Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1999-2005)

Project aims

The Canterbury Tales Project at De Montfort University aimed to

  • establish a system of transcription for all the manuscripts and early printed books of The Canterbury Tales into computer-readable form
  • transcribe the manuscripts using this system
  • compare all the manuscripts, creating a record of their agreements and disagreements with a computer collation program
  • use computer-based methods to help reconstruct the history of the text from this record of agreements and disagreements
  • publish all the materials, the results of our analysis, and the tools which we use in electronic form

Unfortunately, the project did not produce any Open Access outputs so none can be offered here. Instead, all the resulting materials (optical disks and online resources) are available at a price from the publisher Scholarly Digital Editions. We do have here the following description of the project and a couple of articles by its leaders: N. F. Blake describing the new lineation used by the project and Peter Robinson and Elizabeth Solopova demonstrating the first output, a CD-ROM of The Wife of Bath's Prologue. These papers, and the Scholarly Digital Editions website, can be reached using the links on the left.

History of the project

The Canterbury Tales Project was a continuation of the work initiated by Peter Robinson, Elizabeth Solopova and N. F. Blake in the early 1990s. It was directed by Blake at Sheffield University until 1999, when it moved to the Centre for Technology and the Arts (CTA), the predecessor to the present Centre for Textual Studies, at De Montfort University in Leicester. The long-term aim of the project was to determine as thoroughly as possible the textual history of The Canterbury Tales. This is problematic as there are 84 manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, as well as four pre-1500 printed editions, and no scholarly consensus about which one of these witnesses best represents Chaucer's text. Furthermore, key questions remain unresolved about the history of the text: how far did Chaucer complete the Tales? And to what extent do the differences between the manuscripts reflect Chaucer's own revisions, additions, alterations, and cancellations? Some 600 years of scholarly effort have failed to reach a consensus about these questions, or even to indicate whether they can be answered.

We now have new and powerful tools: the great advances in manuscript knowledge during this century, exemplified in the work of Ian Doyle and Malcolm Parkes; computer collation, and computer-assisted analysis of the huge volume of data concerning manuscript agreements and disagreements generated by the collation. With these, there was at last a chance of getting some answer to these questions; and this was the task of the Canterbury Tales Project. The work of the project proceeded through four stages. Firstly, there was transcription of each manuscript into computer-readable form, using a character set and conventions we have established. Secondly, there was a computer collation of the transcripts against each other. We were able to collate simultaneously up to 100 manuscripts at once. Powerful regularization facilities ensure that substantive variants in the text can be filtered out from variants in spelling, etc. Thirdly, there was analysis of the body of variation, using cladistic methods borrowed from evolutionary biology to give a preliminary account of manuscript relations and database searching to refine the analysis. These computer-assisted methods of analysis, in themselves, were revolutionary.

The fourth stage was to present all this in an attractive and usable form. Two types of publication were produced by the project. Individual tales were presented as CD-ROMs with all the witnesses to one tale transcribed and collated, for example, the Wife of Bath's Prologue, available from Cambridge University Press. CD-ROMs are also being produced which contain entire transcriptions of individual manuscripts, such as the Hengwrt electronic facsimile. Over its ten-year history, the project received funding from a variety of sources. Initially funded by the Leverhulme Trust, a series of one-year grants from the British Academy allowed the project to continue at Sheffield under the direction of N. F. Blake from 1994 to 1999. In 1999 the project moved to De Montfort and received a large grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, which supported the project until 2004. The project has also received grants from the Exxon Corporation, News International, and private donors. Partners in the project include the Universities of Sheffield and Oxford, Brigham Young University, Virginia Tech and the University of Munster, Germany.

The project materials can be used in various ways, not only for the textual history of the tales themselves, but also in other fields such as dialectology, palaeography and textual analysis, amongst others. The publications also have the potential to be used as teaching tools at various levels, from schools to universities, for both undergraduates and postgraduates.