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An Early Printed Chaucer



Printed books from before 1501 are called  “incunables”; the term, from the Latin for cradle, refers to the fact that printing was then in its infancy. Among the earliest Folger incunables is this 1477 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

 

William Caxton produced it in England's first printing shop, located in Westminster at the Sign of the Red Pale. Only ten known copies, including the Folger volume, have survived, in addition to two fragments. Printing was still so new that Caxton and other printers continued to follow the old manuscript tradition of "rubricating"—literally, rendering in red—the large ornamental initial letters, doing so by hand after the body of the text was printed.

 

An uncompleted set of poems written by Chaucer in the late 1300s, the "tales" are recounted by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Collectively, they are considered the great masterpiece of Middle English literature. They were popular in manuscript form from Chaucer's day onward, making them a logical choice for the first English printers. These pages begin the "Cook's Tale." This unfinished story is offered by the group's unsavory cook, whom Chaucer describes in the prologue as having an open sore on his shin.

 


Chaucer. Canterbury tales. Westminster, 1477


 
 
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To find similar stories about other items from the Folger collection, look for Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library.


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