The Canterbury Tales is a long poem written at the end of the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer, who is credited as having set the style for Middle English literature. His poem follows the journey of a group of pilgrims from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Each pilgrim resolves to tell two tales on the way out and two on the way home to help while away their time on the road.
Who were Caxton’s readers? Most continental printers produced books in Latin, the international language of the day, in order to be able to sell them in a number of countries. Caxton, on the other hand, mainly produced books in English for a local market.
Although printed books could reach a much wider audience than manuscripts, they were still a luxury in Caxton’s day and were thus aimed at fairly wealthy people. However, printing soon led to books becoming available at a cheaper price, and Caxton was part of the beginning of a major change in the way in which people acquired books for information and for entertainment.
At the end of his Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English in about 1473 or 1474, Caxton wrote, ‘I have practised and earned at my great charge and dispense to ordain this said book in print after the manner and form as you may here see, and is not written with pen and ink as other books been, to the end that every man may have them at once.’
Caxton used a Burgundian-style type for the 1476 edition of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s popular classic was itself a canny choice for his first major project in England. The second edition, published in 1483, was printed in a smaller size of the same type design. Smaller type meant more words on each page. Fewer pages meant cheaper production costs – and more profit.
The second edition was also made more commercially appealing by the addition of 26 woodcut illustrations, one at the beginning of each tale, usually showing a pilgrim on horseback.