This month’s poetry offering was of course chosen mainly by virtue of the fact that it contains the word ‘April’ in the first line. I suppose I could just as well have opted for the start of The Waste Land, but The Canterbury Tales is a rather more locally rooted piece.
The General Prologue, which provides the frame to the tales themselves, begins with the narrator settling himself in to his room at the Tabard Inn, Southwark (it stood in what is now Borough High Street, next to the George – there’s a plaque on the wall to commemorate it), prior to setting off on his pilgrimage to Canterbury, to pray at the shrine of Thomas à Becket. At the Tabard he falls in with a bunch of other pilgrims and they agree to travel together and to tell each other stories along the way, with the teller of the best tale winning a free meal at the Tabard on their return.
There’s no doubt about the route Chaucer’s pilgrims would have taken: down the Old Kent Road and through the village of Hatcham, before heading along the A2 past Deptford, over Blackheath and down Watling Street. Whether they popped in to Sainsbury’s for a pasty on the way is unrecorded.
We do know, however, that in 1390 – four years after the fictional Canterbury jaunt – the real Geoffrey Chaucer managed to get himself mugged in Hatcham, at a place referred to as ‘ye foule Oak’. He was robbed of his horses and £20, an immense sum in the late 14th century. Precisely where this happened, alas, we don’t know. It sounds like the name of a particularly disreputable sort of drinking den (no modern-day equivalents there, of course), but is more likely to have been an actual tree, one that presumably was something of a landmark in the area. Coincidentally, it’s also named in the records as the site of a mass summary execution of prisoners from Newgate in 1384. It seems the Mayor of London was keen to assert his authority over a restive city in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt (no modern-day equivalents there, either).
What Chaucer was doing here with such a huge amount of money is not entirely clear. He was travellling alone. At this time he was Clerk of the King’s Works, and the best guess is that he was on his way to Eltham, where Henry IV was having some home improvements done at the palace, with cash to pay the workmen. The king, generously, absolved Chaucer of the crime of being roughed up and losing ‘vyngt livres de nostre tresor’ ‘et lui descharger en son aconte a nostre Escheqer de les vyngt livres susdites’.
Well, be all that as it may. I make no apology for printing it in the original Middle English. No modern rendition could come close to the sensuous tactility of Chaucer’s language. And even if you aren’t familiar with it, once you read it aloud the sense becomes fairly clear, notwithstanding the presence of a few archaic words that I’ve glossed at the bottom.
My original intention was to print it in a blackletter fount reminiscent of that used by William Caxton in his first printing of the tales in 1478. But, issues of readability aside, I wasn’t able to find a plausible digital version of the textualis lettering Caxton employed. It would all have ended up looking like the Daily Mail masthead. And then I discovered a quote from Horace Walpole, who wrote in 1781: ‘I am too, though a Goth, so modern a Goth that I hate the black letter, and I love Chaucer better in Dryden and Baskerville than in his own language and dress.’
So, choice made: Baskerville it is. The uneven inking, though admittedly far from perfect, does at least lend the thing a certain period air. Having said that, though, next month I think I’ll be going back to metal type.