that the many parts of the novel that do feature the pilgrims together on their pilgrimage are so unfailingly good, with an immersively vivid sense of place and time and an increasingly gripping depiction of the relationships that develop. There are also plenty of exhilarating plot twists, although, perhaps oddly, the upshot of them all is a system of punishment and reward as strict as anything God could come up with. The main distinction between people that Kneale makes, like Dickens, has little to do with what they believe or how bonkers they may seem, but on whether they are essentially good-hearted or not. 

3 stars out of 5
31 May 2020

"a mischievous medieval road trip"

Pilgrims is heavy on backstory – Kneale rewinds with each new narrator, giving his odyssey a jerky pace. It’s a slow journey, but there are enough high jinks and nun-related mischief on the road to keep readers entertained, and wonderfully chaotic scenes in Rome once we get there. Kneale’s medieval world is animated with a refreshing lightness of touch.

3 stars out of 5
28 May 2020

"a broadly humorous unpacking of medieval society and belief"

As well as acts of violence and theft, there’s a lot of sex in the book, in and out of wedlock, across class divides and within convent walls, though it’s done for comic rather than erotic effect. Kneale contrasts the relative fellowship enjoyed by pilgrims to the cruel, transactional nature of the world. He is better at describing the strict codification of society by rank, gender and faith than he is on the realities of crossing the Alps on foot. It’s written in pacy contemporary English but phrased in a way that sounds suitably olde-world.