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Caxton’s Second Edition: Does Quantity Outweigh Quality?

I have approached Caxton’s Second Edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with slight cynicism in the past. Coming hot off the excitement of studying the grandiose Ellesmere manuscript, seeing the meat and bones of the familiar set of tales in such a different skin was something of a letdown for me. No ornate champ initials, no color beyond the rubricated initials here and there, and certainly no personal flare from the producer. My first impression of this edition from the British Library was that it was one-dimensional and simple. I asked myself questions like “Why would Caxton need to make a second edition when he already produced the first-ever printed edition?” and “How profit-motivated was Caxton?” and, of course, “Why is nearly every page printed crooked?!”

[image description: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton, 1483, sig. a.v. verso and a.v.i. Recto via the British Library. Example of the crooked prints in Caxton’s Second Edition. Notice how they are not centered on the page on either side.]

I am used to using my own modern 21st-century view of how capitalistic intentions bleed into the book-making industry for the sake of a sizable profit. I used this as the lens through which I viewed Caxton’s editions. I failed to see the book simply for what it was before moving on to anything deeper. So to get a better perspective on the bigger picture at stake, let me rewind my previous argument, disassemble my assumptions on Caxtons motives, and start at the very beginning.

What Caxton’s second edition boils down to– the reason he ever thought to put it into production– is simply this: it is an improvement on his first version. In Caxton’s Prologue, he states that a “gentlyman” approached him about the inaccuracy of his first printed edition, saying that his father had a version that was “very trewe, and according vn-to hys owen first book by hym made, and says more yf i wold enprynte it agayn he wold gete me the same book for a copye”(Caxton, sig. a.ii.r). After having this brought to his attention, he relays that “Wryters haue abrygyd it and many thynges left out / And in some places haue sette certayn versys / that he neuer made ne sette in hys booke.” (Caxton, sig. a.ii.r) In saying this, it becomes clear that his motives at the very least were exactly what I have already said: to make an improved and corrected version of the first edition. Keeping in mind that Caxton is the only one ever at this time who has printed The Canterbury Tales in moveable type (see Kay’s blog post for more information on Caxton’s trailblazing in the western printing world), there is an acknowledged existence of handwritten editions of The Canterbury Tales already out there. This means that dozens of author interpretations and handwritings already clouded the original text. With so many different tiny little tweaks from manuscript to manuscript, it is easy to see how the original word-for-word text could quickly become lost in translation. 

There is, however, evidence that this may all be “publisher’s talk” (Bordalejo, 134) from Caxton. Barbara Bordaleio states in The Text of Caxton’s Second Edition of the Canterbury Tales that there are “around three thousand places of variation between Cx1 [Caxton’s first edition] and Cx2 [his second edition]: approximately one for every six lines of text” but that number “refers only to ‘minor adjustments’” aka “adjustments [that] have been made to the text that change the wording, word order or the morphology of the word.” (Bordalejo, 134)  So why would someone go to all the trouble to re-hire all the necessary people with the right book-making skills to print the same text with only minor tweaks here and there? If the first edition was so great and well-received, why restart the entire process again just to make some minor changes? I suspect it is for the same reason there are nearly ten Fast and Furious movies in existence (and likely more to come), and the same reason Shakespeare’s plays find themselves retold again and again: what found success from the power of authorship once will sell again. 

[image description: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton, sig. a.ii.r. Via The British Library. Beginning page of Caxton’s prologue.]

The Canterbury Tales were already famous. People knew the stories well and cared about it’s accuracy to how Chaucer originally wrote them. “Chaucer’s poetry… in a quite literal sense, is the product of his fifteenth-century readers and writers” (Kuskin, 122) who kept his stories alive and in oral circulation. There were “no ‘foul papers’ for future editors to sift through, no evidence of his supervision of a single manuscript.” (Kuskin, 122) Chaucer was less so a real person than a symbol of authorship encompassing the stories that people loved so dearly, which further disrupts Caxton’s claim in the prologue that he wanted to document the “true” version of the Tales. The British Library’s background page for Caxton’s Tales even says that “The Tales were already established as a well-loved classic, and it seems a shrewd choice for Caxton to make his work the first big project for his English book production. He could expect it to sell well.” (British Library, “Treasures in Full”)

I can’t help but bring my own opinion of this edition to the table as well. It’s, well… a bit sloppy and minimal. I would think that if someone were to go to all the added trouble and expense of reproducing essentially the same book en masse that there would be a little more pizazz to this new-and-improved edition. And yes, there are some lovely woodblock illustrations added to this edition (which was another milestone for Caxton to put under his belt for having the first printed and illustrated version of the tales) and that is a rather costly investment to make on a book. However, the quality of these illustrations is not of the highest standard, at least when it comes to the application onto the page. Many of them are printed crooked and with different pressure (which is apparent from the square outline that appears and reappears around certain illustrations). Each pilgrim gets an illustration at the start of their tale, but many of them depict the same character with slight changes to notate a change in pilgrim, hinting at another place Caxton saw an opportunity to spend as little as possible while still maintaining the novelty of his new edition. There is no variation with lettering or differentiation between each set of tales. 

[image description: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton, sig. a.iii. and a.iiii. via The British Library. Example of the square edging that appears around many of the woodblock prints.)

It is an undeniable fact that, through what we know of the impact of authorship, “Chaucer and his Canterbury tales had evidently achieved a status which made it seem important to represent as precisely as possible Chaucer’s original words.”(British Library, “Treasures in Full”)  Caxton would not have bothered to entirely reprint a new edition of just any text of the time. That being said, because of the authorship Chaucer had with medieval society, the second edition of the most popular and retold stories was guaranteed to be a selling success. While it is an improvement by tweaking the wording here and there to better match the “true” Chaucerian version and adding a multitude of illustrations, it is not much of one. To the modern eye who has seen countless reprints and retellings produced in hoards for the sake of turning a profit, it is all too easy to see the larger motives for Caxton’s second edition: a huge paycheck and a big slice of the Chaucerian-athority pie.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales. London: William Caxton, 1483. British Library. URL

Bordalejo, Barbara, “The Text of Caxton’s Second Edition of The Canterbury Tales”. The International Journal of English Studies. URL

Kuskin, William. Symbolic Caxton: Literary Culture and Print Capitalism, University of Notre Dame Press, 02/15/2008. 

Treasures in Full, Caxton’s Chaucer. British Library. URL