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The World of Chaucer homepage


Case 1:
Chaucer and his Works

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Case 3:

Case 4: Medicine, Magic & Monks

Case 5:
Leisure, Law and Learning



Chaucer and his works

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.

Chaucer’s Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn

The first great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer lived in a turbulent period of war, plague, social revolt, religious heresy and murdered kings. But this society was also vibrant, creative and increasingly literate, a time of resurgence for the English language as a literary medium. The books and manuscripts of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries give us direct access to this vital culture. Whether workaday or gloriously illuminated, their pages offer fascinating glimpses of the late medieval world from which they came.

Chaucer was not a professional writer, but a courtier and civil servant who successfully served three kings in a long and varied career. Born in about 1342 into a middle-class merchant family, by the age of seventeen he was placed as a page in the household of Prince Lionel, one of the sons of Edward III. In his company he fought in France in a campaign of the Hundred Years’ War. He subsequently served as a squire at court, attached to the household of John of Gaunt, another of Edward’s sons. During this period, he soldiered again in France, and travelled to Spain, France, and Italy. From 1374 to 1386 he was Controller of wool customs, and also involved in diplomatic and secret missions to France and Italy, for both Edward and his successor Richard II. He then served as a Member of Parliament for Kent, managing in 1388 to survive unscathed the undermining attacks on Richard II when many associates of the royal household were executed. Following Richard’s assertion to rule in 1389, Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works, a difficult post that gave him responsibility for the construction and upkeep of several royal buildings. He either lost or relinquished this position in 1391, but was later given the sinecure of a subforestership. After years of an increasingly tyrannous rule, Richard II was deposed in 1399. The new king, Henry IV, confirmed and augmented the annuities originally granted to Chaucer by Richard, a great relief at a time when he was beset by money troubles. Chaucer died a year later, at about the age of sixty.

Although Chaucer’s official career is fairly easy to trace, little is known of him as a person and poet. His early lyrics and translations, such as The Romaunt of the Rose and the ABC, were grounded in the culture of the court. One of the expected accomplishments of any young courtier would have been an ability to produce love songs and poems for the amusement of an aristocratic audience. Medieval literary works were often composed for specific court patrons, and Chaucer’s first important poem, The Book of the Duchess, was written for John of Gaunt as a memorial for his wife. Many of Chaucer’s mature works would have been similarly written for and read out to a courtly audience. The poems themselves reveal more of Chaucer’s character than the official records. Hints such as the description of the author in The House of Fame, who sits at a book, ‘domb as any stoon’ and writes in his study until his head aches after he comes home from work, indicate something of his dedication to literature. That he was a keen observer of men is obvious from his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. A vivid microcosm of fourteenth-century society, its wide range of characters are so realistically drawn that they were surely inspired in part by Chaucer’s many varied experiences, his exposure to continental cultures and contact with different people from all levels of society throughout his career. Even if we feel ignorant as to what motivated him as an author, his surviving work is testament to the fact that he managed to write some of the greatest and most original poetry in the English language in spite of such a busy life.

Chaucer’s great achievement was to establish English as a major literary language, and his poetry has been loved for generations for its humanity and humour. But very few manuscripts of his works actually survive from the Fourteenth Century, and there are none that are in his hand or known to have been definitively corrected or authorised by him. Most of the texts we know today as being by Chaucer are based on posthumous copies of his work, and these may well have been subject to scribal editing and errors in their transmission from copy to copy. Many years of painstaking research by scholars in collating all the different versions of the early manuscripts results in the poems published in modern editions. We know from one poem to his scribe, Adam, that Chaucer was, in fact, anxious that his texts should be preserved as he wrote them and not corrupted by careless copying: he chides Adam for his ‘negligence’ and complains that he then has to ‘rub and scrape’ out his words to correct his mistakes.

 Illuminated page (folio 57v)

Chaucer The Romaunt of the Rose
England: c.1440
MS Hunter 409 (V.3.7)

This manuscript is extremely important in being the only extant copy of Chaucer's allegorical poem on the art of love. One of the most popular secular poems of the Middle Ages, Le Roman de la Rose was originally composed in French in the Thirteenth Century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Less than a third of Chaucer's Middle English translation of the poem has survived. Although the question of its authorship has caused considerable argument, it has become generally accepted that Chaucer at least wrote the first section to line 1705, and that this was completed at an early stage in his literary career before his principles of versification were fixed.

The manuscript was copied in about 1440, some decades after Chaucer's death in 1400. It is not known who originally owned it, and some of its pages have been lost, including the first text-leaf. Elegantly decorated throughout with gilt letters and floral sprays, it boasts several particularly ornate pages embellished with an abundance of floral designs, chiefly of Lords-and-Ladies or Cuckoo Pint. This flower is an appropriate accompaniment to a poem on love, and the artist has made suggestive play with its appearance.

This manuscript has been digitised in its entirety and may be viewed page by page. The first printed edition of the poem (edited by William Thynne in 1532, as described below) has also been digitised, and it is possible to view both printed and manuscript copies in tandem.

Page with annotation by compositor (folio 58r)

Decorated page, with annotation by compositor (folio 13v)

Decorated page, with annotation by compositor (folio 17v)

Excerpt from The Romaunt of the Rose (folio 143v

Chaucer The workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers workes whiche were never in print before
London: printed by Thomas Godfrey, 1532
Hunterian Bs.2.17

The first collected edition of Chaucer’s works to be printed appeared in 1532. It was edited by William Thynne and is regarded as being vital for sustaining interest in Chaucer, ensuring his lasting reputation and influence.

Thynne’s edition is of particular interest to us because it has been demonstrated that he used the University of Glasgow manuscript of The Romaunt of the Rose in its compilation. Sections of text in the manuscript have been carefully marked off in order to make up the pages of print. The page displayed to the left corresponds to folio 58r of the manuscript, shown above. About three quarters of the way down on the right hand page of the manuscript, the annotation ‘coll’ can be found besides the line ‘And seide sir how that yee may’. This mark indicated to the compositor where the second column of text in the corresponding printed page was to begin, as can be seen in the first line of the second column on page shown here: ‘And sayd sir: howe that ye may’. This part of the poem is actually from a section that most scholars have agreed is not by Chaucer, but by an unknown author using a northern dialect. However, Simon Horobin has recently questioned this traditional assertion; he suggests that Chaucer may well have experimented with northern rhymes early in his career and that the language and authorship of the whole text should be reconsidered. Folios 13v and 17v from the manuscript (shown above) are marked by further annotations from the compositor.

The other images displayed below show pages from The Canterbury Tales and the opening title of The Dreame of Chaucer. Thynne primarily reused Caxton's blocks from his second edition of c.1483 in illustrating this work; the woodcuts depicting the Knight and the Squire, however, were newly made for this edition. The Dreame of Chaucer is now more commonly referred to as The Book of the Duchess. Like The Romaunt of the Rose, this was the first time that the poem appeared in print.

Woodcut of the knight from The Canterbury Tales (folio C1r)

Woodcut of the squire from The Canterbury Tales (folio G5r)

Title-page to The Dreame of Chaucer (folio Bbb1v)

Page showing deleted colophon (folio 102v)

Chaucer The Canterbury Tales
England: 1476
MS Hunter 197 (U.1.1)

This is a fifteenth-century manuscript of Chaucer’s magnum opus, in which a diverse group set off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. In having the characters tell stories to while away the time en route, Chaucer provides the perfect framework for a series of narratives, told in a wide variety of styles and genres, that together mirror all human life. It has been universally celebrated for its dramatic qualities and inimitable humour. The work, however, was never completed and Chaucer died leaving it unrevised. It survives in ten fragments; there are no explicit connections between these or any real indication of the order in which Chaucer intended that they should be read. Even modern editions today differ in the order in which the tales are presented.

Over eighty complete and fragmentary manuscript copies of the poem survive today. The colophon of this volume supplies the information that it was made by Geoffrey and Thomas Spirleng and completed in January 1476. Written on paper in an ordinary business hand, the manuscript's leaves are generously sized but the layout of the text is economical with no attempt at expensive decoration. Geoffrey Spirleng was a civic official in Norwich. He and his son probably copied the poem out for their own use. Their version is somewhat eccentrically ordered; they originally missed out two tales that then had to be added in at the end. Shown to the left is the page with the original colophon, crossed out by Spirleng after he realized that he had not quite finished after all. It is followed by the first of the appended tales, that of the Clerk (shown below right). As well as inadvertently omitting part of the text, Spirleng furthermore copied out the Shipman's and Prioress's tales twice. Shown below are the beginnings of his two versions of the tale of the Shipman. Such mistakes unwittingly offer us a fascinating glimpse into late medieval scribal practises. Copying the same tales out twice indicates that Spirleng worked on his manuscript over a long period of time, while his problems with ordering have been attributed to the fact that he used two separate (and differently ordered) manuscripts as copy texts for his own book.

The Shipman's Tale: 1 (folio 25r)

The Shipman's Tale: 2 (folio 77v)

Beginning of appended Clerk's Tale (folio 103r)

Beginning of An ABC (folio 80v)

Chaucer An ABC
England: Fifteenth Century
MS Hunter 239 (U.3.12)

An ABC is one of several short poems by Chaucer inspired by French courtly verse. It is a skilful translation of a prayer found in the French allegorical poem Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine by Guillaume de Deguileville. It consists of a series of stanzas addressed to the Virgin, each celebrating a different aspect of her particular qualities and power. The title comes from the fact that each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet, going from A-Z. It was probably written in the 1370s, at a time when Chaucer was beginning to experiment with the pentameter.

The poem here is incorporated into a fifteenth-century copy of The Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode, an anonymous English prose translation of Guillaume de Deguileville’s work. It follows the prose text without a break. The beginning of the poem - ‘All myghty and all merciable qweene’ – is found towards the end of the left hand page displayed here, flagged up by the second of the two line initial ‘A’ s in blue ink.

Continuation of An ABC (folio 81r)

Continuation of An ABC (folio 81v)

Continuation of An ABC (folio 82r)

Woodcut of the clerk (folio bb7v)

Chaucer The Canterbury Tales
London: printed by Richard Pynson, 1492
Hunterian Bv.2.12

The Canterbury Tales has always been one of the most loved works of the English literary heritage. This edition from 1492 was printed by Richard Pynson. In its introduction he refers to Caxton as ‘my worshipful master’, a reference to his indebtedness to Caxton’s 1483 second edition of the poem, upon which this publication was based. One of his first issues, The Canterbury Tales brought Pynson instant fame. He went on to publish some four hundred works, and his books are technically and typographically the finest specimens of English printing of their period.

This edition is enlivened by woodcuts that portray the different pilgrims. Although charming in their direct simplicity, they do not attempt to follow the descriptions of Chaucer’s characters with any great accuracy The illustration here depicts the clerk. His horse is surely too plump to be described as being as lean ‘as a rake’ and nor does he give the impression of being ‘holwe’ and ‘thredbare’. Moreover, he is shown caryying a distinctly unscholarly bow and arrows. Woodcuts were expensive to produce and, in fact, in this work occasionally the same cuts have been used to represent different pilgrims.

For further information about this copy of The Canterbury Tales see the May 2004 Special Collections 'book of the month' article.

Woodcut of the pilgrims (folio c2v)

Woodcut of the wife of Bath (folio s2r)

Woodcut of the knight (folio c4v)

First surviving page: woodcut of the shipman from the General Prologue

Chaucer The Canterbury Tales
London: printed by Richard Pynson, 1492
Hunterian Bv.2.1

This is another copy of Pynson's 1492 edition of The Canterbury Tales. Both books are from the library of William Hunter. Hunter bought his other copy (shown above) at the sale of John Ratcliffe in 1776. Incunabula were much sought after by collectors at the time and Hunter paid two pounds and four shillings for it. It is not known when or from whom he acquired this second copy of the work, but it is nonetheless very interesting for its annotations and other signs of use by past owners. The fact that it is incomplete - lacking several pages at the start and end, and with several pages torn and missing internally - is indicative of the wear and tear it was subject to by a succession of readers over a period of three hundred years before reaching Hunter's hands.

Hunter chose not to have this volume rebound and therefore its front pastedown survives. Its inscriptions provide some clues of ownership prior to Hunter. One annotation states that the book belongs to the 'orphans of Mr Charles Brocket'  and goes on to list their names. More intriguing, however, is a note that ascribes its ownership to J. Herbert, who lends it 'to Mr Urry for his use in setting out a new edition, Sept. 16th 1714.' Elsewhere on the page is an instruction for the book to be left at a coach painter's at the upper end of the Haymarket for Mr Urry. John Urry actually died in March, 1715 and his edition of Chaucer's works, which was a collaborative effort anyway, eventually appeared in 1721. Its title-page does state that he compared the texts of former editions and 'many valuable manuscripts' in its compilation, but most scholars were ultimately dissatisfied with the end result.

This book appears only in the web version of the exhibition.

Front pastedown with annotations

Excerpt from the Merchant's Tale (folio m6v)

Woodcut of the miller and beginning of his tale (folio g8r)

Woodcut at beginning of Troilus and Criseyde

Chaucer The Boke of Caunterbury Tales with The Boke of Fame and The Boke of Troylus and Creseyde
London: printed by Richard Pynson, 1526
Hunterian Bv.2.6

Pynson printed a second edition of The Canterbury Tales in 1526. The volume is augmented by the inclusion of Troilus and Criseyde and The Book of Fame, each introduced by fine woodcuts. The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and other shorter works were also included in the final section. Lacking a general title-page, it seems that these parts were originally intended to be sold separately.

The opening of Troilus and Criseyde is displayed to the left. An historical romance, its tragic love story takes place during the Trojan War, an event favoured by many medieval writers. It has been suggested that this is the work by which Chaucer himself would have liked to have been remembered. It was certainly written when he was at the height of his career and public fame as a poet, and, according to Pearsall, it is self-consciously and deliberately his masterpiece. It was based on the Filostrato by Boccaccio, a work which would have scandalized its contemporary readers as being both thoroughly modern and quite wicked in its unrestrained depiction of sexual love. Chaucer’s version was probably the talk of the court in the 1380s.

Title page of The Canterbury Tales

Opening of Troilus and Criseyde

Woodcut at beginning of The Book of Fame

Woodcut of the pardoner with the end of his prologue (folio N6v)

Chaucer The Boke of Caunterbury Tales
London: printed by Richard Pynson, 1526
Hunterian Bv.2.8

This is another copy of Pynson's second edition of 1526. It contains only the text of The Canterbury Tales. In this copy, a seventeenth-century reader has annotated the list of tales found at the end of the printers' 'proheme'. He comments that the Miller's and Merchant's tales are 'baudy' and that the Wife of Bath's Tale is good. Sadly there are no further expressions of opinion marked in the margins of the tales themselves.

Throughout the work, Pynson made the most of his investment in the woodcuts of his 1492 edition by using them again. However, he also had some new blocks made up, including the woodcut of the pardoner displayed to the left. Pynson's 1526 text of The Canterbury Tales is based upon his 1492 edition. As has already been noted, this earlier edition closely follows Caxton's version of the text. All these different editions do contain unique variations, however. In this work, for instance, Pynson consistently regularises Caxton's spellings, changing 'hem' for 'them' and 'thise' for 'those'.

This book appears only in the web version of the exhibition.

Proheme, with annotations (folio A1v)

Woodcut of the friar with the end of his prologue (folio I6v)


Chaucer The Workes of Geffray Chaucer
London: William Bonham, 1542
Hunterian Dr.2.1

William Thynne produced a second edition of the collected works of Chaucer in 1542. In it, he included everything found in the first, augmenting The Canterbury Tales with the addition of The Plowman's Tale.

Thynne revered Chaucer and aimed in his editions to give him the respect that humanist scholars had bestowed upon the writings of the classics. Like Chaucer, he was primarily employed as a functionary in the royal household, and Blodgett suggests that the time consuming nature of his duties perhaps did not leave him sufficient periods of leisure in which he could work on Chaucer's texts with complete satisfaction. There is nonetheless plenty of evidence to show that he took considerable pains in tracking down a variety of manuscripts (including the copy of The Romaunt of the Rose now in Glasgow) to compile his editions and that he 'rescued' previously neglected works of Chaucer for posterity. Unfortunately, he also included several spurious works in his canon, and was also guilty of misreading and misunderstanding Chaucer's language on occasions. Thynne was not alone, however. That Chaucer's Middle English was increasingly found to be archaic by the time his edition was being read and used is suggested by a number of annotations to The Canterbury Tales in this copy, where a reader has underlined antiquated words and supplied their more modern synonyms in the margins.

This book appears only in the web version of the exhibition.

Woodcut of the knight and beginning of his tale (folio C1r)

Excerpt from The Romaunt of the Rose (folio Cc4v)


Chaucer The Workes of Geffray Chaucer
London: Richard Kele, 1545?
Hunterian Bu.2.21

This is a copy of William Thynne's third, undated, edition of Chaucer's works. It differs from the second in having The Plowman's Tale placed before The Parson's Tale rather than after it. In this copy, the colophon records 'Rycharde Kele' as being its printer. According to Hammond, various copies of this edition bear the names of different booksellers; indeed, the copy Hammond describes cites Thomas Petit as the printer. This was the last edition that Thynne produced. Although far from perfect, his work influenced later editions throughout the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, including those of John Stow and Thomas Speght. They copied the works that Thynne ascribed (sometimes spuriously) to Chaucer, and also maintained his tradition of including poems by authors associated with Chaucer, such as Gower and Scogan.

The title-page annotation reads: 'guns & gunpowder. see 3d book of Fame fol: 300'. On folio 300, the following is underlined, presumably by the same reader:

Throughout euery regyoun
Went this foule trumpes soun
As swyfte as a pellet out of a gonne
Whan fyre is in the pouder ronne

This book appears only in the web version of the exhibition.

Beginning of the tale of the cook (folio D6r)

Beginning of poem by Scogan To the lordes of the kynges house

Title-page of The Romaunt of the Rose

Chaucer The Workes of our Antient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer
London: printed by Adam Islip, 1598
Old Library Bo3-b.1

Thomas Speght was a schoolmaster. His first edition of Chaucer's works appeared in 1598. It was printed by Adam Islip and brought out in three impressions: this one was printed 'at the charges of Thomas Wight'. Strictly speaking, it may be more correctly described as an augmented reprint of John Stow's edition of 1561. However, its additions are noteworthy in including the beginnings of editorial apparatus. This is quite clear from the title-page's list of new features: these include Chaucer's 'portraiture and progenie shewed'; 'his life collected'; 'arguments to every booke gathered'; 'old and obscure words explained'; 'authors by him cited, declared'; 'difficulties opened' and finally, 'two bookes of his, never before printed'. The biographical material was the first life of Chaucer to appear in English, and its details provided the basic facts of his standard biography until the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The two books 'never before printed' were The Floure and the Leafe and The Isle of Ladies (but called by Speght 'Chaucer's Dreame'). Neither of these works are now credited as being by Chaucer.

This copy was presented to the library in 1890.

This book appears only in the web version of the exhibition.


Woodcut of the knight with beginning of his tale (folio B1r)

Portrait of Chaucer from the biographical section

Chaucer The Workes of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer
London: printed by Adam Islip, 1602
Hunterian Dr.2.2

Speght's second edition appeared only four years after his first. Francis Thynne (the son of the former editor of Chaucer, William Thynne) had sent Speght a long letter of 'Animadversions' on the edition of 1598. Speght took these criticisms - many of which were misguided - in good part and incorporated Thynne's suggestions into his second edition. He thanks Francis profusely for his help in improving the text in his rewritten preface 'To the Readers.'  As well as revising the text throughout, two short poems in praise of Chaucer are included, he adds the works Jack Upland and An ABC to the Chaucerian canon.

The appendix of Chaucer's 'old and obscure words ... explained' had appeared in Speght's first edition. It was revised and augmented for the reprint. Chaucer's language was becoming increasingly difficult for readers to understand by the end of the Sixteenth Century and it was a striking and necessary addition. Consisting of some 2,000 words, most of the entries simply give explanations in the form of synonyms. In its original form it was not a particularly scholarly peice of work, and most of the meanings seem to have been supplied through guesswork from their context. The revised glossary for the second edition also incorporated some etymologies.

This book appears only in the web version of the exhibition.

Added title-page

Beginning of appendix of 'hard words'

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