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Magnusson (2009 Congress)

Danielle Magnusson
(University of Washington – Seattle)
“Mandatory Marginalia:  The Image of the Nun’s Priest in the Ellesmere Manuscript”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2009)
Session on “Margins of Error:  On the Self-Correcting Medieval Manuscript”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Jeff Massey
2009 Congress

[Published on our first website on 16 May 2012]

As one of the most elegant manuscripts to contain Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and one of the more extraordinary manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages, the Ellesmere Manuscript (San Marino, California, Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, made probably in the early fifteenth century) has understandably received much critical attention.  Surprisingly few critics, however, have considered the interplay between its image and text and, in particular, how marginal imagery and textual ornamentation promote and inspire specific readings of the corresponding Tales.

Such considerations are especially relevant in the case of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.  Critic [and Research Group Trustee] Richard Emmerson insists that, of all the pilgrims’ portraits found in the manuscript, the Nun’s Priest is “the least satisfactory miniature in both discursive and figural terms.”  This image not only defies the description found in Chaucer’s Prologue, but also deviates from a pattern to which all other portraits in the Ellesmere Manuscript conform.  In general, the Ellesmere portraits represent the pilgrims as described in the Prologue and visually herald and distinguish the beginning of each individual Tale.  The depiction of Nun’s Priest, however, represents a unique discrepancy between image and text, and (albeit remaining ultimately subordinate to the central text) promotes readings of the Tale that would otherwise be improbable.

More specifically, the Ellesmere portrait implies — in terms of the Nun’s Priest and compared to the remaining portraits and other manuscripts — a significantly more active role in the Tale.  Details absent from the portrait reappear in the language of the Tale, while ornate paraph marks direct the attention of the audience at key moments to the Nun’s Priest’s voice, thereby providing him with characterization that would otherwise appear to be missing.  Together, the image and the paraph marks isolate the link between the Tale and the didacticism of bestiary works, pointing to the profession of the Nun’s Priest, and to the tension between orality and visuality found throughout the Tale, as well as to the tastes and concerns of the manuscript’s commissioner.  In sum, the marginal imagery and textual pointing that accompany the Ellesmere’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale not only shape our reading and perception of the work at large, but further seem to “correct” our view of the teller and details of the Tale itself.