British LibraryTreasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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4. Why compare the copies?

The Canterbury Tales are both very rare and very valuable. They are more than 500 years old and the British Library wants to ensure that they last at least for another 500 years. They have from time to time been on show in our exhibition galleries but the originals are only available to scholars who can prove a very specific need to see them. Not even all scholars who specialise in early printing or in English literature of the 15th century can automatically get to see the originals. So by putting the digital images on the web we make them available to a much wider group of scholars than before.

The digital images are also available to people who have no specialist background but a general interest in Caxton or the Canterbury Tales, who can now see and read part of the national heritage which was previously inaccessible – apart from a single opening when the original is on public display.

Not only can we give more people access to them. In many ways we provide better access too, remembering that for some purposes nothing can replace the originals. The images can be enlarged to show details which cannot be detected by the naked eye. The main source of information which we have about Caxton are the books which he produced. However, many of them are undated and many do not even have his name in them. That is the case for instance of the first edition of the Canterbury Tales. It is by careful examination of the type which he used that we can be sure which books were actually produced by him. The careful examination of his type has also allowed the creation of a chronological order of his works.

This type of examination is now open to everybody, and it is possible to detect more detailed information about individual pieces of type from the digital images to help us further in understanding how Caxton and his contemporaries worked.

We have digitised both of Caxton’s editions. The first edition is the more famous of the two, but the second has a greater visual impact. Each tale is preceded by a woodcut showing a pilgrim on his or her horse, on the way to Canterbury. But again there is also a scholarly reason for doing both editions.

We do not know where Caxton got his manuscript for the first edition – it is now lost. So the first edition represents a witness to the text which no longer exists. The same is true of the second edition. Caxton tells us that a young gentleman complained that the first edition did not contain the best text, and provided from his father’s library another manuscript which according to him was exactly as Chaucer had written the Tales. This manuscript is also lost, but Caxton used it for correcting the text of his first edition. That is why it is useful to compare the two copies, previously possible only for a handful of specialists in each generation.

The two editions are both witnesses of two lost manuscripts and together they also show how an early printer worked with his texts and created a norm of the Canterbury Tales which was to last for centuries. Modern editions attempt to reconstruct the text which Caxton wrote, although we do not have any of his autograph manuscripts. But by studying Caxton’s editions we can get to know the text of Chaucer as it was read by many generations.

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