Among the Chaucer manuscripts and printed editions, the Kelmscott Chaucer produced in 1896 is a special case that stimulates scholars’ curiosity about the purpose behind the creation of a quasi-manuscript centuries after the Middle Ages. Existing studies contend that the creative, artistic and time-consuming nature of the codex reflects Morris’s nostalgia for medieval guilds that granted craftsmen equal agency, freedom and flexibility in their work. Scholars have, however, paid little attention to the palette and paper in the Kelmscott Chaucer, as well as their interaction with other decorative elements. There is less discussion of the audience in terms of what different beholders with varied familiarity with medieval manuscripts could get from the codex. They have paid even less attention to facsimiles that are accessible for a wider audience despite material compromise. My research focuses on the Kelmscott Chaucer facsimile preserved in the special collections of Bartle Library. The black-and-white palette of the codex is a rupture in the “unity”, which, though incoherent with other lavish decorative elements, coheres with the heterogeneous Chaucer text and manuscript tradition. This heterogeneity that demonstrates Morris’s reliance on medieval examples for his utopian conception of Book arts and their manufacture, however, is visible only to those who are familiar with medieval manuscripts. Beholders without experience thereof would be too habituated to mass-produced books to detect the unusual palette. With its covertly heterogeneous decoration that conveys manuscript tradition accessible only to a select audience, the Kelmscott Chaucer, contrary to many scholars’ assumptions, implicitly challenges Morris’s socialist utopia that emphasizes equality. My research also attends to the rough-edged paper of the facsimile, comparing the paper with that Morrison originally commissioned. The comparison sheds light on a utopian attempt within a dystopia: what and how facsimiles can preserve most tangibly and efficiently despite the inevitable material compromise.
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Qiu, Xinyuan, "The Kelmscott Chaucer Facsimile: Dystopia or Utopia" (2021). Research Days Posters 2021. 109.