Pages From Wynkyn de Worde Edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

I suppose most people have heard of the printer William Caxton, and know he was the first person to produce printed books in England. All this is certainly true, but a closer look at the man reveals he was more of a businessman than an inky-handed worker at the printing press. Other people did most of the actual work and foremost among them must be the Dutchman Wynkyn de Worde. He worked for Caxton for a number of years and took over the business himself on Caxton’s death.

Worcester Cathedral Library has some pages from de Worde’s 1498 edition of The Canterbury Tales. They were rescued from inside the cover of another book where they had been cut up and pasted as reinforcements. They may have been taken from a complete edition that was long ago considered as of no further interest! It is clear from fairly random jottings and little patterns drawn in the margins of these pages that the book was no longer held in any great respect. And because the pages were printed on paper they were easy to fold, cut and paste.

Quite a lot is known about Wynkyn de Worde’s work as a printer, but very little about his life. Even his nationality and his rather odd-looking name are matters of some dispute. Other works printed by him include: A Treatise of Love, Dives and Pauper, Robin Hood, The Ship of Fools and Christmasse Carolles. All were clearly popular subjects then and not unlike popular subjects today! He produced printed books for all sorts of educated people, not just the very rich. After Caxton died he moved the printing works into Fleet Street, beginning its very long association with the printed word. He also opened the first of many book stalls in St Paul’s churchyard.

The Cathedral Library fragments come from two pages that include the last lines of the ‘Nuns’ Priest’s Tale’, followed by the introduction or prologue to the ‘Manciple’s Tale’. They are pieces cut to the size needed for the reinforcing job. The outer edges have been trimmed so the first and last words on each line are missing. Then they have been folded and divided into thirds. One page can be reassembled completely but the bottom third of the second one is missing. Printing is done in two columns, and there are eighty-six lines of Chaucer’s poetry on each page.

This compares with just twenty-nine lines on each page of the Caxton edition. De Worde was aiming at a wider market for his printed books, people who would expect good value for their money. The typeface used is still in the old Gothic style, but less ornate than Caxton and more readable. Some use is made of the old scribal abbreviations when the lines would otherwise be too long: the word that is abbreviated to þt using the old thorn letter for th.

A Nuns’ Priest said mass, heard confession and gave communion bread to the community of women he served who were not allowed to perform these offices themselves. Chaucer’s character is a big man with a muscular neck and chest and piercing eyesight. Part of his role in the story is to offer protection to the nuns who are away from the safety of their cloister while undertaking the pilgrimage to Canterbury. His tale is a gently satirical version of the fable of the cock and the fox. Chanticleer the cock is caught by the fox and carried away to his den in the woods. He makes such a loud noise that the old woman his owner with her daughters come running after but to no avail.

The extract below shows a part of the original printing, including the line of the fold, with a Middle English transcription underneath, and a modernised punctuated version under that. I hope that the reader can make it all out!


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


This sely wydow & her doughters two

Herde the hennys crye and make woo

And out at the door stert thay anon

And saw the foxe towarde the wood gon

And bare upon his back the cock awey

And cryed out harow and welawey

Aha the foxe and after hym they ran

And eke with Gauys many a nother man


This clever widow and her two daughters

Heard the hens crying and making sad sound,

And straightaway they ran out of the door

And saw the fox going towards the wood,

Carrying away the cock upon his back

They cried out “Help and “Misery”

“Alas the fox.” And after him they ran,

And also with staves many another man.


Of course the cock manages to escape and it all ends happily – except for the fox! The Host compliments the Priest on his Tale and also on his appearance, saying it is a pity he is in holy orders as otherwise he could please women in other more secular ways!

The Manciple offers to tell his tale next because although it is really the cook’s turn, the cook is too drunk to do it. A Manciple’s job was to buy and store food and drink for the residents of colleges, monasteries and Inns of Court. Apparently some Oxford colleges still employ Manciples! And if cooks get drunk because they have wine and beer in their kitchens, Manciples may grow stingy and mean because they have to make the money last a long time!

It is interesting to note that Chaucer died many years before printing was introduced to England. We depend on handwritten manuscripts for editions that he might actually have seen. But the printed versions helped make him the popular poet he has remained until today, and to be named ‘the father of English poetry.’

Tim O’Mara





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