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History & CommunityThe Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

Do you listen to The Archers on Radio 4? (“An everyday story of country folk”). We used to listen regularly years ago but now only occasionally. One annual event portrayed by the Archers has been the Christmas pantomime or similar entertainment with its usual problems of non-attendance at rehearsals, scenery not available or falling down, etc. All of this would send the usual producer, Linda Snell, into a tantrum, to accompany her hay fever and sniff.

This year, for Christmas 2018, Linda proposed to portray The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written from 1386 and not finished by his death in 1400. As might be expected, most of the prominent of the Archer players were included in this production. I thought the choice of Lillian Bellamy with her naughty laugh was ideal for “The Wife of Bath”, both having many men in their lives.

To refresh my memory of the story I have referred to The Canterbury Tales a Penguin Classic translated into modern English by Nevill Coghill. Chaucer apparently intended to write of some thirty pilgrims who would tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more on the return journey. He was unable to complete his task. Chaucer assumed that the pilgrimage would take five days (16 to 20th April) to Canterbury. The story of the pilgrimage commences in Southwark at The Tabard Inn, “a high class hostelry, close beside The Bell”. The Tales begin with The Prologue, an introductory list of the pilgrims going to celebrate the martyr, St Thomas a Becket. We must remember that in 1400 the country was Catholic, before the Reformation, so that we find many more religious titles than are now current.

Chaucer started with a gentle Knight who had fought all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Although he had fine horses he was not gaily dressed, his tunic was stained by marks of his armour. His son was with him, a fine young Squire of about 20 years old who had served abroad with the cavalry and now served his father at table. There was also a Yeoman, dressed in green, carrying his bow and arrows, shield, sword and dirk, he wore a silver St Christopher and a hunting horn hung from his baldrick.

Next was a Prioress known as Madam Eglantyne with a simple, coy smile whose greatest oath was “By St Loy” and sang through her nose as well as speaking daintily in French, “in the English manner”. When eating, her manners were well taught and she was entertaining, pleasant and friendly, but with a stately bearing. She would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap. I think the Archers’ Linda Snell would have been well suited to play her character. The Prioress wore her veil and cloak with charm and a rosary, a coral bracelet and a gold brooch engraved Amor vincit omnia. Another Nun, secretary at her cell, was riding with her and also three priests.

I have taken a liberty with Chaucer’s listing in order to have all the priests together, for he makes a “pretty picture” of his priests. Chaucer described a Monk, a manly man able to be an Abbot. His sport was hunting and he owned a number of good horses and his bridle jingled loudly. He also owned greyhounds and his fun was hunting a hare or jumping a fence. His sleeves were trimmed with fine grey fur and his hood was fastened at the chin with a wrought gold pin. His head was bald and shone as did his face as if it had been greased. He liked to eat a fat swan, roasted whole. His boots were supple and his palfrey was brown like a berry.

Then a Friar, a Limiter, was described, that is a begging friar granted a district to beg in so his activity was limited. He was wanton, merry and a very festive fellow, glib with gallant phrase and speech. He fixed up many marriages and was beloved with his County folk and city dames of honour and possession. He claimed that he was well qualified to hear confessions with a special licence from the Pope and provided penances for a  gift and said that instead of weeping and prayer, one should give silver for a poor Friar. The Friar had pins for curls and pocket knives to give to pretty girls. He sang well and played the hurdy-gurdy and knew every tavern, and innkeepers and barmaid, better than lepers, beggars, for they did not fit his dignity. Even if a widow was penniless he still got a farthing from her and he would arbitrate disputes for a fee. His dress was not threadbare, more like a Doctor or a Pope with his cope of double-worsted and he lisped a little to make his English sweeter when he played his harp.

A Summoner, paid to summon sinners to trial before an ecclesiastical court, looked as if his face was on fire with carbuncles, which nothing could cure. His eyes were narrow and he was as hot and lecherous as a sparrow, with black scabby brows and a thin beard. Children were frightened when they saw him. His diet was garlic, onions and leeks and strong red wine. After the latter, he would shout as if crazy, all in Latin but only a few tags which he had mugged up. For a quart of wine he would allow a lad to keep a concubine for a year. If he found some rascal with a maid he would say “do not be afraid of the Archdeacon’s curse, just put some money in my purse”. He knew what all the local lads were doing! On his head, he wore a garland and outside an ale-house he would have a round cake and wield it like a shield, as a joke.

A gentle Pardoner rode with him, who had authority from the Pope to sell pardons and indulgences, he was just back from visiting Rome. His yellow hair was long, spreading over his shoulders. He rode with only a small cap on his head, with a holy relic sewed on it and his wallet on his lap bulged with pardons from Rome. The Pardoner had bulging eyes and a small voice like a  goat but no beard or facial hair. Perhaps he was a gelding or a mare. In his trunk he had a pillowcase which he claimed was Our Lady’s veil and a piece of sailcloth alleged to have been St Peter’s, with a metal cross set with stones. With these relics, he would induce a poor country parson to invest more than his monthly stipend. He read a lesson in Church, or told a story and sang with his honey-tongue so well that he could win silver from the congregation.

I think perhaps we may think better of Henry VIII for ridding the country of so many of the priesthood after reading Chaucer’s description of them. In contrast to the others a Parson to a town was rich in holy thought and work, knowing the Gospel well but poor in his pocket. His parish was wide with houses far apart but he would visit whatever the weather, on foot with just his staff. He would give to the poor, from church offerings or from his own pocket. He was a learned man and taught about Christ and His Twelve Apostles and followed their example.

Chaucer intended to complete his stories in the month of April, but bearing in mind space limitations, I must leave his Prologue at this point, “To be continued in our next” as used to be said!

Bridport History Society meets as usual on Tuesday April 9th at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport, when Dr Diana Trenchard will tell us about a “Convict Museum Ship visits Dorset”. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £3. 

Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.

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