Caxton's Canterbury Tales: The British Library Copies (2003): Editor’s Introduction

Barbara Bordalejo (De Montfort University)

This is the fifth electronic publication of the Canterbury Tales Project. The aim of this project is to research the textual history of the Tales, based on transcription of the witnesses and the collation, analysis and publication of these transcripts by a variety of electronic means. The project officially started in 1993 when Norman Blake, Peter Robinson and Elizabeth Solopova signed a publication agreement with Cambridge University Press. Prior to this, the Leverhulme Trust had funded Robinson’s first experiments with computer assisted collation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, experiments which were eventually published as The Wife of Bath’s Prologue on CD-ROM (Robinson, 1996). Since then, the Canterbury Tales Project continues to produce important research on the textual history of the Tales. The publication of The General Prologue on CD-ROM (the project’s second publication) represented a further step towards a better understanding of the development of this work. This publication presented not only transcriptions and images of all the fifteenth century witnesses of the poem, but offered detailed explanations about the Project’s tools and their use.

In parallel to these ‘multi-text’ publications, the Project produced a second kind of CD-ROM. A year after The General Prologue on CD-ROM appeared, the first full-colour digital facsimile of the Hengwrt manuscript was published (research edition, 2000, edited by Estelle Stubbs, and standard edition, 2003, edited by Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan: these are the project’s third and fourth publications). Both the research edition and the standard edition offer images and transcriptions of this very important manuscript. The research edition provides tools and further information as a means of helping scholars to reach a better understanding of the Hengwrt Chaucer.

The present publication relates to this second kind of CD-ROM: rather than presenting all the witnesses of a single tale, it emphasises the importance of particular witnesses of the text. This CD-ROM differs from the Hengwrt Chaucer in that it stresses the importance of the relationship between two complete witnesses of the Canterbury Tales . The material made available here could help us to reach a better understanding of Caxton’s editorial practices, which in turn might help illuminate the world of the first printing presses.

In 1999, I was awarded a bursary by De Montfort University to study the manuscript source of Caxton’s second edition of the Canterbury Tales . This research required the transcription, collation and analysis of both of Caxton’s editions and a further collation of these with other witnesses of the text. For this doctoral thesis I produced the first complete collation of all the transcriptions produced by the Canterbury Tales Project. This collation of the Tales not only allowed me to understand part of the process of production of Cx2 but also helped me to uncover details about the nature of its manuscript source (details about some of the results of this research can be found in the article “Notes on the Caxton Canterbury Tales editions, and their place in the textual tradition of the Tales”, included on this CD-ROM).

The Canterbury Tales Project offered support by providing methods and tools that had been tested and used for some years and allowed me to use them for my research. For this reason, the transcription principles used in this publication comply with those outlined by Peter Robinson and Elizabeth Solopova in the “Transcription Guidelines” (1993). Indeed, the original transcriptions used as a base for this CD-ROM include special characters normally employed for the Canterbury Tales Project’s transcriptions. These special characters have been normalised for this publication, but the original encoding can still be seen using the option “See XML.” In fact, the collation view occasionally shows as different words that appear to have the same spelling. This is due to the underlying differences between the crossed ‘h’ and uncrossed ‘h’, and the tailed ‘d’ and untailed crossed ‘d’, for example. These differences are present in the transcripts and so in the XML, but are not represented in the font we use for this CD. Again, the underlying differences can be seen in the XML view in the transcript pages. Because the transcription system was originally conceived for use with manuscripts, occasionally it has not been completely adequate for incunabula. The main problem arises from the fact that, while it is relatively easy to distinguish printing types (in comparison with hand written text), some of these differences are not fully exploited by the current Canterbury Tales Project transcription principles. For example, while the Canterbury Tales Project transcription system distinguishes two types of ‘d’ (with and without tail), it does not allow the distinction of different shapes of ‘r’ (ragged or roman) or ‘a’ (single or double compartment), etc. When the distinctions were available, they have proven to be useful for bibliographical research (see “Notes”). For this reason, the Canterbury Tales Project retains for incunabula some of the graphetes which current guidelines leave out from later manuscripts.1

An important fact that must be brought to the attention of the reader concerns the numbering of the images in Cx1. For practical reasons, the images of the text were numbered from 001 onwards, continuously to the end. This creates a discrepancy between the foliation and the image marking. The discrepancy increases after folio 266 since this is missing in the Royal copy of Cx1.


I am grateful to De Montfort University for funding my research on the manuscript source of Caxton’s second edition of the Canterbury Tales and to the AHRB, which provides the current funding for the Canterbury Tales Project. The transcriptions for fragment seven were kindly made available by the Canterbury Tales Project team at Brigham Young University, led by Paul Thomas. Paul has been always supportive and helpful with this work and many other tasks undertaken by the CTP, as well as truly generous in the use of the Brigham Young transcriptions for my De Montfort University doctoral thesis.

I would like to thank my colleagues at the Canterbury Tales Project, at De Montfort University, Leicester, for their dedication to this work. Andrew West, our computer expert, has always been helpful, even when my requests seemed unnecessary or even unreasonable. I am especially grateful for being able to call him my friend. I am indebted to Satoko Tokunaga for her honest manner and for so many unreserved suggestions to improve my work. Her generosity in sharing the results of her own research is an example to us all, but most of all I appreciate that she allows me to see myself through different eyes. I am also grateful to Professor Toshiyuki Takamiya and to Mr. Masaaki Kashimura for providing me with high resolution images to illustrate my argument about the compositors. Special thanks are due to Lotte Hellinga for her thoughtful advice, which helped to improve the ‘Notes’ article in this publication. As always, where there are errors after all the help I have had from others, they are mine alone.

This work would not have been possible without the help and support of the general editors, Peter Robinson and Norman Blake. I am especially grateful to Peter Robinson, my De Montfort University supervisor, for sharing his knowledge with me, for having given me the opportunity to undertake this work and for supporting me in quests that others deemed impossible. I am grateful to my professors at New York University, and especially to my thesis director David Hoover for always believing in me and going to such lengths to help me even when I appeared to be careless and undeserving. I will forever wonder why such a great person took any interest in me and my work.

Finally, I would like to thank my family and friends for their love and support.

Works Cited

Lloyd-Morgan, Ceridwen, ed. 2003. The Hengwrt Chaucer Standard Edition on CD-ROM/Golygiad Safonol Chaucer Hengwrt ar CD. Leicester: Scholarly Digital Editions.

Robinson, Peter M. W. and Elizabeth Solopova. 1993. Guidelines for Transcription of the Manuscripts of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. In The Canterbury Tales Project Occasional Papers. Edited by Norman Blake and Peter Robinson. Vol. 1. Oxford: Office for Humanities Communication. 19-52. [also published in Robinson 1996 and Solopova 2000]

Robinson, Peter M. W., ed. 1996. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue on CD-ROM. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elizabeth Solopova, ed. 2000. The General Prologue on CD-ROM. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stubbs, Estelle, ed. 2000. The Hengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile. Leicester: Scholarly Digital Editions.


1.For example, from the transcripts in the Project’s forthcoming publication The Nun’s Priest’s Tale on CD-ROM, edited by Paul R. Thomas.