Terry Jones, the Late Monty Python Actor, Helped Turn Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Into a Free App: Explore It Online

People’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear the phrase “dig­i­tal human­i­ties.” Grant­ed, it’s not the most thrilling com­bi­na­tion of words. But when you show them what’s pos­si­ble at the inter­sec­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and the arts, the glaze turns to a gleam: a Shaz­am-like app for scan­ning, iden­ti­fy­ing, and learn­ing about fine art? Yes, please…. An iPad app intro­duc­ing the works of Shake­speare, with con­tex­tu­al notes, sum­maries, essays, and videos fea­tur­ing Sir Ian McK­ellen? Fas­ci­nat­ing….

The pos­si­bil­i­ties for casu­al learn­ers and seri­ous stu­dents alike are vast. You just have to know where to look. And if you’re look­ing for a tech-savvy way into Chaucer’s Can­ter­bury Tales, the clas­sic medieval sto­ry cycle writ­ten in Mid­dle Eng­lish verse and prose, you’ve found it. Thanks in part to medieval schol­ar Ter­ry Jones, for­mer­ly a mem­ber of Mon­ty Python—and the writer and direc­tor of Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail—we now have a Chaucer app.

“The project… fea­tures a 45-minute audio per­for­mance of the Gen­er­al Pro­logue of the Tales,” writes Hen­ry Bod­kin at the Inde­pen­dent. “While lis­ten­ing to the read­ing, users have access to a mod­ern trans­la­tion, explana­to­ry notes and a vocab­u­lary explain­ing Mid­dle Eng­lish words used by Chaucer, as well as a dig­i­tized ver­sion of the orig­i­nal 14th cen­tu­ry man­u­script.” The project was Jones’ final schol­ar­ly work—he passed away last month—but his con­tri­bu­tion is sig­nif­i­cant.

Jones’ two books on Chaucer and his trans­la­tion of the “Gen­er­al Pro­logue” are both fea­tured in the app’s intro­duc­tion and notes, as Ellen Gutoskey notes at Men­tal Floss. One of the project’s lead­ers, Peter Robin­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Saskatchewan, also points to his behind-the-scenes influ­ence. “His work and his pas­sion for Chaucer was an inspi­ra­tion for us. We talked a lot about Chaucer and it was his idea that the Tales would be turned into a per­for­mance.”

We can enjoy many a mod­ern Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Chaucer, and there’s noth­ing wrong with doing so, but to tru­ly under­stand what made the text so rev­o­lu­tion­ary, we should hear it in its orig­i­nal lan­guage. Mid­dle Eng­lish is beau­ti­ful­ly musi­cal, but it was not in Chaucer’s time a lit­er­ary tongue. Like Dante, he broke new ground by writ­ing in the ver­nac­u­lar when most every­one else wrote in Latin or French.

The strange­ness of Mid­dle Eng­lish to our eyes and ears can make approach­ing the Can­ter­bury Tales for the first time a daunt­ing expe­ri­ence. The Chaucer app is an excel­lent research tool for schol­ars, yet the researchers want “the pub­lic, not just aca­d­e­mics to see the man­u­script as Chaucer would have like­ly thought of it,” says Robin­son, “as a per­for­mance that mixed dra­ma and humor.” In oth­er words, read­ing Chaucer should be fun.

Why else would Ter­ry Jones—a man who knew his com­e­dy as well as his medieval history—spend decades read­ing and writ­ing about him? Find out for your­self at the Can­ter­bury Tales app, where, with a click of a few but­tons at the top of the page, you can see part of the orig­i­nal man­u­script, a tran­scrip­tion of the Mid­dle Eng­lish text, explana­to­ry notes, and Jones’ trans­la­tion of the “Gen­er­al Pro­logue.”

Enter the app here.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mon­ty Python’s Ter­ry Jones (RIP) Was a Come­di­an, But Also a Medieval His­to­ri­an: Get to Know His Oth­er Side

The Can­ter­bury Tales Remixed: Baba Brinkman’s New Album Uses Hip Hop to Bring Chaucer Into the 21st Cen­tu­ry, Yo

Sir Ian McK­ellen Releas­es New Apps to Make Shakespeare’s Plays More Enjoy­able & Acces­si­ble

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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