Ellesmere Chaucer


The 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.

This 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 originally 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 scribe in an English style cursive script.

This 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 most 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 Becket in Cantebury Cathedral. Because of the familiarity of these widely reproduced Ellesmere portraits, they have shaped the response of many modern readers who have never seen the manuscript.

The chief purpose of the Ellesmere pilgrim portraits is to facilitate reading by making explicit and visible the manuscript's arrangement that classifies the tales according to the speakers. As visual "titles" 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 the miniatures 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 not mentioned 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 first, responsible for the first sixteen pilgrims and the Parson, painted relatively small figures. The 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. Portraying the tale-tellers on horseback was an important design decision. This social marker levels the status of the pilgrims, though the horses do visually distinguish the portraits from one another. The artists seem to have relished the opportunity to represent a variety of horses, even linking them to the personality of their riders.

Although it is not certain who commissioned the manuscript, possibly the author's son, Thomas Chaucer, was 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 death in 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.

In 1802, the manuscript was sent to the Egerton's London residence, Bridgewater House, to be rebound. With Francis Granville Egerton, who became first Earl of Ellesmere in 1846, the Chaucer manuscript was made available to scholars. Finally, when the American railroad tycoon, Henry E. Huntington purchased the Bridgewater library in 1917, and the Ellesmere Chaucer was recognized as the jewel of the collection.

The Ellesmere Chaucer deserves its eminence as a landmark in the history of the literary book. The well-conceived design and artistic excellence of this manuscript undeniably supplement the text. To the student of the book and its special ways of presenting structured meanings, the Ellesmere
Chaucer will be an exciting discovery.

Conrad H. Schoeffling
Special Collections Librarian

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