British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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2. The Canterbury Tales

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 or dedicatees, 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
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.

Gutenberg 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 from Scholarly Digital Editions.

Pilgrims sharing a meal
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 matching image. The woodcuts enliven the pages and also make divisions between the tales clearer.

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1. The first book printed in English
2. The Canterbury Tales
3. Caxton's English

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