The General Prologue in Historically-Based Performance

The Historical Context

The occasion

We imagine the first formal presentation of part of Geoffrey Chaucer's new work (provisionally titled, it seems, "The Book of the Tales of Canterbury") as having taken place in the presence of Richard II and his queen at the King's court, on 6 June 1389, at Sheen Palace, London.

The place

The royal palace of Sheen, London, on the south bank of the Thames in what is now Richmond, western London. This is about nine miles from the Palace of Westminster, close to Twickenham rugby stadium. Richmond Palace was built on the site of Sheen Palace. Sheen was the favourite palace of King Richard and his queen, Anne of Bohemia. On the death of Queen Anne at the age of 28 in 1394, Richard was so grief-stricken that he ordered the destruction of the Palace.

The date: why 1389?

As we explain in the discussion of the Miller's Tale, we date the beginning of Chaucer's writing of the Canterbury Tales to 1386. By 1389 he would have written enough of the Tales to have conceived its whole shape and most of the cast of pilgrims who he has tell the stories which make up the Tales. Accordingly, we suppose that by 1389 he was ready to write the General Prologue: an interim introduction, as it were, to his work-in-progress. There are several indications that the General Prologue, as we have it, was composed some time relatively early in the writing of the Tales:

  • There is uncertainty about the number of pilgrims. In line 24 Chaucer says firmly that there are "nine and twenty pilgrims", but only 28 are described in the Prologue. We get to thirty-one if we include the "preestes thre" introduced in a rather off-handed way in line 164.
  • One of these "preestes thre" tells one of the most-fully worked of all the Tales. We do not hear any tales from the other two priests, or indeed from several other pilgrims.
  • Yet, it appears at the time he wrote the Prologue that he was confident he could carry out the extraordinarily ambitious program set out in the Prologue of four tales for each pilgrim: some one hundred and twenty tales in total. In fact, we have just 24 tales, several of which are incomplete.

The easiest explanation of these inconsistencies within the Prologue and between the Prologue and the Tales is that the Prologue was written before it became clear to Chaucer how far his work would fall short of the aim of some 120 tales.

The date: why June 1389?

The previous section explains why 1389 would be a possible year for Chaucer to have written and presented the Prologue. But why June 6? We have chosen this date as it is falls exactly between two critical dates: 3rd May 1389 and 12 July 1389.

On the first of these days, 3rd of May 1389, occurred one of the most dramatic events in medieval English history. In the notes for the Miller's Tale we explain how the "Lords Appellant" seized power from the young King Richard in 1386, and used that power viciously against Richard and his associates. It appears that Chaucer gave up the controllership of Customs in October 1386 and spent the following three years in Kent to escape the easy reach of the Lords Appellant: a move that may have saved his life. On the 3rd of May 1389, in a council meeting in the Marcolf Chamber within the Palace of Westminster, Richard declared himself of age and took back the authority of the kingship: effectively, performing a coup d'état against the Lords Appellant. In the following days he dismissed several of the Lords Appellant from their offices and installed his own choices in their place: notably Edmund Stafford as Lord Privy Seal (see T. E. Tout Chapters in The Administrative History of Mediaeval England: The Wardrobe, The Chamber and The Small Seals, Vol.3, Manchester U.P., 1928, pp. 454-458).

On the second of these days, 12 July 1389, King Richard appointed Geoffrey Chaucer as Clerk of the King's Works. This was one of the most responsible and powerful posts in the court. It meant supervision of all building and maintenance of ten royal residences (including the Tower of London, Eltham and Sheen palaces), of other significant buildings including the Palace of Westminster, and of many other facilities: hunting lodges, parks, mills, ponds and more. That Richard entrusted so significant a task to Geoffrey says everything about the regard in which Geoffrey was held.

Accordingly, we imagine a performance of Geoffrey's new work on this date, and in this place, serving several purposes. It would act as a celebration of the King's assumption of power a month before. It would be a "welcome back" to court for Geoffrey. And, of course, it would introduce to the King and Court the extraordinary new work on which Geoffrey had been working, while in effective exile the last three years (it would not be too farfetched to suppose that indeed the Prologue was indeed composed for performance on such an occasion). One could see a performance at this moment as heralding the "Ricardian Renaissance": the burst of cultural activity around Richard's court in the early 1390s, of which the Tales is the most familiar expression. See too the notes on the Nun's Priest's Tale.

This performance

We imagine the Prologue performed in front of King Richard, Queen Anne, members of the court and of the general public, with the audience for the performance themselves becoming part of the event. We elaborate the historical conceit by having Edmund Stafford, Richard's Lord Privy Seal, introduce Chaucer in terms which both look back to the Lords Appellant and look forward to the cultural renaissance which the newly-established King might enable. We present this as an explicitly national project: English arts and culture might reasonably vie with those of Italy and France. Finally, we bring in Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame, and a medievalist) to give his comments. This is one of Terry's last public appearances, and it is fitting to acknowledge his remarkable services to the understanding of Chaucer, to our merriment, and to the promotion of our better angels.

Colin Gibbings plays Geoffrey Chaucer, Kyle and Megan Dase King Richard and Queen Anne, Peter Robinson directed and played Edmund Stafford. Filming and post-production editing was by the University of Saskatchewan Media Production team. Performed and filmed at the Greystone Theatre, University of Saskatchewan, Thursday 9th April 2015.

For teachers and students

  • We suppose a first performance in June 1389, at the court of Richard II. How persuasive do you find the arguments for this occasion and its date and place? What alternatives can you offer? How do you think your appreciation of the Prologue is enhanced by placing it in this context?
  • A notorious difficulty in the Prologue for some readers has been the role of Chaucer as narrator, and particularly the moments when he seems to endorse the worst aspects of the characters he is describing. Some commentators (notably E. T. Donaldson) have argued that Chaucer creates a separate character for himself in the narrative, "Chaucer the pilgrim", presented as a simpleton naively approving of even the worst characters. In the course of our preparation of the performance, we (Colin Gibbings and Peter Robinson) came to believe this was a nonsense: there is no such separate "Chaucer the pilgrim", but only Chaucer himself operating at multiple levels of audience engagement and irony. Note particularly how Colin performs the famously difficult (as some have thought) line describing the Summoner: "He was a gentil harlot and a kynde" (at 38.11). What do you think?
  • What do you think is gained from watching a performance of the Prologue, as opposed to reading it? What might be lost?
  • Which pilgrim portraits seem most effective in the performance (or, to put it another way, gain the most from performance?