Book History

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer was born around the year 1343 in London as the son of a well off wine merchant. He initially worked as a page and noblewoman’s servant before serving with King Edward III’s army during the Hundred Years War. He was captured while under the command of Lionel of Antwerp at the siege of Rheims, and was ransomed for Sixteen Pounds in 1360. After being freed, Chaucer traveled between several European countries before marrying Phillipa de Roet in 1366, a lady in waiting to the Queen. Together they had approximately four children during the time at which he was studying law and acting as an official envoy of the king. It is speculated he began to write at this time, but indications are that his most prolific spell was during his twelve year tenure as Comptroller of Customs in London, which lasted from 1374 until 1386. The most famous of his works, The Canterbury Tales, was believed to have been written beginning in this period. He continued to work in various roles under the patronage of the king, ranging from forestry and parliamentary positions to experiments in alchemy and astronomy. Chaucer suffered a fall from grace when King Richard II was overthrown in 1399, and his death the following year on the twenty fifth of October, 1400 has often been theorized to have been an act of murder by supporters of Henry IV. Chaucer left a legacy of some ten major works and seventeen short poems in addition to many other documents, all in the vernacular Middle English rather than the Latin or French of the High Court. As such, he helped establish the ‘legitimacy’ of Middle English as a written language, garnering himself the titles “Father of English Literature” and “The Greatest English Poet of the Middle Ages.”
Bibliographic Information
This work was published in 1602 by Adam Islip, a London printer who operated from 1594 until 1638, the year before he passed away. This is one of eight works he published in 1602, alongside works dealing with astronomy, Machiavelli, law reports, and other topics. His career total for printing was 132 different works in 402 publications, approximately 1,500 of which survive in libraries today. This particular work is one of four surviving copies from its printing batch, and has a total page count of 452. This includes a forty eight page forward section with dedications and notes, along with the main 337 pages of Chaucer’s text and twenty seven pages of appendices and errata. The work’s dedication was written by Thomas Speght, a schoolmaster who had edited the works of Chaucer in 1598. The patron to which this letter is written for was Sir Robert Cecil, a Knight and the Queen’s Secretary. Also present is an ‘anonymous’ Introduction to the Reader, which was also most likely composed by Speght due to its mention of Francis Thynn, a competing editor of Chaucer’s works who was heavily critical of Speght and his efforts. Also of note for this particular volume is the presence of notes in the margins from the book’s 1773 owner, John Phillipps. This may be the learned physician and politician John Phillipps of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who lived from 1736 until 1801, but a handwriting comparison would be needed to confirm this.
Physical Description
This tome is 2.375 inches thick, 12.875 inches tall, and 9.125 inches wide. The binding, which is probably post-initial printing given the gold leafed date on the spine and marbled end sheets, is done in thick leather. There are impressed patterns on the front and back cover of a box within a box, with lines connecting the corners on the inner box to the outer one. The spine has gold leaf detailing at the top and bottom, along with two red dyed leather bands in between the ridges of the underlying binding. The upper of these bands has “Chaucer” in gold leaf, while the lower displays the aforementioned date of 1602. It is also interesting to note that the base leather color is significantly darker on the back of the book compared to the equal tones of the spine and front cover, possibly from an overexposure to a dye or other compound during the binding process. The binding itself is done with four evenly spaced bands covered by protective ridges in the leather of the cover. There is some black residue visible on pages bear the binding points, indicating either a coating on the material or possible decay. The pages are of linen origin, set with a horizontal grain. The first and last few pages exhibit the most wear, and are likely of a lover grade paper. What is especially interesting are the strips affixed to the margins of some pages in a manner so that they have a vertical grain flow. The paper appears to be of the same make as the pages, indicating that this may have been done early in the book’s existence. The one large oddity is the sizable paper rectangle adhered to the back of the final errata page in a cross-grain manner. This patches no damage and there is no text on this page, so its exact purpose is a mystery.
Illustrator: Unknown
The illustrations within this work appear to be woodcuts that are unmarked as to their creator. The exception to this seems to be the piece depicting Chaucer’s family tree, which does make reference to Thomas Occseue as the one responsible for the central image of Chaucer. However, this might be referring to the artist whose depiction of Chaucer was referenced by the designer of the woodblock.
Publisher: Adam Islip
This work was published and printed by Adam Islip of London in 1602. Islip had a printing career spanning some forty four years and resulting in 402 publications of 132 different works in no less than five different languages. The range of Islip’s choices for publication was varied, as seen in the discourses on law, Machiavelli, and astronomy that he printed in the same year as Chaucer. The prolific nature of his printing business has resulted in the fact that 373 years since he released his last book, roughly 1,500 of his publications made between 1594 and 1638 survive in library collections, with others existing in private hands as well. Also of note is the editor, Thomas Speght. A Cambridge schoolmaster with a passion for ‘the antiquities’ who sought not only to preserve Chaucer’s writings, but the known history of the man himself. As such, he focused not only on translating Chaucer’s major works and poetry which had previously never been translated, but a glossary of terms and idioms present throughout the texts to allow for better understanding among modern readers, and, most importantly, a biography of Chaucer’s known life as well. Most of what is known of Speght comes from this work and his introduction, but he is viewed by the University of London as one of the most important early scholars of Chaucer.
Original manuscripts of some of Chaucer’s works do remain, such as some of his poetry. His fame and popularity has caused a widespread dissemination of his works to occur with print, making the texts within this compilation appear in some form or another in most libraries, with some electronic versions existing as well. Of the 1602 Islip printing, four copies are known to exist in libraries, with 315 directly related editions composing an additional 2,295 books known to be in modern library holdings.
“Author: Adam Islip, Year: 1602.” Worldcat. A%22Islip, Adam%22&fq=+yr%3A1602..1602 (Accessed October 8, 2011). “Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 53: Speght, Thomas.” Wikisource.,_Thomas_(DNB00) (Accessed October 4, 2011). “Geoffrey Chaucer.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (Accessed October 11, 2011). “Islip, Adam d. 1639.” Worldcat. (Accessed October 8, 2011). “Phillipps, John.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. (Accessed October 11, 2011). “The Workes of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer.” Worldcat. (Accessed October 8, 2011). Todd, Reverend Henry J. “Illustrations of the Lives and Writings of Gower and Chaucer, collected from Authentic Documents.” The Critical Review, or Annals of Literature 23 (1811): 33-43.
Throughout modern English history, the 14th century author and poet Geoffrey Chaucer has always been held up as the father of English Literature. This title stemmed from his decision to compose his works in the vernacular Middle English of the commoners rather than in the French and Latin favored by the court circles he inhabited. The modern English language that developed from the Middle Ages was not the same, however. As a result, English scholars of the late 1500’s desperately sought to ‘update’ the words of Chaucer into the modern tongue lest his works be forgotten and lost to the laymen of England. One of the earliest and greatest examples of this undertaking was the Reverend Thomas Speght’s 1602 The Workes of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer, newly Printed.

Printed by Adam Islip of London, a man known for his publications of religious, historical, and translated works, this was the second translation of Chaucer into modern English ever executed, and much more comprehensive in nature than its predecessor. The editor, Speght, was a Cambridge schoolmaster with a passion for ‘the antiquities’ who sought not only to preserve Chaucer’s writings, but the known history of the man himself. As such, his book contains Chaucer’s major works and poetry which had previously never been translated, a glossary of terms and idioms present throughout the texts to allow for better understanding among modern readers, and, most importantly, a biography of Chaucer’s known life, complete with a woodblock engraving of his family tree. Through this dedication to creating the best possible tribute to his beloved Chaucer’s legacy, Speght created a text that would be relied on and reprinted in sections unmodified well into the mid nineteenth century. Even today, there are approximately 315 different publications that can be directly traced back to this single work.

This particular example of The Workes of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer, newly Printed is one of four surviving copies from its original printing known to exist in modern library and archival holdings. The tome in its current state is 12.875 inches tall, 9.125 inches wide, and 2.375 inches thick. The binding appears to be a later addition, with marbled pastedowns and a clear focus on the year of production seen on the gold lettering on the spine, which simply reads “1602 Chaucer.” The leather cover is simply detailed, with impressed designs on the front and rear covers, and a reddening of the leather between the raised ridges of the binding seen on the spine. This red dye was also used along the edges of the pages, which was done with a high degree of skill, seen in the lack of bleeding into the interior of the pages. Speght’s devotion to the immersion of the reader resulted in the use of medieval style woodcuts and faux illuminated lettering, along with multiple fonts to make Chaucer’s words stand out from the more modern text, with as many as four different types on a page. Chaucer’s text was notably featured in an older gothic style, instantly recognizable as a call back to the era of manuscript writing. There is a small errata section in the back that takes up less than a single page, a testament to the skill of the compositor. The rag linen pages are also uniquely reinforced by strips of paper set perpendicular to the grain along the margins of each page. Finally, it is important to note that there is writing in this copy from its 1773 owner, John Phillipps, which provides insight into the mind of readers at the near mid-point of this copy’s existence.
Behold this timeless tome!
Submitted by Ross Patterson II
Published: 1602
Call Number: PR1850 1602