The Folger Shakespeare Library Presents A Manuscript Miscellany

A Summer 2005 Institute
Directed by Steven W. May

The Marginalized Voices of Chaucer's Early Readers

William Quinn                        Donna Crawford
University of Arkansas         Virginia State University

There is a new source for study of Chaucer's critical reception with the recent publication of Chaucer's Fame in England, STC Chauceriana 1475–1640 by Jackson Campbell Boswell and Sylvia Wallace Holton. The volume joins Caroline Spurgeon's precedent and landmark compilation of Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion 1357–1900 and Derek Brewer's Chaucer: The Critical Heritage as an indispensable tool for accessing the history of reader-responses to Chaucer. Perusal of these encyclopedia of commentary is always fascinating and informative. One can follow the critical reception of Chaucer by his most famous and influential readers. But these compendia have limitations. They record only "official" reference to Chaucer. And so, citations of what Caxton himself had to say about Chaucer in his 1477 edition of The Canterbury Tales will be recorded, but not the handwritten, marginal notations of the same text's later, less well-known readers.

Manuscripts and early print editions often contain inscriptions by which readers recorded their ownership and their personal and sometimes peculiar reading experiences. There has been a good deal of recent critical interest in scribal and editorial practice as an interpretive gesture. Glosses, inserted titles (often alternative), and authorial attributions (often erroneous) may not have been part of the source transcription or impression, but they nevertheless influence the dispositions of each text's future readers. Even the simple insertion of handwritten indicators (brackets, underlining, pointers such as manicules, and the like) suggest habits of highlighted re-reading. But by far the most provocative type of marginalia are those rarer handwritten comments that preserve the articulation of an (often anonymous) individual's reading experience.

One such resonant comment is preserved in a 1550 reprinting (HH52/25) of one of the earliest printed editions of The Werkes of Geffray Chaucer (STC 5074). At the bottom of a page of The Legend of Good Women (fol. ccxr), a reader has inscribed a verse apostrophe to Chaucer, which has been partially cropped by the binder (a not uncommon fate for marginalia). The hand is approximately datable to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century:


Chauser If I may nowe by your leaue
a litle speake my mynde
It is most true and euer was
as I farre as I can finde

Cleopatra [xx xxx xxxxx]
[entire line cropped]

In such a cause as heare befor
alredy you haue discust
but by your leaue she was then held
She could not haue hir lust

By Hir Brother . . . Iulius Caesar
[entire line cropped]

The book has been cropped, damaging the text in the name of physical improvement. That action suggests a subsequent owner's assessment of marginalia as itself property damage. So, with some words lost, it is difficult to conclude exactly what the reader wishes to say to Chaucer. But he or she seems to be objecting to Chaucer's proposition that Cleopatra may be presented as a truly "good" woman in The Legend of Good Women. As it is difficult to determine how serious Chaucer himself was being in The Legend of Good Women, it is likewise difficult to decide how serious the reader's objection may be. But the act of inscription itself, directly addressing the author, suggests the reader's dynamic impression of the poet's presence; reading remains an imaginary dialogue.

In the right margin of the same page is another note, probably in the same hand:

        Tis playe was playde at Oxford towne
        as farre as I remember
        [entire line cropped]

Like the first handwritten note, this one has been cropped so that the subsequent line or lines are no longer extant. As is often the case with marginal notes, such a memento may have no direct reference to the immediate text. But it may. Is it conceivable that the reader listened to a performance of the Legend? Could "play" here mean interlude? Does it suggest, at the very least, that the reader attended an event when the text was performed publicly (that is "read to" an audience) rather than "read" in the more modern, silent, solitary definition of reading.

On the final page of this copy of Chaucer's works is another comment in a different hand, giving directions about the lending of the book:


M[emoran]d[um] On the xth Day of June ^I John Gyndler^ delyueryd this booke to my
Brother Will[ia]m Curteys /to be redelyveryd ageyne
when so euer hit be requyred after one half year next
after the delyu date hereof

The 21st year of the reign of Elizabeth fell between 17 November 1578 and 16 November 1579, thus dating this entry to 10 June 1579. These readers have not yet been acknowledged by the formal histories of the reception of Chaucer. But their marginal comments provide compelling testimony of the active and indeed interactive nature of reading.

Suggested Reading:

Brewer, Derek. Chaucer: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1978.

Boswell, Jackson C. and Sylvia Wallace Holton. Chaucer's Fame in England, STC Chauceriana 1475–1640. New York: Modern Language Association, 2004.

Dane, Joseph. Who Is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb?: Studies in the Reception of Chaucer's Book. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

Hackel, Heidi Brayman. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Jackson, H. J. Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Lerer, Seth. Chaucer and His Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Spurgeon, Caroline. Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900. Cambridge: The University Press, 1925.