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Book of the Month

May 2004

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales

  London: printed by Richard Pynson, 1492
Sp Coll Hunterian Bv.2.12

The exhibition The World of Chaucer: medieval books and manuscripts opens on May 15th at the Hunterian Museum. Focusing on the works of Chaucer and his contemporaries, it will provide the opportunity for the first time in twenty-five years for the general public to view over thirty medieval illuminated manuscripts and early printed books from Glasgow University's Special Collections. Our book of the month offers a taster of things to come in featuring one of the volumes to be displayed, a fifteenth century printed copy of Chaucer's most acclaimed work, The Canterbury Tales.

'the knight' and beginning of his tale (folio c4v)

Universally celebrated for its dramatic qualities and inimitable humour, The Canterbury Tales has always been one of the most loved works of the English literary heritage. It centres around a diverse group of pilgrims making the journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Before they set off, they assemble by chance at the Tabard Inn in Southwark; over supper, the inn's genial host, Harry Bailly, proposes that they hold a story telling competition to pass the time en route: each pilgrim is to tell two tales on the way, and a further two tales on the return journey, the best story winning its teller a free supper. In having every character relate stories in this way, Chaucer provides the perfect dramatic framework for a series of narratives, told in a wide variety of styles and genres. This structure was extraordinarily original and innovative for its time.

Chaucer's pilgrims are drawn from a wide range of social levels, ages and occupations, forming a vivid microcosm of fourteenth century society. A pilgrimage would have been the only occasion when such a varied group might have come together. Although ostensibly a devotional exercise, undertaking a pilgrimage was also a popular way of taking a holiday for all classes at that time. Groups of pilgrims were often accompanied by hired minstrels, so it is not hard to envisage The Canterbury Tales as actuality.

Certainly, Chaucer's pilgrims are vividly described, and although several may be described as 'stock' characters, small details bring them alive. Amongst them are: a chivalrous knight freshly returned from campaigning overseas; a monk who does not care much for the rule of cloistered life but loves hunting and eating fat, roasted swans; a threadbare clerk of Oxford who prefers buying books to clothes; an ulcerous cook who boils chickens with marrowbones and spices; a silken clad physician who loves gold; a pimply, lecherous summoner who only speaks in Latin when drunk; and a Pardoner with staring eyes who claims that a pillow case is the veil of Our Lady. Chaucer himself is also amongst the pilgrims. He does not describe himself physically, however, but remains discreetly in the background, allowing his characters to speak for themselves.

Chaucer (folio A1r)

the haberdasher (folio b2r)

'the ploughman' (folio b8r)

Chaucer was not a professional writer, but a courtier and civil servant who successfully served three kings in a long and varied career. He was born in about 1342 into a middle-class merchant family. By the age of seventeen, he was employed as a page in the household of Prince Lionel, one of the sons of Edward III. He subsequently saw active service as a soldier in a campaign of the Hundred Years' War, and travelled to Spain, France, and Italy, sometimes undertaking diplomatic and secret missions on the 'king's business'. His administrative career included posts as Controller of Customs and Clerk of the King's Works, both highly responsible and difficult roles. In public life, he served as a Justice of the Peace and was for some time a Member of Parliament for Kent. He died in 1400, at about the age of sixty.

the pardoner, with end of his prologue
and beginning of his tale (folio hh7v)

It is quite astonishing that Chaucer managed to write some of the most original poetry in the English language in spite of such a busy life. That he was a keen observer of men is obvious from The Canterbury Tales; its characters are so realistically drawn that they were surely inspired in part by his varied experiences, his exposure to continental cultures and contact with different people from all levels of society throughout his career.

the wife of Bath (folio s2r)

The pilgrimage is traditionally ascribed to taking place in 1387, but it is not exactly known when Chaucer started work on his masterpiece. Undoubtedly a work of his maturity, it is likely to have been composed over several years in the late 1380s. It 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.

The textual transmission of Chaucer's works has always been problematical. Very few manuscripts of his works actually survive from his lifetime, and there are none that are in his hand or known to have been definitively corrected or authorised by him. Although copies of his poems must have circulated amongst his friends, most of the texts we know today as being by Chaucer are based on posthumous copies of his work. These may well have been subject to scribal editing and errors in their transmission from copy to copy. Over eighty complete and fragmentary manuscript copies of The Canterbury Tales survive today, for instance. 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, but there will never be overall agreement as to which version is closest to the text as Chaucer wrote it. We have a late fifteenth century manuscript copy (MS Hunter 197) of the work in Special Collections. Its colophon records that it was completed in January 1476. Although a late witness of the text, it is extremely interesting for the mistakes that were made in its compilation; these unwittingly offer us insights into medieval scribal practices.

the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn before setting out on their journey, with excerpt from the general prologue

the squire, with end of his prologue and beginning of his tale (folio o8v)

the yeoman, with excerpt from the general prologue (folio a4r)

That fact that so many manuscript copies of The Canterbury Tales survive is indicative of its popularity in the Fifteenth Century. Furthermore, when William Caxton introduced printing into England in the early 1470s, it was the first major secular work that he chose to bring out. Its enduring appeal meant that the poem had in fact appeared in no less than ten different editions by 1561. Caxton himself printed a second edition in about 1483. This text was substantially revised, and Caxton explains in the prologue that he used a manuscript supplied by a gentleman reader of the first edition who was disappointed by the inauthenticity of its text. The edition featured here was printed by Richard Pynson in 1492. In its introduction he refers to Caxton as 'my worshipful master', a reference to his indebtedness to Caxton's second edition of the poem, upon which this publication was based.

the reeve (folio i3v)

Pynson was a native of Normandy and probably learned his trade from Guillaume Le Talleur of Rouen. It is not known when he came to England, but he was settled at least by 1482, when he is described in the records as a glover. He probably began printing in about 1490, but his first dated book is the Doctrinale of Alexander Grammaticus of 1492. One of his first issues, The Canterbury Tales brought him instant fame, and he went on to publish some four hundred works in all. Pynson can be credited with introducing roman type to England and his books are technically and typographically the finest specimens of English printing of their period. This example is a handsome folio volume of 324 leaves, printed in two founts of type: a large and bold Black Letter type is used for the poetry, and a smaller, secretary type for the prose. Pynson died early in 1530 and as his only son had predeceased him, his business seems to have been taken over by Robert Redman.

Another edition of The Canterbury Tales was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498, while Pynson himself brought out a second edition in 1526, along with copies of Troilus and Criseyde and The House of Fame. A collected works first appeared in 1532, edited by William Thynne. All these different editions contain unique variations. In this work, although Pynson closely follows Caxton's text, he consistently regularises spellings, changing 'hem' for 'them' and 'thise' for 'those', for example.

the miller, with beginning of his tale (folio g8r)

This work is enlivened by woodcuts that portray the different pilgrims. Although charming in their direct simplicity, they do not always attempt to follow the descriptions of Chaucer's characters accurately. Lacking absolute individuality, they were probably designed more as generic, stock figures.

the clerk (folio bb7v)

The miller is easily recognised from the windmill in the background of the picture. According to the General Prologue, he played the bagpipes as the pilgrims left town. The instrument depicted here is at least a pipe of some sort, but although his legs are dangling somewhat, is this really a stout character big 'of brawn, and eek of bones', and where is the wart on his nose? The clerk's horse, meanwhile, is surely too plump to be described as being as lean 'as a rake'; not only that, but he is carrying a distinctly unscholarly bow and arrows.

the prioress (folio kk7v)

the man of law (folio k5r) i

This set of woodcuts closely follow those that Caxton had made for his second edition. Caxton's cuts were re-used by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498 and again by William Thynne in 1532 and in his reprint of 1542. Pynson was not original in having the cuts designed, and even goes so far as to place them in the same places of text as Caxton. However, Pynson's cuts were executed with greater sophistication; they are more detailed than Caxton's, suggesting that their artist had a knowledge of contemporary continental woodcutting. Pynson re-used them in his 1526 edition. 

the nun (folio ee3r)

It was not unusual for woodblocks to be used repeatedly like this since they were so costly to produce. The fact that Pynson went to the trouble and expense of having a new set made at all indicates his confidence in demand for his edition. Their expense also partly explains why the same woodcuts are found repeatedly in the volume, sometimes representing different characters. Pynson had 21 blocks made in all, but these appear 47 times throughout the text. Although the same block can be quite forgivably used to represent the same pilgrim in both the General Prologue and at the head of their own tale, there are some cases that are not so excusable. The same woodcut is seen here, for example to depict the nun (to the left) and the prioress (above).

This book is one of two copies of this edition of The Canterbury Tales to be found in the collection of William Hunter. He acquired it at the sale of John Ratcliffe in 1776.  Ratcliffe was a renowned eighteenth century book collector who kept a chandler's shop in Southwark. He apparently became hooked on reading after utilising the pages of books to wrap up his wares. He accumulated his library over thirty years and it was sold by John Christie in London; the auction began on 27 March 1776, and lasted for nine working days. Incunabula were much sought after by collectors at the time and Hunter paid two pounds and four shillings for this particular volume, number 996 in the sale. It is not known who owned the book prior to Ratcliffe, but the name 'John Houle' is found in an early hand towards the end of the volume. The book was obviously closely read at some stage by an early reader, as 'pointing hands' have been written in throughout to flag up particular sections of text; there are also some Latin verses copied out in a neat seventeenth century italic hand around the colophon.

the franklin (folio q4r)

The World of Chaucer: medieval books and manuscripts is on exhibition in the Hunter Room, the Hunterian Museum, from 15 May to 28 August 2004. The museum is open Monday - Saturday, 9.30 am to 5.00 pm (admission free). A web version of the catalogue of the whole exhibition is also available. 


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Julie Gardham May 2004