The Dunleavy Chaucer Collection holds important editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's works printed in blackletter and Roman types beginning with one leaf from William Caxton's 1478 edition of the Canterbury Tales. Blackletter or Gothic type editions in the Collection include facsimiles of the first collected or "landmark" edition of 1532 and the subsequent editions of 1542 and 1550; the 1561 Stow edition, the one probably known by William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser; and the 1598, 1602, and 1687 Speght editions.
The Collection also includes the notorious Thomas Urry edition of 1721, containing three spurious tales. The Tyrwhitt editions of 1798, 1822, and 1846; the Globe edition of 1919, and the eight volume Shakespeare Head edition of 1928 share space in the collection.
The best known modern edition is the Kelmscott Chaucer, a monumental, deluxe double column folio edition printed by William Morris at his Kelmscott Press in 1896. The Collection's copy is one of 425 designed by Morris with 87 woodcut illustrations by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. This collaboration between Morris, poet, Socialist thinker, designer, and publisher, and Burne-Jones, Victorian England's most popular painter and illustrator, aimed to bring to a single book the "harmonious integration of the arts of typography, bookbinding, ornamentation and design." The poet William Butler Yeats had an immediate and dramatic response to the Kelmscott presented him by friends at his fortieth birthday, calling it "the most beautiful of all printed books."
The Dunleavy Collection also contains some fine press Chaucer titles, including: The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer (Los Angeles: Plantin Press, 1975), illustrated with an engraving of the pilgrims by William Blake; two Anvil Press titles, The Booke of the Duchesse (1954) and The Wildflower Book (1956), both published in Lexington, Kentucky; and The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Guildford, England: Circle Press, 1978), containing original screen images designed by Ronald King.
Among related works, the Collection contains a 1985 edition of the Canterbury Tales in Hebrew, presented to the Dunleavys by members of the English Department of the University of Tel Aviv. The Collection also contains a particularly fine first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which appears in honor of Joyce's admiration and great respect for Chaucer, whom he called "The Father of English Literature."
In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," Chaucer recognized "the power of the Arthurian romance over women" and that tale is the precursor of the treasure which Sir Thomas Malory brought to English letters with his Morte d'Arthur (1485). The Collection currently holds ten editions of Malory's book of which five are particularly notable: the Aubrey Beardsley edition of 1909, one of only 500 printed in London for sale in America; the Golden Cockerel Press edition of 1936 with erotic engravings by Robert Gibbings, the Shakespeare Head edition of 1934, one of 370 facsimiles of the 1485 Caxton edition; and the 1913 Ashendene Press edition, one of 145 copies of the largest book published by Ashendene and the first printed in three colors.
Finally, the earliest printed book in the collection is Richard Arnold's Chronicles of London (1521) in the rare second edition. The Chronicles give the names of bailiffs, mayors, and sheriffs "of the Cyte of London from the Tyme of King Richard the Fyrst." In addition, it lists London's churches, provides recipes, and contains the first known printing of "The Ballad of the Nut Brown Maid."