The Ellesmere Chaucer, also known as the Ellesmere Manuscript, is considered to be one of the most significant and high quality manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The codex, written and illuminated at the beginning of the 15th century, was produced in England, and it features lavishly made examples of illumination and illustration. With its 22 fictional characters and more than 200 illuminated initials, the manuscript is a beautiful example of Anglo-saxon superb production.
Written in English, this manuscript contains the complete text of the Canterbury Tales as opposed to the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript, incomplete but textually superior. The Ellesmere Chaucer takes its name after Sir Robert Egerton (1540-1617), known as first baron Ellesmere, an English nobleman.
East Anglian Style of the Ellesmere Chaucer
The iconography of the manuscript is characterized by elaborate illustrations and illuminations yet unparalleled. The very generous margins feature large foliated initials joined to demi-vinet borders, in gold, blue, and red framing the text on three sides. This feature can be found in the prologue of every tale (ex. fol. 80v., 87v., etc.), and also in between (fol. 86v.).
The demi-vinet is a vine drawing, with beautifully curled branches bearing leaves and flowers, in gold, red and blue. The thickness of the stem is balanced by the delicacy of the hairlines avoiding the contrast between over-elaborated on one side and plain on the other. This design is typical of the 14th century East Anglian style.
Next to the first line of the prologue of every tale, is the figure of the Pilgrim narrator, 22 individualized portraits in total, including one of Chaucer himself. The miniatures are complementary to the text, in that they are illustrative and appropriate to the text, for example, in the prologue of the Physician's tale, the physician holds a flask (fol. 133v.).
All the miniatures are represented facing the text, and the figure of Chaucer and the Nun's Priest are even depicted pointing the beginning of the text (fol. 151v. And fol. 179r.). The iconographic apparatus is the work of three – possibly four – hands.
Anglicana or Cursiva Antiquior Script
The Ellesmere Chaucer offers a magnificent example of the Anglicana script, also known as cursiva antiquior. Originally an English documentary hand (12th century), in the following centuries it became the chief literary cursive hand, very round and looped.
B, l and h show all very high ascenders which develop into elongated loops. Most distinctive of the script are the letter which a shows two compartments, and the 8-shaped g. The text is probably the work of just one scribe.
The commissioner of the codex is still unknown; possibly, it was firstly owned by John de Vere, 12th Earl of Oxford and became possession of the Egerton family at the end of the 16th century.