Over the last year, keen observers of the medieval and renaissance scene at this University (members of Comitatus! Students, faculty, and fellows in CMRS! Helpers at the Museum! Lots of others) will have seen advertisements for some unexpected events. First, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Stafford, Richard II and his bride, Anne of Bohemia, gave what was billed as the world premiere of the first part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s new work, “The book of the Tales of Canterbury”. Although Geoffrey lived around 1340 to 1400 and wrote his Canterbury Tales in England between 1386 and 1400, it appears we have had to wait until April 2015 for the first ever presentation of his work (which indeed debuted at the Greystone theatre on 9 April, in front of an audience of around 100 people, themselves acting as commoners and aristocrats of England). Geoffrey returned to Saskatchewan, this time to the Woods Tavern in December, with his good friend John Gower (named in a recent poll as the most uninteresting man in England), for another performance, this time of the Miller’s Tale before a lively audience of pub-goers.
Nor was this the end of these strange episodes of resurrection of supposedly long-dead authors and their works. In February, St John’s cathedral in Saskatoon became St Paul’s Cathedral, London on 29 January 1625, and the Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, gave us his “Second Prebend Sermon”. In March, Thomas Malory will presented part of his remarkable cycle of Arthurian stories, and in April (it is rumoured) Geoffrey will return for another of his new Tales of Canterbury.
The common thread behind these performances is Colin Gibbings, formerly an undergraduate and then an MA student here in the Department of English. In the course of his undergraduate career, he showed a remarkable gift for performance of Middle English literary texts. This led his MA supervisor, me, to propose that his MA project should be based around a performance of the General Prologue of the Tales. I had my own agenda. Too many years of research into the manuscripts of the Tales has led me to speculate that one of the manuscripts very close to Chaucer himself (now thought to have been written by his own scribe, “Adam”, who may have worked for Chaucer for two decades) has a spelling which reflects how the poetry should be spoken. Recently too Paul Strohm (in his wonderful book Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the road to Canterbury) has argued that Chaucer first performed parts of the Tales for select groups of his friends. Further, the dramatic events in the English court around 1386 to 1389, when Richard first lost power to the vicious “Lords Appellant” and then gained it back in May 1389, suggested a historical context: that in June 1389 Richard might have celebrated regaining power by inviting his favourite poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, to come and present part of the new work on which Geoffrey had been working while in self-imposed exile away from London between 1386 and 1389. Hence Colin and I hatched a plan: a performance of Chaucer himself presenting his new work to Richard II in Sheen Palace, London, in June 1389.
This performance was well received, with Colin’s performance (viewable at on YouTube) much admired. Professors Brent Nelson, Mike Cichon, Frank Klaassen and Sharon Wright joined with me in a proposal to the Curriculum Innovation Fund for support for Colin to make five more videos: four of these the Donne, Malory and two more Chaucer outlined above, the fifth being based on the Old English/Cree Wanderer project developed in the University several years ago. I argue that the best way to appreciate medieval Literature (perhaps, any literature) is through performances such as these. I am using the videos in my English honours class on medieval literature this term, towards exactly that end; we hope many more will follow!
– Peter Robinson