The Miller's Tale in Historically-Based Performance

The Historical Context

The occasion

We hypothesize that the Miller's Tale was one of the first parts of Geoffrey Chaucer's new work (provisionally titled, it seems, "The Book of the Tales of Canterbury") to have been written, some time after 1386 when Chaucer began work on the Tales. We suppose that Chaucer made occasional trips to London from Kent in the period between 1386 and 1389, where it seems he went to keep himself safe from the Lords Appellant. He might have met with his fellow poets in a pub, and one night at the pub performed the Miller's Tale for his friends.

The place

The Tabard Inn, Soutwark, London. It appears that this pub and its landlord, Harry Bailey, were famous (or notorious) in late C14 London. Chaucer designates the Tabard as the meeting place for the pilgrims and the starting point of their pilgrimage in the opening lines of the General Prologue, and names Harry Bailey (or Bailly) as the host of the pilgrimage (and hence, the host of the Tabard) in the prologue to the Cook's Tale. The Tabard is named in many historical documents, located in Southwark, south of London Bridge in what is now Borough Market, on the eastern side of the approach to the road to Kent, and so on Chaucer's direct route from Kent to London. The original building was destroyed by fire in 1676. Harry Bailey is named in more than twenty historical documents from 1375 to 1398. He was a Member of Parliament twice, held various other offices, and is named as an innkeeper ("ostlyer") in the Subsidy Rolls for Southwark in 1380-81, though not explicitly linked to the Tabard. It may be relevant that Southwark was also home to many of London's best-known brothels ("stews").

The date: why 1388? 1386 and The Lords Appellant

Paul Strohm argues in his excellent and very readable Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (Penguin, 2015) that 1386 is the key year in both Chaucer's life and in the composition of the Canterbury Tales. It appears that sometime before 1386 Chaucer completed his other great masterwork, Troilus and Criseyde, leaving him free to work on something even more ambitious. At the beginning of 1386, Chaucer was living a settled life in London as Controller of the Customs for the Port of London. He had held this post for some twelve years, longer than anyone else managed in that period, and he had a comfortable house over the city gate at Aldgate, just a few minutes walk from the customs house. His task as controller of customs was to check and certify that the right taxes were levied on key goods leaving London (wool, sheepskins, leather) by the collector of the taxes. As these taxes supplied up to a third (in an average year, around £25,000) of all the entire taxes collected for the King, this was a highly responsible post. It was also an extremely difficult post, as it involved working with, and reaching agreement with, the collector of the taxes over large sums of money. By its nature, the post of collector attracted some of the most notorious and hated individuals of the time, among them Nicholas Brembre, lord mayor of London and famous for his ruthlessness and corruption. For Chaucer to last twelve years in this post speaks for his astuteness and diplomacy.

Chaucer's duties as Controller, though tricky, were not specially onerous, and indeed in 1385 he was permitted to appoint a deputy. But in 1386 Chaucer's world (and indeed the whole of England) was upended. At the beginning of the year, Richard II was eighteen years old, and on the point of taking the full authority of kingship. He had succeeded his grandfather Edward III on his death in 1377. His father, Edward the Black Prince, Edward III's eldest son, should have succeeded Edward III, but he died in 1376 leaving his son Richard (then 10 years old) to become king on the death of Edward III in 1377. By 1386, the young King Richard had come to rely on a small group of councillors and personal favourites. This led to discontent among many of the nobility who were not in this small group. The leaders of this discontent were three nobles. One of them Thomas Woodstock, Earl of Gloucester, a younger brother of Edward the Black Prince, and so Richard's uncle. Richard's cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, the son of Edward the Black Prince's eldest surviving brother John of Gaunt, joined this group, along with another younger aristocrat, the Earl of Nottingham. This group of five nobles are known as the "Lords Appellant". In 1386, they acted: in effect, executing a coup d'état against Richard. In November 1386 they achieved legal power, through a commission to govern England in place of Richard. In 1387 they crushed an attempt by supporters of Richard to mount an armed rebellion on his part. This gave them complete power, and in 1388 they used this power to punish their enemies and Richard's friends, in the "Merciless Parliament".

Many of Chaucer's friends and acquaintances fell victim to the reign of judicial murder of the Lords Appellant. Nicholas Brembre was hanged in 1388. If there were any thought that Chaucer's status as a poet might protect him, the fate of Thomas Usk shows otherwise. He was a minor poet, the author of the Testament of Love, which mentions Chaucer as the author of a poem on Troilus. He fell foul of Gloucester and was hanged in 1388. Most heart-breaking of all: the king's childhood tutor, who carried the exhausted ten-year old Richard on his shoulders during his coronation, and who Chaucer certainly knew and who shared his literary tastes, was executed by the Lords Appellant in May 1388, apparently for nothing more than being Richard's friend.

The date: Chaucer begins the Tales; the Miller's Tale is early.

There is every possibility that if Chaucer had stayed in London after 1386 he would have met the same fate as Usk, Burley, Brembre and many others. We can presume that in early 1386 Chaucer saw what was coming, and removed himself from London. In effective exile in Kent, with no official duties for the first time in his adult life, he had time to begin his remarkable new work, what we now know as the Canterbury Tales (but is named in the early manuscripts "The book of the Tales of Canterbury). There seems good reason to suppose (with Strohm and other scholars) that Chaucer began serious work on writing the Tales in this period, beginning in 1386.

But what did he write first, out of the nearly 20,000 lines and some twenty-four tales (and as many linking passages) we now have? There are reasons to think that the Miller's Tale was written early in the process:

  • It is probably that the first full tale Chaucer produced for the Tales was the Knight's Tale. The Prologue to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, likely composed sometime between 1386 and 1388, refers to the "storye" of "the love of Palamon and Arcite", probably the Knight's Tale as we have it (perhaps based on an earlier version, a verse romance based on Boccacio's Teseida). Chaucer names the first tale to be told in the General Prologue as the Knight's Tale, and one may presume that he started work on the Tales proper with the Knight's Tale (possibly, reworking an earlier version
  • The Miller's Tale follows the Knight's Tale immediately, and is linked with it by an exchange (Link one, in the Canterbury Tales Project enumeration) which shows the Miller's Tale does not just follow: it is intended as an answer to the Knight's Tale.
  • Perhaps most strikingly: a ground-breaking analysis by Ian Lancashire of "phrasal repetends" in Chaucer revealed evidence that the Knight's and Miller's tales stand apart from the rest of the Tales. "Phrasal repetends" are groups of words which are repeated, often in different orders and combinations: thus "by my fey", "right anon", "many a man", "I dar wel seyn", "to no wight". Lancashire shows that several Tales long thought to have been originally composed before the Tales proper and then reworked and incorporated (thus the tales of the Squire, the Monk and the Second Nun) are markedly lower in "phrasal repetences". So too is the Knight's Tale -- and so also, to Lancashire's evident surprise (p. 107) is the Miller's Tale. An easy explanation is that all these tales belong to the earliest state of writing of the Tales, before Chaucer developed the style, heavy in its use of repeating phrases, which marks most of the Tales.

This performance

From the above, Chaucer might have written the Miller's Tale before 1388. We suppose that Chaucer, on a trip back to London during his self-exile in Kent, met with his fellow poet friends -- notably John Gower -- in the Tabard Inn. His friends would already have known the Knight's Tale, either by an earlier performance and from circulating manuscript copies (though none such survive).

Colin Gibbings plays Geoffrey Chaucer, Peter Robinson directed and played John Gower. Filming and post-production editing was by the University of Saskatchewan Media Production team. Performed and filmed at the Woods Alehouse, Second Avenue North, Saskatoon, on Sunday 6th December 2015. We are grateful to Steve Cavan and the staff of the Woods for their co-operation.

For teachers and students

  • We suppose a first performance in December 1388, in the Tabard Inn. 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 Miller's Tale is enhanced by placing it in this context?
  • In John Gower's remarks, he describes Chaucer having spent three years "sitting down in Kent..having a joly pleasant time" while "some of us have been up here in London trying to keep things going the best way we can". What is he referring to?
  • What do you think is gained from watching a performance of the Miller's Tale, as opposed to reading it? What might be lost?
  • We found ourselves initially puzzled by a few lines in Chaucer's initial description of the student, Nicholas: of his astrolobe "longynge for his art" and his "augrym stones" lying "fair apart". On the page, these lines seem rather dull and out of place. How did we perform these lines to make them really relevant to the description?
  • The Miller's Tale is notorious for its description of rather explicit acts involving buttocks, farting, genitalia and branding irons. How were these sections performed (i.e. Alison and Absolon at the window, Nichalas and Absolon and the branding iron)? How well do you think the performance conveyed these events?
  • In what ways could the Miller's Tale be seen as a commentary on, or a reaction to, the political events of 1386 to 1388? (and particularly, the bloody executions of many of Chaucer's friends and acquaintances during the Merciless Parliament of 1388)?
  • "Pure entertainment". We hope the performance was, indeed, entertaining. Was it anything more than that?