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Free app allows listeners to hear Canterbury Tales in original language

Canterbury Tales

Public Domain

John Burger - published on 02/06/20

Late Monty Python start Terry Jones collaborated on project.

Before there was Middle-earth, there was Middle English.

The history of the language now spoken in many nations around the world, from England to America to India, can be roughly divided into three phases: Old English, Middle English and Modern English. The greatest author writing in Middle English was Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales continue to be studied in high school and college, usually in a modern translation. The collection of tales, told by fictional characters making a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in the Cathedral of Canterbury, is a fun-filled album of slice-of-life characterizations.

Now, a university professor, with the help of the late Monty Python veteran Terry Jones, has produced a free app by which people can hear the 14th-century classic read in the original language.

“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,” said University of Saskatchewan (USask) English professor Peter Robinson, leader of the project. “We have become convinced, over many years, that the best way to read the Tales is to hear it performed—just as we imagine that Chaucer himself might have performed it at the court of Richard II.”

The app is the first edition in a planned series. It features a 45-minute audio performance of the General Prologue of the Tales, along with the digitized original manuscript. While listening to the reading, users have access to supporting content such as a translation in modern English, commentary, notes and vocabulary explaining Middle English words used by Chaucer.

Robinson has been working for 25 years on digitizing the Canterbury Tales, and the app contains key new research work. This includes a new edited text of the Prologue created by USask sessional lecturer Barbara Bordalejo, a new reading of the Tales by former USask student Colin Gibbings, and new findings about the Tales by University College London medievalist professor Richard North. The National Library of Wales offered its digitized version of the Prologue’s original manuscript for the app.

The late Monty Python star Terry Jones, who was a medievalist with two influential books on Chaucer, was also instrumental in developing the content of the app. His translation of The General Prologue and his books feature in the introduction and notes. This work on the app is thought to have been the last major academic project that Jones worked on before his passing on January 21.

The app was released on Android and Apple IoS just after Jones’ birthday on February 1, in celebration of Jones’ academic work.

“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. 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,” said UCL’s North.

Interested readers can download the app for free on Google Play or iTunes, or check out the desktop version here.

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