This year, we celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of William Caxton, the man who introduced the printing press to England. Caxton (1422-1491) was a wealthy trader whose business took him to Bruges and Hamburg. There he marvelled at the new printing presses, and decided to bring one to England. He translated (or at least oversaw the translation) of 26 works from Greek, Latin and French.
The most famous works published by Caxton were Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1483) and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). The Warwickshire knight, Sir Thomas Mallory, had been dead for some years by the time his Arthurian writings came into the hands of Caxton.
Mallory had written eight separate Arthurian tales (a fact which only came to light in 1934), derived from different sources. There were various contradictions between those stories, coming as they did from a mixture of French, English and Welsh materials, all of which had been circulating widely in many manuscript copies and contained tales which varied from one another. Caxton edited them into one single book – and it was Caxton who coined the title, Le Morte d’Arthur, for the resulting amalgam.
Caxton appears to have been a great lover of the old chivalric ideals and the days of knights in armour. But times were changing, and guns, gunpowder and artillery had at last made their way to Europe. The Knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a noble soul, but shabbily dressed. He clearly represents the fading glory of the “days of old when knights were bold”. Mallory himself, who died in 1471, was one of the last of the old knights. He had fought in various wars, apparently some of them foreign, and died in prison for having sided with the wrong cause in the Wars of the Roses. (The story that he raped a woman named Smythe is a misinterpretation of raptus, and rather than referring to a rape, it concerns his having her removed and forcibly restrained as his men searched her house during a time of war.) The underlying themes of Mallory’s works were of the conflict of the old ways of the faction around Gawain (originally a pre-feudal Welsh hero named Gwalchmel) and the new ways of the Lancelot faction at the Court of Arthur. Mallory purged the Arthurian material of many of its mystical aspects and eliminated the “harrowing of Hell” motif which had come from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The Grail legends were suppressed to a considerable extent and emphasis given rather to the knightly quest and to battles, loves, and tragedies. But throughout there is the melancholy of the old ways becoming corrupted and lost. And that brings us back to Chaucer’s old-fashioned Knight and the pilgrims.
In 1483 Caxton brought out Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for which he commissioned a set of 22 woodcuts depicting the main pilgrims described in Chaucer’s work. Since Chaucer died in 1400 and these woodcuts were made only 83 years later, we may presume a good deal of accuracy in the images. When the famous historian John Stowe brought out his edition of Chaucer’s works in 1561, he managed to obtain Caxton’s original woodcut blocks, which had passed down through Caxton’s assistant. Caxton’s images were thus reproduced for a last time in that 1561 edition.
Four-and-a-half centuries later, we can now see them again.
Our book, Chaucer’s Pilgrims, is the result. We had to do a lot of photoshopping to remove the show-through from the other sides of all the pages, and clean various splodges and stains to match the original 1483 images. The book shows in succession each picture of the pilgrim and beneath it the Middle English text (in the 1561 version, never before reprinted), with a modern translation interlineated so that one can read straight through in modern language and then go back and wallow at leisure in the richness of the Middle English original text.
At the back of the book are another set of images of the pilgrims published in the edition of 1532 which were inspired by, but inferior to, those of 1483. And there are two excellent further woodcut images which were done for the 1526 edition and which were reprinted in the 1550 edition, which we fortunately have. So all of these have been included in the book as well, which means that we have reproduced all of the published images of the pilgrims from the 15th and 16th centuries. The work is thus a scholarly resource, and has notes about the editions.
We have also found old detailed descriptions of the holy shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral (with its prominent ruby donated by the French king) and of the Prior’s Hall where the pilgrims dined. And we have reproduced images of medieval pilgrim relics found at the bottom of the Thames in the 19th century, relating to Canterbury, and some other material. There are numerous endnotes clarifying obscure aspects of Chaucer’s text.
For the first time we have been able to identify correctly one of the locations where the Knight fought in a battle, which no previous scholar had been able to do. Much invaluable background information is found in the endnotes, some of it quaint, such as the identification of the Monk’s fur called “grice” by Chaucer. Here is our explanation: “This fur was the back-fur of the Northern squirrel, extremely rare and expensive, and King Henry III had his garments edged with it, as the scholar Walter Skeat informs us in his publication of 1900. The zoological question might be: what exactly was ‘the Northern squirrel’, and is it now extinct? It presumably cannot be the red squirrel, because this fur is described as being grey, and there were no grey squirrels in England at that time.” And as for “galingale”, the full herbal details are given, and for “marchpane” we explain that it was a confection made of pistachios, almonds, and honey. But when it comes to sweetness, nothing excels that of Chaucer’s text itself. We hope that this book will be useful to all pilgrims, Christians, lovers of literature and art, historians of costume, and above all, as an introduction to Chaucer, for which we recommend its use in schools and universities. The best way to get people interested in Chaucer is to introduce them to the “cast of characters”. Our book does not contain their tales. But the characters themselves include many eccentric people, and Chaucer was not shy of a mischievous sense of humour.
Our newly published Chaucer’s Pilgrims may be purchased for £9.99 from www.eglantynebooks.com and booksellers
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund