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by David Weston

The popularity of the ‘father of the English language’ never seems to wane, while the magic of the Middle Ages increasingly holds us in thrall. This exhibition of fourteenth and fifteenth-century books, hand-made and printed, unites both.

At the centre stand works by Chaucer (1340-1400), three manuscripts and three early printed editions, including the star of the show, The Romaunt of the Rose, the incomplete Middle English translation of the French allegory of love, the Roman de la Rose. Without this unique medieval survivor the work would be unknown save for a few tantalising references to it by Chaucer himself in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women, and by his fellow poets, John Lydgate and Eustache Deschamps. Four further, themed cases, focusing on his contemporaries, his literary precursors, and aspects of medieval culture, afford glimpses into the poet’s world.

Almost all of the thirty-one works on display derive from the prized eighteenth-century library of Dr William Hunter (1718-83), the distinguished anatomist, man-midwife and Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte. Received in 1807, his personal collection of some 10,000 volumes alone augmented the library's stock by fifty percent, and extended the University’s holdings well beyond the narrow confines of the current academic curriculum. Moreover, the 650 manuscript codices in the collection, over a hundred of them illuminated, accorded Glasgow a prominence that it could not have achieved with its own resources. Hunter owned fifty-three Middle English manuscripts, and, in the fashion of the time, he was also an avid collector of fifteenth-century printing, British and Continental.

Glasgow University was founded by the Humanist Pope, Nicholas V in 1451, only five decades after the death of the poet and synchronous with the invention of the new technology of textual multiplication, printing from relief metal type. Despite this, vernacular literature was notably absent from the Library’s shelves until the start of the Eighteenth Century, and even then only to a very limited extent, as English literature was not taught until the following century.

From the outset Chaucer’s works were identified as attractive and commercially viable subjects for the printing process, being issued by both Caxton and his younger contemporary, Richard Pynson. The latter’s 1492 edition of The Canterbury Tales on display provides an early example of combining the woodcutter’s art with type.

The pre-typographic book, the manuscript, or hand-made book, often a compilation of separate works bound into one codex volume, is represented by twenty-seven examples, ranging from the small, eminently portable (and concealable) Wycliffite New Testament, or the pocket Statutes of England, both suited to the needs of the itinerant preacher and lawyer. These contrast with the ample, deluxe copy of John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes or the imposing dimensions of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Utilitarian manuscripts of a more typical size and pragmatic execution, deal with medicine, astronomy and alchemy, whereas, the un-alloyed freshness of medieval illumination comes to the fore in illustrations to Boethius, the bawdy tales of Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and Boccaccio’s Fall of Princes. Such sumptuous works were normally commissioned by wealthy patrons and decorated to order. One work, the treatise by Guillaume Tardif on falconry is very probably the copy presented to Charles VIII of France. Shimmering gold leaf applied over gesso to provide a bas-relief effect is employed with dramatic results in the depiction of God the Creator in a fourteenth-century compendium of devotional and philosophical writings produced in London. It is also used lavishly in a mid-fifteenth-century Book of Hours from Bruges.

Uniformity of letter forms, while easily achieved by printed characters, is a much more demanding task for the scribe, who in the Middle Ages was a trained and skilled professional, able to produce, line after line, page after page, regularly delineated letters and words. Several good examples of scribal book-hands are on view, Italian Gothic (Boethius), English cursive (Lydgate), and French cursive (Tardif).

All of the volumes exhibited normally reside in the Special Collections Department of the University Library, where, although they are available for scholarly consultation, there is little opportunity for them to be displayed. When the Hunterian Museum was first built behind the Old College on the High Street these books were shelved amongst the other museum collections, an integral part of Hunter’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Their administration continued as a Museum responsibility up until the turn of the twentieth century when it transferred to the University Librarian. Since 1968 Hunter’s books have been physically separated from the museum, and it is now some time since an exhibition devoted to so many of them has been mounted.

The meeting at the University of the New Chaucer Society Congress (July 15-19 2004) occasioned the subject of the exhibition.

Julie Gardham of the Special Collections Department is to be commended for so ably curating the exhibition. We are grateful to Evelyn Silber, the Director of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery for supporting the idea and for making the Hunter Hall available. Other Hunterian staff, Donal Bateson, Stephen Perry, Aileen Nisbet and her technical team and Harriet Gaston offered much advice and practical assistance. Jo Grant of Media Services provided catalogue design.


David Weston

Keeper of Special Collections

Go to first case: Chaucer and his works

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