Tales of olde: 1478 Chaucer classic is a jewel in St. Vincent rare book room

Tthe worn pages inside the marbled cover of a first edition of the “Canterbury Tales” book are carefully kept in a special slipcase at Saint Vincent College in Unity.

The book is dated 1478.

In the climate-controlled rare book room of the Verostko Center for Art and Latimer Family Library, the pages are a harbinger of what was to come. “The Canterbury Tales,” written by Geoffrey Chaucer, was the first book printed in English in England, said Andrew Julo, director and curator of the center.

It is not easy to read. The words are in Middle English, Julo said, and the font is meant to look like writing. Red letters that start paragraphs were done by hand.

“This period of printing … there was a desire to make printing look like handwriting,” Julo said. “It is very difficult to read.”

“The Canterbury Tales” is based in England and follows the stories of 30 pilgrims from different social backgrounds as they tour the country and participate in a storytelling competition, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. There are 24 stories in the book, which became hugely popular.

It was an important piece for the development of the English language, Julo said.

“This is really the beginning of the dissemination of essentially the written word,” he said.

As with any new innovation, there was some fear surrounding it, but the book opened doors for education and entertainment at the time. It was also a new opportunity for profitability around the written word. The book was printed by William Caxton, making him a central figure in language development and increased accessibility to it, Julo said.

Harvard University has a course and website, accessible to the public, on Chaucer that covers “The Canterbury Tales.” The pages there include the Middle English wording of the original text and a modern translation, as well as a guide on how to read the author’s works.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta by email at rsignorini@triblive.com or via Twitter .

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: