The fourteenth century has gone digital: Chaucer is on the app store. Academics at UCL, the University of Saskatchewan, and the National Library of Wales – supported by the late medievalist and Monty Python star Terry Jones – have developed an app of Chaucer’s General Prologue. The famous text is presented as a scanned image of the Hengwrt manuscript alongside a typed version of the middle English, a translation into modern English, and a 45 reading of the text in the original language. The editors have provided notes, glosses, and introductory critical material. The app is intended to be the first in a series; the next to be digitised is The Miller’s Tale.
Those involved in the project have stressed this digitalisation of Chaucer is part of a drive to make him more accessible: “It is particularly designed to be useful to people reading Chaucer for the first time” and is for students as well as “members of the public who have their own interest in Chaucer and his works”. The combination of manuscript, text, and audio is designed to allow readers to experience the text as those leading the project believed Chaucer would have intended it: “a performance that mixed drama and humour”.
If the app does make the General Prologue more widely accessible, it is not breaking tradition. Chaucer was a London court-poet, but he had a comparatively wide reach in an age where literacy was limited. There are 84 known manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, a number which dwarfs Chaucer’s other works – there are sixteen extant manuscripts of Troilus and Criseyde – and medieval texts by other poets; the famous Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poems (translated by Simon Armitage in our own century) only exist in one manuscript. More importantly, Chaucer was part of a generation of poets that begun to write in English rather than Latin. While The Canterbury Tales was not Chaucer’s first poem to have been written in English, it is his most ambitious – and ultimately unfinished attempt – to write in the vernacular language.
In the Tales, Chaucer writes about a pilgrimage in England at a time when pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem, and other far-flung religious centres were all the literary vogue (for some quality English-woman-abroad medieval pilgrimage literature read The Book of Margerey Kempe). He tells the stories of knights, monks, squires, nuns, serial bigamists, cooks, and millers; Chaucer was never simply interested in the lives of a privileged few. Since its inception, the Tales have had a comparatively varied subject matter and a varied readership. In giving every smart-phone user their own portable manuscript, the app developers are continuing this tradition.
The democratic importance of access to Chaucer reverberates beyond his works. It is a common observation that the opening line of the prologue – “whan that April with his shouers soot” – is echoed in T. S Eliot’s The Waste Land. Everyone from Shakespeare and Spenser to Eliot and Joyce have made use of Chaucer’s narratives, humour, and poetry. At a moment when widening access to critical apparatus is so important for university applications and levels of educational inequality, having access to an edition of Chaucer’s Tales complete with translation, notes, and original text is not a miracle-cure, but is more important than its relevance to medieval studies.
And yet, the exciting democratic possibilities of the app are more than slightly undermined by its clunkiness: on a mobile, it is difficult to navigate the many options of text, typed edition, and translation, and there is currently a bug which stops the audio performance from playing. Online, the audio works brilliantly, but the website cannot escape the feeling that it was built in the 1990s; it requires feats of technological brilliance I do not have to be able to cross reference the notes with the text and manuscript.
The caveat of the app’s current ease of use aside, this digitisation sets an exciting precedent. Many British Library collection manuscripts are online, but this is the first time that such a text is accessible on a phone and to people who may not have the time nor confidence to navigate an unwieldy manuscript with all its folios, versos, and rectos. Not only does it encourage people to read and learn about Chaucer’s poem, it stimulates engagement in the materiality of its text; its handwriting, embellishments, and age. Rather than continuing the project with a digitisation of The Miller’s Tale, it might be more interesting to see an easily accessible version of a manuscript which revels in illustrations, gold leaf, and occasional marginalia such as the Pearl manuscript or The Lindisfarne Gospels. Both are texts which, in their visual appeal alone, would do much to stimulate interest in medieval studies.
A project which seeks to broaden contemporary readership of Chaucer and was launched a mere three days after ‘Brexit day’ could easily have placed Chaucer as an artificial ‘Father of English Literature’. To have done so might have garnered the app more interest. But Chaucer’s England was not unified (it even still claimed to have some French land), the court language was French, and Chaucer did not shy away from depicting the issues his society faced: Lollard heresy, a corrupt church, and discontented peasants to name but a few. This project – with institutions involved from three different countries and academics of many more – places scholarship above English-mythmaking and puts Chaucer back outside the ivory tower and out in the world where he belongs.