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.

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11 Songs Inspired by Literature

Jonathan Dore, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jonathan Dore, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Devo and Thomas Pynchon. Mick Jagger and Charles Baudelaire. Though they seem like rather unlikely pairings, many great rock songs have been the result of a lyricist finding inspiration in the pages of a book. These are just the tip of the iceberg.

1. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)" // Pink Floyd

The Novel: Animal Farm // George Orwell

Pink Floyd felt so strongly about Orwell’s barnyard take on revolution that they made a mascot from the book’s dictator pigs. The first incarnation of the famous Pink Floyd pigs popped up in 1976 for the photo shoot for 1977’s Animals album, which is based loosely around Animal Farm themes. "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" is about people in society with wealth and power.

2. “My Ántonia” // Emmylou Harris

The Novel: My Ántonia // Willa Cather

It's somehow not surprising that Emmylou Harris is a fan of Willa Cather. Written from the perspective of Jim, the man who loved Cather’s title character in My Ántonia, the song was actually composed several years prior to its release on the 2000 album Red Dirt Girl. Harris hung on to it for a while, not sure what she wanted to do with it since she had written it from a man’s perspective.

“One day I got the idea to make it a conversation and the song just seemed to write itself. Well, then I had to pick a 'leading man,'" Harris said when the album was released. "I had just done a show with Dave Matthews and I loved the way we sounded together. And he did a simply beautiful job.”

3. “Whip It” // Devo

The Novel: Gravity’s Rainbow // Thomas Pynchon

Devo's singer/bassist Jerry Casale told the website Songfacts that his band's monster hit was based on Pynchon's postmodern novel:

"'Whip It,' like many Devo songs, had a long gestation, a long process. The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and 'You're #1, there's nobody else like you' kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' so I wrote down 'Whip It' one night."

4. “Wuthering Heights” // Kate Bush

The Novel: Wuthering Heights // Emily Brontë

An 18-year-old Kate Bush wrote her breakout song after seeing just 10 minutes of Wuthering Heights on TV in 1977. In 1980, she told an interviewer on the Canadian show Profiles in Rock that she was inspired by the novel's heroine:

“I am sure one of the reasons it stuck so heavily in my mind was because of the spirit of Cathy, and as a child I was called Cathy. It later changed to Kate. It was just a matter of exaggerating all my bad areas, because she's a really vile person, she's just so headstrong and passionate and ... crazy, you know?”

5. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” // Bruce Springsteen

The Novel: The Grapes of Wrath // John Steinbeck

Springsteen was inspired by John Ford’s big-screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression saga. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a 1990s version of The Grapes of Wrath, meant to serve as a reminder that modern times are just as difficult for some. Rage Against the Machine covered the song in 1997.

6. “Sympathy for the Devil” // The Rolling Stones

The Novel: The Master and Margarita // Mikhail Bulgakov

In 1968, Mick Jagger’s then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, passed along a little book she thought he might enjoy. Jagger ended up writing “Sympathy for the Devil” after reading the novel, which starts when Satan, disguised as a professor, walks up and introduces himself to a pair of men discussing Jesus.

Jagger later suggested that some of the lyrics may have been inspired by the works of Charles Baudelaire as well, which makes “Sympathy” the product of a pretty well-read rock star.

7. “Holden Caulfield” // Guns N' Roses

The Novel: The Catcher in the Rye // J.D. Salinger

Guns n' Roses' much-awaited 2008 album Chinese Democracy contained a song called “The Catcher in the Rye” after the J.D. Salinger classic. Some surmised that the song is really about another culture-changing event that Holden Caulfield was involved in: the assassination of John Lennon in 1980. Lennon’s murderer was carrying a copy of the book when he pulled the trigger.

8. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” // Cream

The Poem: The Odyssey // Homer

Even Eric Clapton couldn’t resist the Sirens from The Odyssey; this classic Cream song references the mythological enticing beauties (Clapton sure knew his share of those). Though it’s Clapton singing, the lyrics were written by Martin Sharp, who had just returned from vacation in Ibiza and was inspired by the exotic scenery—beaches and women alike, presumably.

9. “Breathe” // U2

The Novel: Ulysses // James Joyce

Speaking of The Odyssey, it’s no surprise that The Edge and Bono would want to pay homage to their fellow Irishman James Joyce by setting “Breathe” on June 16. That’s the day Leopold Bloom embarks throughout the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s also the day that Joyce fans everywhere honor his work by celebrating Bloomsday.

10. “Ramble On” // Led Zeppelin

The Novel: The Lord of the Rings // J.R.R. Tolkien

If you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of “Ramble On,” this is not going to come as a surprise to you. For example:

“'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up
And slipped away with her.”

11. “Scentless Apprentice” // Nirvana

The Novel: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer // Patrick Süskind

This horror book was a modest hit thanks in part to Kurt Cobain, who frequently mentioned that it was one of his favorite reads. He liked it so much, in fact, he wrote a song about it and put it on his band's 1993 album In Utero. The book is about a man who kills young women and captures their scents in order to make the perfect perfume. I won’t spoil the ending for you—and neither does “Scentless Apprentice.”