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Be A Part of Chaucer’s Tale

By Danièle Cybulskie

As you may already know, I’m a big believer in getting your hands dirty when it comes to learning about history and really getting engaged with artifacts whenever possible. This weekend, at the Canada Chaucer Seminar, I met Peter Robinson, the co-founder of a project which invites regular people to engage with one of the best-known medieval works: The Canterbury Tales.

canterbury tales writing - photo by Daniel Laughland / Flickr

For many people, The Canterbury Tales is not only Geoffrey Chaucer’s great masterwork, but one of the cornerstones of English literature. The trouble is, there is no definitive version of it: The Canterbury Tales exists in 88 manuscripts and incunables, no two of them exactly the same. In an effort to get a complete picture of The Canterbury Tales, Robinson’s team of scholars has created The Canterbury TalesProject, which aims to digitize and transcribe every existing medieval fragment of the tales, some 30,000 pages in all. So far, the team has transcribed 18,000 pages, which leaves 12,000 to go. Lucky for us, just about anyone with an internet connection can get involved in making this happen.

All that’s needed, says Robinson, is “a good knowledge of English.” If you’re not used to Middle English, Robinson says it takes “about three hours’ training” to find your feet (less time if you’re familiar with it), and then you can begin contributing your own transcriptions. That is, you look at the original scan of medieval parchment (or paper), and type what it says. As the platform for the project tracks changes, students and independent contributors can feel confident in trying their hands at transcription, as everything gets double-checked for accuracy. Teachers of English or medieval studies are welcome to make transcription of The Canterbury Tales part of their courses, too.

Already, great strides in our knowledge of The Canterbury Tales are being made. Using methods borrowed from biologists, The Canterbury TalesProject has created a “family tree” of manuscripts, which gives clues as to which versions may have come first, and how they may have circulated among scribes. This gives historians more information about individual scribes, scribal practices, and Chaucer’s work. More transcriptions will bring this into ever-clearer focus, so the project’s work is extremely valuable.

One of the most exciting discoveries so far, says Robinson, is that “the original spelling of several of the earliest manuscripts can be used as a guide to the live performance of the tales.” In fact, the team has put together a performance of part of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, as it might have been performed in Richard II’s court, and you can watch it on YouTube here. It even has closed captioning options in Middle English, and modern translation. In the video, you can see Robinson himself as Edmund Stafford, Lord Privy Seal, as well as a brief interview with Barbara Bordalejo, another pivotal member of The Canterbury TalesProject, and Terry Jones, the Chaucerian and Monty Python member who did the modern translation for this performance. The talented Colin Gibbings performs as Chaucer. In the next year, the team will be putting out an app in which users can read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English along with Gibbings’ audio performance while a modern translation appears on the screen below. (I’ve seen it, and it’s going to be a fantastic tool for teachers, students, and smartphone users alike.)

With all of this exiting work going on, why not join The Canterbury TalesProject and become a part of Chaucer’s tale? As Robinson says, “We need lots of people to help!” You can check out The Canterbury Tales Project at http://www.textualcommunities.usask.ca/web/canterbury-tales. (Click on “Viewer” to see the scanned manuscripts and their current transcriptions.)

Get yourself involved by emailing Peter Robinson at peter.robinson@usask.ca.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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