Early 19th-century edition of Chaucer’s works uncovered

Moleiro_banner (4)

A previously unknown early 19th-century edition of The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer has been identified by University of Otago senior lecturer in English Dr Simone Celine Marshall, with important ramifications internationally for the study of medieval literature.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1320-1400) is frequently regarded as the father of English literature, having written an extensive amount of English poetry, most famously The Canterbury Tales. Living prior to the invention of the printing press, it has been difficult to establish exactly which poems are his, and for many centuries a great number were wrongly attributed to him.

Previously, the earliest Complete Works of Chaucer that noted that some poems attributed to Chaucer were spurious, and some were authentic, was published in 1897.

“This 1807 edition identifies the poems that were wrongly attributed to Chaucer much earlier than we had thought,” Dr Marshall says. “The discovery of this edition changes the way we had thought people in the nineteenth century understood Chaucer’s poetry; until now we’ve assumed that in this period Chaucer was of limited interest,

“This 1807 edition is important because it is proof that people in the nineteenth century were interested in Chaucer, and made intellectual decisions about what was or was not important about his poetry, nearly 100 years before we previously thought this occurred.”

Early editions of Chaucer’s works were notorious for their errors, so this newly-identified edition is also significant for its considerable effort to correct these errors. Dr Marshall discovered the book while researching a 15th-century poem attributed to Chaucer: “I decided I needed to look at all the copies of the poem ever published. A colleague of mine helped by lending me a resource text listing all the multi-volume poetry books published in 18th and 19th century. There I saw a list of four editions of Chaucer’s collected works. I was only aware of three – what was this fourth one? I couldn’t find it listed in any catalogues. Finally, it turned out the editor of the resource text owned a copy himself. I have since examined a copy in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and confirmed it as an important early edition.”

Dr Marshall says while the edition’s existence had been noted by scholars as early as 1908, the significance of this work had not been identified, nor has the edition been previously studied. “This edition will have an important impact on medieval literature studies internationally,” Dr Marshall says.

She says that the works of Geoffrey Chaucer have taken on a significant role in the cultural history of the English-speaking world, thus this important addition to knowledge of Chaucer’s works will “dramatically revise current knowledge of our literary heritage”.

She plans now to develop a research project that will involve studying the 1807 edition.

Source: University of Otago

Sharan Newman