Canterbury Tales Fragment

Archive Collection
  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 63
  • Dates of Creation
      2nd half 15th century
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      Middle English
  • Physical Description
      1 volume. iv + 2 + iv folios. Dimensions: 272 x 195 mm. A bifolium, leaves 2 and 7 in a quire, if the quire was of 8 leaves. Medium: vellum; paper flyleaves. Binding: quarter-bound in brown morocco, marbled paper-covered boards, by Fazakerley of Liverpool, for the John Rylands Library.
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Scope and Content

Two-leaf fragment of a later fifteenth-century manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, containing a pen-and-ink drawing of the Miller on horseback.

Contents: the last twenty-nine lines of the prologue to the Miller's Tale (Skeat's edition, lines 3158-3186) and lines 1-19 and 323-400 of the tale itself (Skeat, lines 3187-3207, 3511-3588).

Script: Gothic cursive anglicana formata with secretary influence (d, g, final s). Written space: 212 mm high. 38 long lines.

Decoration: A fine 19-line pen-and-ink drawing of the Miller on horseback, 101 x 128 mm within a burnished gold frame, fills the upper half of the text space on f. 1v, preceding the tale. There is also a 6-line initial W in blue, pink, green and black with white penwork and floral infill on a burnished gold ground, with elaborate foliate border extensions terminating in acanthus leaves, ivy leaves and bezants (f. 1v).

Description derived from N.R. Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, vol. III, Lampeter-Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 403. By permission of Oxford University Press.

Administrative / Biographical History

Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400), poet and administrator, was probably born in the early 1340s in London. Nothing is known of his education but he may well have attended the almonry school of St Paul's Cathedral. In 1357 he was a page in the household of Prince Lionel. Between 1359 and 1360 he was with the army of Edward III in France and in October of 1360 he is recorded as carrying letters to England. By 1366 Chaucer was married, probably to Philippa Roelt, the daughter of Sir Payn Roelt, a knight of Hainault, and Guyenne king of arms.

By 1367 Chaucer had become a member of the royal household, being described as an esquier or a valettus, one of a company of men who were dispatched on administrative or diplomatic missions in England or sometimes in Europe. He visited Italy in 1372-3 and again in 1378. From 1374 he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (1374-86). In 1386 Chaucer retired from his comptrollerships, and moved to Kent where he was a justice of the peace, probably until 1389. From 1389 to 1391 he was clerk of the king's works.

Chaucer's early literary works are based largely on French models and include the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose. Following his visits to Italy Chaucer's works were modelled primarily on those of Dante and Boccaccio. Major works include The House of Fame, which recounts the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae. Other works include the unfinished Legend of Good Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet into English verse, and Troilus and Criseyde, in which he perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal.

During the 1390s Chaucer wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. This unfinished poem, introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of life in 14th-century England and vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. The work offers what is in effect an anthology of medieval literary genres, ranging from saint's life to bawdy fabliau.

There is no record of Chaucer after 5 June 1400, and no will survives. The traditional date of his death, 25 October 1400, depends upon an inscription placed on a tomb in the abbey in 1556, and may well be correct. According to Caxton, he was buried at the entrance to the chapel of St Benedict in Westminster Abbey.

Source: Douglas Gray, 'Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340-1400)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). By permission of Oxford University Press: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5191.

Conditions Governing Access

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in July 1892 from John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910), and later transferred to the John Rylands Library.

Separated Material

This fragment forms part of the 'Oxford Manuscript' of the Canterbury Tales, along with Manuscript 1084/2 in the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, which comprises eleven leaves.

Custodial History

(1) George Mason (1735-1806), writer and book collector. Manly and Rickert have shown that the manuscript was part of lot 157 in the George Mason sale at Leigh and Sotheby's, 25 April 1799.

(2) George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758-1834); then by descent to John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910). Label 'e bibliotheca Spenceriana' pasted inside the front cover. Spencer accession no. 23125.

Bibliography

Carleton Brown and Rossell Hope Robbins, The index of Middle English verse (New York: printed for the Index Society by Columbia University Press, 1943), no. 4019, p. 645.

Douglas Gray, 'Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340-1400)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). By permission of Oxford University Press: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5191.

N.R. (Neil Ripley) Ker, Medieval manuscripts in British libraries, vol. III, Lampeter-Oxford (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 403.

John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, The text of the Canterbury Tales studied on the basis of all known manuscripts. Volume 1, descriptions of the manuscripts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1940). Vol. 1, pp. 396-8 contain a description of the manuscript.

James Sambrook, 'Mason, George (1735-1806)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/18271.

Guthrie Vine, 'The Miller's Tale: a study of an unrecorded fragment of a manuscript in the John Rylands Library in relation to the first printed text', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 17 (1933), pp. 333-47. The article includes a facsimile and transcription of the manuscript, and provides a comparative textual analysis.

Walter W. Skeat, The complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894).