The first edition of the Canterbury
Tales is not dated but it has been convincingly argued, on
the basis of an analysis of the type and the paper, that it was
from 1476. Although Caxton frequently mentioned royal or noble sponsors
no preface of his survives to the first edition of the Tales.
Therefore it seems likely that the edition was not sponsored, but
was a purely commercial speculative enterprise.
The Wife of Bath from Caxton’s second edition
of The Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586,
fol. b5 v.
The Tales were already established as
a well-loved classic, and it seems a shrewd choice for Caxton to
make this work the first big project for his English book-production.
He could expect it to sell well. Caxton produced smaller items at
the same time, including an indulgence.
This would have ensured a decent cash flow while Caxton was engaged
on the larger project.
also printed indulgences while he was producing his Bible in the
1450s. The second edition of the Canterbury Tales is also
undated. Most scholars now agree that it was probably printed in
1483. Caxton wrote a preface to this edition explaining how a young
gentleman – an indication of the type of reader at whom Caxton
aimed his book – complained to him that the text of the first
edition was not entirely satisfactory. The young man’s father
had, he said, at home in his library a manuscript containing the
Tales exactly as written by Chaucer. Caxton expressed his
desire to make amends for the alleged poor quality of the first
edition and borrowed the manuscript.
Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales had
evidently achieved a status which made it seem important to represent
as precisely as possible Chaucer’s original words. This attitude
would not have extended to just any text. The second edition is
based on the first edition, but has a number of changes which come
from an alternative manuscript source. Most changes are minor but
some affect the order of the tales. Neither manuscript has survived.
For a full line-by-line and word-by-word collation of the
two editions, allowing you to study exactly how they differ at every
point, see the CD-ROM edition of the British Library Caxtons, available
The pilgrims sitting down
for a shared meal, from the second edition of The Canterbury
Tales. The British Library G. 11586, fol 20 recto.
Caxton added woodcuts to his second edition. This is perhaps the
most notable difference. Each tale is preceded by a picture of
a pilgrim on a horse, and there is a further woodcut of all pilgrims
sitting together at a meal. Some of the woodcuts were used to
illustrate more than one tale, so not all the characters have a
The woodcuts enliven the pages and also make divisions between
the tales clearer.
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