© MS EL 26 C 9, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
The Ellesmere Manuscript is one of the most famous manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is one of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, having been made in the first decade of the 15th century, and is also richly illustrated. Chaucer died in around 1400 and no manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales date from his lifetime.
The Canterbury Tales was written at the end of the 14th century and tells the story of a group of 31 pilgrims who meet while travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time on the journey, they decide to each tell two tales to the assembled company on the journey there and the journey home. The result is regarded as a masterpiece of medieval literature.
The work, however, is unfinished. The poem never describes the return journey, and not all the pilgrims who appear in the poem's Prologue end up telling a tale. The Prologue describes a 'plowman' among the company, for example, whose tale is nowhere to be found. Although the poem survives in 92 manuscripts – some only tiny fragments, others beautifully decorated works of art – no manuscript dates from Chaucer’s lifetime. This has created a headache for editors of the poem, who for over a century have struggled to work out what Chaucer may have intended. Manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales often differ in the number of pilgrims' tales they contain and the ordering of the tales, and scholars continue to debate the relationship between the manuscripts.
The manuscript is especially famous for its illustrations, which bring Chaucer’s rich and playful poem to life. It contains 22 images of the pilgrims, often found at the beginning of their tales. It also contains a portrait of Chaucer. Images of medieval authors are very rare, so this image is precious, although it does not date from his lifetime. The text in the manuscript was copied by one scribe, but as many as three artists appear to have worked on the illustrations.
Held by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, the manuscript is named after Sir Thomas Egerton (1540–1617), who was Baron Ellesmere and Viscount Brackley.