New App Lets You Hear Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in Original 14th-Century English

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

One of the many reasons Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century magnum opus The Canterbury Tales is considered a groundbreaking collection of stories is because he chose to write it not in a highbrow language like Latin or French, but in the common tongue of the people: Middle English. Since colloquial English has changed quite a bit over the past seven centuries, The Canterbury Tales that you might have encountered in high school looks and sounds significantly different than it did when Chaucer first created it.

To give us a chance to hear The Canterbury Tales in its original, lyrical glory, an international team of researchers based at the University of Saskatchewan developed an app that reads it aloud in Middle English.

"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," University of Saskatchewan English professor Peter Robinson, who led the project, said in a press release.

peter robinson pictured with canterbury tales manuscript
University of Saskatchewan researcher Peter Robinson leads the team that has developed the first app of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Dave Stobbe for the University of Saskatchewan

The app includes a 45-minute narration of the “General Prologue,” and the researchers have plans for at least two more apps, which will focus on “The Miller’s Tale” and other stories. If you’re not exactly well-versed in Middle English, don’t worry—the app also contains a line-by-line modern translation of the text, so you can follow along as you listen.

Because Chaucer died before finishing The Canterbury Tales, scholars have pieced together more than 80 centuries-old manuscripts over the years to come up with different editions of his work, but there isn’t one definitive text. The version of the “General Prologue” featured in this app is the Hengwrt manuscript, believed to be written by Chaucer’s own scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Another important contributor to this endeavor was Monty Python member Terry Jones, a medievalist whose two books on Chaucer and translation of the “General Prologue” are featured in the app’s introduction and notes. Jones passed away on January 21, 2020, and this was one of the last academic projects he worked on.

“His work and his passion for Chaucer was an inspiration to us," Robinson said. "We talked a lot about Chaucer and it was his idea that the Tales would be turned into a performance."

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

The Scottish Play: Why Actors Won’t Call Macbeth by Its Title

Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you see someone burst from the doors of a theater, spin around three times, spit over their left shoulder, and shout out a Shakespearean phrase or curse word, it’s likely they just uttered “Macbeth” inside the building and are trying to keep a very famous curse at bay.

As the story goes, saying “Macbeth” in a theater when you’re not rehearsing or performing the play can cause disaster to befall the production. Instead, actors commonly refer to it as “the Bard’s play” or “the Scottish play.”

According to History.com, the curse of Macbeth originated after a string of freak accidents occurred during early performances of Shakespeare’s 1606 play. In the very first show, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare himself had to take over the role. In a later one, an actor stabbed King Duncan with an actual dagger rather than a prop knife, killing him on stage.

Macbeth has continued to cause calamity after calamity throughout its four centuries of existence. Harold Norman died from stab wounds sustained during a fight scene while playing Macbeth in 1947, and there have been several high-profile audience riots at various performances, too—the worst was at New York’s Astor Place Opera House in 1849, when fans of British actor William Charles Macready clashed with those of American actor Edwin Forrest. Twenty-two people died, and more than 100 others were injured.

Since Macbeth has been around for so long and performed so often, it’s not exactly surprising its history contains some tragic moments. But many believe these accidents are the result of a curse actual witches cast on the play when Shakespeare first debuted it.

As the Royal Shakespeare Company explains, Shakespeare really did his research when creating the three witches in Macbeth: “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “eye of newt and toe of frog,” and other lines from the “Song of the Witches” were supposedly taken from “real” witches’ spells from the time. According to legend, a coven of witches decided to punish him for using their magic by cursing his play.

For skeptics, Christopher Eccleston—who played Macbeth in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2018—offers a slightly more believable theory about the origin of the curse. In the interview below, he explains how theater companies that were struggling financially would stage Macbeth, a crowd favorite, to guarantee ticket sales. Therefore, saying “Macbeth” in a theater was an admission that things weren’t going well for your company.

[h/t History.com]

The Library of Congress Needs Help Transcribing Walt Whitman’s Poems and Letters

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

From O Captain! My Captain! to Song of Myself, Walt Whitman produced some of literature's most memorable poems. But for every work published in his lifetime, the writer left behind many manuscripts that weren't shared with the world. Now, the Library of Congress is asking for the public's help in reviewing thousands of Whitman's handwritten documents, including letters, poems, and other writings.

May 31, 2019, marked the 200th anniversary of Whitman's birth, and the LOC is honoring the occasion by making a push to transcribe its Walt Whitman archives. The institution is home to the world's largest Whitman manuscript collection, which includes original copies of his poems as well as more personal works. In letters written in 1840 and 1841, Whitman expressed his support for presidential candidate Martin Van Buren and his disdain for small-town life in Woodbury, New York. On one printed copy of O Captain! My Captain!, the poet has scribbled his edits by hand.

The collection the LOC wants to transcribe originally consisted of close to 4000 documents. More than half of those have been completed so far, and roughly 1860 transcriptions still need to be reviewed. Anyone can read the documents that need approval and officially add them to the Whitman archive.

The Library of Congress depends on the public for many of its transcription projects. In 2018, it launched a campaign to transcribe its Lincoln collection, and it crowdsourced a project transcribing thousands of suffragist documents in 2019.

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