Works. A facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer

As I walked around the Special Collections exhibit, the book that caught my eye was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer. The book was most prominently eye catching due to its size and, upon closer inspection, the intricate designs covering almost every page (which after some research I found that Morris designed them himself to be engraved in wood for the original edition).


One page, depicting a printed picture, and the designs within the border of the frames

Because the book was on display and sitting on a stand, I did not measure the book’s weight. However, from the quantity of the pages and the thickness of the book itself, I would imagine that it’s quite heavy. When turning the pages, the book was so thick that it had to be held open otherwise the covers would close in on themselves. The thing that interested me the most about this book was the designs surrounding the print. The book was laid open on a page that had a picture with text underneath and a thick border surrounding it filled with black and white designs of leaves and flowers. The black and white aesthetic is appealing since the use of line weight and shading is apparent. The negative space of the design works well with the negative space of everything else because it is solid black. From afar the designs could be recognized and it made that page incredibly interesting to look at. Curious to see if other pages were the same, I flipped through the rest of the book and found many other pages that were similar. While some had one large picture, others had smaller pictures in the corners, and some lacked any pictures at all. What I found interesting was that even on the pages without pictures, there were still letters printed in designs and enlarged, making even the pages with only words just as visually pleasing.

A page with no pictures or borders, showing the typography within the text alone

The font was also an interesting aspect since it wasn’t the usual Times New Roman that I’m so used to. Another thing that stood out to me was the spelling of certain words throughout the book along with the diction. It uses words like “thou shalt” and “hath”, words usually associated with old fashioned English. Words like “might” and “think” are spelled as “myght” and “thynke”. The substitution of the letter I for the letter Y was eye catching. Other examples include “understand” spelled as “understonde”, “ought” spelled as “oghte”, and “fruit” spelled as “fruyt”.

Another feature worth pointing out is the leaves printed between the texts. On some of the pages there are small black leaves that break certain sentences. It does an interesting thing to the format of the text, disrupting the repetitive word after word structure; it is appealing to the eye. Another comment on format, different pages are broken into different formats. Most have two columns down one paper, aligned to the left side. Other pages are fitted to fill the space, some are broken into several paragraphs, some serve as one continuous piece. The diversity in paragraph size and line breaking toward the right side of the column makes the text less visually stagnant, and adds to the artistic appeal.

Another page showing text alone using small bits of designs, also showing the diversity in format

William Morris, a nineteenth century designer, founded the Kelmscott Press, and in 1896 used his resources to make this book containing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. This book is a newer edition of all of Chaucer’s works from the 50s reprinted into a newer and more crafted version of printing. A close friend of his, Edward Burne-Jones, worked to create the woodcuts for the book and Morris himself designed the borders, frames, and title page. William Harcourt Hooper worked to transfer the black and white designs onto wood engravings. They worked together ambitiously to complete the book, afraid that they would pass before they would get a chance to finish since it was such a large scale project.

According to “The British Library” website, this book itself is so special because “the book was exceptional in its ambitious number of illustrations and rich decorative borders”. Because of his desire to hand print as well as keep medieval literature alive, Morris took four years to finish the book. In 1896, Morris passed, making this book his final project. The “Kirkus Reviews” site names this book as “revolutionizing the field of typography in England” and dedicates its appeal to the dedication of documenting the complete works of Chaucer and the 87 woodcuts, borders, and decorations. The “eGuide” website dedicates the book’s fame to Morris’ talent and skill towards hand crafted book art.

The artistic aspect of the typography is a major reason this book is so sought after (behind the documentation of Chaucer’s works). It is a marvel to look at and given the history it’s amazing that it was originally handcrafted. This book is valued for its handcrafted borders and designs within its typography as well as subject matter. Morris’ book could be noted as such a milestone in the history of literature because of the homage to Geoffrey Chaucer. Artistic appeal aside, this allows for Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales” and so many other stories to be condensed into one place. It’s such a colossal project and given the time period it was crafted, many props go towards Morris for his ambition. The attention to detail and the apparent time taken to complete the book is quite noteworthy. The “British Library” site claims that 425 copies were printed, and 13 copies printed on vellum were made later, selling at a higher price, and 48 more specially bound in pig’s skin and silver clasps.

One of the more intricate pages of the book, showing borders, designs, as well as printed pictures

I had general knowledge of Geoffrey Chaucer before coming across this book but had no idea how many of his works there were. Thankfully, William Morris dedicated his last days to crafting this beautifully put together book to keep everything in one place. The borders and printed pictures are what drew me in and eventually kept me reading. Flipping through the pages was an adventure, to see all of the carefully designed borders and typography, making this book memorable and admirable.


The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer