In the prologue to his work The Legend of Good Women, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote:
“Yes, God wot, sixty bokes olde and newe
Hast thou thyself, alle ful of storyes grete.”
We cannot be certain that Chaucer was here referring to his own collection of books, but it is a delightfully specific allusion and he could have written ‘twenty’ or ‘forty’ and still maintained his cadence. It is known that Chaucer possessed a ‘cheste’ for the volumes he owned and there are references in his writings that make clear his delight in books. He read them, translated them, adapted them and copied them.
Today a collection of sixty books would be regarded as a fairly meagre one, but in Chaucer’s day books were so valuable that they were often chained to library shelves. In Italy the greatest library in the country held 400 volumes (it was the library of Barnabo Visconti, Lord of Milan). Before the invention of the printing press, books were hand-made, using costly materials.
Chaucer seems to have been comfortably off, but not wealthy. However, books were surely a necessity to him, for his writings reflect wide reading. Only a true lover of books could write with joy, as Chaucer does in The Miller’s Tale, of a man who keeps his books “On shelves couched at his beddes heed”. Those of us who love books know that having them right at hand when one is in bed is vital!
I do so wish we knew more detail about what books Chaucer owned. That little detail of “sixty bokes” is so tantalising. And it is because of that reference that I wanted to include Chaucer as my last ‘Book Addict’ of this year.
Have you read Chaucer’s works? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.