Tales of olde: 1478 Chaucer classic is jewel at St. Vincent rare book room

Mar. 12—The well-worn pages inside the marbled cover of a first-edition "Canterbury Tales" book is carefully stored in a special slipcover at Saint Vincent College in Unity.

The book is dated 1478.

In the climate-controlled rare book room at the Verostko Center for the Arts and Latimer Family Library, the pages are a harbinger of what was to come. "The Canterbury Tales," written by Geoffrey Chaucer, was the first book to be printed in English in England, said Andrew Julo, director and curator of the center.

It is not an easy read. The words are in Middle English, Julo said, and the typeface is meant to look like script. Red letters that start paragraphs were done by hand.

"This period of printing ... there was a desire to make print look like handwriting," Julo said. "It's very hard to read."

"The Canterbury Tales" is based in England and follows the stories of 30 pilgrims from a variety of societal backgrounds as they make a trek in the country and engage in a story­telling contest, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. There are 24 stories in the book, which became hugely popular.

It was an important piece to the evolution of the English language, Julo said.

"This is really the beginning of the dissemination of essentially the written word," he said.

As with any new innovation, there was some fear surrounding it, but the book opened doors for education and entertainment at the time. It also was a new opportunity for profitability surrounding the written word. The book was printed by William Caxton, making him a pivotal figure in language development and increasing accessibility to it, Julo said.

Harvard University has a course and website, available to the public, on Chaucer that covers "The Canterbury Tales." Pages there include the Middle English wording of the original text and a modern-day translation, as well as a guide on how to read the author's works.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta by email at rsignorini@triblive.com or via Twitter .