The second edition of the Canterbury
Tales contains 26 woodcuts. Most of them show a pilgrim on
horseback and some are used several times. For instance the cut
which marks the beginning of the Merchant’s Tale is also used
in the general prologue for the Franklin and the Summoner, and again
at the head of the Summoner’s Tale. One woodcut shows all
the pilgrims sitting round a table for a meal. The jaunty Squire
and the saucy Wife of Bath have been cut to fit the person of the
tale, but not all of them evidently represent the pilgrim whose
tale they precede.
The Clerk from Oxford from Caxton's second edition
of The Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586,
f.aa2 r. Larger
It seems especially strange that a cut
more suitable for a well-armed gamekeeper is used to illustrate
the virtuous and studious Clerk from Oxford.
The Saints in Glory from Caxton's edition of
Legenda aurea. The British Library C.11.d.8, f.2 r Larger
The woodcuts were created by a local artist,
who was probably also responsible for the cuts which appear in the
second edition of the Play of Chess and for the cuts in the Legenda
aurea, a collection of stories about the lives and deaths of saints.
The earliest of Caxton’s books to
contain woodcuts was from 1481, the Mirror of the World,
a popular introduction to astronomy, geography and other topics.
The cuts are very schematic, and the carver could not cope with
lettering so the captions were added by hand in the workshop.
Whereas few manuscripts of the Canterbury
Tales had contained illustrations, other texts were expected
to have illustrations. For instance Aesop’s Fables.
The cuts in Caxton’s edition are based on a French set of
woodcuts, but have not been copied directly. They are somewhat simplified,
probably because some of the details from the French models would
have been beyond the capability of the English woodcarver.
French woodcut crucifixion scene from the Fifteen
Oes. The British Library, IA.55144, l. a1 v. Larger
To our eyes the woodcuts in Caxton’s
books are lively and charming. To contemporary European readers
they would have seemed crude and provincial, compared with the sophistication
of German or French woodcuts of the period. The most elegant among
them was probably imported from France: the crucifixion scene from
a book apparently commissioned by Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth
of York, Henry VII’s wife.
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