A Digital Catalogue of the
Pre-1500 Manuscripts and Incunables of the
Canterbury Tales
Second Edition
I began work on this project in the early 1990s, conceiving of it as a reworking of volume 1 of Manly-Rickert’s edition, which describes all the manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales.note Having worked closely with Manly-Rickert since 1984, I had by then developed numerous reservations about their identification of scribal hands, their collations—especially of paper manuscripts—and their often optimistic discussions of provenance, usually governed by their desire to find associations between early owners and “Chaucer’s circle.” I also had begun to think that such a project might be most useful—and affordable—in an electronic format, which would also have the virtue of enabling far more efficient kinds of searches.
In May of 1993 I demonstrated a prototype, developed in SuperCard, of a planned digital catalogue of the Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. The handout for that presentation is an interesting artifact and it testifies eloquently to just how much technologies have changed in a decade. Among other things, my university’s e-mail accounts have long since moved off the mainframe and our telephone area code has changed. The software I was using then limited file sizes (essentially data fields) to 72kb! I was pleased to see I was already making gestures at that point about SGML and cross-platform compatibility, but the Web was just rising on the technological horizon. I had also forgotten until I dredged this up that I was already contemplating the inclusion of the early printed editions. And although I never received a response to my invitation at the bottom, the catalogue has always been, in a very real sense, a collaborative venture, with Peter Robinson providing the technological backbone and much very helpful editorial input, with the latter function asssumed by Barbara Bordalejo in the latter stages of The Canterbury Tales Project’s Phase 1. David Radcliffe has provided the digital direction for this second edition of the Catalogue, while Peter Robinson has become a very close reader, ferreting out some residual typos and suggesting other improvements that have been silently adopted here. I have throughout been the fortunate beneficiary of generous feedback and tip-offs provided by people like Ian Doyle, Linne Mooney, Jeremy Smith, and Simon Horobin and I have enjoyed many helpful contacts created through e-mail lists, conferences, and e-mail, fax, and snail-mail correspondence with archives and librarians around the world.
To illustrate what the prototype looked like, I include here a few screenshots of this now-ancient artifact. I think the greatest difficulties I had in putting these examples together were finding a copy of the SuperCard project (finally located on a Bernoulli disk, for which, fortunately I still had a long-unused Bernoulli drive and a Mac with an old enough operating system to run it) and finding a copy of SuperCard to make it work long enough to make the screenshots. This, by the way, touches on an important point: enabling whatever we do digitally to have “legs”—to insure that it is accessible for longer than the current technologies that create them.
This first image shows the “title page.” From there a user navigates to a table of contents/directory screen, selects the desired item (in this case, the Hengwrt entry), is presented with a contents listing for the Hengwrt description, and then selects from that offering—in this case the “Scribal analogues and identities.” I still like this feature, though I have not followed through with it. It makes for convenient comparison of the scribe’s (singular or plural) repertoires. Linne Mooney’s database of fifteenth-century literary scribes does accomplish something like this, however.
In July of that year (1993), I made a similar presentation to members of the Canterbury Tales Project, then located in Oxford. Later that month, at the Third Biennial Conference of the Early Book Society, in Sheffield, Peter Robinson, Norman Blake, and I talked about the fit of my project with theirs and launched what has been, I think, a mutually advantageous collaboration. At this point, given the Project’s scope, I committed to the inclusion of the four pre-1500 printed editions: the two Caxton texts, Pynson’s [1492] edition, and Wynken de Worde’s 1498 edition. I then published a more formal prospectus and argument for this new catalogue in the first volume of the Project’s Occasional Papers series (1993).
Prior to the Scholarly Digital Editions publication of this Catalogue in 2010 I had published descriptions of 65 of the 88 fifteenth-century witnesses to the text of the Canterbury Tales, on The Wife of Bath’s Prologue on CD-ROM (1996); The General Prologue on CD-ROM (2000); The Hengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile (2000); The Miller’s Tale on CD-ROM (2004); The Nun’s Priest’s Tale on CD-ROM. These descriptions include the numerous copies of the four printed editions.
The inclusion of these incunable editions proved far more time-consuming than I anticipated, but only because I made a decision to examine as many copies as possible. Rather early on in my hunt for copies of the incunable editions, I became aware of the Caxton Club’s 1905 leaf-book edition of E. Gordon Duff’s William Caxton, which effectively “atomized” one of the Ashburnham copies in order to distribute its leaves to subscribers. I have since traced a large number of these 148 leaves and they are described as the constituents of Copy 22 (see also Mosser 2005). The developments in online library catalogues and WorldCat in the last year or so, along with the appearance of [American Book Prices Current] on CD-ROM (Washington, Conn.: Bancroft-Parkman, 1975-) led to breakthroughs in my ability to track down these individual leaves. This tangential project provides a good illustration of a point I made earlier—that the ability to contact librarians via e-mail has been an especially useful development in all of this research, whether for arranging visits to collections, asking follow-up questions, or requesting more extensive information about items in remote collections. Subsequent to the publication of that essay, two more leaves came to light and are included in the current listing.
Watermarksnote led me along another tangent, resulting in several articles and the Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive and Database (, which currently contains entries for over 8,300 watermarks, including those found in Caxton’s first edition, Pynson’s [1492] edition, and de Worde’s 1498 edition. Links to these records and images are provided in the relevant Catalogue entries. The database also has records for dated watermarks found in the unpublished Briquet Archive for paper stocks found in Dd.4.24 and Egerton 2864. This project has indeed been quite a diversion, as I spent much of a summer devoted to the Briquet Archive in Geneva as the focus of a College of Arts & Sciences Humanities Summer Stipend I received in 1998, and all of a Research Leave in the fall of 2000 completing the database’s entries from the Folger Shakespeare Library materials collected by Tom Gravell. As a result of the time I spent in Geneva, and thanks to the generosity of a former college Dean, we now have digitized images of the tracings and data of all of the 27,000+ items in the unpublished Briquet materials (though I have thus far only entered about 2900 into the database).
New to these complete versions of my descriptions (i.e., the SDE edition and the present one) are entries for Language. In 1997, in a paper at the Early Book Society Conference in Lampeter, I examined the dialect evidence of Western provenance for Additional 25178 (Ad²), McCormick (Mc), Rawlinson Poet. 141 (Ra¹), and Barlow 20 (Bw). In the same paper, I raised questions about the evidence that Doyle and Parkes’s Scribe D hailed from Worcestershire, in the SW Midlands; following on this, Simon Horobin and I published an argument that questions Scribe D’s SW Midlands roots (Horobin and Mosser 2005). Linne R. Mooney, and Estelle Stubbs have now identified Scribe D as John Marchaunt, Chamber Clerk (1380-99) and Common Clerk (1399-1417). This would seem to corroborate the identification of Scribe D as a Londoner copying Southwestern exemplars as opposed to thinking of him as an immigrant to London from that area (see Mooney and Stubbs 2013, Chapter 3).
I had originally planned to provide Linguistic Profiles for each scribe; that is one of the compromises I have had to make, however, and while I have analyzed the dialects in a significant number of manuscripts, I have also resorted to the expedient of citing the published work of Horobin, Smith, and Kirby-Miller, making note of my disagreements with any of their conclusions.
In my Occasional Papers prospectus, I foresaw the inclusion of color facsimiles to illustrate “each scribal hand and script, illumination, binding, and format” (p. 77). Fourteen years ago, my preliminary requests to publish digital images often encountered stiff resistance. Many of those suspicious institutions are now more receptive to the idea of allowing for online and CD-ROM publication—in fact many are now undertaking to do this for themselves, through the Digital Scriptorium project, for example, or on their own servers, such as the Bodleian prefers ( There is nothing like uniformity, however, as to whether or not institutions impose fees for permissions to publish or what those fees amount to. In order to make the text of the Catalogue more widely available, this version includes almost no accompanying images.
I think in many ways the pace of my work on the Catalogue—devoting portions of over fourteen years thus far to it—has proven beneficial. I have had the opportunity to examine all of the manuscripts and most of the surviving copies of the incunable editions (though another recent cataloguer apparently felt actually examining the MSS he described was unnecessary). I have had time to reconsider the evidence and in some cases to change my mind (academic flip-flopping is not necessarily a bad thing!). And I have been fortunate to find others to collaborate with on some of the more challenging questions.
For example, Linne Mooney and I have been working, with the assistance of Holly James-Maddocks, an expert on manuscript illumination, on the vexing case of the Hooked-g scribes. We now feel comfortable with the identification of scribes in this group (see James-Maddocks 2016; Mosser and Mooney 2016; see also Mooney and Mosser 2004). On her own, Mooney made one of the biggest breakthroughs in the study of Chaucer manuscripts with her identification of Adam Pinkhurst as scribe formerly known as “B” (Mooney 2006). This points to another important advantage that a catalogue in digital form has over the more static medium we now often characterize as “hard copy” or “print”: information can be updated and revised without great expense, and we find ourselves in a time of very active scholarship in the field of Middle English manuscript study. I have also worked out a collation for the very challenging Pepys MS 2006, which proposes that the first part of the MS (actually the first of two MSS bound together) was constructed on the basis of booklet boundaries, a major revision of previous collations (Mosser 1999). And, I have had time and opportunity to reconsider the previous “lumpings and splittings” of scribes.
Finally, I think delay has proved especially worthwhile in the areas where technology and the methodologies of making digital editions have made such powerful advances: digital imaging, text encoding, the Web and web browsers, and the leap from Dynatext to Peter’s and Scholarly Digital Editions’ development of Anastasia, (, to name just a few. As with the first edition of the Catalogue, the current version is structured to conform with the Text Encoding Initiative’s MASTER guidelines for the description of manuscripts.