British Library Treasure in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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Who was Chaucer?

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in the early 1340s. His father, John, was a wealthy wine-merchant who held a minor position at court. In 1385 Chaucer moved to Kent, which he represented as a Member of Parliament for three years. Although he fought as a soldier in France for Edward III and earned his living as a royal and civil servant, it is as a writer that Chaucer is known today. Indeed he is often referred to as “the father of English poetry”. This site is not about Chaucer’s life or qualities as a writer, but about the first printed editions of his most famous work. Geoffrey Chaucer is buried in “Poets’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey, London.

What are the Canterbury Tales?

Chaucer’s reputation today depends upon his longest work, which he began in around 1387. The Canterbury Tales is a series of stories, many of them bawdy, told by pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury in Kent. Chaucer had travelled in Spain and Italy, and was influenced by contemporary European literature as well as the Latin and Greek classics. When he died in 1400, he left the Canterbury Tales unfinished. This did not stop it from becoming famous very quickly, so it was a good choice for William Caxton as his first big printing enterprise in England, around 1476. Caxton’s work, rather than the Canterbury Tales as literature, is the subject of this website.

Who was Caxton?

Caxton was probably born in about 1420. He was apprenticed to an important wholesale merchant in London, and then went to Bruges in present-day Belgium where many English merchants worked in the profitable wool trade. He soon achieved prominence, but probably for political reasons had to leave for Cologne, where he first became involved in printing. Around 1475 he went back to England and settled in Westminster, where he remained active as a printer and publisher until he died in 1492.

Who bought Caxton’s books?

Big continental printers mainly printed in Latin, the international language of the day. They often aimed at producing books which could be sold all over Europe. Caxton mainly printed books in English. He aimed his books at a fairly local market only, for English was not a language known and used outside this country. Printing could reach a much wider audience than manuscripts, but books were still a luxury and Caxton aimed at a fairly prosperous group of people. But with printing, books soon became much cheaper and Caxton was part of the beginning of a profound change in the way in which people could get hold of books, whether for information or for entertainment.

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Eighteenth century imagined portrait of Caxton
Eighteenth century imagined portrait of Chaucer, pasted into the British Library's 1st edition of the Canterbury Tales

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