by David Weston
The popularity of the ‘father of the English language’ never seems to
wane, while the magic of the Middle Ages increasingly holds us in thrall.
This exhibition of fourteenth and fifteenth-century books, hand-made and
printed, unites both.
At the centre stand works by Chaucer (1340-1400), three manuscripts and
three early printed editions, including the star of the show, The Romaunt
of the Rose, the incomplete Middle English translation of the French
allegory of love, the Roman de la Rose. Without this unique medieval
survivor the work would be unknown save for a few tantalising references to
it by Chaucer himself in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women,
and by his fellow poets, John Lydgate and Eustache Deschamps. Four further,
themed cases, focusing on his contemporaries, his literary precursors, and
aspects of medieval culture, afford glimpses into the poet’s world.
Almost all of the thirty-one works on display derive from the prized
eighteenth-century library of Dr William Hunter (1718-83), the distinguished
anatomist, man-midwife and Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte.
Received in 1807, his personal collection of some 10,000 volumes alone
augmented the library's stock by fifty percent, and extended the
University’s holdings well beyond the narrow confines of the current
academic curriculum. Moreover, the 650 manuscript codices in the collection,
over a hundred of them illuminated, accorded Glasgow a prominence that it
could not have achieved with its own resources. Hunter owned fifty-three
Middle English manuscripts, and, in the fashion of the time, he was also an
avid collector of fifteenth-century printing, British and Continental.
Glasgow University was founded by the Humanist Pope, Nicholas V in 1451,
only five decades after the death of the poet and synchronous with the
invention of the new technology of textual multiplication, printing from
relief metal type. Despite this, vernacular literature was notably absent
from the Library’s shelves until the start of the Eighteenth Century, and
even then only to a very limited extent, as English literature was not
taught until the following century.
From the outset Chaucer’s works were identified as attractive and
commercially viable subjects for the printing process, being issued by both
Caxton and his younger contemporary, Richard Pynson. The latter’s 1492
edition of The Canterbury Tales on display provides an early example
of combining the woodcutter’s art with type.
The pre-typographic book, the manuscript, or hand-made book, often a
compilation of separate works bound into one codex volume, is represented by
twenty-seven examples, ranging from the small, eminently portable (and
concealable) Wycliffite New Testament, or the pocket Statutes of
England, both suited to the needs of the itinerant preacher and lawyer.
These contrast with the ample, deluxe copy of John Lydgate’s Fall of
Princes or the imposing dimensions of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis.
Utilitarian manuscripts of a more typical size and pragmatic execution, deal
with medicine, astronomy and alchemy, whereas, the un-alloyed freshness of
medieval illumination comes to the fore in illustrations to Boethius, the
bawdy tales of Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and Boccaccio’s Fall
of Princes. Such sumptuous works were normally commissioned by wealthy
patrons and decorated to order. One work, the treatise by Guillaume Tardif
on falconry is very probably the copy presented to Charles VIII of France.
Shimmering gold leaf applied over gesso to provide a bas-relief effect is
employed with dramatic results in the depiction of God the Creator in a
fourteenth-century compendium of devotional and philosophical writings
produced in London. It is also used lavishly in a mid-fifteenth-century Book
of Hours from Bruges.
Uniformity of letter forms, while easily achieved by printed characters,
is a much more demanding task for the scribe, who in the Middle Ages was a
trained and skilled professional, able to produce, line after line, page
after page, regularly delineated letters and words. Several good examples of
scribal book-hands are on view, Italian Gothic (Boethius), English cursive
(Lydgate), and French cursive (Tardif).
All of the volumes exhibited normally reside in the Special Collections
Department of the University Library, where, although they are available for
scholarly consultation, there is little opportunity for them to be
displayed. When the Hunterian Museum was first built behind the Old College
on the High Street these books were shelved amongst the other museum
collections, an integral part of Hunter’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Their
administration continued as a Museum responsibility up until the turn of the
twentieth century when it transferred to the University Librarian. Since
1968 Hunter’s books have been physically separated from the museum, and it
is now some time since an exhibition devoted to so many of them has been
The meeting at the University of the New Chaucer Society
Congress (July 15-19 2004) occasioned the subject of the exhibition.
Julie Gardham of the Special Collections Department is to be commended
for so ably curating the exhibition. We are grateful to Evelyn Silber, the
Director of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery for supporting the idea and
for making the Hunter Hall available. Other Hunterian staff, Donal Bateson,
Stephen Perry, Aileen Nisbet and her technical team and Harriet Gaston
offered much advice and practical assistance. Jo Grant of Media Services
provided catalogue design.
Keeper of Special Collections