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Archives and Special Collections: The Ellesmere Chaucer

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The Ellesmere Chaucer

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: The New Ellesmere Chaucer Facsimile (of Huntington Library MS EL 26 C9). Edited by Daniel Woodward and Martin Stevens. Toyko: Yushnudo Co.; San Marino, California: Huntington Library Press, 1995.

Facsimile edition limited to 250 numbered copies. Copies 51-150 are sewn and bound in an early fifteenth-century-type binding, oak boards and quarter bound leather and blue, linen covered box. This is copy no. 110.

The Storytellers

  1. The Knight
1. The Knight
And though that he were worthy he was wys, / And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.... / He was a verray parfit gentil knyght.
  2. The Miller
2. The Miller
He was short sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre.... / A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.
  3. The Reeve*
3. The Reeve (Farm or Estate Manager)
(*Farm or Estate Manager) ... a sclendre colerik man.... / This Reeve sat upon a ful good stot / That was al pomely grey and highte Scot.
  4. The Cook
4. The Cook
But greet harm was it, as it thoughte me, / That on his shyne a mormal hadde he, / For blankmanger, that made he with the beste.

The Ellesmere Chaucer

The Ellesmere Chaucer is not only the most beautiful manuscript of Chaucer's best known work, the Canterbury 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 Canterbury 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.

The Storytellers

  5. Man of Law
5. Man of Law
Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas, / And yet he semed bisier than he was.
  6. The Wife of Bath
6. The Wife of Bath
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve, / Withouten oother compaignye in youthe.... / Upon an amblere esily she sat, / Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat / As brood as is a bokeler or a targe.
  7. The Friar
7. The Friar
Of double worstede was his semycope, / That rounded as a belle out of the presse, / Somewhat he lipsed for his wantownesse / To make his Englissh sweete upon his tonge.
  8. The Summoner*
8. The Summoner
(*Bailiff of an Ecclesiastical Court) Of his visage children were aferd.... / A gerland hadde he set upon his heed, / As greet as it were for an ale stake. / A bokeleer hadde he maad hym of a cake.

The Ellesmere Chaucer

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 Canterbury 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 Storytellers

  9. The Clerk of Oxford*
9. The Clerk of Oxford
(*University Student) ... and leene was his hors as is a rake.... / Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche, / And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
  10. The Merchant
10. The Merchant
Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat.... / Hise resons he spak ful solempnely, / Sownynge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng.
  11. The Squire
11. The Squire
A lovyere and a lusty bacheler, / With lokkes crulle as they were leyd in press.... / He was as fressh as is the monthe of May.
  12. The Franklin*
12. The Franklin
(*Landowner) Whit was his heed as is a dayesye.... / To lyven in delit was evere his wone, / For he was Epicurus owene sone.

The Ellesmere Chaucer

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.

The Storytellers

  13. The Physician
13. The Physician
For Gold in phisik is a cordial. / Therefore he lovede gold in special.... / I pray to God so save they gential cors, / And eek thyne urynals and thy jurdones.
  14. The Pardoner
14. The Pardoner
This Pardoner hadde heer as yellow as wex, / But smothe it heeng as dooth a strike of flex.... / A vernycle hadde he sowed upon his cappe.... / A voys he hadde as small as hath a goot.
  15. The Shipman
15. The Shipman
A daggere hangynge on a laas hadde he / Aboute his nekke, under his arm adoun.... / Of nyce conscience took he no keepe.
  16. The Prioress
16. The Prioress
Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne, / Entuned in hir nose ful semeely.... / Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar / A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene

The Ellesmere Chaucer

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.

The Storytellers

  17. Chaucer
17. Chaucer
He in the waast is shape as wel as I; / This were a popet in an arm t'enbrace / For any womman smal and fair of face. / He semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce, / For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce.
  18. The Monk
18. The Monk
Grehoundes he hadde as swift as fowel in flight.... / For sikerly, nere clynkyng of youre belles / That on youre bridel hange on every syde, / By hevene kyng that for us alle dyde, / sholde er this han fallen doun for sleepe.
  19. The Nun's Priest
19. The Nun's Priest
Be blithe, though thou ryde upon a jade. / What thogh thyn hors be bothe foul and lene? / If he wol serve thee, rekke nat a bene / Looke that thyn herte be murie evermo.
  20. The Second Nun
20. The Second Nun
Another Nonne with hire hadde she, / That was hir chapeleyne.

The Ellesmere Chaucer

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.

The Storytellers

  21. The Canon's Yeoman
21. The Canon's Yeoman
A male tweyfoold upon his croper lay; / It semed that he caried lite array.... / I am so used in the fyr to blowe / That it hath chaunged my colour, I trowe.
  22. The Manciple*
22. The Manciple
(*Business Manager of Lawyers) Now is nat that of God a ful fair grace / That swich a lewed mannes wit shal pace / The wisdom of an heepe of lerned men? / ... I have heer in a gourde / A draghte of wyn, ye, of a ripe grape, / And right anon ye shul seen a good jape. / This Cook shal drynke therof, if that I may....
  23. The Parson
23. The Parson
To Drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse, / By good ensample, this was his bisynesse.
   

The Ellesmere Chaucer

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, the Ellesmere Chaucer was recognized as the jewel of the collection.

The General Prologue

General Prologue

Here Biginneth The Book Of The Tales Of Caunterbury Compiled by Geffrey Chaucer

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The Droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye, -
So priketh hem nature in hir corage:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages -
And palmers for to seken straunge stronde -
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke....

The Ellesmere Chaucer

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