By Matthew Kneale

315 ratings - 3.91* vote

The year 1289. A rich farmer fears he'll go to hell for cheating his neighbours. His wife wants pilgrim badges to sew into her hat and show off at church. A poor, ragged villager is convinced his beloved cat is suffering in the fires of purgatory and must be rescued. A mother is convinced her son's dangerous illness is punishment for her own adultery and seeks forgiveness The year 1289. A rich farmer fears he'll go to hell for cheating his neighbours. His wife wants pilgrim badges

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Book details

Hardcover, 352 pages
June 4th 2020 by Atlantic Books
1786492377 (ISBN13: 9781786492371)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


It is 1289 and the idea of pilgrimage as a form of seekeing pardon for sins or asking for grace is in full bloom. A group consisting of pilgrims of all different walks of life decide to undertake the terrific effort to walk all the way from England and Wales to Rome. Different social status, different age, different reasons behind the pilgrimage, but one aim: to pray in Rome and to seek ways that might solve their problems.
We meet each pilgrim, learn about their life, their troubles, their secrets. There are funny moments and there are moments that show the dark nature of human beings.
I found this novel truly enteraining thanks to the plethora of characters and their stories. I believe Geoffrey Chaucer would approve of them. The tales take place one hundred years before The Canterbury Tales but the ideas behind the pilgrimage are the same. Author did a terrific research and the pilgrimage is wonderfully depicted, starting with preparations for the journey, dangers that awaited the travellers, places where they mainly stayed at (especially so-called hospitals) and the physical obstacles they encountered. I think I recognized some pilgrims from medieval Pomerania thanks to what they were planning to smuggle without paying taxes. And I learnt where the word 'breakfast' derives from.
Mr Kneale wrote a book that was an entertaining read for me and now I feel the need to reread Chaucer's Tales, albeit in fragments.
*Many thanks to Matthew Kneale, Atlantic Books and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*


This the second novel I’ve read by the author, the other being “English Passengers”. I’d liked that a lot even if the premise stretched my credulity a bit. “Pilgrims” was a hugely entertaining read that I got through in no time. We follow a group of English people (plus one Welshman) making their way to Rome in the year 1289, and the journey is told through the shifting perspective of seven of the pilgrims. There are others in the party as well, but they are only viewed from the perspective of the main characters. I would say that, for each of the main characters, the pilgrimage represents the hope of escape from an unhappy life.

There’s a fair bit of comedy thrown in, although for the most part I would class the comic aspects as amusing rather than funny. There’s also a serious thread throughout the book, that of the anti-Semitism that was rampant in medieval Europe.

As a reader, I found myself wholly sympathetic to five of the main characters, and hoped things would work out for them. The journey itself is told in lively fashion, with the sort of personality clashes inevitable within a group thrown together in this way. Without giving away too much, I can say that the lives of several of the characters are changed, in one way or another, by their visit to Rome.

A beguiling read.


I always enjoy Matthew Kneale’s historical fiction and this is no exception. We join a pilgrimage from England to Rome in the late 13th century. Individual pilgrims relate their back stories and take us through a section of the journey. These range from Tom, Son of Tom (a simpleton) to Matilda Froome (a religious hysteric) to Lady Lucy, a nymphomaniac from Lincolnshire. There were many laugh out loud moments - reader alert: sense of humour is a very particular thing so I’m not suggesting everyone will find it as funny as I did - interspersed with fascinating historical detail about pilgrimages and a reminder of the abysmal treatment meted out to Jews in England and throughout Europe in medieval times. Very nearly a 5 star read for me.

[23/7/20 - I have just listened to a podcast about Margery Kempe and am thinking that Matilda Froome may be a spoof of her.]

With thanks to NetGalley and Atlantic Books for a very enjoyable review copy.

Algernon (Darth Anyan)


I asked Father Will about the way and he said I’d have to go across the sea, which I’d never set eyes on and couldn’t imagine except that it must be like our pond but going on forever. Then I’d have to go through foreign lands where nobody spoke a word I’d understand. And I’d have to climb mountains that where so high they reached halfway to God’s kingdom. All the while with every mile I might be set upon by robbers and murderers. But God would help me, Father Will said, as he loved pilgrims.

Tom, son of Tom, is a simpleton and a drudge. In the late thirteenth century, ‘drudge’ translates as an indentured worker, tied to the lands of his lord. Yet, after his favorite pet cat accidentally drowns in the village well, Tom will embark on an epic journey across medieval Europe, all the way to Rome where he hopes his prayers will help his beloved Sammy escape Purgatory. Step by step, rattling his begging bowl and gaping at the wonders along the way, Tom will take the reader on an unforgettable adventure through what is still technically the Dark Ages.

Father Will said I should go to Saint Frideswide in Oxford, who was famed across the land for curing every kind of mischief, from warts and bad eyes to mislaying your horse, so she shouldn’t have any trouble getting my Sammy up to heaven.

Since the times are dangerous and the roads unsafe, pilgrims tried to travel in larger groups, so after the Oxford saint fails to deliver the good, Tom joins one of these caravans where he has an opportunity to learn probably more than he needed to know about human nature and about the many delightful, perverse ways in which his fellow travelers became sinners in need of salvation. Apparently, simple-minded Tom is the only one with a clean conscience and a pure quest. The other pilgrims are a showcase for the seven deadly sins. A farmer who cheats on his neighbors stands in for Avarice. His wife, who wants to gather more badges than her rival housewife in the village, stands in for Envy and Greed. Two women who are hiding their past are seen as Vanity. A Baron who punched his priest in the nose is Wrath. A pilgrim for hire who is paid to go to Rome for other people’s sins in probably Sloth. A noblewoman traveling with a large retinue is Pride. Lust is apparently the most popular sin, embraced by a lawyer caught with his pants down, a wealthy widow who believes her son’s illness is punishment for her own adultery and the noblewoman who goes to Rome to ask for a divorce from her third husband in order to marry her latest beau.

This collection of colourful characters make the journey to Rome both eventful and entertaining, as each pilgrim takes over the narration from the naive Tom and tries to argue his or her case before the reader. These stories, told with satirical wit and a keen eye for the period detail by Kneale, reminded me strongly of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and ‘The Decameron’, two classic examples of Medieval picaresque adventure that probably served as source of inspiration for the author.

‘The real honest truth,’ Jocelyn said, ‘is that God’s an advocate. I should know, being one myself. Just look at all the laws he has. He can’t be anything else.’ And one of God’s laws was that if we went as pilgrims to Rome and prayed to Saint Peter and said mass at the shrines and repented our sins, then our punishment in purgatory would be undone. ‘Which means,’ Jocelyn said, ‘that God’s telling us, go, my good friends, go and have some joy along the road as it’s what you deserve and it’ll all be forgiven anyway.

[this reminded me of the old seminary joke where the priest asks his pupils: What must we do in order for God to forgive our sins? and the whole class answers: We must commit these sins first!]

It’s difficult to pick out a favorite character or scene, since the author did a great job of weaving together these wildly different people into a dynamic group that together paint a vivid picture of the times and morality of the period. Matthew Kneale background as a bona-fide historian guarantees that the research for the novel is thoroughly done. An afterword even makes it clear that some of the people in the pilgrim group are based on real characters and real situations of the period. What surprised me was not this historical accuracy, but the sheer fun it was to travel from England to Rome with his fictional group of sinners.

Yet it’s not all fun and games on the pilgrims’ progress. Some of those sins are more unpalatable than others, especially those that still plague us in the modern world. The case of the two Jewish women who convert to Christianity only to be rejected by both religions as traitors is part of a larger movement of state sponsored persecution, malevolent disinformation and actual pogroms that were only too frequent in England and within the larger Catholic dominated Europe. Their plight, and similar attacks against bigotry and the venality of the Church raise the present novel above the ‘easy entertainment’ mark.

What does it matter what religion they have when their souls are kindly?


My first novel from Matthew Kneale surpassed my expectations. I hope to try another one of his tales soon.


Pilgrims, by Matthew Kneale, follows a group of thirteenth-century individuals as they make their way from England (and in one case Wales) to Rome, and back. The year is 1289; Edward I is on the throne, bashing the Welsh, planning no good for the Jews to whom he owes money.

The novel is narrated by several different pilgrims, but unlike with Chaucer’s characters, the stories they tell are entirely their own – describing their background, the reasons why they have decided to make the long journey, and what happens to them along the way. The comic side of these narrations nevertheless draws heavily on the medieval fabliaux (think the Miller’s or Merchant’s Tales from Chaucer), inviting us to share in contemporary enjoyment of anything bawdy, scatological or cruel. Life is harsh, but there’s often time for a laugh even at its very brutishness. The reader knows, when the travellers stop at a nunnery, some hanky-panky is in the offing. And these are tough people, who can survive long treks in the driving rain or across the wintry Alps, a diet mainly of bread, cheese and apples, and nights spent on stinking, flea-ridden straw in pilgrims’ ‘hospitals’.

It’s very much the Middle Ages as popularly imagined in the twenty-first century: rife with ignorance, filth, disease, superstition, wars, hypocrisy, greed, and above all antisemitism. Only the lepers are missed out. All very true, while ignoring a few gleams of light that will gather and grow over the coming centuries to make up the Renaissance and Reformation. The poorest character, a young serf named Tom who travels to Rome to release the soul of his cat Sammy from Purgatory, provides the warm heart of the novel, while the coming expulsion of the Jews from England hangs like a dark cloud over even the humour. The mix makes for a diverting yet thoughtful tale.

Kate Vane

In Pilgrims, an assortment of medieval characters set off to Rome. They come from a range of backgrounds and have wildly different motivations. They also have varying degrees of guile and gullibility, which is communicated through their first-person narrations. There are two Jewish women, trying to pass as Christians as they fear for their lives, a man who mourns his dead cat, a professional pilgrim who travels on behalf of others too busy to make the journey themselves, a woman who just wants the pilgrim’s badge so she can show she’s been, and so on.

Aside from their personal motivations, the different political and social philosophies of the group are highlighted. There are those who respect the authority of church and state, and those who believe they can commune directly with their god without the corrupt clergy. They come together for a series of misadventures and misunderstandings, with a Chaucer-like mix of bawdiness, conflict and social comedy.

Both the period and the premise appealed and I really wanted to love Pilgrims, but it somehow didn’t spark for me. After a promising start it lacked pace and energy. It was neither dramatic enough nor funny enough and I found my eyes racing ahead trying to get to the good bits.

The structure was part of the problem. Each new character tells their story to the reader (not the other travellers) giving their backstory, their reasons for going on pilgrimage. I expected that once the introductions were over, we would get into the story and their adventures. However, new characters kept being introduced and the process repeated.

This meant that rather than being engrossed in the progress of the pilgrimage, we were thrown back into some new backstories of some people we didn’t much care about. Then we got the new characters’ perceptions of the existing characters, who we already know well and have formed our own opinion about.

For me, this all overshadowed the journey itself. I didn’t feel either the hardships or the excitement of the journey. Some of the pilgrims were experienced travellers but others had barely left their own village before and I didn’t feel the complete sense of dislocation they must have experienced.

While Pilgrims does offer a sense of the period, for me it was not an absorbing story and I felt like I’d had to cross the Alps on foot to reach my destination.

Alex Sarll

Matthew Kneale is the son of Nigel Kneale and Judith Kerr; quite a pedigree, to have Quatermass and Mog as siblings, but not something I knew when I read his English Passengers years back. And despite enjoying that greatly, I've not read anything of his since, until this – which could almost be called English Passengers too – popped up on Netgalley. The setting is again historical, but this time further back, not the 19th century but the 13th. The characters, a group of pilgrims en route to Rome. As with any story which gathers a group of people from one country, but of various different social strata, into a bubble, it's hard not to take it as a state of the nation metaphor, particularly when you consider characters like Hugh, the wealthy stirrer, or Sir John, the minor noble who's always keenly alert to a slight, and tends to lose the fights this causes him to pick (a character I could only ever picture as being played by the arsehole brother from Flowers, who does these types so well). After all, it can hardly be chance that Kneale opens with a pogrom by way of prologue, and then the relay race storytelling of the novel proper begins with Simple Tom, who fears for the soul of his cat, and who sets out from near Witney – consituency of another foolish fellow famous for being unusually close to an animal, who got us into this poke in the first place. Because what English state-of-the-nation story coming out now could be other than a Brexit story, even if Brexit is at present obscured by a different eschaton which it itself helped to immanentise? Hence resonant details like the powers that be raking in the money, while offloading the resentment thus generated on to a hapless, easily victimised minority, or all that suspicion some of the pilgrims bear towards foreign food. Set against which, how often they get food poisoning in the English segments – exactly the sort of liberation we can all look forward to once we're free of that onerous EU red tape.

This might make the whole project sound forced, which isn't my intention; it's more just how I read, especially in times of trial. None of the parallels clang, in the way they can do in the sort of historical fiction that really pisses me off, or the deliberately heavy-handed (and often very funny) way it's done in a comedy like Upstart Crow. It's more a case of, in Barbara Tuchman's phrase, a distant mirror. See equally all those lines which feel like they echo lockdown, even though the book can't have been written with that in mind, like one character remembering the moment each day when "my eyes would open and I'd remember, almost like it was something new, that the sun had fallen and my world had died". Or "For a moment the devil taunted us with hope". Most poignant of all, the bit right at the end when one of the characters, returned to their home at last, experiences the strangeness of seeing for the first time in so long something which used to be part of their everyday life. Something I hope and pray we all get to experience for ourselves before too many more seasons pass. But even if some things remain true throughout history – from acquaintances bent on misguided matchmaking, to "rich folk's justice is a penny to pay, poor folk's justice is dangling from a rope" – not everything does. There's a fine art to putting a character with a modern condition in a historical novel, never using the word which didn't exist yet, and making it recognisable to modern readers without it feeling anachronistic. It can be done, of course it can, as witness Patrick O'Brian's typically deft work with the autistic supporting character in the Aubrey/Maturin series, but not everything has manifested the same way in very different worlds through history, and I did find myself squinting a little at some overly modern versions of depression which various characters suffer, let alone one late reveal which I'm going to put in a footnote*. All of this contributes to a general sense that these aren't quite mediaeval people, so much as modern people engaged in a low-key LARP against the background of a mediaeval painting. Possibly it's because I'm coming to this not long after reading a Hilary Mantel and a Marguerite Yourcenar, who in their different ways both genuinely feel like guides to an alien age. Which, after all, is a very high bar to clear. But equally, there's Kneale's readiness to do things like have a character based on Margery Kempe, a century early. Now, on one hand she can be quite funny, and there's definitely material in taking a look at a saint's life from a modern viewpoint, and considering how incredibly annoying many of them must have been to know. But equally, you can't just shuffle someone back a century and expect them to be basically the same person, any more than you can put Wilfred Owen at Waterloo, or the cast of Love Island at the Somme, or Judge Dredd in a modern American police department. Actually, maybe scratch that last one.

On top of that, there's the frequent problem of books with multiple narrators, wherein some are much better company than others. Tom, who gets the most turns, is genial enough; the noble lady whose husbands keep dying and it's definitely not her fault, well, mostly not, is entertaining enough; and some of the worst of them we only ever see from outside. One late and temporary addition to the party is perhaps my favourite of the lot. But equally, the timeslipped Kempe, who could have been hilarious in a smaller dose, goes on for too long and became near as irksome to me as she is to the other pilgrims. Between which, and the rather pat picaresque justice of the finale, it's certainly not a novel about which I can enthuse in the way I did English Passengers.

*SPOILER: I'm not saying it's impossible that a continental Jewish physician in the 13th century might identify a child's occasional seizures as being down to gluten intolerance, rather than divine punishment for his mother's lechery. But Kneale needed to sell it a lot better to make it feel like other than an intrusion of the modern middle class mindset.


I cannot recommend it too highly. It really is hard to put down, with a most engaging account of the journey of a motley party of English pilgrims to Rome in the year 1289.

Chaucer's pilgrims told each other stories, many of which - at least to contemporary readers - provide a commentary on the manners and morals of the times. Kneale's pilgrims, progressively revealing their personal histories as they travel, perform the same function with a good deal of wry humour. The characters, particularly some of the women, are wonderfully well realised, and the book finishes with all the loose ends neatly tucked in.

Keith Currie

On the road to Rome

Matthew Kneale’s Pilgrims is a thoroughly entertaining novel, witty and humorous with a seasoning of pathos and genuine sadness.

A disparate group of medieval pilgrims make their way across England and Europe on the well-trodden pilgrim route to Rome. All the pilgrims have their back stories; almost all are religious, or at least superstitious; all are flawed individuals, some more sinful (or simply human) than others – a mixture of the piously gullible and piously fraudulent. There is a large cast of characters and this is part of the novel’s charm – perhaps the nearest to a central character is Tom son of Tom, a sort of holy innocent with no money, who wishes to pray in Rome for his dead cat to be released from Purgatory. Put upon and exploited by others, Tom’s essential goodness and honesty win through in the end and he proves himself a lot more clever than he or anyone else might have imagined.

There is a strong element of Canterbury Tales here, with much bawdy humour and some familiar personalities, for example the beautiful Lucy de Bourne who has survived a number of inadequate husbands. There are, too, contemporary references which anyone who has been on a modern package tour and been forced to mix with fellow travellers will recognise and smile at. Finally, there is also a more serious element – a world rife with anti-Semitism and prejudice – for although the ending is a happy one for most, there is also reminder that it cannot be for everyone.


Jolly, with an emotional payoff at the end from the pain that's been brewing underneath. Easy read. Shadows of Corbynism.* (*real or imaginary) Trigger warnings: antisemitism, some learning disabled & mental illness representations. Fine with me but saying. First readable book in a year.