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The Ellesmere Manuscript

 

The Ellesmere Manuscript (which is in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California) is one of the two earliest surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales, the other is the Hengwrt Manuscript (or Peniarth 392 D, now in the National Library of Wales, in Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire). The two manuscripts are believed to have been written by the same scribe, and there is much disgreement about which has priority. The Hengwrt often has better readings than the Ellesmere, and it may be the earlier. However, it is incomplete and disorganized, and most editions are based to some degree on the Ellesmere.

The Ellesmere (as opposed to the relatively plain Hengwrt) is one of the most elaborately illuminated of the surviving manuscripts of the Cantervury Tales. In this manuscript, each Tale is illustrated with a portrait of the teller at its beginning. Click below for an image of the full manuscript page on which the portrait of the Wife of Bath appears on the Huntington Library web page (then be sure to click on your browser's "Back" button to return to this page):

The Wife of Bath

  On the present web site the pages for each of the Tales are illustrated with the Ellesmere portraits as they appear in the woodcuts made by W.D. Hooper and published in the Six-text Edition of The Canterbury Tales, ed. F.J. Furnivall for the Chaucer Society (1868). They are crude compared to the original, and the colors are often not exactly true, they have the advantage of clarity. Compare the page from the Huntington with The Wife of Bath woodcut. The woodcuts may also be compared to the reproductions in James Thorpe, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: the Ellesmere manuscript, 2nd ed. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1978. The administrators of the Huntington have not ordinarily allowed the portraits to be shown on the internet, except for the Wife of Bath's portrait listed above. Perhaps as a consequence, those reproductions that do appear on the internet are usually of poor quality, Nevertheless, there is one very impressive manuscript page on the net, the opening page of the Knight's Tale on Anniina Jokinen's Chaucer Page on her excellent site, Luminarium (a resource worth exploring).

The full page view shows the intimate relation of the portrait to the text, which is lost when the figures appear in isolation.

There is a very expensive facsimile of the Ellesmere manuscript, more artifact than book and obviously intended for collectors rather than scholars:

The Canterbury tales: the new Ellesmere Chaucer facsimile (of Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9), edited by Daniel Woodward and Martin Stevens. Tokyo: Yushodo Co.; San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library Press, 1995.
A somewhat less expensive but not very satisfactory black and white edition is also available:
The Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury tales : a working facsimile, introduction by Ralph Hanna III. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989 [Widener: WID-LC PR1866.H36 1989x F].

The Hengwrt Manuscript is available in a very useful and helpful edition:

The Canterbury tales : a facsimile and transcription of the Hengwrt manuscript with variants from the Ellesmere manuscript, Geoffrey Chaucer; edited by Paul G. Ruggiers; introductions by Donald C. Baker, and by A. I. Doyle and M. B. Parkes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, c1979. [Widener: WID-LC PR1866.R8 1979].
The manuscript has been published by Norman Blake, who believes it represents Chaucer's own intentions:
The Canterbury tales / by Geoffrey Chaucer; edited from the Hengwrt manuscript by N.F. Blake. London: Edward Arnold, 1980. York medieval texts. Second series [PR1866.B52x 1980].
Some helpful recent studies of the Ellesmere manuscript are to be found in the volume published as a companion to the Facsimile:
The Ellesmere Chaucer: essays in interpretation, edited by Martin Stevens & Daniel Woodward. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library; Tokyo: Yushodo, 1995. [PR1874.E44 1995].

 

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Last modified: Aug. 2, 2000
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Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)