Worcester Cathedral Library has many fine copies of the works of English literature, gathered over the centuries and now of great interest to scholars and enthusiasts. Among these is a handsome edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in 1721 by John Urry of Christchurch College, Oxford.
It is a fine copy of a collectable work, spoilt only by the absence of the first page, which has been removed, probably for its picture of the Pilgrims setting out for Canterbury. The illustrations above show the elegant tooled-leather binding of the book, and the title page, with this inscription:
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Compared with the Former Editions, and many valuable MSS. Out of which, Three TALES are added which were never before Printed. By JOHN URRY, Student of Christ-Church, Oxon, Deceased.
John Urry had looked at some of the early manuscript collections of Chaucer’s works, and he had found three long poems never before printed: ‘The Cook’s Tale of Gamelyn’, ‘The Adventure of the Pardoner and the Tapster at the Inn at Canterbury’, and ‘The History of Beryn’, supposed to be the second tale told by the Merchant Pilgrim. Sadly their authenticity was highly unlikely. The number of poetic works attributed to Chaucer had grown steadily since his death around 1400. In fact more than half of the items in the John Urry edition are now considered either doubtful or definitely not by the great English poet!
Although Urry had commendably studied what were thought to be genuine original sources, and worked to produce for the first time a clearly laid-out edition with a modern type-face, his book is not highly regarded by Chaucer scholars. His worst mistake was to try to improve the poems by changing many of the words. Middle English spelling conventions were not well understood in the early eighteenth century, and it was widely thought that the ‘barbaric’ scansion of the lines needed improvement!
The first of Urry’s newly printed stories is on page 36 called “The COKE’s TALE of Gamelyn.” The editor’s introduction notes that he found it in several of his manuscript originals, always attributed to Chaucer’s Cook. There is already another Cook’s Tale in the poem, which breaks off after only 58 lines.
Gamelyn was the youngest of three sons and very badly treated by the oldest brother who seized and laid waste his inheritance. The short extract shown here is in Urry’s original text with a modern English transcription:
I think it is fair to say that Chaucer would have expressed it better had it actually been written by him! Gamelyn was forced to become an outlaw in the forest but in the end he regained his lands and a pardon from the King, and for all this plus his championing of the poor he has been compared to Robin Hood.
The other newly printed items appear on page 594 with this introduction and title:
Chaucer’s pilgrims never actually reached Canterbury, although it seems he planned to write about them there, and also to write another set of tales told on the return to London. Here someone else followed the plan on Chaucer’s behalf with a long tale about what the pilgrims did, including the unpopular and immoral Pardoner.
A tapster was someone who served drinks in a pub, and in this story she was a barmaid named Kit. But what was a pardoner? Pardoners sold indulgences that promised release from punishment for sin, including the sufferings of Purgatory after death. They were often rich but not popular. Chaucer’s Pardoner had long hair and was clearly not very honest. He carried pigs’ bones in a glass case that he claimed to be the relics of saints.
The beautiful barmaid of the inn at Canterbury told the Pardoner that she was looking for a loving husband. Next morning the Pilgrims visited the shrine of Saint Thomas, and spent the rest of the day relaxing. At night the Pardoner sneaked into Kit’s bedroom but found her boyfriend there already. A fight followed and the Pardoner just managed to escape to the guard dog’s basket while the dog slept in his bed!
Next day the Pilgrims began their journey home, and were entertained by the Merchant who told a second tale, ‘The Tale of Beryn’. Beryn was a young nobleman who wished to be a merchant and not a knight. The story recounted his misadventures in foreign lands, partly due to his unfortunate gambling habit but also to the strange laws found in foreign parts! Beryn was only saved from a cruel fate by the help of a Jester.
If you really want to read The Canterbury Tales you would be well advised to look at the much later edition that the Library also owns. This is the excellent Neville Coghill translation, published in 1986 and illustrated in full colour! And it definitely does NOT include the stories of Gamelyn or Beryn or the Pardoner and Tapster, none of which were actually written by Chaucer!