Cultural Influence and Meaning of the Canterbury Tales

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Chaucer’s Tales of Canterbury has proven to be a loved book in medieval literature, while in the early 1400’s the tales only existed as a manuscript they were later subjected to printing and redistribution in the 1500’s as they rose in popularity. Here, the manufacturing of 1400’s manuscripts and woodblock printing will be discussed in relation to the Canterbury Tales, as well as the cultural influence the 1500’s had on print manufacturing and printing publication. Finally, a look into the overall structure of both scripts will show the scribal workmanship that goes into producing a lavish manuscript in the early 1500’s.

In order to make a manuscript, the contextual inner workings must first be completed. The Tales of Canterbury were made from vellum, typically calf skin, which must be first bound into quires. The quire must then be pricked as to attach them to one another, as well as to keep them in order. Following this, the pages must be ruled to ensure that the scribe stays within correct writing margins. Ruling was most commonly done with a pen, ink, and a very light hand. On paper the ruling can still be visible depending on how heavy it was originally marked. Scribes would then use this ruling as a guide to copy the original text and put it onto paper, furthering the ability to make many copies of one manuscript given enough scribes to do so. While a numbering system became popular in the 1400’s, it is not seen in the manuscript here. Once the copying of the original work was finished, the manuscript was then illuminated to add informative illustrations related to the story and would further add detail to the pages. The Tales of Canterbury is famous for its well illuminated pages, consisting of colours such as blue, red, and green. Flowers can be seen decorating the margins of the pages, alongside well embellished initials that often-depicted Chaucer himself. These extremely embellished pages were used in order to separate the stories within the manuscript, often containing the prologue to the next section. To ensure the book was well kept, flyleaves would be attached at both ends to protect the parchment from worming and general damage from being handled. These flyleaves were heavily used in expensive manuscripts and often told of great work being put into the script. In the 1400’s the process of making a manuscript was intensive and required a high degree of skill to consecutively pull off. However, coming into the late 1400’s and early 1500’s The Tales of Canterbury became subjected to a more modern system for manufacturing scripts, woodblock printing.

When it came to a more mass-produced approach matrixes were made. A matrix is made from carving a reverse letter on top of a steel bar, striking it into soft metal (typically copper), creating an impression. Molten metal was then poured on top of the matrix to make a casting of the letter, typically multiple copies of letters were made to assure a full text could be printed. Compositors would then take these letters and arrange them on a composing stick to form the words and sentences. After a proof was made of the print to ensure there were no corrections that needed to be made printing was continued. Typically, ink was applied to the letters and a piece of dampened paper was placed atop of it, the paper would be rubbed to ensure proper transfer of ink and the process would be repeated for however many pages needed. However, the printing press also came into use in the late 1400 to early 1500 century, allowing for a more efficient work speed when it came to mass producing manuscripts (atlas). For pages that were meant to be illuminated with decorations or drawings, woodblock printing would be used for these designs. Woodblocks would be carved out by carvers into specific designs and in a similar fashion to printing the page itself, ink would be applied to the woodblock and the page would be applied on top of it, once again rubbing the page to ensure proper transfer of ink. After printing, pages would be hung to dry before being assembled (special lib). This was then taken to the imposition stage, in which the pages were arranged in proper numerical order based on numbers or catchwords that were on the pages to arrange and fold the pages before making them into signatures.

The final stage in this production is the binding of the book. It was common for the book to be bound after being purchased by the owner, instead of the manufacturing company binding it for them. The quires would already be sewn, and the new owner could customize the book to their liking, whether that be adding flyleaves, hardcover, softcover, or decorations to embellish the script. However, the service of binding and adding a cover to one’s book could also be paid for (digital). In conclusion, these are only two types of manufacturing that Chaucer’s Tales of Canterbury have seen over the period of 1400-1500, it is essential to understand how manufacturing of scripts and books happened before looking at the respective time period in which these methods took place and the respective culture around this.

In regard to the 1400’s, Chaucer was extremely particular over his texts. He was incredibly anxious that his texts should be preserved and presented as he made them and not corrected further. This was made evident in Chaucer’s letter to one of his scribes, accusing him of corrupting his texts by poorly copying them. Famously, Chaucer had a scribe called Adam, whom he scolded greatly for not copying his work word for word and changing the text when Chaucer believed that it should not be altered. This interaction can be seen in “CHAUCERS WORDES UNTO ADAM, HIS OWNE SCRIVEYN” , in which it is very apparent that as the author Chaucer took his own work extremely seriously. To which he believed that his own scribe should be held accountable for his negligence as he had to re-correct his scribes work. This behaviour shows the position Chaucer saw himself in, a highly regarded man with workings that needed to stay within the context he himself wrote them in. It is clear that Chaucer is regarded at this status as through the illumination of The Canterbury Tales, he is depicted in a wealthy standing. Chaucer can be seen in these initials wearing long wealthy clothes, carrying purses or a well embellished book, or depicted writing or reading. This view not only carried over into the illumination process behind initials but, the surrounding embellishment of the pages. A well embellished and decorated page was symbolic of a well-respected author and the work within it. These well embellished manuscripts were not only depicting the author but those who carried them. Well decorated and bound manuscripts were evident of a wealthy status of the person, as ownership of manuscripts became more widely available, the opportunity arose to show one’s wealth with the illumination of an owned manuscript.

Ultimately, a person’s social standing had an influence on manuscript production in regard to illumination and overall quality. This influence can be seen in Chaucer’s social standing among people as an author but, also in a wealthy person’s standing in having a manuscript be made. Stepping into the 1500’s, The Canterbury tales became incredibly popular and this can be seen in the many surviving manuscript copies from this era, such as; The Canterbury Tales printed by Richard Pynson 1492, and a secondary print by Richard Pynson published in 1526, containing The Boke of Caunterbury Tales (special). These publications were manufactured using the woodblock and printing press technique however, this created entire new iterations for Chaucer’s work as through different scribes and differing translations, the Tales of Canterbury were altered and lost bits of the original meaning. Caxton’s version had been closely followed by Pynson but as time progressed language also started to change, as Pynson changed ‘hem’ to ‘them’ and so on (special). Furthermore, while book ownership and embellishment were still an important element in the 15th century, the rise of mass-production made them more widely available to the general public. The prints made in this century were typically only black ink, as it was easier and more affordable to do them this way. While the illustrations were still present in the book, they often varied from the descriptions that Chaucer himself gave. They were most likely designed as stock figures to fill the pages and were often reused throughout different printing publications. We continuously see a furthering deviation from the authors original intention in the Canterbury Tales, as the illumination no longer bears the same illustrative details. Books were slowly becoming a regular thing to have and to share, especially with Chaucer’s Tales as they were typically read out loud. This ties into the culture surrounding culture at the time as less emphasis was put on the embellishment of the book as it began to shift to the book’s contents and the story at hand- rather than embellishing the author and oneself.

Here, a late 14th century early 15th century manuscript of the Ellesmere Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) will be examined. This manuscript is an example of high workmanship, with well illuminated pages and most notably, illustrations; including Chaucer himself. This is indicative of a very expensive product, most likely ordered by a wealthy patron. The manuscript is made and written on vellum, an animal skin that was most likely sourced from a calf. It has several fly leaves both at the front and back of the book to protect it from damage, as well as signatures following these pages- most likely previous owners. The manuscript is bound in a traditional format, with the quires being lined up and sewn to one another. This manuscript was most likely ruled with ink, as some pages still bear markings of the red ink that was meant to guide a scribe’s writing. The text is said to be from a single scribe however, the illustrations were most likely done by several artists. The first general prologue strongly depicts the amount of work that went into illuminating this manuscript. It is strongly indicative of a later gothic and a Humanistic approach, with heavy use of flourished initials, decorative frames surrounding the text, inhabited initials (most famously the ones depicting Chaucer himself), Celtic knots, gold gilding within the borders and initials, well flourished partial borders, illustrations of the characters on prologue pages, or illustrations of Chaucer once again, and catchwords.

Throughout these prologues one can expect to see the bold colours of red and blue decoration, complimented by the gold gilding. Within the borders the imagery of nature is seen in the form of vines or flowers, with Celtic knots alongside on a few of these pages. The illustrative men on horseback are seen throughout the Knight’s Tale, well decorated and embellished with lively inks to depict the characters Chaucer set out to describe. It also contains twenty-two images of the pilgrims which are again found at the beginning of the tale, in the prologue. However, these prologue pages are the most well embellished through the manuscript as the script still carries a great deal of emphasis on the text itself. Pages following the prologue do not have decorated borders, nor are they embellished with illustrations. Instead, they bear smaller decorated initials that serve as a break between text rather than a decorative element. As mentioned previously, this style of manuscript falls into a Late Gothic, Humanistic style, while the decorated text still remains as the main focus of this manuscript. In relation to the text and the story, The Canterbury Tales survives as fragments and as such the manuscripts that were made after his death deviated from his intended story. (special) Few of Chaucer’s manuscripts have actually survived from his lifetime, leading to copies of his work after death where he no longer had a strong influence over how his texts were copied and how they were distributed. However, the Ellesmere Manuscript still remains as one of the most famous and well-kept scripts of The Canterbury Tales, with well illuminated pages done by talented illustrators continuing to mesmerize its viewers for centuries.

Ultimately, a shift in book culture had a heavy influence on Chaucer’s work and how it was brought into the everyday man’s life. Manuscripts present with labour heavy work with a much larger team needed to copy and illustrate, well illuminated manuscripts came with a hefty price tag attached and notable skill had to go into the manufacturing of it. With printing mass production slowly rose, and the same notable quality of well coloured and decorated pages was lost in a wash of black inks and repetitive woodblock prints. The change in the manuscripts and books is reflective of an ever changing style throughout the 14th and 15th century however, The Canterbury Tales still live on as an influential piece of English literature, an influence that has lived on for many centuries.


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