The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Folio Society (1986)

{Ed. Note: I would like to than LibraryThing user Virion for providing pictures of this 1986 edition of The Canterbury Tales from The Folio Society.}

Books and Vines recently highlighted the wonderful 1913 Medici Society/Riccardi Press edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, with illustrations by Sir William Russell Flint. That edition, along with the famous Kelmscott Chaucer, remains amongst the most sought after and famous fine press works today. Of course, this makes them extremely expensive (especially the Kelmscott) and very difficult to find in near fine or better condition. With that in mind, a subscriber recently asked for a recommendation on an edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales that one could actually get without spending zillions and, more importantly, one that was created with the intent of actually being read — especially for someone not fluent in Middle English. For such recommendations, I turned to Books and Vines contributors DlphcOracl, Neil and Robert, all of whom provided excellent feedback, which I now share below.

Neil’s Recommendation:

Surprisingly, whilst there are more available editions of Chaucer than you can shake a stick at, one with facing page translations and decent, but not overwhelming, critical apparatus is not one of them. The Chaucer that most people regard as the best is the ‘Riverside’ Chaucer which is definitive – it also comes in a version that contains only The Canterbury Tales, but does not have facing page translations.

Another highly regarded Canterbury Tales is that of Coghill, which is published by Penguin. While it has a manageable amount of annotation and comes with a very good rendering in Modern-English, it does not contain the original Middle-English.  As luck would have it, The Folio Society 1986 edition uses the Coghill but does include the original Middle-English facing along side the modern translation!  The Folio Society edition is a very attractive, well designed and very ‘readable’ set of books (three volumes) and can be had for a reasonable amount of money (less than a paperback ‘Riverside’!). I’ve ended up with a few versions of The Canterbury Tales, but this is the one I read.

This 1986 edition from The Folio Society also has introductions and a glossary. If one wants even more information, they could also get the Penguin or Riverside paperback to supplement it. In saying that, like with Shakespeare, the web is littered with information about Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.  Sites like The Canterbury Tales Project provides to those interested pretty much anything anyone would want to know about Chaucer, his works, his language, his times and versions of his works.  In other words, the facing page translation is what is important, supporting information is available, free and copious.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Middle-English is something that you can ‘get the hang of’ if you persevere a little.  If you avoid venerating it too much and read it out loud in an earthy, ‘slangy’ way, it’s surprising how quickly you get into the swing of it.  It’s also helps if you listen to one of the audio recordings of someone reading Chaucer – some available on the net for free.

As an aside, I read Peter Ackroyd’s (an outstanding author and scholar from London) modern prose interpretation of The Canterbury Tales when it was published a few years ago.  Whilst it is no substitute for the ‘real thing’, I found it a great read (I read it over two days) that really captures the bawdy flavour of Chaucer, and I wished it had been available before I first read The Canterbury Tales (warning – it uses ‘rich’ language’) – it’s available in paperback now.

DlphcOracl’s Recommendation

First, as Marie Antoinette famously said: “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.”  (Did she REALLY say that??)  Put another way, there is no single book or volume which will have the original Middle English text, a modernized English translation, AND extensive commentary on The Canterbury Tales.  Ya just can’t have it all!!  Best is to purchase a hardcover edition of The Canterbury Tales with the Middle English on the verso page (left) and a modern translation on the recto (right-hand page). As luck would have it, the ONLY edition to consider is the outstanding 3-volume set from The Folio Society, published in 1986 with David Wright‘s superb translation.  This is a beautiful set and is one of the glories of The Folio Society (I own a pristine Folio Society set myself so I know whereof I speak!!).

The 1986 Folio Society edition contains nearly 60 pages of introduction; however, if one wants to obtain even more supplementary commentary that is not overly dry or excessively academic,  the choice is again a no-brainer.  Buy the paperback edition of The Canterbury Tales from Norton Critical Editions series (2nd edition, 2005) selected and edited by V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson.  This paperback contains a selection of 15 of the Canterbury tales in the Middle English and contains nine critical essays from Chaucerian scholars.  It also gives “Sources and Backgrounds” for the Prologue and most of the tales to place them in historical context.

To fully appreciate the beauty of The Canterbury Tales, read passages from the Middle English aloud and give them an Irish or Scottish accent (roll the R’s, etc.). This allows one to fully appreciate the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer.  Remember, this is poetry and no translation, however skillful, will capture Chaucer’s rhythms.  Similarly, reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘Faust” in the original German language is a very different experience than reading an English translation.

Robert’s Recommendation

As for Chaucer, as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing that matches the Everyman’s Library 2nd printing, which was published by Knopf. It has good notes, marginal vocabulary glosses (the handiest place for these IMO), very clear type, acid-free paper, and the sturdy binding that characterized Everyman’s library books 10–20 years ago. And a ribbon marker!! I actually get this book out even more frequently than my Riverside Chaucer or 3 volume Folio Society Chaucer. Great for a bedside reader and/or traveling companion. The Everyman’s doesn’t include a modern rendering, but anyone who can read Shakespeare can read this edition of Chaucer with a little effort.

Hopefully this feedback gives Books and Vines readers some valuable information if they are looking for a good edition of The Canterbury Tales to read. Since the 1986 edition from The Folio Society is clearly well thought of and most directly matches the characteristics being sought out by the subscriber who asked the original question, we now take a look at that edition in detail.

About the 1986 Edition from The Folio Society

  • Editor of original Middle English text – Robinson, F. N.
  • Translator into Modern English – Wright, David
  • All volumes: Title page printed in black and red. The illustrators are listed on all three title-pages. The original Middle English text is printed on the versos with the corresponding Modern English printed on the facing rectos.
  • First published in 1986, bound in quarter red leather (later, brown leather), with cloth boards (green for vol.1, red for vol. 2, blue for vol.3) and a large fleuron in gold (missing in later reprints)
  • Red or blue 3-vol. slipcase
  • There are woodcuts or wood engravings by 12 different artists
  • Each tale is illustrated with one woodcut or wood engraving on the divisional title-page There are 24 illustrations in total, 5 in vol. 1, 7 in vol. 2 and 12 in vol. 3
  • There is an engraving by Sue Scullard on the endleaves of all 3 volumes
  • 23.9cm x 14.3cm; blue 3-vol. slipcase: 25.0cm x 15.2cm
  • There were reprints in 1987, 1989 and 1990


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Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Book Spines
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Book Covers
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Endpapers
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Title Page
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Colophon and Copyright
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Contents
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #1 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #1
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #2 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #3 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #4 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #4 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #2
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #5 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #5 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #6 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #6 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Illustration #3
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #7 (Middle English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Sample Text #7 (Modern English)
Canterbury Tales, The Folio Society, Glossary

6 thoughts on “The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Folio Society (1986)

  1. I agree with Don Floyd that the translation Frank Hill did for the Macy editions is the best of the modern versions I’ve seen. However, that said, I would hope most lovers of literature would put in the modicum of effort to read Chaucer in the original, which is really not hugely different from Shakespeare’s English (and yes, I know about “Shakespeare Without Tears” and lament its existence). When I studied it in college, I found myself pretty comfortable reading it with only an occasional dip in the glossary.

    The rewards are well worth it, for Chaucer was a master at using the rhymed couplet for humorous–and for dramatic effect. In this last regard, I feel it necessary to point out that less than a quarter of the tales are what might be described as “ribald,” and that as funny as the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales are, they are a lesser component of what has made the CT immortal–the portrait of medieval life and characters one finds in the General Prologue and Prologue to each tale, and in the often autobiographical tales the different pilgrims tell.

  2. How accessible is the Folio Society book in Fine condition? I do like the art of the Miller’s tale where the young man is fornicating the wife while the husband is in hia tub awaiting the drenching of the earth which is to come.The young fornicater has a hot piece of metal clapped on his posterior by a rival. Then the young man yells water for his pain while husband yells ‘water” and, thinking the deluge has come precipately crashes his tub to the earth and meets no deluge but the hard earth.

    Reading this story with its hilarious ending was was such a pleasure, but the Folio illustration recalls the ribald tale to my mind.

    I was probably over critical in my comments due to my age. At 77, I have too many books to read with little time to read them in, so I have no time for reading middle English. If I were 37, it would be diffrent.

    1. Hi Don, seems to show up somewhat frequently on Abe’s. I am looking myself. I totally get your comment on so many books, not enough time! Anyway, Canterbury Tales really is a good read, though it has been years and years for me. I may go for the the Peter Ackroyd prose interpretation that Neil mentioned; also would like to get the Szyk.

  3. The beauty of the FS edition shown above is that you get the best of both worlds. You can ‘have a go’ at the Middle English or just stick to the modern interpretation – or even spend some time comparing the two, which is what, I assume, most people will do with a book like this.

    If you want to get all of the flavour and ribaldry of The Canterbury Tales in a book that is brilliantly written and is as entertaining a read as most people could wish for and is the price of an average current book – I can’t recommend the Peter Ackroyd prose interpretation I mention above too highly (and whilst many people may not want to bother with Middle English, as many may not want to spend/or can’t afford $550 on a beautiful edition like yours).

    I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘purist’ and avoided the Middle English of Chaucer for decades. One day I thought, ‘why not’, and was pleasantly surprised how quickly I got into ‘the swing’ of the language and how much fun it was. I would never extol the virtue of something simply because it was difficult, but, in this case, reading this text in it’s original form was surprising and enjoyable and it’s worth mentioning that as some others may have the same experience.

  4. It seems everyone has their favorite Chaucer. I have never read the middle English Chaucer, aloud or silently, nor do I intend to. At my age, I do not wish to read and interpret the middle English nor do I think most readers want to.

    When looking for a Chaucer, I chose the modern translation of the LEC with the wonderful Szyk illustrations. I picked up a copy from Bill Majure for $150.00. I had it rebound in white goatskin with the boards done in a textured Asahi book cloth and hand marbled end pages from Chena River.

    Total cost was about $550 for a beautiful copy just the right size to be held in hand
    while chuckling over the ribald text. Purists don’t seem to realize that many readers would like to be introduced to Chaucer without the inconvenience of the middle English. Next thing they will be telling us to read Rabelais in 14tth century French.

    1. Don, the question from a subscriber was based on that they wanted the middle english together with the modern — so what was answered was exactly what they were looking for. Nobody was being a purist for the sake of it — and frankly even if they were I would totally get it; some people (I hope most) lover literature for the literature in it, not how special their edition of it is, and any time one can read in the original, should they wish, is a good thing. The LEC/Szyk is very nice, but was not mentioned because it met none of the criteria the reader was looking for.

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