The Shrew’s Tale

I am currently wading my way through Peter Ackroyd’s prose ‘translation’ of the Canterbury Tales. I haven’t got very far, mainly because stuff keeps happening in Real Life, but also because it is not a work to be rushed, but sipped and savoured in small doses. It may not be ‘verse’ but it is still poetry.

Because I want to enjoy every moment of it, I started with the introduction (I’m normally very bad for skipping introductions)and I was very surprised to discover that it’s likely that a good part of Chaucer’s masterwork was written in Greenwich or Deptford.

Though the Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims set out on their journey, is in Southwark, the merry band passes through Deptford on their way to Beckett’s shrine, and Chaucer’s own hostelry is mentioned by the host – as ‘an inne of shrews.’

Looks like we’re back to the Greenwich Birds again – I’m beginning to get quite an image of the female population of Greenwich in medieval times. Or maybe it was the entire population, full stop – apparently, Chaucer was mugged twice in the same day (though other accounts I’ve read have placed him in Westminster and Hatcham for his total of three robberies) Being mugged seems a bit ironic since he was a Justice of the Peace at the time(annoyingly all the books I can find just say ‘in Kent’ so I don’t know if it was actually at Greenwich.)

One of the reasons he was living in Greenwich seems to have been financial. When his wife died, he was sued for debt – the days when he was granted a daily pitcher of wine by the king must have seemed very distant – and presumably innes of shrews in Greenwich were cheaper than nice houses in the City of London.

In 1390, while he was writing the Canterbury Tales (though he never really actively ‘started’ them – or indeed, finished them – they were more organic than that – he wrote short stories that he later assigned to sundry pilgrims when he had the portmanteau-volume idea for bringing them together. Some were specifically written for characters; others were just doled out to the boring characters that were left, which is why some really suit the teller and others really don’t…) he was doing all manner of odd jobs.

He arranged for scaffolding to be built for jousts at Smithfield, and landed himself the job of Commissioner of Walls and Ditches – with special responsibility for the Thames wall between Woolwich and Greenwich.

But Chaucer’s real job was entertaining – in English. I didn’t know that the Tales were written here, but I’m delighted that they were, even if Chaucer had a bit of a rough time with the Greenwich shrews whilst composing them. So we can claim the father of the English Novel for our own, too (sort of…)

Now all I have to do is work out why there used to be a banner with a picture of Sir Walter Scott hanging in the old Visitor Centre. As far as I can see, the most we can boast of him is a couple of brief mentions in The Adventures of Nigel, one of the minor Waverley Novels and the worst book I have ever read by a long chalk…

5 Comments to “The Shrew’s Tale”

  1. Kat says:

    Fascinating to learn that Chaucer may have been inspired by Greenwich! Havent got round to reading the full work yet, bit of an intense read imo.
    To go slightly sideways of the original blog but still relevant to Deptford being a bit of a trendy haunt….There was a very interesting BBC documentary on Saturday night about The Art of Russia and it featured one Tzar Peter of Russia (Of St Petersburg fame) who, in 1697 spent a fair bit of time living in Deptford, in the house of John Evelyn and was reported to 'behave dispicably' with friend John Halle (the comet man) spending most of his time getting drunk, pushing each other around in wheelbarrows and 'vomiting in the garden'! He was meant to be inspecting the docks of Greenwich but spent most of the time on one long bender apparently!

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks, Phant. This kind of story exactly hits the spot.

    I'll be boring my nine-year old son rigid with the full details of this, very soon indeed.

  3. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    Kids love the rude bits…

    Hell – I love the rude bits myself!

  4. Kat says:

    Aha! I should have guessed there was already an article on that!