British Library Treasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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Caxton's technologies  1  2  3

2. The woodcuts

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
The Clerk from Oxford from Caxton's second edition of The Canterbury Tales. The British Library G. 11586, f.aa2 r. Larger image

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
The Saints in Glory from Caxton's edition of Legenda aurea. The British Library C.11.d.8, f.2 r Larger image

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.

Crucifixion scene
French woodcut crucifixion scene from the Fifteen Oes. The British Library, IA.55144, l. a1 v. Larger image

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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Jacobus de Cessolis, De ludo scachorum [English] The play of chess
Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea sanctorum, sive Lombardica historia [English] The Golden Legend
Myrrour of the worlde (Tr: William Caxton)
Aesopus, Fabulae, Lib. I-IV, prose version of Romulus [English]. Translated from the French of Julien Macho by William Caxton
1. The printing type
2. The woodcuts
3. The workshop

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