Book review: Pilgrims by Matthew Kneale

pilgrims matthew knealeIn 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.

I received a copy of Pilgrims from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Pilgrims on Goodreads

Like historical fiction? Take a look at my pick of historical fiction series.


  1. Is this meant to be a retelling? Or is it simply a historical novel? I’ve not read Kneale, but I usually find the idea of his books sounds interesting. Somehow, I’ve just never settled down with one yet though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This one’s a novel. I thought the author’s books looked interesting too. It’s the first of his I’ve read and I won’t let it put me off. Other people have enjoyed this one, so maybe it’s just me.

    Liked by 1 person

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