The Entire Manuscript Collection of Geoffrey Chaucer Gets Digitized: A New Archive Features 25,000 Images of The Canterbury Tales & Other Illustrated Medieval Manuscripts

Ear­li­er this year, Oxford pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture Mar­i­on Turn­er pub­lished The Wife of Bath: A Biog­ra­phy. Even if you don’t know any­thing about that book’s sub­ject, you’ve almost cer­tain­ly heard of her, and per­haps also of her trav­el­ing com­pan­ions like the Knight, the Sum­mon­er, the Nun’s Priest, and the Canon’s Yeo­man. These are just a few of the pil­grims whose sto­ry­telling con­test struc­tures Geof­frey Chaucer’s four­teenth-cen­tu­ry mag­num opus The Can­ter­bury Tales, whose influ­ence con­tin­ues to rever­ber­ate through Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, even all these cen­turies after the author’s death. In com­mem­o­ra­tion of the 623rd anniver­sary of that work, the British Library has opened a vast online Chaucer archive.

This archive comes as a cul­mi­na­tion of what the Guardian’s Car­o­line Davies describes as “a two and a half year project to upload 25,000 images of the often elab­o­rate­ly illus­trat­ed medieval man­u­scripts.” Among these arti­facts are “com­plete copies of Chaucer’s poems but also unique sur­vivals, includ­ing frag­men­tary texts found in Mid­dle Eng­lish antholo­gies or inscribed in print­ed edi­tions and incunab­u­la (books print­ed before 1501).”

If you’re look­ing for The Can­ter­bury Tales, you’ll find no few­er than 23 ver­sions of it, the ear­li­est of which “was writ­ten only a few years after Chaucer’s death in rough­ly 1400.” Also dig­i­tized are “rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 edi­tions of the text made by William Cax­ton,” now con­sid­ered “the first sig­nif­i­cant text to be print­ed in Eng­land.”

Four cen­turies lat­er, design­er-writer-social reformer William Mor­ris col­lab­o­rat­ed with cel­e­brat­ed painter Edward Burne-Jones to cre­ate an edi­tion W. B. Yeats once called “the most beau­ti­ful of all print­ed books”: the Kelm­scott Chaucer, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, which you can also explore in the British Library’s new archive (as least as soon as its ongo­ing cyber attack-relat­ed issues are resolved). As its wider con­tents reveal, Chaucer was the author of not just The Can­ter­bury Tales but also a vari­ety of oth­er poems, the clas­si­cal-dream-vision sto­ry col­lec­tion The Leg­end of Good Women, an instruc­tion man­u­al for an astro­labe, and trans­la­tions of The Romance of the Rose and The Con­so­la­tion of Phi­los­o­phy. And his Tro­jan epic Troilus and Criseyde may sound famil­iar, thanks to the inspi­ra­tion it gave, more than 200 years lat­er, to a coun­try­man by the name of William Shake­speare.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Behold a Dig­i­ti­za­tion of “The Most Beau­ti­ful of All Print­ed Books,” The Kelm­scott Chaucer

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

Dis­cov­er the First Illus­trat­ed Book Print­ed in Eng­lish, William Caxton’s Mir­ror of the World (1481)

40,000 Ear­ly Mod­ern Maps Are Now Freely Avail­able Online (Cour­tesy of the British Library)

The British Library Puts Over 1,000,000 Images in the Pub­lic Domain: A Deep­er Dive Into the Col­lec­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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