Manuscript Illumination

The feature that the Ellesmere Chaucer is most widely known for are the twenty-three portraits (or miniatures) of the storytellers who populate the Tales. These paintings appear at either the prologue or beginning of their tale. Some have argued that they are to aid the reader in deciphering the text since the images reflect the nature of their storyteller. For instance, the Cook is holding a spoon or eating utensil. Each character is mounted on a horse, most likely symbolizing their journey to Canterbury. Chaucer himself appears in an illustration at the prologue to the Tale of Melibeus. Some of the miniatures are mroe skilled than others, and it is widely accepted that Chaucer’s portrait was completed by the most skilled of illuminators. All the images face the manuscript gutter, and in certain cases, point towards the text of their prologues. Though there are over 80 manuscript versions of the Tales in existence today, the El is the only one to boost such lively and illuminating paintings of the travelers.

The popularity of the Ellesmere Chaucer is largely due to its beautiful decorations, portraits and illuminations. Of the entire 232 folio pages, seventy-one contain borders on the top, left and bottom sides. These borders resemble flowering vines of red, blue and pink that some scholars call “demi-vinets” or “spray borders.” Gold leafing can been seen on these decorated pages; still brilliantly colored after 600+ years. Initial letters, or decorated initials, are also seen throughout the manuscript. Most are three to six inches in height with a floral design and gold leafing. Throughout the text are sprinkled smaller capital letters and paragraph markers, also decorated in some fashion.

Margaret Rickert has proven that the border of the El is of “fourteenth-century Anglian style” created by lay craftsman in London as opposed to monks. She suggests that three different craftsmen worked on the illuminations within the manuscript. She also suggests that all decorative elements of the El were completed at one time; meaning that the scribe Pinkhurst worked alongside these three illuminators to finish the Tales. It would seem that “group work” was not common during this period.