An early printed Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
Among the earliest printed books in the Folger collection is this 1477 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of only about a dozen relatively complete copies that have survived.
Geoffrey Chaucer. [Canterbury Tales. Westminster, printed by William Caxton, 1477.] Folger call number STC 5082.
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. 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. In the Folger copy, which is one of only about a dozen relatively complete copies to have survived, you can clearly see the small printed guide letters that would tell the rubricator what letter was supposed to go in a given space.
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 one of the greatest 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.