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Reference: Peniarth MS 392D

The 'Hengwrt Chaucer' is undoubtedly one of the greatest treasures of the National Library of Wales and one of the best known outside Wales. It is one of the most important texts of Geoffrey Chaucer's work to come down to us, and its importance has recently been magnified by the identification of its scribe as Adam Pinkhurst, one of Chaucer’s London-based associates. The manuscript may have been written at the end of the fourteenth century.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer (born before 1346 - died 1400) is considered to be the best English poet of the Middle Ages. His genius was acknowledged during his lifetime and his influence on English literature can be traced throughout the fifteenth century. Many writers down the centuries have attempted to imitate his unique blend of wit and realism, his poetical genius and control of characterisation and dialogue, but most have failed. Chaucer's work is permeated by humour, often a rough, vulgar humour, and he even pokes fun at himself on several occasions.

The Canterbury Tales

The most famous of Chaucer’s works is the Canterbury Tales, which is an incomplete collection of stories or tales which are recounted by a group of characters who are travelling together on a pilgrimage to visit Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury. The thirty pilgrims are described in the General Prologue which also introduces the work's structure, namely that each pilgrim is expected to narrate two stories on their way to Canterbury and another two on the return journey, the best raconteur being rewarded with a free supper. The body of the work therefore contains two dozen tales, including two told by Chaucer himself. They all join together to create an outstandingly colourful and lively social drama.

Adam Pinkhurst and the Hengwrt Chaucer

In 2004, Professor Linne Mooney identified the scribe who wrote the Hengwrt Chaucer as Adam Pinkhurst. Pinkhurst was also responsible for writing other Chaucer manuscripts, including the Ellesmere Chaucer (Huntington Library, San Marino, MS EL 26 C9) and our own Boece (Peniarth MS 393D). It is also believed that he is the subject of the poem ‘Chaucer words unto Adam his scrivener’, in which the poet chides Adam, his scribe, for errors in copying manuscript texts. This association between author and scribe, together with palaeographical considerations, suggest that the Hengwrt Chaucer may have been written before Chaucer’s death in 1400, or soon afterwards.

Chaucer manuscripts and Wales

The Welsh associations of this early and important manuscript of the Canterbury Tales reflect a common phenomenon in Welsh cultural history. From the later Middle Ages onwards English manuscripts were read, owned, copied and much prized in Wales, and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it is common to find evidence of Welsh ownership of manuscripts in English. Chaucer manuscripts at the National Library of Wales includ

  • the fourteenth-century copy of the Boece, Chaucer's English translation of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae (Peniarth MS 393D)
  • three surviving leaves of the 'Merthyr Fragment', of the early fifteenth century, containing part of the Nun's Priest's Tale (NLW MS 21972D)
  • three copies of Chaucer’s Tretyse on the Astrolabe, all with early Welsh associations (Peniarth MS 359, NLW MS 3049D and NLW MS 3567B).

The later history of the Hengwrt Chaucer

Later additions indicate that by the sixteenth century the manuscript had reached the Welsh Borders, for it belonged to Fouke Dutton, identified as a draper of Chester, who died in 1558. By the 1570s the manuscript was associated with the Banestar or Bannester family, also with Chester connections but whose three youngest children were born at Llanfair-is-gaer, near Caernarfon. A further memorandum, dated 1625, refers to Andrew Brereton (d. 1649) of Llanfair-is-gaer. The manuscript then found its way into the remarkable library of Robert Vaughan (c. 1592-1667) of Hengwrt, Meirionnydd. Vaughan's collection remained at Hengwrt until it was bequeathed in 1859 to W.W.E. Wynne of Peniarth. Wynne’s son sold the manuscripts in 1904 to Sir John Williams, and he in turn presented the Peniarth manuscripts, including the Hengwrt group, to the newly-established National Library of Wales in 1909. The ‘Hengwrt Chaucer’ has remained in the Library's care ever since, and was included, among other Peniarth manuscripts, on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register in 2010.

Copying the Hengwrt Chaucer

Until now, access to images of the Hengwrt Chaucer has been largely by means of:

  1. printed monochrome images in The Canterbury Tales: a facsimile and transcription of the Hengwrt manuscript, with variants from the Ellesmere manuscript, edited by Paul C. Ruggiers (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979)
  2. a monochrome microfilm copy, created in July 1995, for use by readers at the National Library of Wales
  3. full-colour digital images at 225 dpi in a CD-Rom published by Scholarly Digital Editions in March 2001, and prepared jointly by the National Library of Wales and The Canterbury Tales Project, based at De Montfort University, Leicester.

It is hoped that users of these new web images will also access the additional resources presented in the above first and third sources.

Further reading

  • John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, ‘The Hengwrt Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’, The National Library of Wales Journal, 1 (1939), 59-75.
  • Norman F. Blake, The Canterbury Tales, edited from the Hengwrt Manuscript, York Medieval Texts, second series (London: Edward Arnold, 1980).
  • Linne R. Mooney, ‘Chaucer's Scribe’, Speculum, 81 (2006), 97-138.
  • Linne R. Mooney & Estelle Stubbs, Scribes and the City: London Guildhall clerks and the dissemination of Middle English literature (York: York Medieval Press, 2013).
  • Website of the Late Medieval English Scribes project