A New App Guides Readers Through Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’

The tool includes a 45-minute audio performance of the work’s General Prologue in Middle English

Peter Robinson, leader of the app development project
Researcher Peter Robinson led the team that developed the first app version of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Dave Stobbe / University of Saskatchewan

The Canterbury Tales is a pillar of the Western literary canon. Immensely popular since making its debut in medieval England, its 17,000 lines are still treasured by students and scholars centuries later. For those who are not well-versed in Middle English, however, Geoffrey Chaucer’s riotous opus can make for a challenging read. Now, a team of experts is hoping to make the 14th-century classic more accessible by presenting it in app form.

As Ellen Gutoskey reports for Mental Floss, the project is the brainchild of an international team of experts led by researchers at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan. Available for free in both mobile and web formats, the app focuses on The Canterbury Tales’ General Prologue, which introduces readers to the eclectic cast of pilgrims who regale their audience with stories as they make their journey to the Canterbury shrine of St. Thomas Becket. According to a University of Saskatchewan statement, the project represents “the first major literary work augmented by new scholarship, in any language, presented in an app.”

Users can find the prologue in three different formats: a text version in Middle English, a modern English translation and a digitization of the original manuscript. Clicking on a line in the manuscript triggers a pop-up with both the Middle English text and a translation, making the document easy to explore.

A 45-minute audio performance by Saskatchewan student Colin Gibbings brings Chaucer’s text to life in its original language. As users listen to the recording, they can access scholarly notes, commentary and a vocabulary explaining some of the author’s word choices.

“While the app has material which should be of interest to every Chaucer scholar, it is particularly designed to be useful to people reading Chaucer for the first time,” says Richard North, a medievalist at University College London who worked on the project, in the statement. “These include not only bachelor of arts university students and school children but also members of the public who have their own interest in Chaucer and his works.”

Page from Canterbury Tales manuscript
A page from an early manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Because Chaucer died before he could finish the Tales, there is no one original version of the text. Scholars have pieced together the story from more than 80 different manuscripts, most of them written before 1500. The new app is based on the Hengwrt manuscript, believed to have been copied by scribe and Chaucer associate Adam Pinkhurst.

The project’s audio component is particularly important because the experts behind the app think the original manuscripts should be seen as “prompts to and records of a performance, rather than purely as works to be enjoyed on the page.” Chaucer was likely intended to be the collection’s first performer, according to the researchers, and he may have actually presented the prologue to celebrate Richard II’s assumption of power in 1389.

“We want the public, not just academics, to see the manuscript as Chaucer would have likely thought of it—as a performance that mixed drama and humor,” explains Peter Robinson, leader of the project and an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan, in the statement.

Among those who have been ensnared by Chaucer’s writing over the years is Terry Jones, the Monty Python star and medieval historian who died in January. Poignantly, the app’s introduction and notes feature Jones’ translation of the General Prologue, as well as excerpts from his two books on Chaucer. This is believed to be the last major academic project Jones worked on before he died; in fact, “it was his idea that the Tales would be turned into a performance,” says Robinson.

The team plans to follow the revamped prologue with at least two more apps, one of which will focus on “The Miller’s Tale,” the second story in Chaucer’s text. For those whose appetites have been whetted by the prologue, this is certainly something to look forward to; in peak Chaucer form, the narrative is exceptionally bawdy and rude.

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