A review of CantApp, a mobile reading app on Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, created by Richard North, Peter Robinson, Barbara Bordalejo, and Terry Jones
CantApp: The General Prologue
(also available on the Apple and Android app stores)
Jonathan Hsy, George Washington University
Barbara Bordalejo, Peter Robinson, and Richard North
The General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the first major literary work, in any language, to be presented as an edition created by scholars that includes original scholarship in the form of a web and mobile phone app. CantApp, which is the first edition in a planned series, brings together the sound of Chaucer’s words, their appearance on the manuscript page, and supporting content for readers, including commentary, edited text, notes, translation and glosses, into a single application, available on any mobile phone or tablet.
The app was built around the Hengwrt manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, commonly regarded as the best source for Chaucer’s text and held at The National Library of Wales. The specialist preservation and digitization work undertaken at The National Library of Wales enabled the images of the original manuscript to be presented with supporting content for readers via the app.
The app contains key new work on the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, the most important work by the most important writer in English before Shakespeare. This includes a new text of the General Prologue edited by Barbara Bordalejo, a new reading of the General Prologue by University of Saskatchewan student Lina Gibbings (now at the University of Calgary), and new findings about The Canterbury Tales by Richard North. CantApp presents the manuscript, notes, commentary, edited text, and translations in a bespoke interface, which offers the full audio of Gibbings’ performance of the General Prologue. As Gibbings speaks, a box moves over the manuscript highlighting the lines being read, and showing the text and translation of that line. The reader may switch views to see the translation, edited text, translation, commentary and glosses, all moving in sync with the line-by-line reading.
Key work on the app was carried out at the University of Saskatchewan by Bordalejo, who edited the text, and Peter Robinson, who developed the interfaces for online and mobile display, as part of the long-running Canterbury Tales project, supported by the University of Saskatchewan and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada. North’s academic research on the project includes several new discoveries. Notably, he has suggested a new date of 1369, instead of the commonly assumed 1342-44, for when Chaucer's Knight is at the siege of Algeciras near Gilbraltar in the south of Spain. North also wrote a brief life of Chaucer, included in the app, together with an original, full line-by-line commentary and glossary, also included. The fourth co-editor on the project was the late Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, who was a distinguished medievalist with two influential books on Chaucer. His translation of the General Prologue is included in the app, and his books feature in the introduction and notes. This was the last major academic project that Jones worked on before his passing.
The app is available for free on Android and Apple iOS phones. Look for “Chaucer General Prologue” in PlayStore or in the App Store. It can also be accessed online from Scholarly Digital Editions.
Since its release on 3 February 2020 the app has been downloaded more than 12000 times, considerably more people, in a few days, than have looked at any of the editors’ online publications
CantApp: The General Prologue offers an innovative born-digital scholarly edition of the opening section of Geoffrey Chaucer’s major literary work The Canterbury Tales. All of its contents (textual, graphic, and audio) are incorporated into an open-access website and a mobile phone app available for free on Android and Apple iOS smartphones.
Planned as first in a series of resources associated with The Canterbury Tales Project, CantApp offers a new edition of the Middle English text of the General Prologue prepared by Barbara Bordalejo, in addition to a fresh audio-recording of the text voiced in the original language by Lina Gibbings. The edition offers glosses of difficult or obscure words, as well a line-by-line modern English translation, along with a running textual commentary with original research by Richard North. CantApp is dedicated to the late Terry Jones (1942-2020), Chaucer scholar of Monty Python fame, who passed away prior to the app’s public release but contributed as a co-editor and the creator of the modern English translation used in this edition.
As a “reader’s edition” for a general audience (as outlined in the project’s textual introduction), CantApp makes the Middle English text as accessible as possible through its multimodal platform. The reader can use menu icons to visually read and hear the voiced text along with its glosses and/or follow its running contextual notes and commentary. One can choose to read and hear the text synchronized line-by-line with the edited Middle English text or the modern English translation, or view a high-resolution color image of each page of the Hengwrt manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (MS Peniarth 392D, National Library of Wales, produced soon after Chaucer’s death and widely considered authoritative). When reading via the medieval manuscript interface, a box of Middle English text with Modern English translation follows along with the voiced recitation line by line.
CantApp’s customizable audiovisual interface is a boon for readers who may have little or no experience with Chaucer’s Middle English. The line-by-line visual and audio interface could be helpful for students for whom English is not a first language, as well as for fluent English speakers just getting started with Middle English. The array of options for adapting and curating the individual reading experience makes CantApp a promising teaching tool, especially for online or in-person Chaucer classes where some amount of oral recitation may be desired.
The editorial and curatorial principles of CantApp are sound. The menu allows a reader to follow the transcription of the Hengwrt line by line, along with high-resolution images of each folio of the Hengwrt provided by the National Library of Wales. Accompanying the text is Gibbings’ Middle English recitation. A modern English translation appears beneath the transcribed Middle English text in the edition’s default setting.
CantApp’s multimodal interface notably expands the possibilities for anyone (readers, students or instructors) seeking a fuller appreciation of the performance contexts of Middle English poetry. Gibbings’ recitation is lively, expressive, and well-paced, all the while maintaining accuracy in its pronunciation and execution. Moreover, CantApp provides links to video recordings of live performances featuring Gibbings donning reconstructed fourteenth-century garb and embodying the role of Chaucer. Such video recordings offer readers a more vivid sense of the possible performance conditions out of which the poet’s work emerged. Additionally, the edition’s scholarly apparatus, textual editing, interpretive commentary, and brief Chaucer biography engage with recent scholarship in the field.
CantApp joins an expanding digital ecosystem of open-access resources for teaching Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Its multimodal reading experience offers a dynamic companion to interlinear translations on the Harvard Chaucer website and complements collaborative resources such as the Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales (OACCT), as well as emergent archives of translations and performances such as Global Chaucers. CantApp is a welcome resource for students, instructors, researchers, and general readers.