Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Westminster: William Caxton, c. 1483)

Early printed books form a significant part of the library’s Special Collections, and this particular item contains an illustrated second edition of one of the most famous works of middle English literature, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is thought to have been published in 1483 by William Caxton, famous for being the first English printer, and is the only known complete copy of this version of the text. According to the preface, the reason for the existence of this volume was a complaint from a man, whose father owned an accurate manuscript of the work, that Caxton’s first edition, printed around 1476, was incomplete. The second edition was therefore produced using this manuscript.

Section of printing in the book  (Image from www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/385/Library-and-Archives.html)

Section of printing in the book (Image from http://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/385/Library-and-Archives.html)

The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s most famous work, estimated to have been written between 1390 and 1400 (the year of his death). Consisting of a Prologue followed by the tales told by various characters making the pilgrimage to Canterbury, it is both highly regarded for its literary merit, such as its use of multilayered narrative, and enjoyed for its bawdy and even puerile humour. A typical example of the latter element can be seen in The Summoner’s Tale, where the title character relates an angry incident between a friar and his acquaintance, claiming that the latter: ‘Full in the friar’s hand he let a fart, / And no carthorse that ever drew a cart / Ever let out a fart as thunderous’.

The book is illustrated with hand-coloured woodcuts, which depict each pilgrim travelling to Canterbury on horseback, to accompany the appropriate tale. Some illustrations feature multiple times throughout the text, due to the reuse of the woodcuts.

Woodcut illustration of the Wife of Bath

Woodcut illustration of The Wife of Bath (Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford)

Other works have been bound with The Canterbury Tales to form a composite volume; these are Troilus & Criseyde (c. 1482), also by Chaucer, John Mirk’s Quattuor Sermones (1483); and a manuscript of The Siege of Thebes by John Lydgate (MS 266). The book was originally owned by Roger Thorney, a London merchant, before it later came into the possession of Sir William Paddy. Paddy was one of King James I’s personal physicians and a major benefactor to the library (his portrait is displayed at the end of the Old Library), who donated the volume to the college. No date is given in the provenance note, but most of the Paddy bequest was received either in 1602 when he resided in the Front Quadrangle of St John’s, or after his death in 1634. It is therefore reasonable to date the acquisition of this item to the early 17th century.

References:

N. F. Blake, ‘Caxton, William (1415×24–1492)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/4963, accessed 30 June 2014]

Douglas Gray, ‘Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/5191, accessed 30 June 2014]

Rachel McDonald (Graduate Trainee 2012-2013), ‘‘The Paths that Sinners Tread’: Tracking the Seven Deadly Sins through the Special Collections of St John’s College Library’ Exhibition Handlist

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