Megan Cook doesn’t judge a book by its cover. She also considers the historical context, the manner of binding, the illustrations on the contents page, marginalia penciled in by various owners, food stains that are reminders of someone’s long ago lunchtime reading.

female-soldierCook, assistant professor of English, is an expert in Middle English, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the history of the book. As such, she recently requested that Colby acquire a 1602 folio edition of Chaucer’s works (purchased at auction by Colby Libraries’ Assistant Director for Collections Management Anna Noriega), not because it’s valuable in a rare-books sense, but because it is a literary, historical, and cultural artifact, one that can be read, touched, smelled, explored.
Students ask her, “Can we open this, Professor Cook?”
Her answer: “Of course you can.”

Cook’s interest in early manuscripts can be traced to a text called The Book of Margery Kempe, the story of an English woman who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early 15th century. This was at New York University and Cook was fascinated by the story behind the story: the discovery of a long-lost single copy of the manuscript, and the ways it had been subsequently reprinted. That led to an interest in the history of editing, a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, and, among other things, Chaucer—specifically the 1602 edition with its supplemental glossary and illustrated family tree.

Cook points to arithmetic scrawled as a reader carefully calculated how old the Chaucer volume was in 1751, to the page where previous owners’ names were crossed out and replaced. “There’s a couple of pages where I’m pretty sure someone was eating while they were reading. Grease stains—you wonder what was going on with that.”

Assistant professor of English, Megan Cook

Assistant professor of English, Megan Cook

Conversation with Cook about the 1602 Chaucer is sprinkled with excited questions: “What’s up with that?” She points to arithmetic scrawled as a reader carefully calculated how old the book was in 1751, to the page where previous owners’ names were crossed out and replaced. “There’s a couple of pages where I’m pretty sure someone was eating while they were reading. Grease stains—you wonder what was going on with that.”
Cook is fascinated by the ways the print process in the Renaissance was used to make old books like Chaucer’s seem new. That became her dissertation and is the subject of a book she hopes to finish writing this year. Why was other material—love poems, the Ten Commandments—bound into the original works? What does that tell us about the people who lived at that time?

It’s an interdisciplinary book, she says, with references to 15th century coins and words in German and Arabic, Greek and Roman. “It’s a scaffolding for a certain kind of reading,” she said, “and it’s a reading that asks readers to make connections across what we would today think about as boundaries in different fields.”

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This version of Chaucer’s family tree depicts some high-ranking individuals, including King Henry IV and Henry VII of England. The connection is through Chaucer’s sister-inlaw, Katherine Swynford, who was first the mistress and later the wife of John of Gaunt. The portrait resembles those of Chaucer found in manuscripts of Thomas Hoccleve’s poem The Regiment of Princes. That means the engraver, John Speed, must have had a manuscript of Hoccleve’s poem handy when he made this image. The caption below explains that Hoccleve (“Occleve”) “lived in [Chaucer’s] time, and was his Scholar.” The tomb at the bottom of the page is the very fancy one belonging to Chaucer’s son, Thomas Chaucer, and his wife, Maude. Chaucer’s own tomb was the first in what is now Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, but engraver John Speed chose to depict the much more elaborate one belonging to Chaucer’s son. John Speed signed the engraving with his monogram, an interlocking I and S. Speed also provided engravings for the King James Version of the Bible and created a widely admired series of maps of the shires of England. The note at the top reads “1602 Novemb[e]r xij. price . ix s[hillings].” This is a typical price for a book of this size in the early 17th century, and would be about $120 in today’s money. The title pages of Renaissance books were a form of marketing. This one lays out six different reasons why this version of the works is different from the last, which had been published just four years earlier, in 1598. Item number six describes the two new pieces included in this edition of the works. The A.B.C. is genuinely Chaucer’s, but “Jack Upland” was definitely not written by Chaucer. The process of establishing Chaucer’s canon was long and complex, and early modern editions of his writings include many apocryphal pieces. Owners have always written their names in their books. Here, a later owner has crossed out previous inscriptions by John Dodesworth stating his ownership of the book, but left the signature in the bottom margin. The same Latin proverb is written in the center compartment and in the bottom margin. It has no special connection to Chaucer. In Latin, it reads “Adam, Samsonem, Lot, david, sir salomonem: fæmina decepit, quis modo tutus erit.” In English: “Adam, Sampson, Lot, David, Sir Solomon: woman deceived them, who is safe?” Readers often use blank space in early books for arithmetic and other notes. Here, it looks as though a reader from the 18th century has done a quick subtraction in order to calculate the age of the book.

She points out that this book is very much like the Chaucer that Shakespeare would have read, spreading it out on the desk as he penned Troilus and Cressida. The family tree includes an illustration of the tomb of Chaucer’s son, Thomas, a very successful politician, rather than Geoffrey Chaucer’s modest tomb in Westminster Abbey. “One of the most interesting things this book is doing,” Cook said, “is showing an articulated relationship between past and present.”

But Cook said she’s held off on digging too deeply into the Chaucer, because she wants students to do their own exploring. Students in her History of the Book course will dig into Colby’s 1493 edition of the Nuremburg Chronicles and the Hutters Polyglot, a multilingual Bible (both in Special Collections), as well as studying the Chaucer.

“One of the most interesting things this book is doing is showing an articulated relationship between past and present. … It’s a reading that asks readers to make connections across what we would today think about as boundaries in different fields.”—Assistant Professor of English Megan Cook

Cook notes out that this book is very much like the Chaucer that Shakespeare would have read, spreading it out on the desk as he penned Troilus and Cressida. The family tree includes an illustration of the tomb of Chaucer’s son, Thomas, a very successful politician, rather than Geoffrey Chaucer’s modest tomb in Westminster Abbey. “One of the most interesting things this book is doing,” Cook said, “is showing an articulated relationship between past and present.”

“Seeing that moment where the idea of an old book comes off the page and becomes a three-dimensional object,” she said. “I think it’s an important shift in students’ perspectives. They know in a multisensory way that this is real, that this is a part of the world they live in. … They’ll be able to touch and hold and explore and read.”

She said book historians talk about reading as “an embodied act,” one that involves the whole body in the experience.

“One thing I’d like to do is read old books by candlelight, but that’s not going to happen for very good reasons,” Cook said. “But you can give students a sensory understanding of what it means to engage with the book that will hopefully make them more critical users of media of all kinds. I think that’s a really powerful thing to do.”

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