Catherine of Siena, Orcherd of Syon, Wynken de Worde

ARLY printed books sought to replicate (and at the same time to make more cheaply available) manuscript books. In working with medieval manuscripts one becomes intensely aware of two major types of scripts: Romanesque and Gothic. The Romanesque, as with the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, is rounded, simple, strong, while the Gothic tends to be spiky and squarish, perhaps in imitation of Hebrew lettering, such as would have been encountered by French Crusaders in Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Renaissance was not a movement for newness but for oldness and it revived the Romanesque script as the Humanist one, using a typeface for its books derived from Carolingian manuscripts.2 We moderns, today, for our printed books' lower case use that older Romanesque script, our capital letters reverting even further in time to the classical Roman letters chiseled on marble monuments. The modernizing technology of printing quickly adopted an antiquarian typeface of authority. Before it did so it had used the more modern (and perhaps, if it imitates Hebrew, even more ancient) Gothic type, Black Letter.

Chaucer's printers, as late as the William Morris Kelmscott edition of 1896, less than a hundred years ago, believed that Chaucer should be printed in the type appropriate to his period, Gothic, which was commonly known as "Black Letter" in England, as fraktura in Germany.3 I will argue in this essay that Romantic and Victorian poets experienced Chaucer in the Black Letter, for instance, of William Thynne's editions of 1532, 1542 and 1545, and Thomas Speght's of 1598, 1602 and 1607.4 Speght's Elizabethan edition retains Chaucer's text in Black Letter, though it gives the titles to the works in modern typeface (that is, Roman and Romanesque), while Shakespeare, the contemporary poet, was printed entirely in modern type. Thus for centuries readers' expectations, their reception aesthetics, were shaped concerning Chaucer by the "distant mirror" of the medieval Black Letter in which he was written and printed. They "switched codes" when they read him, shifting back into past paradigms that paradoxically were also more modern than their own.

If we similarly are willing to become travelers in time we can make some interesting discoveries, especially about their act of reading. Let us first pick up a volume of the Poems of John Keats, whose poems are so often on picking up a volume of poems.5 Some of these volumes Keats uses intertextually are classical, some are medieval, some are Elizabethan.

Most of us, lacking Keats' Black Letter Chaucer, fail to realize that "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is in Thynne's and Speght's canon and included in their Black Letter Chaucer editions. Though eventually excluded in 1896's Kelmscott Black Letter by its editor, F. S. Ellis, on the basis of W. W. Skeat's advice,6 it had originally apocryphally been in the Chaucerian canon. I shared with my gentle reader the 1532 and 1542 opening verses.

Then Chaucer, or pseudo-Chaucer, the love-lorn poet, enters the poem landscape, dialoguing, as Amant, with the Dame. While Keats, as reader, in his poem, written in May of 1819 and published in May of 1820, the year before his death, describes himself with a Knight which whom he dialogues, the Knight having been bewitched by a Faerie Queene.7 Thus he imitates the Chaucer of the Book of the Duchess and of the "Sir Thopas," and the Spenser of The Faerie Queene. He is writing about writing, its enchantment of the act of reading, and I quote here from the "Ode to the Nightingale,"

. . . the same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.8
Similarly, William Morris in a stained glass window now owned by the Victorian and Albert Museum, South Kensington, gave "The Poet Chaucer Asleep."9

The magic of the book is that it is not reality, it is a sometimes insane looking glass model for reality, mirror-reversing what is, or showing perhaps what it could be, but not what is flesh and blood. I recall pouring over medieval manuscripts in a library, in the Sala de Investigadores Miguel de Cervantes in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, beneath modern paintings of Don Quixote reading medieval manuscripts and early printed Black Letter chivalric romances, and going mad, a reflection upon ourselves.10 The Renaissance and the Enlightenment could both laugh at and yearn for a return to the lunatic escape of the Gothic romance, associated by them with the archaic, antique, arcane Black Letter Gothic, such as in a Caxton Malory, or a Thynne, or Speght, or even Kelmscott Chaucer. They preferred seeing the Gothic world in its own appropriate media of Black Letter type, and of brilliant, colored, not clear, white, glass. They sought his alterity amidst their pseudo-modernity.11

In 1840, Hengist "Farthing" Horne commissioned leading poets to translate Chaucer, including the then desperately ill Elizabeth Barrett, later to marry Robert Browning. Other poets approached included William Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, Monckton Milnes, Tennyson, Talfourd, Sir E. L. Bulwer, etc. Horne stated of the project:

Miss Barrett, though still supposed to be hovering near the grave [her brother Edward had drowned and she had almost succumbed to tuberculosis, Keats' malady], cheerfully, and with enthusiasm, agreed to lend her aid to the work. And it is with great pleasure to recollect that almost everybody to whom I applied cordialy consented, with the exception of Landor, who, however, objected in a form that could not be displeasing to those engaged in this labor of love . . . [Walter Savage Landor stated:]
"Pardon me, if I say I would rather see Chaucer quite alone, in the dew of his sunny morning, than with twenty clever gentlefolks about him, arranging his shoe strings and buttoning his doublet. I like even his language. I will have no hand in breaking his dun but rich-painted glass, to put in (if clearer) much thinner panes."
And thus [Horne continued], with the true, but narrow, devotion of the best men on the black-letter side, and their resistance to all attempts to melt the obsolete language and form it into modern moulds, . . . the Homer of English Poetry continues unread, except by very few.12
It is interesting that when this 1841 correspondence was published in 1877, it was nevertheless felt necessary to quote Chaucer's Middle English text in Black Letter, in Gothic fraktura, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's translation of it in modern type, which in turn, we remember, is paradoxically based on the even more ancient Carolingian and Insular scripts

In the beginning of the nineteenth century it had been John Keats and Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning who responded as poets to Chaucer. Later in the century it was the scholars who took the text in hand. Frederick Furnivall had more than a part in founding the Early English Text Society in 1864, the Chaucer Society in 1868, the Ballad Society in 1869, the New Shakespeare Society in 1873, the Wyclif Society in 1881, likewise the Browning Society in that year, and the Shelley Society in 1886. He also worked closely with the Philological Society on the Oxford English Dictionary. Elizabeth Murray, Dictionary Murray's granddaughter, described the Dictionary project:

To save time and make for clarity, Furnivall started buying books which were then offered to readers for marking or cutting up . . . a number of valuable old books did get cut up, and a lover of them would be horrified to see the earliest dictionary slips with bits of Black Letter editions of the sixteenth century pasted onto them.13

We know from Elizabeth Murray's book, Caught in the Web of Words: James A. H. Murray and the Oxford Dictionary, that the Dic and the little Dics inherited this massive task, started by Furnivall, of compiling the Oxford English Dictionary from sacks of such slips in the iron shed in their Oxford garden, the children, with magnificent Anglo-Saxon and Celtic names, earning their pocket money by these means.14

At the same time that the Dictionary was progressing, often thanks to the scholars' editions of texts printed by the Early English Text Society, such as by W. W. Skeat, the stage was being set for the Kelmscott Chaucer. On its page 554, its colophon states in a beautiful William Morris version of Black Letter type:

Here ends the Book of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. S. Ellis; ornamented with pictures designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and engraved on wood by W. H. Hooper. Printed by me William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, in the County of Middlesex. Finished on the 8th day of May, 1896.

The hearty thanks of the Editor and Printer are due to the Reverend Professor Skeat for kindly allowing the use of his emendations to the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, and also of his emended texts of Chaucer's other writings. The like thanks also the Editor and Printer give to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press for allowing them to avail themselves of Professor Skeat's permission.

Thus the Kelmscott Chaucer hovers between the archaic, arcane and romantic ambience of Thynne and Speght's Black Letter, and the scholarly one of the Early English Text Society, W. W. Skeat, F. N. Robinson and Larry Benson, combining the worlds of poetry and the academy.

My third visual example is from a book published in Sweden in 1954 about the contents of the shrine of St. Birgitta at Vadstena (III).15 In that shrine a team of anthropologists found various bones from six women and seven to nine men. One of these bones had on it the words "de sancto sigfrido," which the Swedish scholars presented within their modern text in Black Letter and using the abbreviation for "sancto" in line 8 of the passage below. From this research they were able to ascertain that the bones of Saint Birgitta had mainly been given to her daughter houses, convents in Italy, Bavaria, Prussia, Holland, England, Denmark, Finland, and elsewhere, including one given by Thomas Gascoigne, Chancellor of Oxford University, to the Oseney Abbey of Chaucer's Miller's Tale, while other saintly bones came to be deposited in their place in the Vadstena shrine, as it were, a skeletal jigsaw puzzle across the map of Europe.


I have presented an argument for the set of expectations, the reception aesthetics, readers, until recently, have had concerning Black Letter texts, as presenting not just themselves but their entire ambience and anthropological context, in architecture, religion, law, custom, culture. The change in typeface was an major paradigm shift.16 Today, our editors pretend this is not so and stress Chaucer's modernity. I recommend we also stress his alterity, in line with neo-historicism, and again encourage the partial use of Black Letter.

The Kelmscott Chaucer is both modern and ancient. The Burne-Jones woodblocks have figures that are too mannered and slender, even Chaucer being like anorexic Dante and not having his own jolly, plump rotundity. But the text, with its red rubrication amidst the Black Letter upon the white, is exquisite. I recommend we so typeset the Paris manuscript of Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love, which is similarly written in black and red, and in doing so also retain the manuscript's beautiful, old, but readable, spelling. I recommend that we publish again in facsimile, perhaps by computer scanning, the editio princeps of major medieval texts, ones which today we can barely use as scholars as they are locked up in special collections in a handful of libraries in the world. We need access to Brunetto Latino's Tesoro, published in 1474 in Treviso; we need access to Saint Birgitta of Sweden's Revelationes, published in 1492 in Lübeck; we need access to Wynken de Worde's Orcherd of Syon, published in 1569 in Westminster; we need access to the Thynne, Speght and Kelmscott editions of Chaucer of 1532, 1598, and 1896. All of these are both influential and aesthetically beautiful books. The reading of such Black Letter editions can then enable our students to read with ease the medieval manuscipts upon which they are based, entering that world of the book into which Dante and Chaucer penetrated through their readings of Virgil and Macrobius.

Paradoxically we find nineteenth-century poets tampered less with Chaucer than did scholars. Their use of windows, rather than mirrors, calls to mind Murray Krieger's use and metaphor of windows/mirrors for Shakespeare's sonnets.17 Such editions' retention of Black Letter, evoking either richly illuminated manuscripts, or printed books in black and red, or even richly-colored, stained glass windows, is one to treasure, rather than spurn. By acknowledging the differing styles of time we too can conquer alterity and enter into Prospero's magic isle of books and discover Keats' poetic "faerylands forlorn."


1 This paper was written longhand in Italy and England for the 1990 New Chaucer Society Congress, Canterbury, Kent, and the manuscript version of it was faxed, with added sections in photocopied Black Letter, from the Hotel Excelsior, Florence, Italy, to Professor Betsy Bowden, Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey, as Professor Gail MacMurray Gibson, Davidson College, North Carolina, had required last minute revisions of her essay in Equally in God's Image to be made, necessitating leaving my Toshiba laptop and Nota Bene software in a graduate student's hands in Colorado, just as I was flying to Europe to carry out research on four books amongst manuscripts of Birgitta of Sweden, Julian of Norwich and Margery of Lynn, Brunetto Latino and Terentius Publius Afer, among others, if the book on medieval women were to be published. Technology can be both flexible and limiting, both enhancing and crippling. Research for this paper was carried out at Baylor University's Armstrong Browning Library and in London's British Library. I also wish to thank Jean Preston, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Princeton University, for providing the Black Letter texts in question, and Southern Methodist University at University College, Oxford, for their invitation to William Morris' Kelmscott Manor.
2 Erwin Panofsky, "Renaissance and Renascences," Kenyon Review 6 (1944), 221 and passim.
3 Martin Luther's Bible was published in fraktura, Black Letter, and therefore German books were so published into our century. One can still see German fraktura books in American yard and garage sales. The King James Bible was, instead, published in modern (really more ancient) type and thus that prevailed in English, as well as Romance speaking nations.
4 I make use of Constance S. Wright, "The Printed Editions of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women: 1532-1889," The Chaucer Review, 24 (1990), 312.
5 John Keats, Poetical Works, ed. H. W. Garrod (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956): Sonnet XI, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," p. 38; Sleep and Poetry, with its motto from Chaucer, pp. 42, 43, etc.
6 Colophon, Kelmscott Chaucer (London: Kelmscott Press, 1896), p. 554.
7 Pp. 350-351.
8 "Ode to the Nightingale," p. 209.
9 Helen Dore, William Morris (London: Octopus, 1990), p. 58. The window (Victoria and Albert, #774, 1864, shows Chaucer with daisies in his hand, a garden with a fountain and sun dial, poppies and thistles, and the inscription, "Imago Chaucer poetae." Other lights in that window are of "Alcestis and Eros," "Dido and Cleopatra," all evoking Chaucer's Book of the Duchess. May Morris noted that the children in the family believed Chaucer's portrait in the Red Lion Square wardrobe, now in the Ashmolean, to be that of Edward Burne-Jones, their "Uncle Ned," p. 35; while a tile painted by William Morris showed Rossetti as Chaucer, reading a book beneath a white rose, p. 64.
10 I am remembering a story read as a child in Kenneth Graham's Dream Days or Golden Days, of the boy who finds a precious illuminated manuscript in a library of the house they are visiting, sits down to read it, exploring the illuminations as they lead further and further up a road and almost into a medieval city he so desires to enter, when the adults catch him, close the book, and scold the child; I am also remembering a favorite film in Berkeley, based on Jan Potock's novel, which I have never seen printed in English, only in Italian, and which is Polish, the Manoscritto trovato a Saragozza in which the dream action always loops back upon itself, the hero forever finding himself again in the arms of corpses.
11 Hans Robert Jauss, "The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature," New Literary History 10 (1979), 181-229.
12 "Chaucer Modernized," in Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to Richard Hengist Horne, ed. S. R. Townshend Mayer (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1877), I. 93-127.
13 K. M. Elizabeth Murray, Caught in a Web of Words: James A. H. Murray and the 'Oxford English Dictionary' (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 139, who also notes M. P. W. Gee, The Philological Society NED Vocabulary of Words Beginning with the Letter B (1863), listing books to be cut up, including several folios of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Furnivall's activities described, p. 89.
14 "In 1899, James acknowledged in his report to the Philological Society that the alphabetical arrangement of quotations had been done mainly by his younger children, but in the many accounts of the making of the Dictionary, the child labor goes unrecognised," p. 180. See, for instance, John H. Cowley, The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary: Some Background Notes, 1972. Elizabeth Murray tells how "As each child reached an age when he or she could read, they were pressed into service. Rosfrith, the ninth, remembered her father catching her by the pinny one day as he passed her in the hall, and exclaiming, 'It is time that this young woman started to earn her keep,'" p. 178.
15 A. Bygdén, N.-G. Gejvall, and C.-H. Hjortsjö, Les reliques de Sainte Brigitte de Suède: Examen médico-anthropologique et historique (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1954), p. 1.
16 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
17 Murray Krieger, A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare's Sonnets and Modern Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964).

Go to:

Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri
I Bankers and Their Books: Italian Manuscripts in French Exile
II Brown Ink, Red Blood: Brunetto Latino and the Sicilian Vespers
III The Vita Nuova's Pilgrimage Paradigms
IV Stealing Hercules' Club: Inferno XXV's Metamorphoses  

Geoffrey Chaucer
V Black and Red Letter Chaucer
VI Fact and Fiction: Women in Love
VII Convents, Courts and Colleges
VIII The Tomb of the Duchess Alice

Terence, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer
IX God's Plenty: Terence in Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare Newest

Epilogue: Attica State Prison, Boethius the Exile, Dante the Pilgrim

This is a Chapter from the Book, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, created, 1993; 'Sweet New Style' e-book Website created, Pentecost 2003-13