Chaucerian Incunabula

This week’s blog post for our ‘Incunabula Season’ is written by Professor Helen Cooper, Life Fellow of Magdalene College and Emeritus Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English.


Chaucerian Incunabula in Magdalene Libraries:

Caxton’s and Pynson’s Canterbury Tales (1482, 1492)


The Caxton volume

One of the most valuable books in the Pepys library is a copy of the second edition of the Canterbury Tales, printed by Caxton in 1482 or 1483 (PL 2053). Pepys may well not have known that it was a second edition, as the leaf with the famous ‘Prohemye’ that Caxton provided for it is missing from his copy. The original edition, of 1476 or 77, seems to have been the first substantial book Caxton printed after he moved from Bruges to Westminster, and so the first significant production of his press in England. The choice was no accident: Chaucer was recognized as the leading poet of the English language, the Tales had been copied in manuscript many times already (some 55 still survive), and so a strong market for a printed version seemed assured. Six years later, however, a problem arose, which Caxton describes in that prologue missing from the Pepys copy. He had, he says, sold copies

to many and dyuerse gentyl men, of whome one gentylman cam to me, and said that this book was not accordyng in many places vnto the book that Gefferey chaucer had made, To whom I answerd that I had made it accordyng to my copye, and by me was nothyng added ne mynusshyd, Thenne he sayd he knewe a book whyche hys fader had and moche louyd, that was very trewe, and accordyng vnto hys owen first book by hym made, and sayd more yf I wold enprynte it agayn he wold gete me the same book for a copye.

The different manuscript was duly acquired, and Caxton set about fulfilling his promise to produce a new and improved edition to pay proper respect to Chaucer’s text, ‘where as to fore by ygnoraunce I erryd in hurtyng and dyffamyng his book in dyuerce places in setting in somme thynges that he neuer sayd ne made, and leuyng out many thynges that he made whyche ben requysite to be sette in it’.

Just how much improvement that second edition made has however been a matter of some controversy – or rather, until recently there was widespread agreement that it was a mess. It was widely accepted that the new edition was not reset from scratch, but from the original edition with just a comparatively small number of corrections marked on that copy for the typesetters to incorporate into their new text; and that the newly-acquired manuscript, furthermore, was in fact itself more error-prone than the one that had been used as the copytext in 1476. More recent work by Barbara Bordelejo, however, has modified that argument.[1] The second manuscript, she claims, while not perfect, was most closely affiliated with a group of manuscripts now more highly regarded, the best examples of which have provided the basis for all modern editions of the Tales. The changes Caxton made were moreover not trivial. Bordelejo counts 244 lines added, 80 lines replacing 82 in the original, 31 deleted, and 14 lines rearranged. The order of the tales, which varies greatly across the manuscripts, was also altered, though the orders that appear in both editions are markedly imperfect, with mismatches between prologues designed for a different speaker and the tale that follows. The whole volume was not only reset (inevitable, since the type used in the first edition would have been broken up and redistributed), but restructured to set more lines to each page – cheaper on the quantity of paper required, but also an indication that the new edition was far from being a slavish reproduction of the original. Both editions are printed in single columns of text with wide margins; and in both, large capitals are supplied in red ink over small printed guide letters.

In addition – and in what was no doubt an extra incentive, beyond the prologue itself, to readers who already owned the first edition to invest in the new one – Caxton supplied it with woodcuts of all the pilgrims to head both their portraits in the General Prologue and their individual tales. These are not always very accurate representations of what the text says about them, nor what it might be assumed a particular character would look like: the Clerk, for instance, carries a longbow, as does the forester Yeoman, though other details of the woodcut (the hat, the horse’s trappings) are different. More appropriate is the coif given to the Man of Law, the close-fitting cap that was a required part of the clothing for his position. In addition to these individual portraits, complete copies of the book conclude the descriptions of the pilgrims in the General Prologue with a woodcut of all of them around a table at their initial meeting at the Tabard Inn. There are 24 of them, to match the number who tell stories, rather than the 30 that the text specifies but who are not all supplied with tales.

The Pepys copy

Nothing is known about the provenance of the Pepys copy before he acquired it. The bifolium with the woodcut of the pilgrims in the Tabard has, sadly, been removed. A few words that are damaged in the text are supplied in the margin (sig.; otherwise there are a number of untidy marginal scribbles towards the end of the volume that have nothing to do with the text, though they do supply a few unidentifiable names – Thomas, Johannes, Henry, and once ‘Henricus Plenus Amoris’ (sig. a.viiir), a widely used tag that says nothing about a real name. These marginalia are in various hands, all, to judge from the style of script, dating within a few decades of the printing of the volume. Most of the marginalia are in English (including a trial of a formal opening of a letter, ‘Ryght worshipfull my duety [is?] remembred’, sig. hh.iir), with just a handful in Latin. The latter includes the first line of Virgil’s second eclogue, ‘Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexim’, ‘the shepherd Corydon burned with passion for handsome Alexis’ (sig. gg.viiv). Virgil’s eclogues were a standard school text, and one suspects that the line may have been chosen for its qualities of schoolboy scandal more than for any reasons of gay ideology.

The most unusual item among the marginalia is a couple of doodles of geometric human figures on facing pages in the course of the Franklin’s Tale (sigs p.viv – viir): they suggest a child’s attempt at drawing. Their captions may perhaps be read as ‘magistro Catlin’ and ‘magistro Ionson’, so they might be intended as cartoons of schoolmasters. Better interpretations would be welcomed!


Doodles in Caxtonwm

Doodles of geometric human figures


Although Pepys was a serious devotee of Chaucer (he called him ‘a very fine poet’), there is no evidence in the Caxton volume that he took a particular interest in it. That is in marked contrast to the manuscript miscellany of Chaucer’s poems that he acquired (PL 2006), and to his 1602 edition of Chaucer’s Complete Works (PL 2365). He showed special concern over getting the latter bound (Diary 8 July 1664), and the end flyleaves contain a list of the most significant differences of the text from his manuscript.

The Old Library Chaucer   

There is one other Chaucer incunabulum in the College’s holdings in addition to the Caxton, though it is incomplete. This is Old Library F.3.23 (1), which consists of part of Richard Pynson’s 1492/3 edition of the Tales. The surviving text  runs from the very end of the General Prologue to the end of the Man of Law’s Tale, with the Merchant’s Prologue following.  This is bound together in a single volume with F.3.23 (2) , an imperfect copy of the1542 edition of Chaucer’s complete works that here lacks both its opening  (the General Prologue and the following tales through the Man of Law’s), which the1492 fragment provides, and some leaves at the end. The two parts together thus approximate to forming a complete works of their own. Pynson based his 1492 text of the Tales on Caxton’s second edition, similarly printed in a single column with woodcuts. The designs of these were based on Caxton’s but freshly cut: the Knight’s differs most from Caxton’s austere original, his horse being given decidedly frillier trappings.

Knights comparison

The woodcut illustrations of the Knight in the Caxton edition (l) and Pynson edition (r)

The absence of most of the General Prologue, however, and of the majority of the tales themselves, means that very few of the woodcuts appear.  Both parts of the volume are decidedly battered .

The 1542 part of the composite book is printed in double columns.  It was itself based on the first single-volume edition of the complete ‘Works’ of 1532, edited by William Thynne: this was the earliest to be able to claim serious scholarly editorial input, beyond anything Caxton had attempted.  Thynne had however given yet a different tale order, so the  link between the Man of Law’s Tale, the last item in the Pynson fragment, and the following tale no longer  match. Pynson’s ‘Marchauntes prologe’ has therefore been crossed out by hand to replace ‘Marchauntes’ with ‘Squires’, despite the anomaly of the Squire thus being given a shrewish wife, and the Squire’s Tale does indeed follow. One

End of Pynson then later editionwm

The transition between the Pynson edition (l), and a later edition of 1542 (r).

 notable addition made in 1542 was the spurious Ploughman’s Tale, originally a fifteenth-century Lollard (and thus proto-Protestant) text, which would still have been unprintable ten years earlier in the Reformation. In the Magdalene variant, as in most of the surviving examples, the tale is placed immediately before the concluding Parson’s Tale. The rest of Chaucer’s works follow the Tales, including some (like the Ploughman’s Tale) no longer ascribed to him.

The Pynson portion of the composite volume contains just a handful of marginalia, several of them recopying a line already present in the print. There is also a calculation of a bill upside-down in the margin of sig. k.iv. By contrast, an early reader made annotations and other markings throughout the 1542 section of the volume that for the first time in Magdalene’s holdings show attention being paid to the text. There are underlinings that call attention to useful maxims, such as the propensity of clerks to make misogynist comments (IV.935-8 in modern editions). The Friar’s claim in the Summoner’s Tale about the long ancestry of the orders of friars (III.2116) has ‘mendacium’, ‘a lie’, written alongside it – a reminder that this is a post-Reformation reader. The Franklin’s plea in his tale for forbearance between friends is glossed with ‘patientia’ and ‘ira’, patience and anger, beside the appropriate lines of text. The three-headed giant in Sir Thopas is marked ‘Triceps’, Latin ‘triple-headed’.  Whether the choice of Latin for these marginalia indicates the advance of Renaissance education or just greater sophistication on the part of its readers remains an open question.

[1] Barbara Bordelejo, ‘Caxton’s Editing of the Canterbury Tales, Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America 108.1 (2014), 41-60.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.