2022 April The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532)

The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532)


The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532) was the first complete collected edition of the writings of the poet and administrator Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400). It was the first attempt to collect the complete works of an English author into a single volume.


Fig. 1: Geoffrey Chaucer, The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532), Divisional/section title page for Troilus and Criseyde.


Life of Geoffrey Chaucer


Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the early 1340s probably in Vintry, a ward in the City of London. His father, John Chaucer (c.1312-1366) was a prosperous wine merchant, who had married Agnes Copton (d. 1381). Chaucer is recorded in 1357 as being attached to the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster (d. 1363), possibly as a page. She was the wife of prince Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence (1338-1368), who was the second surviving son of Edward III of England (1312-1377). Chaucer became one of his retainers with the merging of the countess’s and prince’s households when Lionel turned twenty-one and became of age in 1359. Chaucer saw military service in France in 1359-60 during the Hundred Years’ War and was captured during the siege of Reims, but was released upon payment of a ransom of £16 by Edward III. Chaucer was married to Philippa de Roet (c. 1346-c. 1387) by 1366, a lady-in-waiting (domicella) to her namesake Philippa of Hainault (1310×15?-1369), Edward III’s queen. After the queen’s death, she served in the household of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399), who was the fourth son of Edward III. Philippa de Roet’s sister was Katherine Swynford (1350?-1403), the wife of Sir Hugh Swynford (c. 1340-1371), who later became the mistress and third wife of John of Gaunt in January 1396.


Chaucer was a member of the royal household by 1367 when he was granted a life annuity of 20 marks (£13 6s. 8d.) by Edward III. He is described as a valettus and esquire in the king’s service, which would involve him being dispatched across England and to the continent for various administrative and diplomatic purposes. Chaucer accompanied John of Gaunt on a military campaign to northern France in July-November 1369. He was sent on a trading mission to Genoa and Florence in Italy on crown business from December 1372 to May 1373 and to Milan in 1378. Chaucer was appointed comptroller of the wool and petty customs in the Port of London in June 1374 and leased a dwelling above the city gate at Aldgate. He retired from this post in December 1386 and moved to Kent, where he severed as a Justice of the Peace in 1385-89 and was elected to parliament as a knight of the shire for the county in 1386. He was appointed clerk of the king’s works by Richard II in 1389-91 and became deputy forester of the royal forest of North Petherton in Somerset sometime during the 1390s. Chaucer took a lease on a house in the grounds of Westminister Abbey in London in 1399. The traditional date of his death, 25 October 1400, is derived from the now illegible inscription on his tomb in what has since become known as Poet’s Corner in Westminister Cathedral.


Publication of The workes of Geffray Chaucer


The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532) was edited by William Thynne (d. 1546), who was chief clerk of the kitchen in the household of Henry VIII (1491-1547), and was published by the printer Thomas Godfray. The edition contains the first printings of a number of major works in verse and prose by Chaucer, including The Book of the Duchess, The Legend of Good Women, and A Treatise on the Astrolabe[1]. Thynne included, however, a large number of works that were not written by Chaucer, such as the poems The Flour of Curtesye and The Complaint of the Black Knight by John Lydgate (c. 1370-1449/50?) and The Letter of Cupid by Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1367-1426) based on L’Épistre au Dieu d’Amours by the French poetess Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1430). Richard Roos’ (c. 1410-1482) translation of La Belle Dame sans Merci by the French poet Alain Chartier (c. 1385-1430) and Testament of Cresseid by Robert Henryson (d. c. 1490) are also included together with the prose treatise The Testament of Love that was written by Thomas Usk (c. 1354-1388).


The Worth Library’s copy lacks quire A, which contains the general title page and introductory materials, and begins with a separate divisional/section title page within woodcut borders for The Canterbury Tales. This title page has a manuscript annotation, ‘Ex libris Joh. Worth empt Dubl. 1684 prt. 00-19.00’, which reveals that the book belonged to John Worth (1648-1688), the father of Edward Worth, who was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. It was purchased at Dublin in 1684 for the price of 19 shillings. Five other works that follow The Canterbury Tales each also have separate divisional/section title pages within woodcut borders: The Romance of the Rose, Troilus and Criseyde, Boece, The Complaint unto Pity, and The Testament of Love. A Treatise on the Astrolabe has a full-page title on the verso of a text leaf, while The Book of the Duchess has a title page on the verso of a text leaf with a double column of five and four lines of text above respectively.


Fig. 2: Geoffrey Chaucer, The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532), Woodcut of the Knight in The Canterbury Tales, Sig. C1r.


The Canterbury Tales


The Canterbury Tales consists of a collection of twenty-four stories of various genres presented within the framework of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Thirty pilgrims from a variety of social classes and vocations are introduced in the ‘General Prologue’ where it is implied that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey back to Southwark in London. Only twenty-two pilgrims tell one tale each, however, while two tales are told by Chaucer himself. The tales run to approximately 17,000 lines and are written mostly in verse with some written in prose. The Canterbury Tales is similar in many ways to the Decameron by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), which uses the framework of one-hundred stories being told by a group of seven young women and three young men who have fled Florence to the countryside to escape the Black Death.


This was the sixth printing of The Canterbury Tales. It was initially published in London by William Caxton (1415×24-1492) in 1477 who printed a second edition in 1483 that was illustrated with woodcuts, which were re-used in an edition printed by Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534/5) in 1498. Richard Pynson (c. 1449-1529/30) published two editions in London in 1492 and 1526 that were illustrated using a different series of blocks.


The Canterbury Tales section is the only section of the collected edition that is illustrated, which contains twenty woodcut illustrations from fifteen blocks depicting equestrian portraits of single pilgrims. Eighteen of the woodcuts from thirteen blocks were re-used from Caxton’s 1483 edition, although Godfray removed the borders of all the blocks and trimmed down four of them to make them smaller and reduce the amount of space taken up by them. Two woodcuts of the Knight and the Squire are new blocks, with that of the Knight being a close copy of, but different to, the woodcut used in Pynson’s 1526 edition. The two tales told by Chaucer are not illustrated and there is no illustration either of the Monk and the Nun’s Priest. One block has been used to represent more than one pilgrim in three instances. Godfray used the same woodcut block for the Merchant, the Summoner (a church officer who called people before the ecclesiastical court for possible excommunication and other penalties), the Franklin (a class of landowner who did not have noble status) and the Manciple (an official charged with purchasing and storing provisions). A single woodcut illustrating a pilgrim equipped with a bow and arrows is used for both the Clerk of Oxford and the Canon’s Yeoman and another for both the Second Nun and the Prioress.



Fig. 3: Geoffrey Chaucer, The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532), Woodcut of the Parson in The Canterbury Tales, Sig. V5v.


The last two woodcuts in Worth’s copy were altered by a reader at some stage. The woodcuts are from the tales recited by the Manciple and the Parson, the latter being a clergyman with responsibility for a small local area, typically a parish. A plumage of feathers has been drawn on the head of the horse ridden by the Manciple along with additional horse tack, while a wide-brimmed and tall hat has been drawn on his head. The Parson has a flat hat drawn at an angle on his head and an object placed in his right hand, while additional horse tack has been drawn on the horse he is riding.


The Romance of the Rose


The Romance of the Rose, which follows The Canterbury Tales in the 1532 edition, is a translation of about one-third of the thirteenth-century French allegorical poem Roman de la Rose that was composed by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1200-c. 1240) and greatly extended by Jean de Meun (c. 1240-c. 1305). The first of the three separate fragments printed in the 1532 edition has been attributed by most scholars, but not all, to Chaucer and there is doubt whether he wrote the third fragment. The Roman de la Rose is also the main source for ‘The Physician’s Tale’ story about the nobleman Virginius who beheads his daughter Virgina rather than give her up to the corrupt judge Appius as well as the ‘The Monk’s Tale’ stories of Nero and Croesus in The Canterbury Tales.


Troilus and Criseyde


The long poem Troilus and Criseyde unfolds against the background of the Trojan War and describes the secret love affair between the Trojan prince, Troilus, youngest son of Priam, King of Troy, and brother of Hector and Paris, and the noble widow, Criseyde. Troilus and Criseyde is an adaptation of the narrative poem Il Filostrato (‘the one prostrated by love’) written in Italian by Giovanni Boccaccio, the latter in turn being loosely based on the French poem Roman de Troie (‘Romance of Troy’) by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (d. 1173), which was redacted in Latin prose by Guido delle Colonne as Historia destructionis Troiae in 1287. Chaucer does not acknowledge Boccaccio as his immediate source, but attributes the story instead to a fictional author he calls Lollius, whom he also cites in The House of Fame. The story of Palamon and Arcite that is told in ‘The Knight’s Tale’, the first tale in The Canterbury Tales, is based on Boccaccio’s epic poem Teseida, which Chaucer had earlier used elements from in his 357-line poem Anelida and Arcite.



Fig. 4: Geoffrey Chaucer, The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532), Divisional/section title page for Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae.


Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae


Chaucer’s Boece is a prose translation of De consolatione philosophiae (‘The Consolation of Philosophy’) by the Roman author Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, commonly called Boethius (c. 477-524), which Chaucer also borrowed extensively from for his poetry. Chaucer used multiple sources for his translation, working from a version of the Latin original by Boethius along with a Latin commentary written by the English Dominican Nicholas Trevet (b. 1257×65, d. in or after 1334) and the thirteenth-century French translation Li Livres de comfort by Jean de Meun. Troilus’s speech on predestination in Troilus and Criseyde is taken from a famous passage in the De consolatione philosophiae, while the so-called ‘First Mover speech’ delivered by Theseus urging Palamon and Emelye to marry after the death of Arcite in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ contains material based on Chaucer’s Boece.


Other Works


The Book of the Duchess, The Legend of Good Women, The House of Fame, and The Parliament of Fowls, are all allegorical dream vision poems that begin with the narrator complaining about his insomnia. The Book of the Duchess is the earliest of Chaucer’s long poems to which an approximate date can be assigned and was written to commemorate the death of Blanche of Lancaster (1346?-1369), the first wife of John of Gaunt, who was the mother of the usurper Henry IV (1367-1413). The narrator of the 1,334-line poem converses with a sorrowful man dressed in black in a forest, after he becomes separated from a hunting party, and eventually learns that he is a grieving widower. The Legend of Good Women is an unfinished dream poem that contains a ‘Prologue’, which survives in both a short and longer version, followed by ten stories in nine sections about Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle and Medea, Lucretia, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra. The God of Love and his queen, Alceste, reprove Chaucer in the ‘Prologue’ for having presented women in poor light in his works, such as having told the story of Criseyde being unfaithful to Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde, and instruct him to write, by way of penance, a collection of stories about virtuous women. The poem is, at approximately 2,700 lines, the third longest of Chaucer’s works after The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde. The House of Fame sees the narrator being carried into the heavens in the talons of a giant eagle, a servant of the Roman god Jupiter, to the palace of the goddess Fame, which is perched high atop a rock of ice with the names of famous people engraved in the ice. The narrator enters a hall where famous writers stand on pillars of metal supporting the fame of the people they wrote about, one of whom is the fictional Lollius that Chaucer credited as his source for Troilus and Criseyde. A long succession of people petition the goddess to grant them fame and she arbitrary hands down decisions, granting or denying fame, regardless of whether they are deserving of it or not. The Parliament of Fowls is a 699-line poem where the narrator describes an assembly of birds that have gathered in a walled garden on Saint Valentine’s Day to choose their mates and is presided over by the goddess Nature. Three male eagles vie for the affections of a female eagle with a representative from each class of bird proposing a resolution as to which of the three suitors should be chosen. The female eagle decides, however, to defer her decision for a year before she makes her choice. A Treatise on the Astrolabe, whom Chaucer addresses to his son Lewis, is, on the other hand, a prose scientific work that gives a description of the astronomical instrument and directions for its use.


The Edward Worth Library copy of The workes of Geffray Chaucer (London, 1532) was sent for conservation treatment to the Library of Trinity College Dublin in 2008. A description of the condition of the volume prior to conservation and of the treatment that was carried out is the subject of the blog post The Worth Chaucer. This volume is also discussed in the Treasures of the Edward Worth Library small exhibition, where two additional images of the divisional/section title page and the woodcut of the Manciple from The Canterbury Tales are illustrated.




Boitani, Piero, ed. (2003) The Cambridge companion to Chaucer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Carlson, David R. (1997) ‘Woodcut Illustrations of the Canterbury Tales, 1483-1602’, The Library, 6th ser., Vol. 19, Issue 1, March 1997, 25-67.


Ellis, Steve, ed. (2005) Chaucer : an Oxford guide, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Gray, Douglas, ed. (2003) The Oxford companion to Chaucer, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Gray, Douglas (2012) ‘Chaucer, Geoffrey (c. 1340-1400), poet and administrator’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


Lee, Sidney and A.S.G. Edwards (2004) ‘Thynne, William (d. 1546), literary editor’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


McCarthy, Muriel, Ann Simmons and Sue Hemmens (2008) The sceptred isle : books on England in Marsh’s Library, Dublin: Marsh’s Library.


Roger, Euan (2017-18) ‘The civil servant’s tale: Geoffrey Chaucer in the archives’, three-part blog series available online on the National Archives, UK website: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/civil-servants-tale-geoffrey-chaucer-archives/ (30 October 2017); https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/civil-servants-tale-geoffrey-chaucer-archives-part-two/ (27 November 2017); and https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/civil-servants-tale-geoffrey-chaucer-archives-part-three (2 January 2018).


Scanlon, Larry (2009) ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’, in: Scanlon, Larry, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature 1100-1500, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 165-178.


Saunders, Corinne, ed. (2006) A concise companion to Chaucer, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Text: Mr Antoine Mac Gaoithín (Library Assistant of the Edward Worth Library).

[1] For the purposes of this blog article, I have used the modern-day English language spelling and commonly known uniform title for a particular work rather than the original Middle English title assigned to the works in the 1532 edition, such as The Canterbury Tales for ‘The Caunterbury Tales’ and The Romance of the Rose rather than ‘The Romaunt of the Rose’ for example. ‘Boetius de consolatione philosophie’ and ‘The conclusions of the Astrolabie’ are more commonly referred to as Boece and A Treatise on the Astrolabe respectively. Similarly, The Book of the Duchess is the commonly referred to title for ‘The Dreame of Chaucer’, while The Complaint unto Pity is the more commonly used title for ‘How pite is ded and beried in a gentyll hert’.

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