The Hengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile (2000): General Introduction

Estelle Stubbs (University of Sheffield)

The Hengwrt Chaucer, (National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, MS. Peniarth 392 D, hereafter Hg), is believed to be the earliest extant copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and has usually been dated soon after Chaucer’s death in 1400.[1] A second copy of the poem, Ellesmere (Huntington Library, San Marino, California, MS. EL 26 C9, hereafter El), was copied in the same hand, probably a few years after the Hg copy was made.[2] Altogether eighty-two manuscripts and fragments and four printed editions of the Canterbury Tales have survived from the fifteenth century. It is possible that two or three may predate the poet’s death but there is no holograph manuscript and the dating of the manuscripts is not precise.

When Chaucer died, his work on the Canterbury Tales was unfinished. Not all the tales envisaged for the pilgrims had been written, some were incomplete and others were still in a state of revision. The order of the tales was not satisfactorily established, for the passages linking the tales into the pilgrimage framework were inconsistent and their intended position was not always clear. Because there are no surviving manuscripts in Chaucer’s hand, it is not possible to say which, if any, of the surviving Canterbury Tales manuscripts represents the author’s final intentions, or which arrangement of tales he preferred.

In Hg and El both the texts and the arrangement of the tales and links are frequently at variance (see Tale Orders). El’s text is firmly established as the most complete and this, combined with the apparently more logical and smooth running order of its tales, has exerted an influence on scholars for the last hundred and fifty years. The exquisite illuminations and pilgrim portraits are a further enticement to view El as the "ideal" among Canterbury Tales manuscripts (Woodward 1995, 3). In contrast, the scruffy, incomplete, mis-bound and rat-damaged Hengwrt manuscript of the Canterbury Tales has been accorded a less elevated status. It is the Pauper to Ellesmere’s Prince. However, Hg appears to show signs of a less successful and perhaps earlier attempt than that apparent in El to assemble tales and groups of tales into a unified Book of the tales of Caunterbury.[3] The inspiration for the production of each manuscript was different and this has a bearing not only on the order of tales but also on the texts. An understanding of the relationship between the two manuscripts is crucial for our understanding of the genesis of the text and its order. As probably the earliest exemplar, the importance of Hg in an understanding of the textual tradition cannot be underestimated.

For many readers, a printed text has an authority which is rarely questioned. The first printed edition of the poem, published probably in 1476 by William Caxton, used a manuscript as a copytext. The second edition, published six years later, claimed access to a different manuscript with a text closer to Chaucer’s intentions. The dilemma faced by Caxton with regard to Chaucer’s ‘intended text’ is a problem which has had to be faced by every editor of Canterbury Tales’ material over the six hundred years since Chaucer’s death. Since Caxton’s first edition, other editors have privileged different manuscripts according to personal preference and manuscript availability.

In the 19th century, the Hg and El manuscripts, never before available, came into the public domain from private ownership. Frederick Furnivall preferred the language and presentation of El which granted authority to that manuscript but Hg was included in the Chaucer Society six-text edition published in 1868 (Furnivall 1868). Most editions published since that time have used the Ellesmere Canterbury Tales as Chaucer’s text.

In recent years, a number of factors have encouraged the re-evaluation of all Canterbury Tales manuscripts. An enormous debt is owed in particular to Manly and Rickert for The Text of the Canterbury Tales (8 vols.). Their work in examining not only the text but all related codicological features of every known Canterbury Tales manuscript has had important repercussions. Their study of quiring, scribal hands, illumination, ink colour and writing medium provided a new background against which to set the features of textual affiliations, dialect studies and manuscript ownership. This holistic view of the manuscript as artefact has given a new dimension to manuscript studies. The detailed analyses of Manly and Rickert formally recognised the quality of the Hg text, and suggested that El had been subjected to a certain amount of editorial tinkering, though whether the ‘editorial’ reflected ‘authorial’ could not be established.

A black and white facsimile and transcription of Hg with variants from the El manuscript was published in 1979 as the inaugural publication of the Oklahoma Variorum Chaucer. Hg was to be used as the base text for subsequent Variorum publications, providing a text, as is explained in the Editor’s Preface, which is ‘as close as we will come to Chaucer’s own intentions for large parts of the Canterbury Tales’ (Ruggiers 1979, Editor’s Preface). The Variorum editors presented transcripts of Hg with variants from El and facilitated comparison between them. A.I. Doyle and M.B. Parkes in the Paleographical Introduction to the volume presented scholars for the first time with a careful analysis of all aspects of the codicological features of Hg (Ruggiers 1979, xix-xlix). In 1980 Norman Blake published an edition of the Canterbury Tales based exclusively on Hg, believing that special attention should be afforded to Hg by anyone interested in the development of Chaucer’s text (Blake 1980). This gave readers the opportunity to read a fresh text of the tales in an unfamiliar order and to consider the implications of material missing from the manuscript.

More recently, developments in dialectology have provided the researcher with the tools to examine and compare the spelling systems of the scribes.[4] Information made available on the development of the book trade in Chaucer’s time and beyond has provided a context for some Canterbury Tales manuscripts (Christianson 1976). The discovery of another manuscript with borders by the El artists has supported the possibility of an earlier dating of that manuscript and as a consequence of Hg also (Scott 1995). And last but not least, the development in computer technology has allowed for easy comparison and manipulation of textual data and access to high resolution manuscript images.

The present CD contains colour images of each folio of the Hengwrt Chaucer which give all scholars the opportunity of examining the testimony of this manuscript at close quarters. It also provides transcriptions of the texts of both Hg and El enabling easy line by line comparison, a desideratum in unravelling their complex relationship. The opportunity to view manuscript lay-out, position of glosses, treatment of headers, changes of ink and details of quiring allows for close consideration of the way in which Hg developed. Notes of any distinctive features were made folio by folio during the course of transcription. These are the basis of the ‘Observations on the Hengwrt manuscript’, and are accessible from the links to the ‘About...’ pages, present in the text and image views in this publication. The physical aspect of Hg may still have much to reveal about the development of the text.

Editor’s Note: I would like to acknowledge the enormous debt owed by anyone who works on Canterbury Tales material to J. M. Manly and Edith Rickert and to A. I. Doyle and M. B. Parkes. Though some findings of Manly and Rickert may be open to dispute, the heroic scale of their enterprise nevertheless places all Chaucer scholars in their debt. For an overall appreciation of the manuscripts and their history the eight volume The Text of the Canterbury Tales is still probably the first port of call. In navigating the Hengwrt Chaucer the work of A. I. Doyle and M. B. Parkes provides an indispensible aid. Their accurate and reasoned assessments on all aspects of Hg’s complicated codicology have helped to explain many of the puzzling features of this manuscript.


1. A number of scholars have recently suggested a possible earlier dating for Hg. Notable among these are Vance Ramsey, The Manly-Rickert Text of the Canterbury Tales 1994, Norman Blake, ‘Geoffrey Chaucer and the Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales’ 1997, and Kathleen Scott, ‘An Hours and Psalter by Two Ellesmere Illuminators,’ 1995, pp. 87-119.
Scott argues an earlier date than previously suggested for the El borders. ‘From the perspective of border decoration, it would be more appropriate to place the Ellesmere limners’ or just after 1400 and ending no later than 1405.’ p. 106. This in turn would affect the dating of the production of Hg. ‘Although certainly not of the 1380’s, the Hengwrt border was probably not made after ca. 1395-1400. The implication is of course that Hengwrt was made before the death of Chaucer.’ p. 119.
2. The difficulty of determining whether El or Hg was the first to be copied is described in A.I. Doyle and M.B. Parkes 1979. They also suggest that the scribe’s work on the two manuscripts may have overlapped to a certain extent.
3. This is the title to the whole work which is copied above the opening lines of the General Prologue in Hg. Oddly, for a more luxurious and finished copy, thought to have been made after Hg, there is no such title in El.
4. See ‘The Language of the Hengwrt Manuscript’, by S. Horobin, on this CD-ROM<, and J. J. Smith, ed. The English of Chaucer and his Contemporaries 1988.