Chaucer’s Early Modern Readers

The monograph Chaucer’s Early Modern Readers: Reception in Print and Manuscript (Cambridge University Press, 2023) documents the afterlife of medieval English manuscripts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its focus is the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, whose reputation endured into the early modern period, with printed collections of his works commanding a strong presence on the book marketplace during this period and being issued in no fewer than eight editions. Yet fifteenth-century manuscripts containing Chaucer’s works continued to be collected, studied, and read alongside the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editions of the poet’s collected oeuvre, works whose title pages proclaimed their  ‘newly printed’ status.

The book surveys fifteenth-century Chaucerian manuscripts and printed books which early modern readers corrected, embellished, glossed, supplemented, and repaired using more recent printed editions as models. These surviving copies bear witness to the simultaneous use of, and collisions between, old and new book technologies  in the early modern period, reflecting evolving ideas of the book and the national poet’s place at the crux of competing concerns with linguistic and bibliographical antiquity and novelty. The research revisits the accepted notion that antiquarian nostalgia for the past defined Chaucer’s reception, demonstrating that early modern readers also desired bibliographical novelty and often reworked their old books to achieve it. From this study, print emerges as an innovation which created more possibilities for reading Chaucer in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which thereby played an unlikely role in the survival of older manuscript books.