As a special collections librarian, Deborah Meert-Williston is always on the lookout for rare works. Last fall, she spied something big: a page from one of the first books printed in England by William Caxton, in 1476. The leaf, from the first edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, represents a seismic shift in who could access the written word.
The page is now housed at Western, giving students and faculty a touchpoint to an important period of medieval and literary history. It is the first printed leaf from the earliest years of printing bought by the university.
Meert-Williston first noticed the 550-year-old artifact when it was slated for display at Toronto’s antique book show. With a background in anthropology, archaeology and library science, she recognized the potential impact the piece could have on students and scholars.
The single folio leaf, printed on both sides, contains lines from The Knight’s Tale, the first story of the Chaucer classic. As one of the very first pages printed in England, “I just had to have it,” Meert-Williston said, recalling her swift and successful enquiry to see if the document was for sale.
“This leaf represents a shift in society. It is the beginning of print, and it changed the world.”~Deborah Meert-Williston, Archives and Special Collections, Western Libraries
Printed in medieval text on rag paper, the Caxton leaf from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale features a watermark and rubrication (red ink). (Jeff Renaud/Western Communications)
Caxton’s contribution to English literature and society
Following closely in the footsteps of German inventor Johannes Gutenberg, Caxton learned the art of printing books using moveable type in Cologne. He printed briefly in Belgium before establishing the first printing press in England in 1476.
Prior to this, text could only be consumed through costly manuscripts copied by hand, accessible only to noblemen. Caxton’s press, and his publication of The Canterbury Tales, changed the game.
“Just physically, this is an important piece of British history. Until this point, Chaucer could only be read by medieval manuscript, or seen through his plays. When you think about the influence Caxton’s printed version had, it’s the starting point for everything that came after,” Meert-Williston said. “It led to regular people being able to buy books, women being able to learn to read. So much changed because of this.”
Impact on teaching, learning and research
The leaf offers students a ‘hands-on’ experience through a variety of courses, including one focused on medieval literature taught by Chaucer scholar and professor Anne Schuurman, and two new to Western this term: History of the Book, taught by book print history scholar and Huron University College professor Scott Schofield, and History of the Book and Book Preservation Basics, taught by Arielle VanderSchans, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
“When I buy something, my number one question is, ‘Who’s going to teach with this, and who’s going to start research on this immediately,’” Meert-Williston said. “There was no doubt this would be used in multiple classes.”
Medieval studies program director and professor Richard Moll plans to integrate the folio into his first-year, medieval studies course.
“For teaching, it’s fantastic,” Moll said. “There is great joy for students when they look at these physical examples. There’s an immediacy to seeing how, in the late 1400s, they were consuming Chaucer.”
Moll experienced a similar level of excitement when he unboxed the leaf for the first time.
The purchase of the Caxton leaf brings Western’s total of incunabula (a term for books printed between 1450-1500) to seven, with the first six donated by the university’s first librarian, John Davis Barnett, in 1918.
Supporting researchers studying a variety of aspects, from the layout of the text to the quality of the paper, Moll said the leaf also launches Western into the global study of fragmentology, a field examining surviving fragments of manuscripts, mainly from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
“Having this one leaf puts us into the discussion of how these items were torn apart, circulated and sold off,” he said.
Beyond Western, Meert-Williston expects the leaf will draw other Canadian researchers, who otherwise would have to travel to the U.S or U.K. to see such folios in person.
And like Caxton, she knows a first-edition Chaucer holds a mass and timeless appeal.
“Shakespeare was reading this, and we’re still reading, teaching and researching it as well,” she said.