Annie S. Davis

The Kelmscott Chaucer

The Kelmscott Chaucer: William Morris’s Search for the Medieval Reader

As the title of the paper suggests, I am interested in the interaction not only between text and reader, but also between readers from different eras.  Although Morris’s mediaevalism was essentially a nineteenth-century, I will argue that one particular student of medieval times used textual shaping in order to revivify not only a particular type of audience, but a particular public taste for art which would bring balance to a society obsessed by science (“Early Illustration of Printed Books” (22-23).  Whether or not he succeeded in his quest for social change will not be the topic of this paper.  However, I am interested in the effect of his work as a master printer and designer at the Kelmscott Press, particularly his edition of Chaucer.  Specifically I will ask the question what part does the extreme textuality of this work play in changing the way it is read and how does this particular approach to a text reflect Morris’s continual pursuit of the perfection he saw in the books of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

William Morris, designer, poet, master-printer, and self-described bibliophile found himself again and again returning to rare incunabula and illuminated manuscripts for both instruction and inspiration.  He spent long hours sketching images from manuscripts in the Bodleian library during the 1860s and at this time he also began purchasing books a little at a time.  The first older book he purchased was Robert Southey’s 1485 edition of Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.  By 1876 he had acquired Sigmund Meisterlin's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff (1497), Giovanni Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus (1473), and several medieval manuscripts.  During his early years of socialism Morris sold about 20 percent of his library, but had renewed interest in collecting books and manuscripts once he decided to pursue the Kelmscott Press.  By the early 1890s he had acquired around 82 manuscripts and then added the Huntington Psalter and the Tiptoft Missal.  In 1895, he purchased a thirteenth-century Book of Hours and a fourteenth-century edition of Roman de la Rose, and in the fall and winter he purchased a Psalter, a thirteenth-century Bible, a large folio of Flavius Josephus in French, and another Psalter.  May Morris writes of her father’s love for medieval manuscripts and the pleasure they brought him in the last years of his life:  “I can scarcely think without emotion of the exquisite pleasure my father got from his manuscripts in those last years of declining strength . . . Opening one of his possessions and turning the vellum leaves was to him like walking from window to window and looking out on animated scenes familiar in a strange way-scenes that start out of a past to which he had once belonged.”  Logically, this great passion found its way into his own work.  In an interview he gave to the Pall Mall Gazette Morris in 1891, the interviewer describes his impression of Morris’s collection:  “…you have a vision of old oak, wrought iron, and shelves and shelves of bulky old volumes, arranged not as if they were part and parcel of a ‘show-library,’ but as if they were in daily, hourly use”(“The Poet As Printer” 89).  Morris makes it clear that the collection served as a model for his work; he states, “I want these books close at hand, and frequently, and therefore I must buy them” (92). 

In the next sections of this essay I will explore the connections between the culminating work of the Kelmscott Press— the Kelmscott Chaucer—and the influence of the medieval psalter.  Finally, I want to connect the effect of Morris’s text as described by Jerome McGann as “the opposite of transcendental” because we are “borne down” by the pages, and the act of reading a Psalter which required such approaches as the lectio divina.  I believe the connection between sacred and secular becomes truly interesting because both medieval and Victorian examples are what W.J. T. Mitchell in Inconology (1986) calls a “hybrid”: both offer the reader something transformative. 

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.