One of the most important texts of Geoffrey Chaucer's work to come down to us is Peniarth 392D, the manuscript which is better known as the 'Hengwrt Chaucer'. Geoffrey Chaucer (before 1346-1400) 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. His great feat is the narration of a story at which he is master and this gift is acknowledged worldwide.
The most famous of his 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.
The 'Hengwrt Chaucer' (Peniarth MS 392D) is undoubtedly one of the greatest treasures of the National Library of Wales and one of the best known outside 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. The National Library's mid-fifteenth century exemplar of Lydgate's Life of Our Lady, in Welsh hands by the sixteenth century (NLW MS 21242C) is a typical example.
In the case 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, who sold the manuscripts in 1904 to Sir John Williams. He in turn presented the Peniarth manuscripts, including the Hengwrt group, to the newly-founded National Library in 1909. The 'Hengwrt Chaucer' has remained in the Library's care ever since.
The three surviving leaves of the 'Merthyr Fragment' (NLW MS 21972D), containing part of the Nun's Priest's Tale once formed part of another very early manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. These leaves were in Wales from at least the eighteenth century, kept in a copy of the Antiquae Linguae Britannicae Dictionarium Duplex (1632) by Dr John Davies. Amongst other Chaucer manuscripts in the Library's collections are three exemplars of his Tretyse on the Astrolabe, all with Welsh associations: Peniarth 359, NLW 3049D and NLW 3567B; the last of which was in the possession of John Edwards of Chirk, Denbighshire, as early as 1551. The Library also holds a fifteenth-century copy of Chaucer's English translation of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiæ (Peniarth MS 393D), which was in Caernarfonshire by the 1730s.
In 1979 a black and white facsimile copy of Peniarth MS 392 with printed transcription and notes was published by the Oklahoma University Press. It is now possible to buy a CD-Rom of this important manuscript which was 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. The CD-Rom contains high quality full-colour digital images (225 dpi) of each folio as well as the covers of both the 'Hengwrt Chaucer' and the 'Merthyr Fragment', a transcript of the whole text and glosses together with a word by word collation of the Hengwrt and Ellesmere texts. This work has been edited by Estelle Stubbs with Professor Norman Blake and Dr Peter Robinson as general editors. It costs £90 or $130 and it is available at the National Library or it can be ordered from Scholarly Digital Editions, 31 Guildford Road, Leicester, England LE2 2RD tel./fax +44 (0) 116 221 4160. Website: www.sd-editions.com. ISBN: 0 9539610 0 1.