The Kelmscott Chaucer

Facsimile of a 19th century English manuscript

Literature students have been trained to focus on the word, and in my Victorian courses I want to shift their attention to the book itself as an object of study. Victorian editions are very beautiful, and are designed to be works of art – or at least demonstrations of conspicuous consumption. So many editions were published that it is relatively easy to find lovely, various examples. There was tension in the period between growing mechanization and the ability to mass-produce objects and the group of artists and designers, led by William Morris (1834-1896), who wanted to re-establish the sense of craft and artistry in production.

Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in January 1891:

“I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite aim of beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and not dazzle the eye, or trouble the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters. I have always been a great admirer of the calligraphy of the Middle Ages . . . As to the fifteenth century books, I had noticed that they were always beautiful by force of the mere typography, even without the added ornament, with which many of them are lavishly supplied. And it was the essence of my undertaking to produce books which it would be a pleasure to look upon as pieces of printing and arrangement of type.”

Morris set the text closely, avoiding “ugly rivers” of white, leaving inner margins small, and proposing that the “unit of a book” was a pair of pages, a “double-spread.” The publications of the Kelmscott Press are distinctive – even bizarre – with the ornately gothic initial letters, decorative borders for illustrations and text, special type, and medieval layout. Morris’s idea for an edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, illustrated by his friend Edward Burne-Jones, began in 1891; the first copy of the book was put into his hands shortly before he died in 1896. I used this book in the Victorian Poetry class and will use it in the Pre-Raphaelites class as a powerful example of Morris’s work and the juxtaposition of word and image so central to the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art.

Susan Jaret McKinstry
Helen F. Lewis Professor of English

A facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer, with the original 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, together with an introduction by John T. Winterich and a glossary for the modern reader

Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Facsimile reprint. Originally published: Hammersmith, England: Kelmscott Press, 1896

Main Folio PR1850 1896a