University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Ellesmere Chaucer

Volume VII · Winter 1952 · Number 2
The Ellesmere Chaucer


The Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales holds a place in our cultural history not unlike that of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays. It is well known that without the timely and devoted labors of two of Shakespeare's fellow actors many of the plays would have slipped irrecoverably into oblivion. We know less about the circumstances attending the production of the Ellesmere manuscript, but the evidence points to a very similar situation: the gathering together of Chaucer's papers, at his death, the ordering and recording of his greatest work in a form worthy of him. And just as the text of the First Folio yields to the earlier, separate quartos, here and there, in textual authority, yet stands as the great single authority for the whole canon, so the Ellesmere, yielding first place to the Hengwyrt and some other manuscripts in questions of textual purity, yet remains the best single authority for the content, and most notably the order, of the Canterbury Tales.

The original manuscript was still in the possession of the Earl of Ellesmere when the facsimile edition was produced, in 1911, by the Manchester University Press. It is one of the Roxburghe Club copies of this facsimile edition, bound in two volumes, which our Library has acquired as the gift of Mrs. Charles Hoeing. In 1917 the original manuscript was bought for the Huntington Collection, and is now in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery at San Marino, California. It contains, besides the Canterbury Tales, a "balade" on the House of Vere (Earls of Oxford), by one Rotheley, in a later hand (1450-80); a Table of Contents, and Chaucer's "Ballade of Truth" in a still different hand (before 1450); numerous signatures, marginal glosses, and many scribblings on the four fly-leaves at each end of the text.

The original Ellesmere manuscript has most fortunately come down to us almost undamaged. Its importance may be better understood after some account of the way in which Chaucer's works in general, and theCanterbury Tales in particular, have come down to us, nearly six centuries later. In contrast to the unique Beowulf manuscript, for instance -- the only manuscript of the only epic surviving from Anglo-Saxon times -- the complexity of the Chaucerian textual problem is enormous. Of the Canterbury Tales alone, Manly and Rickert have counted eighty-two, including fragments, and the manuscripts of his other works are counted in tens or scores. None of these can be certainly dated in Chaucer's own lifetime, nor traced to a scribe directly employed or supervised by him. This means that nearly all the surviving manuscripts were written between 1400 and the time of Caxton's printing press less than a century later, after which the expense and tedium of hand-copying no longer seemed worthwhile. (Caxton himself printed two editions of the Canterbury Talesfrom manuscripts now lost.) It means, further, that the attempt to get at what Chaucer himself wrote can be made only through that elaborate system of rigorously controlled inference and comparison that we know as textual criticism. In this case, the thorough examination and comparison of eighty-two scattered and jealously guarded, fragile manuscripts appear an impossibility, yet that is just what the incredibly devoted efforts of John Manly and Edith Rickert, and their associates, brought to successful completion in 1940, in their eight volume work The Text of the Canterbury Tales.

Two aspects of textual authority may be distinguished here, in relation to the Ellesmere Chaucer: the readings of the text, word by word and line by line, and the arrangement or order, especially of the larger units. Before Manly's elaborate study the Ellesmere Chaucer was generally accepted as the best single manuscript authority; this opinion must now be qualified slightly, since the Welsh Hengwyrt has been shown to be superior textually, though incomplete, as I have already indicated. The question of the order of the tales is more complicated, and again a brief review of the essential facts may be in order.

Chaucer's scheme, as he tells us in the General Prologue, provided for each of the company to tell four tales, two going to Canterbury, two on the return journey. Since there were about thirty pilgrims, that would have meant some 120 tales altogether, comparable to the famous Decameron and other collections. But Chaucer not only did not complete this scheme, but evidently lost interest in it, at least in its original form, somewhat as he had in the earlier series of "Love's martyrs," in the Legend of Good Women. Instead, he became interested in the dramatic possibilities of the pilgrims he had created, wrote longer and more elaborate prologues and links between the tales, cancelled some of them, moved others about, reassigned tales to new tellers. As a result, we do not know what the "true" order of the tales was, for the excellent reason that Chaucer himself was still undecided, still experimenting, when he died. To put it differently, no arrangement of the tales can be made that will entirely avoid serious contradictions in the story of the Canterbury journey. But modern editors have been forced to adopt some arrangement, and many years ago the Globe editors defied the authority of existing manuscripts and made an arrangement based frankly on critical taste. Other arrangements have been tried since. It is interesting, however, that Professor Robert Pratt's recent study of the problem urges a return, after the rivers of ink that have been poured on the matter, to the "Ellesmere order" with only one simple and obvious change.

The text of the Canterbury Tales in the Ellesmere manuscript is complete, in a large, clear book hand, covering 232 leaves of the finest quality thin vellum, sound and flexible. The page dimensions are noble, nearly 16 x 11 inches (the largest known manuscript of the Tales, Harley 7333, is about 18 x 13 inches), with unusually generous margins. But the main glory of the manuscript is the lavish illumination and illustration, in which the Ellesmere is easily unrivaled: on no less than seventy-one pages large foliated initials are joined to "demi-vinet" borders, in gold and other colors, framing the text on three sides. This "demi-vinet" is a conventionalized vine, the stem formed by a thick double bar, one of gold and one of color. This stem gives off, at intervals, rather stiffly curled branches bearing leaves, flowers, and hairline penflourishes often tipped with gold balls -- these last having something of the pleasant incongruity of our Christmas tree ornaments. On the whole, the design has an admirable suitability to the text it encloses: the thickness of the stem is balanced by the grace and delicacy of the hairlines, avoiding undue austerity on one side or decadent over-elaboration on the other. The text is supported by the border, not overwhelmed by it. Opposite the first line of each tale is the figure of the Pilgrim narrator, twenty-three highly individualized portraits, including a very famous one of Chaucer himself. There are, besides, over two-hundred large illuminated initials.

Margaret Rickert's study of English illumination shows the Ellesmere border design to be in a fourteenth-century East Anglian style, done not by monks but by lay craftsmen, probably in London. The work of three -- possibly four -- different hands is discernible in the illumination and the miniatures, although the text itself is probably the work of one scribe. The evidence suggests, moreover, that text, border, and figures were all done at the same time -- this commonplace of modern bookmaking is not, of course, to be taken for granted in medieval manuscripts.

The miniatures are of great charm and interest. They all show a perfect understanding of the text they are intended to illustrate -- which is notoriously untrue of illustrating in general, even in our own day -- and every horse as well as every rider is individually and appropriately conceived. Part of the appropriateness is achieved symbolically, -- the Physician holds up a flask, for example, -- and they are imagined as part of the text in a way no longer familiar to us. Thus, the figures all face the text; Chaucer, and the Nun's Priest, point upwards to the words "My Tale..." The several artists responsible must have worked under the close supervision of one guiding hand. The figure opposite the "Tale of Melibeus" (f.157b) is that of Chaucer himself, on horseback like the other pilgrims. The proportions of rider and horse suggest that this miniature is a copy or adaptation, of an earlier standing figure: in any case, it is probably the earliest portrait of Chaucer, the beginning of one of the two main "portrait traditions" of the fifteenth century.

It would be interesting to know for whom this magnificent book was first made. It was apparently in the possession of the Earls of Oxford in the fifteenth century: we know for certain only that it was owned by Lord Ellesmere's family from about 1600 on.

So far we have been describing the original manuscript: what is the relation of the Library's facsimile to it? The question, aside from historical and sentimental considerations, is difficult to answer in terms of relative value. For certain special purposes, of course, nothing can take the place of minute examination of the original itself for such things as erasures, obscure smudges that may or may not be remains of letters, variations in ink, and so on. On the other hand, some of the colors of the original have suffered severely by oxidation -- the red and pink madders are now nearly black -- and here and there some peeling off is evident. The colors, therefore, of the facsimile, which was produced by a lithographic process based on photography, are really imitation rather than genuine reproduction. The figures also have been somewhat restored, doubtless offending many purists but producing a result perfectly in harmony with the text in appearance and spirit.

The literary significance of the Ellesmere Chaucer is impressive: it is one of the two or three earliest manuscripts; it provides the best readings, except for one manuscript which is much less complete; it has been long recognized as best representing a contemporary spelling standard; finally, it is the best authority for the order of the tales. We must now add this: it is also one of the most splendid examples of medieval bookmaking, and easily the finest manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, in every respect worthy of our first great poet.