This exhibit is a collaboration of Tisch Library Special Collections, Tufts Technology Services, and students in History 96: History of the Book, taught by Professor Alisha Rankin at Tufts University, Fall 2018.
Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales of the late 14th century is an emblematic part of British literary culture and one of the most renowned Middle English texts. His works maintained their celebrated status throughout the centuries and in London in 1602, Adam Islip printed the second edition of editor Thomas Speght’s The Workes of ovr Ancient and learned English poet, Geffrey Cavcher, newly Printed. The first page is decorated with an ornately illustrated frontispiece of Chaucer's progenie facing the title page which frames the title, contents and print information. The subsequent page contains the dedication by editor Thomas Speght to Sir Robert Cecil, followed by two letters, a poem “The Reader to Geffrey Chaucer”, Chaucer’s “Progenie” and biography, the “arguments” of the works and re-prints from William Thynne’s 1532 edition, after which the book finally reaches the prologues of the tales. Following the tales, the book includes information on Chaucer's life, a list of explanations for “the old and obscure words in Chaucer”, translations for the French and Latin phrases and finally an errata leaf. While Chaucer always remained a greatly acclaimed poet, by the late Elizabethan era his Middle English diction had become increasingly inaccessible to readers. In the ‘paratexts’ of The Workes, the editor thus reveals his commitment to expanding general readers’ understanding and appreciation for Chaucer through an elucidating book in hopes of immortalising the poet and his works. This dedicatory letter by Speght to Sir Robert Cecil, detailing the list of texts included in the book, is placed first after the title page to elevate the status of the sponsor and thus underlines the importance of dedications in the early modern book industry.