Ellesmere Chaucer is not only the most beautiful manuscript of Chaucer's
best known work, the
Cantebury Tales, but the most famous literary
manuscript in English.
large beautiful and innovative manuscript was probably produced soon after
1400. It contains 240
parchment leaves, 232 of which are the text of
the Cantebury Tales. The remaining eight leaves were
blank, lined pages that now contain miscellaneous verses, notes and
scribbles by various persons
during the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries. The text of the Ellesmere Chaucer was written by one
in an English style cursive script.
manuscript was most probably made and bound in London. It is large,
about 16 by 11 inches, and
elegantly decorated. Seventy-one pages
contain floriated borders on the top, left and bottom sides. On
pages there are designs using gold leaf. There are numerous initial
letters, three to six lines in height,
which are floriated and include
gold leaf, as well as many smaller capitals and paragraph markers, painted
or with gold leaf, found throughout the manuscript.
There are numerous marginal notes, running headlines, beginnings,
continuances and ends, occasional
epigraphs, and the portraits of the
storytellers which provide a physical and organizational structure that
allows the reader to more easily follow the text. But the best known
decorative feature of the Ellesmere
manuscript is a set of twenty-three
equestrian portraits of the storytellers (including Chaucer) who tell
their tales during a sixty-mile pilgrimage from London to the shrine of
St. Thomas à Becket in Cantebury
Cathedral. Because of the familiarity of
these widely reproduced Ellesmere portraits, they have shaped
response of many modern readers who have never seen the manuscript.
chief purpose of the Ellesmere pilgrim portraits
is to facilitate reading
by making explicit and visible
manuscript's arrangement that classifies the tales
according to the speakers. As visual
their function is to introduce and represent the
twenty-three tale tellers
and only secondarily to illustrate
the General Prologue
descriptions. Indeed, only about a third of
can be considered
faithful to the text of the
General Prologue. The
other pilgrim portraits are more
visually artistic in
conception. This is necessarily so when some pilgrims, such as the Canon's Yeoman, are
in the General Prologue, and others, such as the Second Nun,
are mentioned only in passing.
There are probably three artists, distinguished on stylistic grounds,
who painted the miniatures. The
for the first
sixteen pilgrims and the Parson, painted
relatively small figures.
second and third artists paint
larger figures and place the horses on
grassy plots. Artist
2 paints the
best miniatures, including
Chaucer, while the
third illustrator is a possible apprentice.
tale-tellers on horseback was an important design
This social marker levels the status of the
though the horses do visually distinguish the portraits from
another. The artists seem
to have relished the opportunity
represent a variety of horses, even linking them to the
Although it is not certain who
manuscript, possibly the author's son, Thomas Chaucer,
responsible. Some time after completion it passed
into the hands of Thomas de Vere, twelfth Earl
of Oxford. There followed a series of owners until 1568, when Sir Giles Alington gave the
manuscript to his
neighbor, Roger, Lord North. With Lord North's
1600, the manuscript passed to Sir Thomas Egerton, a fellow
knight of the Bath, and a prior keeper of the
Great Seal. Under James I, Egerton became Chancellor
and Baron Ellesmere.
1802, the manuscript was sent to the Egerton's
Bridgewater House, to be rebound.
With Francis Granville Egerton,
who became first Earl
of Ellesmere in 1846, the Chaucer manuscript
available to scholars. Finally, when the American railroad tycoon, Henry
the Bridgewater library in 1917, and the Ellesmere
recognized as the jewel of the collection.
Ellesmere Chaucer deserves its eminence as a
landmark in the history of
the literary book. The
well-conceived design and artistic excellence
manuscript undeniably supplement the text.
the book and its special ways of presenting
structured meanings, the
Chaucer will be an exciting discovery.