Ellesmere manuscript


Ellesmere manuscript
   The Ellesmere manuscript (Huntington Library MS. Ellesmere 26.C.9) is the most famous literary manuscript from the English Middle Ages. It is one of the two earliest manuscripts of Geoffrey CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES (the other being the HENGWRTMANUSCRIPT), and is probably composed by the same scribe that produced that text. The Ellesmere was produced within the first decade after Chaucer’s death in 1400, probably within a few years of the Hengwrt. Unlike the Hengwrt, however, the Ellesmere is a beautifully produced and finished manuscript, essentially giving the impression that The Canterbury Tales is a finished work when it is not. Prior to the early 20th century, editors tended to use the Ellesmere as the base text of editions of Chaucer, until modern editors established the earlier authority of the Hengwrt. Still in many ways the Ellesmere is superior to the Hengwrt: It is a complete version of the Tales (the Hengwrt lacks The CANON’S YEOMAN’S TALE as well as the prologue to The MERCHANT’S TALE and the ending of The PARSON’S TALE). Furthermore, the Ellesmere places the tales into a logical and coherent order that has become standard in editions of Chaucer.
   What has truly made the Ellesmere so famous is its beautiful illuminations. Clearly the text was produced for a wealthy patron. The 464 pages of the manuscript are decorated with illuminated initials, floriated borders, and most famously 23 miniature portraits of the Canterbury pilgrims, including one of Chaucer himself. Each individual tale is illustrated with a portrait of its teller placed in the border at the beginning of the story. The manuscript became part of the Bridgewater House Library, a collection founded by Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Sir Thomas Egerton, who later became Baron Ellesmere. The collection was in the possession of the earls of Ellesmere until Henry Huntington bought the entire library in 1917. Huntington brought the manuscript back to San Marino, California, where it is the centerpiece of the Huntington Library collection in that city.
   Bibliography
   ■ Hanna, Ralph, III. Introduction to The Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: A Working Facsimile.Woodbridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1989.
   ■ Stevens, Martin, and Daniel Woodward, eds. The Ellesmere Chaucer: Essays in Interpretation. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1995.
   ■ Woodward, Daniel, and Martin Stevens, eds. The New Ellesmere Chaucer Monochromatic Facsimile. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library/Yushodo, 1997.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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