The Caxton Edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Our January Blog A Tale of Types: William Caxton in Worcester Cathedral Library described the pages and fragments of pages held by the Library from two very early printed editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Caxton edition of 1478 was in fact the first book to be printed in England and the Library is fortunate to have a few genuine pages bound into a small volume. You might wonder why this is thought to be so fortunate. In 1999 a complete copy of this first edition was sold for £4.5 million, putting it among the rarest and most valuable printed books in the world!

The Caxton Blog goes on to mention Caxton’s less famous successor Wynkyn de Worde who also produced an edition of The Canterbury Tales in 1498. The Library has even less surviving material from this however. It only has fragments from two pages that have been trimmed round the edges, folded into thirds and then pasted into the cover of another book to act as reinforcement. But the pages have been rescued and they are mostly quite easy to read.



Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

A Kidderminster carpet manufacturer and bibliophile named Michael Tomkinson was wealthy enough to have bought himself an incomplete copy of the first Caxton edition in 1907. Included with the book were some extra pages which Tomkinson sent to Charles Sayle, a Cambridge University Librarian. Sayle worked as a consultant at Worcester from time to time, and seems to have donated the bound volume to the Cathedral Library perhaps because of its local interest.

Canterbury Tales Worcester 01

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The Caxton pages are from the end of the ‘Reeve’s Tale’, together with the beginning of the ‘Cook’s Prologue’. The complete pages with 29 lines printed on each side contain 116 lines altogether. A reeve was the manager of an estate and an overseer of the workforce there. This reeve is named Oswald and he is a clever fellow:


Wel koude he kepe a gerner and a bynne;

There was noon auditour koude on him wynne.

Wel wiste he by the droghte and by the reyn

The yelding of his seed and of his greyn.

Well could he keep a granary and a store;

No bookkeeper could catch him out.

He knew from the drought and the rain

The harvest from his seed and from his grain.


His tale is a famous account of how two Cambridge students managed to outwit a greedy miller and to enjoy a night at the mill with his wife and his daughter. The Library pages are from the very end of his Tale, and they also introduce the next pilgrim, the drunken Cook of London.

Printing was a very laborious process, though still much quicker than copying by hand. Early printed texts have many features associated with handwritten manuscripts, not least the elaborate Gothic typefaces used.


Canterbury Tales Worcester 01 detail

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Here endith the Reuys tale +

And begynneth the cokis prolog +

The cook of london whyle the Reue spak

for ioye he toughte he clawid hym on þe bak

Here ends the Reeve’s Tale.

And begins the Cook’s prologue.

The Cook of London while the Reeve spoke

For joy felt as if he had scratched him on the back


You can see an exact transcription followed by a modern version. Note that cook is spelled with one letter o on line two, and with two in line three. The letter u is used in toughte as in modern English; but it is also used as v in Reue. Letters i and y seem almost interchangeable. There was a letter called a thorn in Middle English and we can see one on the last line before the word bak with a tiny e on tip of it. The thorn was pronounced as we pronounce th. It is NOT a Y although it looks a bit like one. (From this similarity comes the mistaken idea that people actually said ye instead of the – they didn’t!)

And what are we to make of the letters in red? They are used much as we use chapters and paragraphs today, to mark important breaks in the text. The big capital T marks the beginning of the ‘Cook’s Tale’. The two smaller signs that look like fancy capital Cs were called paraphs and were used to emphasise important parts of the writing. The single + seen at the end of two lines is the equivalent of a modern full stop.

Seven years later Caxton produced a second edition of The Canterbury Tales, showing the lasting popularity of this work almost a century after the poet’s death.

The British Library has copies of both editions and has made them available for public viewing at this website:


Tim O’Mara


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