The Ellesmere Chaucer is quite large, measuring 16 by 11 inches. The Hengwrt MS, held at the National Library of Wales, widely accepted as the authorial version of The Canterbury Tales measures 11.4 by 8 inches. The Caxton Canterbury Tales, the first printed version of the novel, is significantly smaller than both the El MSand HG MS versions due to printing concerns and monetary constraints. This situates the Ellesmere Chaucer as the largest version of The Canterbury Tales.
The binding of the Ellesmere has had many incarnations. The first known binding took place in 1911 by Riviere and Son. The manuscript was bound in “dark green morocco” and featured the Egerton arms on the front cover in gold. Other features included “vellum doublures and gilt edges.” There is obvious proof however, that the El had been bound before. The 1911 binding was undertaken for two reasons: to provide a more secure binding and to photograph the manuscript in order to print a facsimile edition. The facsimile edition (1911) includes a statement by Egerton (then owner) that the manuscript was brought to London for binding as early as 1802. There is no known evidence regarding the original binding of the Ellesmere.
The Ellesmere was again rebound in 1995 by Trinity College guest conservator Anthony G Cains at Huntington Library’s Conservation Department. “Sewn on seven double flax cords using original 15th-century stations. Boards of quarter-sawn English oak laced on and pegged, covered with alum-tawed calfskin. Lacing-in pattern derived from evidence found on original pastedowns. Pastedowns bound in but not adhered to boards” (Cains, 1995).
The folio is made of thin vellum.
The Ellesmere Chaucer contains 240 parchment leaves: 232 of which make up the text of The Canterbury Tales in folio form. The remaining eight fly-leaves were originally blank. These eight leaves are now filled with details of ownership, asides to friends/relatives and notes. More specific details as follows: “double bounding rules the full length and width of the page, enclosing the text space; a double rule across the upper margin for running headlines; a single vertical rule in the outer margin to frame gloss space (occasionally double, in which case the row of pricking holes occurs between the 2 rules; a single rule apparently in dry point in quire 29, ff. 225-232). Round prick marks in the 3 outer margins, sometimes cropped, with a double set designating the second line from the bottom (a triple set for the same purpose in quire 14, ff. 105-112). Contemporary flyleaves ruled in the same manner as the rest of the volume” (Dutcchke, 1989).
The El was written in an English style cursive script which was common to many vernacular manuscripts in the late fourteenth century.
The text of the El was written on ruled lines of reddish-brown ink. The text itself is in black ink. Inks used in decoration and illumination include pinks, blues, red and violets. Scholars note that oxidation has ruined some of the original colors used on the manuscript. It is also worth noting that a close physical examination allows readers to see when the scribe re-inked his tool. The text is noticeably darker after inking, and then fades. The cycle repeats itself continuously.
It stands to reason that the rubric for the El was also created by the scribe, Adam Pinkhurst. However, we have no definitive evidence linking Pinkhurst to the rubric. The manuscript does show evidence of a rubric at different stages: erasure marks and, in one case, Chaucer’s name at the top of the folio page for the Tale of Melibeus. This may have served as a reminder for the artists that Chaucer’s illustration was to appear on that page. Additionally, the top of each folio page names the tale that takes place on those pages.