You probably know the Tabard Inn as the Southwark drinking establishment from whence Chaucer's pilgrims started their imaginary pilgrimage. The Tabard was a real place -- just off London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames, on the route from London to Kent and Canterbury, and it persisted (in one form or another) until the mid-19th century. And you probably know Southwark as the London suburb, on the south bank across the Thames from the City of London proper, that was home to Elizabethan London's riff-raff: prostitutes, bear-baiting, and commercial theatre. What you did not know -- nor did anyone else -- is that the luminaries of the Elizabethan stage drank at the Tabard.
Recently, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Martha Carlin came across a reference to bardic carousing in Jacobean London. In the miscellanous 1643 papers of an anonymous antiquary, she reports in a recent Times Literary Supplement article, the antiquary describes Southwark in its decaying medieval splendour. Those "ancient places" included the Tabard Inn, about which he reports,
Ye Tabard I find to have been ye resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and ye rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in ye lange room they have cut their names on ye Pannels.
Wall graffiti as the early modern equivalent of the restaurant's wall of photos showing Famous People Who Ate Here? Could be. It's certainly entertaining to imagine Will and Ben, in their cups, scratching their names into the walls. Or perhaps we should be imagining the names being engraved by the inkeeper: Harry Bailey's 17th c. counterpart, a hosteler who knew the power of words to attract custom and that the names of such players, contemporary purveyors of "sentence and solaas," might keep other customers at the bar for a second round.
Did the Tabard become the early modern equivalent of Oxford's Eagle and Child? That pub, where the Inklings -- C.S. Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and others gathered to drink and share their fiction -- has become a literary pilgrimage site for lovers of Narnia and Middle Earth, for whom no trip to Oxford would be complete without a pint in the "Bird and Baby." It's lovely to imagine theatre buffs drinking in the Tabard after plays, hoping for a glimpse of Richard Burbage, or to envision Kentish country-folk staying at the Tabard so they could lord their "brush with fame" over their rural neighbors.
However, keep in mind that the 1643 antiquarian who recorded this tidbit was preserving descriptions of
many ancient places yet to be seen and fast falling in ruine and not noticed by others.
That is, the antiquarian may have seen fit to list the names of players on the Tabard walls precisely because it was not a site of continued interest.
These antiquarian records preserve a tantalizing glimpse into early Jacobean London and into continuities between late fourteenth- and early seventeenth-century Southwark, but they leave more unsaid than they reveal. Or, more properly, their revelation opens up questions about the Southwark literary scene that we didn't even know we should be asking.