Scholars do not know whether the Tales we have are a complete text, and the textual history of the Tales is long and checkered. The first printed edition, printed by William Caxton in 1478, was based on a manuscript now lost, and the 82 manuscripts which survive include 14 perfect (or nearly perfect) copies containing all of the Tales, 41 which are very nearly complete, only missing a few pages, 7 copies which are very fragmentary, and 20 which contain a single tale or a single passage deliberately cut out of the larger work. No manuscript can be dated within Chaucer’s lifetime, meaning that every manuscript was written between 1400 and the time of Caxton’s printing press (just less than a century later).
There are two basic camps into which these manuscripts fall into: and these two differing texts of the Tales are known as the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt manuscripts respectively.
The Ellesmere manuscript contains the most complete text of the Tales that we have, written in a large, clear book hand which covers 232 leaves of fine quality thin vellum, printed on unusually large pages with unusually generous margins. Famously, the main attraction of the manuscript is the lavish illumination, illustration and decoration: huge, golden and colorful initials joined to elaborate borders appear on seventy-one pages. Facing the first line of each of the Tales is an illustration of its narrator (the very famous illustration of Chaucer is featured opposite).
The Hengwrt manuscript of the Tales is less complete than the Ellesmere, and its tales are in a different and unique order. The manuscript, made of vellum, is in poor condition, stained, and with vermin having eaten about 9cm from the outer corners of its pages. However, its text is very regular, and is therefore now used by most modern editors. As the dialect, spelling and paleography are similar to that in Ellesmere, some critics have argued that the same scribe wrote both manuscripts. One final difference is that only the first page of Hengwrt has a pink and blue full vinet border: unlike Ellesmere, the rest of the pages are undecorated.
However, although the order featured in Ellesmere is more usually followed by editors, the text of Hengwrt is considered to be better, and so printed editions often feature a largely Hengwrt-based text ordered according to Ellesmere.
Why are the texts so different? Nobody is sure. Hengwrt, we know, was put together extremely quickly, and some scholars believe it was a hurried edition rushed to press in order to quickly get the Tales into print. Perhaps when Ellesmere was made, some years later, the papers were more carefully scrutinized, better ordered, and some extra material which had come to light (who knows how!) could be included. That said, it is perfectly possible that the two manuscripts represent different periods of Chaucer’s work on the Tales: the Ellesmere capturing a late (potentially the last) stage of revision before the end of Chaucer’s work on the project, potentially due to Chaucer’s death in c. 1400.
The different orders of the manuscripts (explaining too which Tales feature in which fragment) is below:
Fragment 1 (General Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook)
Fragment 2 (Man of Law)
Fragment 3 (Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner)
Fragment 4 (Clerk, Merchant)
Fragment 5 (Squire, Franklin)
Fragment 6 (Physician, Pardoner)
Fragment 7 (Shipman, Prioress, Sir Thopas, Melibee, Monk, Nun’s Priest)
Fragment 8 (Second Nun, Canon’s Yeoman)
Fragment 9 (Manciple)
Fragment 10 (Parson, Retraction)
Squire’s Tale (without Prologue)
Squire-Franklin Link as ‘Merchant’s Prologue’
Merchant’s Epilogue – Squire’s Prologue (without break) as ‘Host’s Words to Franklin’
Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
Second Nun’s Tale
Clerk’s Prologue, Tale and Epilogue