Friday, 19 April 2013

Fragments of "The Reeves Tale", printed by William Caxton

“Incunabula” is the name given to fifteenth-century books printed by moveable type. The library of Worcester Cathedral is fortunate to have a collection of forty five such early printed books. One of the rarest items in the incunabula collection is fragments of “The Reeve’s Tale” from William Caxton’s first edition of The Canterbury Tales. These fragments were printed in Caxton’s Westminster workshop in 1478. The fragments exist today in the form of two folios, and are accompanied and bound with a letter from the donor in 1917, Mr M. Tomkinson of Franche Hall, Kidderminster. 

Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
The work of Chaucer was already popular by the time Caxton came to set up shop in Westminster, and was available in numerous manuscript editions. That Caxton chose to print the work of a well-established English author evidences his entrepreneurial skills. Confident that The Canterbury Tales had enough of an audience, Caxton printed around three hundred copies of his first edition. Other books Caxton published in English (The History of Reynart the Foxe, Troilus and Criseyde and Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur) further suggest that his printed texts catered to the established literary tastes of late medieval Londoners.

Photograph by permission of the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)


Although the technology Caxton used to produce books was revolutionary, the picture of the fragments above demonstrates how the appearances of Caxton’s incunabula were still greatly influenced by, and reminiscent of, the manuscript tradition.

That is to say, throughout his career as a printer Caxton used only gothic typefaces because they closest resembled the scribal hands most commonly used in late medieval manuscripts. As a printer in London, Caxton would have been in direct competition with the market for manuscripts. Therefore it is likely that he consciously used typefaces that would have been familiar to his target audience, so as to maximize shop sales. For example, the typeface he uses in the fragments of “The Reeve’s Tale” above is called lettre bâtarde, and is based upon a Burgundian script. Edmund Childs notes that despite Caxton’s enterprising nature, he might be considered a less imaginative printer than some of his European counterparts because there is little variation between, and development of, the typefaces he used from 1474-91 (William Caxton: A portrait in the background, London: Northwood Publications, 1976, p. 131). This picture of the fragments also shows initials that were drawn later by hand in red ink, after the main body of the text had been printed by moveable type. The use of red ink is again a nod towards the manuscript tradition, in which scribes most frequently use red ink to make textual additions and corrections.
If you wish to learn more about Caxton and his influence upon English book production and the English language you may well enjoy listening to this BBC Radio 4 episode of “In Our Time”. Click on the link below.

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