Above: A reduced size image of a small part of the ‘Canterbury Tales’. A larger version of all the original text of the ‘Prologue’ can be seen on the British Library Website. Text copyright British Library.
Although Chaucer’s text is hard to read, there is a wonderful sense of timelessness as you look at the words and realise that in his day people were just as excited by the thoughts of spring and Easter arriving for another year as we are today. The translation into modern English of the above text is given below (from the Nevill Coghill version):
“It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
The rooms and stables of the inn were wide;
They made us easy, all was of the best.”
In the run-up to Easter it would seem to be good idea to remember those ‘nine and twenty’ pilgrims described by Geoffrey Chaucer in the ‘Prologue’ to the ‘Canterbury Tales’. Although the ability to travel long distances was much more difficult in the 12th and 13th centuries, nearly everybody – even the uneducated and foul-mouthed miller – wanted to go on at least one pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime. If you lived in London or your pilgrimage could be planned to pass through London, a walk to see Thomas a Becket’s shrine near the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral was a very popular route. Tradition has it that the pilgrims in Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ set off around this date, to travel on foot or on horse-back, taking probably four days – at the rate of about 15 miles each day – to reach Canterbury, in Kent.
When I was at school, children around the age of 15 had to start preparing for their ‘O-level’ exams. For our English Literature exam we had to study Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ – along with other books. That meant that we had no alternative but to read the original text. The only concession was that it was in a modern typeface but the words were just as hard to understand. Our English master read them over and over to us and explained the outline of the descriptions as well as explaining the more outdated words.
That was my first introduction to Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ and, although I have read it many times since then and learned to understand it better, I have to confess that I find it just as fascinating today. While at school, I sometimes went to see my father who was a pharmacist in the Evelina Children’s Hospital. I walked from my school at Tower Bridge down Tooley Street and then along Borough High Street to the hospital – a short distance from Borough Underground Station. My journey took me past the yard where the Tabard Inn had once stood. Looking back on those days I now realise that history was all around me and even the ‘Prologue’ took on a special meaning which has never really left me all those years later.
Above: A 17th century print of the Tabard Inn. It looks at the entrance to the inn from Borough High Street. Notice the large sign that used to hang across the roadway outside the inn. There are similar signs like the one in the print still to be seen around England – in a few country villages and towns.
The 29 characters described in the ‘Prologue’ were all part of Chaucer’s fictitious work relating well-know tales that people recounted in the 13th century. However, Chaucer’s work often took him up and down Borough High Street and so he knew London well and was a keen observer of people. Although we know that he never went on that pilgrimage that he describes, it is entirely possible that the people described were based on actual people that he either knew or had shared a drink with in an inn like the Tabard.
The Tabard Inn is known to have been in existence as early as 1304. Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in 1386, mentioning the inn by name. The medieval building perished in a the Southwark fire of 1676 which destroyed nearly all the ancient buildings in Borough High Street. Although rebuilt as a galleried inn, it was completely demolished by the Victorians in 1876. Its original name was the ’Tabard’ which is the name of a short sleeveless coat worn by men in medieval times. Due to a mistake made by an artist painting a new sign-board, its later name was the ’Talbot’ which was the name for a type of hunting dog. If you are looking for the site of the Tabard Inn, you will therefore find it at Nos 85 and 87 on the east side of Borough High Street where the old entrance to the inn is now called Talbot Yard.
Sadly, there are no prints of how the Tabard Inn looked in Chaucer’s time. Printing had not even been invented and the verses of his Prologue’ were not printed until long after he had died. We can get some idea of how it looked from the print which was made about three hundred years after Chaucer’s time which is shown above.