CHAUCER, Geoffrey (c. 1345-1400). The Canterbury Tales. [Westminster: William Caxton, late 1476 or 1477].
Chancery 2° (280 x 195mm). COLLATION: [1-328 3310] (1/1-2 lacking: 1 blank, 2 prologue, incipit: wHan that Apprill; 1/3r incipit: Whanne they were wonne and in the grete see, 2/8v prologue, explicit: And sayde anone his tale as ye shul here, and Here begynneth the knyghtis tale, incipit: wHilom as olde story telleth us, 7/6v-33/9v verse Prologues and Tales of the Miller, Reeve, Cook, Man of Law, Squire, Merchant, Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner, Clerk of Oxford [Griselda], Franklin, Second Nun, Canon's Yeoman, Doctor of Physic, Pardoner, Shipman, Prioress, and Chaucer's Ryme of Sir Topas, 33/10 blank); [34-398 406 41-468 476] (34/1r-47/4v prose Tale of Chaucer [Melibeus], verse Prologues and Tales of the Monk, Nun's Priest [Reynard], Manciple, verse Prologue and prose Tale of the Parson, 47/5-6 lacking: 5r end of Parson's Tale Explicit Tractatus Galfrydi Chaucer, 5v Chaucer's Retraction, 6 blank). 370 leaves only (of 374; first and final blank missing, second and penultimate leaves [i.e. first and last text leaf] supplied in excellent facsimile including red-manuscript initials, tiny strip of the original second leaf preserved).
PAPER: 54 of the 187 sheets in this copy belong to the same paper stock (watermark: gothic P with cross surmount), another stock (w/m arms of France) is represented by 38 sheets, a third (w/m unicorn) by 32 sheets, nine more stocks can be identified including two accounting for 15 sheets each (w/ms heraldic fleur-de-lis, pot respectively). The distribution of these papers is highly irregular, no more than fourteen quires being made up of a single stock, only seven of which are sequential (6-7, 11-15). TYPE: bastarda 2:135, cut and supplied from Louvain by Johann Veldener, 29 lines, printed guide-letters for initials, prose lines roughly justified. The edition was set by at least two compositors and printed page by page, apparently in two production units of very unequal size, but the scattering of the numerous paper stocks hardly allows more precise understanding of how work progressed. Pinholes not apparent. Original red-manuscript quiring: a-s S t-u v-z [4 contraction symbols] aa-ss, in the extreme upper outer corners thus: a a1 a2 a3 + [etc.]
CONDITION: fos 20/7-8 inserted from other copies; fos 1/8 and 47/1-2, all of whose conjugate leaves are missing, have shorter outer margins (the latter two also repaired at lower margins), but it is probable that they originally belong to this copy; small hole in 16/1-7 affecting a few letters; small holes or tears in 22/4-23/1, 23/8, 25/8, 28/2 and 28/5 affecting individual letters, in some cases repaired; occasional soiling or very minor staining, for instance to 23/8v-24/1r, 26/8v-27/2r and 47/4v. THE ROCKINGHAM CHAUCER IS THE THIRD MOST COMPLETE AND PERHAPS THE FINEST COPY EXTANT.
BINDING: mid-18th-century English gold-tooled red morocco, over pasteboard, handsome dentelle border on sides formed by a narrow tooth roll and the repeated impression of a large tool of a potted flowering plant in a pavilion; spine decorated in compartments, two diapered with pointillé fillets, two tooled with leaves, leafy sprays, stars and floral ornament, and two compartments with blue morocco gilt lettering-pieces: CHAWCER FIRST EDITION PRINTED BY W. CAXTON ABOUT 1476; board edges and turn-ins roll-tooled in gilt, leaf edges gilt, original blue pastedowns, (flyleaves replaced later in the 18th century, foot of spine slightly chipped, extremities rubbed). Bound for James West, who commissioned at least five identical bindings on four Caxtons and one Wynkyn de Worde imprint, four of which were purchased by Dr William Hunter (now at Glasgow University Library) and one by Ralph Willett and subsequently Lord Spencer (now at the John Rylands library); we gratefully acknowledge Dr. Margaret Nickson for providing this information.
PROVENANCE: contemporary rubrication: 2- and 3-line initials in red. -- Manuscript side-notes predating the binding (some faded) and later pagination. -- James West (1704-73), treasurer of the Inner Temple, president of the Royal Society, owner of thirty-six Caxtons at the time of his death (binding, see above); privately sold as a duplicate during West's lifetime, as he was also the owner of what is now British Library copy IB. 55009 (his March-April 1773 auction sale, lot 2274 to Nicol for George III). -- John Ratcliffe, Bermondsey chandler, West's greatest rival in the collecting of early English books, owner of more than fifty Caxtons (Christie's sale 3 April 1776, lot 1226, £6 to the bookseller/auctioneer Walter Shropshire). -- Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (Christie's bill among the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam papers in Sheffield City Archive); Rockingham (1730-82) appears nowhere in the literature on English bibliophily, but it is he and not his heir, Lord Fitzwilliam, who was responsible for the acquisition of the finest books at Wentworth Woodhouse. Shropshire bought the Chaucer for him at a fraction of what Willett and Dr Hunter had to bid for their Caxtons at the Ratcliffe sale (the former paid £16 for the Bruges Game and Play of Chess and £14 for Cicero's Of old age 1481), which stamps the whig Prime Minister, supporter of the Stamp Act Repeal and American independence, not only as an important but also shrewd book collector. Rockingham died without issue, his estates devolving upon his nephew. -- William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833), whig statesman, succeeded to Rockingham's huge estates in 1782, entertained the Prince of Wales and nearly forty thousand persons at Wentworth Park in September 1789, forced by Pitt to resign as lord-lieutenant of Ireland in 1795. -- William Charles De Meuron, 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (1872-1943, bookplate).
FIRST EDITION OF THE GREATEST WORK OF MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE, ONE OF THE EARLIEST BOOKS PRINTED IN ENGLAND, AND THE FIRST SUBSTANTIAL BOOK OF POETRY PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH. "As a first printing of a national poem in the fifteenth century this is comparable only to the first edition of the Divina Commedia (1472) or Villon (1489), and for the monumental magnificence of the type page combined with the ever-new impact and wonder of the text this is perhaps Caxton's finest book" (Painter p. 91). Caxton's seven Westminster publications preceding the Chaucer or printed concurrently with it in the same type are only small half-sheet quartos, including three poems by John Lydgate (STC 17009, 17019, 17030); an octavo Sarum Horae (STC 15867), unless it was printed in Bruges; and a broadside indulgence (STC 14077 c.106), of which the sole surviving copy was executed on 13 December 1476. It is therefore likely that England's prototypographer was already planning his Chaucer when he decided to move his shop from Bruges to Westminster Abbey in late 1475 or early 1476. It was followed by more small quartos of poetry and a quarter-sheet broadside advertisement for a Sarum Ordinal (STC 4890) until the publication of the more substantial folio History of Jason (Duff 245) and Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers (Duff 123), none dated but an exceptional copy of the last (18 November 1477).
Caxton was unique among incunable printers for the body of vernacular literature he published, as well as for his own literary output, numerous translations from the French and other languages, the editing and extending of complex texts, and lengthy prologues and epilogues. Much of what is known about his productions we know from his own comments on dates, sources, patrons, political circumstances, and from his personal - occasionally ironic - observations. However, he is strikingly silent in his most important edition, the first Canterbury Tales, although he complains in the prologue to the second edition of 1483 about the poor and incomplete state of manuscripts at his disposal.
Printer's copy for the first edition was a codex that, if it survived, would now be classed in group b, whereas the second-edition exemplar belonged to group a. "The latest of the big constant groups b has the distinction of being produced in the main by enchainment rather than by radiation. We have what probably was the first of the b family in Helmingham [now Princeton University Library], the enclosure of an early vellum fragment in a later and much larger paper manuscript, still lacking two tales and the completion of a third. The first complete b text appears in New College D 314, itself a step on the way to the manuscript from which the first printed text was copied" (C.A. Owen, The Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales 1991, p. 121). It is not known who provided Caxton with the manuscript, if he had found a patron for the whole project or if another bookseller financially supported the venture. The most important English literary first edition before the first folio of Shakespeare may therefore well be the result of personal initiative only. Caxton's admiration led him to publish four other books of poetry by Chaucer, as well as the latter's translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy .
CENSUS: The last substantially complete copies to be sold at auction both came up in 1911 (Hoe and Huth sales, now at the Huntington and Folger respectively). The last fragment of some size to appear was in the first Doheny sale (Christie's New York 1987). THE FIRST-EDITION CHAUCER HAS ALWAYS BEEN EXTREMELY RARE ON THE MARKET AND THE APPEARANCE AT AUCTION OF THE ROCKINGHAM COPY UNDOUBTEDLY PROVIDES THE LAST OPPORTUNITY TO ACQUIRE THE BOOK. Only nine other substantive copies are extant, all in institutional libraries. The order given here follows De Ricci 22.
1. London, British Library: ex-West-George III. Complete
2. Oxford, Merton College: illuminated. Completed
3. London, British Library: ex-Grenville. Lacking 8 leaves
4. The Rockingham copy, here offered for sale. Lacking 4 leaves
5. Manchester, John Rylands Library: ex-Spencer. Lacking 10 leaves
6. Latrobe, St Vincent College: ex-Dysart-Hogan-Capra-Rabinowitz- Mellon. Lacking 276 leaves, 5 leaves having been removed since the Ham House sale (information kindly supplied by Roland Folter of H.P. Kraus)
7. Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library: ex-Gifford-Huth. Lacking 16 leaves
8. Untraced: ex-Barlaston Hall. Brown morocco. Lacking 21 leaves. Probably identical with 10
9. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library: ex-Saunders. Lacking 5 leaves
10. San Marino, Huntington Library: ex-Hoe. Brown morocco. Lacking 20 leaves
11. Bloomington, Indiana University: ex-Heber-Bright-Ashburnham (June 1897 sale, lot 1044)-Bennett-Morgan-Poole. Lacking 18 leaves
21. New Haven, Yale Center for British Art: ex-Utterson-Ashburnham (May 1898 sale, lot 4059)-Tomkinson-Hogan-Lilly-Mellon. Made up from several copies, lacking 81 leaves
22? New Haven, Yale University: ex-Ashburnham (May 1898 sale, lot 4060)?-White-Van Sinderen. Lacking 209 leaves
23. Dispersed: ex-Ashburnham (May 1898 sale, lot 4061). Broken up in large and small fragments and single leaves, including the Hodson-Doheny fragment of 65 leaves (De Ricci 22.28) sold in our New York rooms 22 October 1987, lot 132 (now English private collection).
LITERATURE: Ames-Herbert I, pp 72-75; Ames-Dibdin I, 291-95; HC 4921; Blades 12; Pr 9626; Pollard, Morgan 674; Duff 87; GW 6585; STC 5082; Hayward 1; Goff C-431; Painter p. 91; Hellinga 54-68, 81-84; Needham Appendix D, Cx 17.