Few details about the early life of Geoffrey Chaucer are certain, but it seems likely that he was born in 1343 in the city of London, where his father worked as a wine merchant. In his early teens, he became a page to Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster (a daughter-in-law of Edward III). Later, he served as a courtier, diplomat and civil servant in the employ of Edward III and Richard II, visiting France, Spain, Flanders and Italy on state duties. As a young man he wrote poetry in French, but it was with a series of works written in his maturity in vernacular English that he achieved enduring fame: Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Criseyde and, above all, his collection of vivid verse-narratives related by a motley group of religious pilgrims, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer died of unknown causes (some suspect murder) in 1400. Because of his court connections, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the first writer entombed in the area subsequently known as Poet’s Corner.
The popularity of The Canterbury Tales in the century after Chaucer’s death is clear from the frequency of the editions produced by England’s earliest printers. There were two from William Caxton (1478 and 1484), another from Caxton’s French-born former assistant Richard Pynson in 1492, and a fourth from Alsatian émigré Wynkyn de Worde in 1498.
Woodcuts were the earliest form of illustration used in printed books. Because they employed a relief technique compatible with movable type, they did not require any separate printing. Once the blocks of wood containing the carved images were locked into the chase (rectangular iron frame in which composed type is secured), they were ready for inking and pressing along with the text. Fifteenth-century woodcuts were often made entirely by woodworkers rather than professional artists. Thus they look somewhat crude and clumsy to the modern eye.
Sir George Grey acquired the Pynson edition of The Canterbury Tales now in the Library’s safekeeping early in his career as a book collector. He refers to it as already in his possession in a letter dated 28 August 1857. The highly coloured (some would say garish) ornamental initials and botanically themed marginal decorations were added by one of Grey’s contemporaries while he was governor of Cape Town. On two pages they incorporate Grey’s coat of arms – a rare indulgence; elsewhere in his collection a pencilled signature sufficed for Grey as proof of ownership. A note at the front of the book, written by Edward Shillington (the Library’s first chief librarian), reads: ‘The skin of morocco leather (binding of this vol) was given to Admiral Boyle by the Emperor of Morocco with a parcel of similar skins. Admiral Boyle had been sent to Morocco to conclude a treaty with the Emperor and they exchanged presents.’ Grey used the same red morocco to bind his copy of Laurence Threlkeld’s translation of the Gospel of Saint Luke into the Awabakal language.