The Nun's Priest's Tale in Historically-Based Performance

The Historical Context

The occasion

It is five years since Richard took back power from the Lords Appellant (see the notes on the Miller's Tale), and five years since Chaucer returned to London as a holder of significant court posts. These were five years of peace, five years of remarkable cultural achievement. We presume that Chaucer returns to the Tabard Inn, to meet again with his fellow poets. By now, they have seen more of his new work, which we know as the Canterbury Tales, with its characteristic mix of the serious and the comic, and are curious for more.

The place

The Tabard Inn, Southwark, London. See the notes on the Miller's Tale performance

The date: why 1394? The Ricardian Renassiance

The years following Richard's resumption of power from the Lords Appellant in 1389 (see the notes on the General Prologue) were marked by a remarkable set of artistic and cultural events:

  • The Wilton Diptych was commissioned and executed: an outstanding instance of international gothic art
  • The first version of John Gower's Confessio Amantis was completed in 1390, dedicated to Richard II (who is stated by the Prologue of this version as having commissioned the work) and to Chaucer
  • The great hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall was commissioned by Richard and erected by his chief mason Henry Yevele and his carpenter Hugh Herland: a "masterpiece of design." Yeveley also planned the rebuilding of the naves of Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral and designed the tombs of Richard and Anne
  • Richard held a "great tournament" at Smithfield in 1390, as a showcase for the grandeur of his reign. It was preceded by a procession of twenty English knights led on golden chains by twenty ladies of the court, and followed by a grand banquet where Richard wore his crown and full regalia (Stephen Rigby Wisdom and Chivalry: Chaucer's Knight's Tale and Medieval Political Theory, Brill 2009, pp. 57-58). As Clerk of the King's Works, Chaucer was responsible for the building works associated with this tournament.
  • Most of all: we have the Canterbury Tales itself. Chaucer served the court of Richard, his grandfather Edward III and his family, for nearly forty years, dating from his first appearanace in the records in 1357 as recipient of a gift for his service (likely as a page) at the court of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster and wife of Lionel, a son of Edward III.

For the case presented here for a nexus of cultural events associated with Richard II see G. Matthew The Court of Richard II, London 1968; see too Patricia J. Eberle "Richard II and the Literary Arts" in Anthony Goodman [ed] Richard II: The Art of Kingship, Oxford 2003, especially fn. 2 on pp. 231-2.

This cultural renaissance was brought to an abrupt end by the events of 1397-1400, beginning with the Richard's vengeance against the Lords Appellant in 1397 and ending with his deposition and likely murder at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (one of the Lords Appellant) in 1399-1400.

The date: why April 1394?

It has been suggested that one of the factors behind Richard's fatal decision to seek vengeance on the Lords Appellant was the death of his beloved queen, Anne of Bohemia, on 7 June 1394. It has been reasonably arguned that while she was alive, she exerted a moderating influence upon her husband (the theme of women interceding succesfully with men to show compassion and restrain from vengeance permeates Chaucer's work -- and is reflected in the contrast of Pertelote's wisdom and Chauntecleer's folly in this tale).

This performance

Accordingly, we set this performance as occurring in April 1394. This is before the death of Anne, with Richard securely in command, the Lords Appellant quiescent if not conquered, and apparently all set for a bright future. This accords well with the sunny optimism of this tale: foxes may exist, and may continue to want to devour, but a little good sense will defeat them. We can imagine Chaucer returning to the Tabard with another comic tale for his friends, but in a very different political environment and with a very different kind of comedy.

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 14th April 2016. 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 Aril 1394, 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 Nun's Priest's Tale is enhanced by placing it in this context?
  • In John Gower's remarks, he challenges Chaucer's ability to tell a "moral tale, a serious story" which is "going to make us better, more virtuous". Do you think this tale, as told by Chaucer, is a good answer to this challenge?
  • What do you think is gained from watching a performance of the Nun's Priest's Tale, as opposed to reading it? What might be lost?
  • Some readers find the lengthy discussions of dreams and of philosophical issues dull to read on the page. To what extent was the performance able to bring these to life, e.g. by having us laugh at Chauntecleer's long-windedness (thus at the end of his speech)?
  • If you have seen the performance of the Miller's Tale in this series: what contrasts can you draw between the humour of the two tales and their performance?
  • "Pure entertainment". We hope the performance was, indeed, entertaining. Was it anything more than that?