The Devonshire Chaucer
The Devonshire Chaucer (Takamiya MS 24) is a deluxe manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, the production and materials of which are so lavish – note especially the gold used in the border decoration – that it must originally have belonged to a very wealthy owner. Produced in London between 1440 and 1460, the manuscript opens with what is almost certainly a portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer himself, clothed in brilliant red and seated on a green bench.
In keeping with the springtime references of Chaucer’s famous opening lines — “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote” — the sun’s golden rays shine down upon him, and his bench is strewn with white flowers. The portrait is embedded in the large decorative initial "W" that opens this prologue, which goes on to describe the “nyne and twenty... sondry folk” who gather to go on a pilgrimage to seek the “hooly blisful martir,” Thomas Becket, who was buried and venerated at Canterbury. By the thirteenth century, Becket had become an immensely popular English saint, and the diverse group of pilgrims described in the prologue demonstrates his broad appeal. Among these pilgrims are the Miller, who has a taste for ale, the Monk, who enjoys hunting, the Squire, who wears elaborately embroidered clothing, and the Parson, who is impoverished but pious. To keep the pilgrims amused on their journey, their host, Harry Bailey, proposes a tale-telling contest, offering the winner a feast upon the group’s return.
While Takamiya MS 32, another of the Canterbury Tales manuscripts in Professor Takamiya’s collection, pairs Chaucer with his contemporary, John Gower, Takamiya MS 24 closes with the Life of St. Margaret, a work by John Lydgate, Chaucer’s junior and disciple. Lydgate, a monk at Bury St. Edmunds, was one of England’s most prolific poets — his output has been estimated at 145,000 lines — and was extremely popular in his own day. He so admired Chaucer’s work that he even placed himself among the Canterbury pilgrims in the prologue to his Siege of Thebes.
You can browse high-quality images of the entire Devonshire Chaucer here: devonshire.beinecke.yale.edu.