The history of the Canterbury Tales Project

(6 March 2014: taken from http://www.canterburytalesproject.org/CTPhistory.html.  Requires editing and updating)

The beginnings of the project date to 1989-90, to experiments in manuscript transcription and collation carried out at Oxford University Computing Services by Peter Robinson in the 'Computers and Manuscripts' Project, led by Susan Hockey and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. This project was based on Robinson's earlier work with the manuscripts of the Old NorseSvipdagsmál, described in articles in Literary and Linguistic Computing. The experiments included the Wife of Bath's Prologue: the success of these suggested that the methods developed by this project (which led to the creation of theCollate program) might be the basis of wider work on the Canterbury Tales tradition.

In late 1991, Elizabeth Solopova began work on this project: she and Robinson in the next year developed the formal transcription guidelines which are now our cornerstone. In mid-1992 Robinson and Solopova met Norman Blake, then of the University of Sheffield, and the three agreed to co-operate in the aim of the project: to use computer methods to achieve a better understanding of the textual tradition of the Canterbury Tales. Funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, and the universities of Oxford and Sheffield, enabled the project to employ its first staff (Solopova in Oxford; Estelle Stubbs and Michael Pidd in Sheffield). Our first publications followed: theWife of Bath's Prologue (Robinson) in 1996; two volumes ofOccasional Papers (1993 and 1997). Parts of these are available from this site: see Resources. Our first doctoral students came to Sheffield at this time, with completed dissertations from Claire Thomson and Simon Horobin.

In 1998 the project base moved to De Montfort University, as both Robinson and Blake took up posts there. Major funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board brought a new crop of publications: the General Prologue (Solopova) and theHengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile (Stubbs) in 2000. De Montfort supported new doctoral students, with completed dissertations from Orietta Da Rold, Barbara Bordalejo and Jacob Thaisen. Bordalejo's thesis was the basis of Caxton's Canterbury Tales: The British Library Copies, published in 2003, and she became principal research officer for the project in that year. In this period, we put particular effort into creating new systems of presentation of texts in many versions through browser interfaces. This led to the development of the Anastasia software, with Robinson's edition of the Miller's Tale (2004) the first of our multi-text editions to deploy this software. We also pioneered the application of techniques and tools derived from evolutionary biology, in partnership with the Department of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge. This partnership resulted in an article in Nature, and in the STEMMA and TEXTNET projects with Cambridge; Bordalejo used these techniques in her New York University doctorate (2003). Over this period we developed other major partnerships: with Brigham Young University (working on Fragment 7); New York University (Clerk's Tale); Virginia Tech (manuscript descriptions); University of Münster (Pardoner's Tale); Keio University (digital methodologies): see Partners.

The great strength of the project has been its people. We are particularly grateful to those who have served on the project steering group over the years: Norman Blake, Ann Hudson, Ceridwen Lloyd Morgan, Oliver Pickering, Derek Pearsall and Toshiyuki Takamiya. Many of those who worked with us have taken up posts within the academic world. We list here some of these: Barbara Bordalejo — ITSEE, University of Birmingham; Orietta Da Rold — University of Leicester; Jill Havens — Texas Christian University; Simon Horobin — (from late 2006) Magdalen College, Oxford; Elizabeth Solopova — Bodleian Library, Oxford; Estelle Stubbs — Humanities Research Institute, Sheffield; Stephen Shepherd — Southern Methodist University; Jacob Thaisen — Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland; Claire Thomson — Bishop Grosseteste College; Paul and Maureen Watry — University of Liverpool.

In May 2005 Peter Robinson and Barbara Bordalejo moved to the new Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE), co-founded with David Parker, at the University of Birmingham. This move resulted directly from the many collaborations forged by the project with other editing projects: particularly, the New Testament editing projects in Birmingham and Münster, and editing projects headed by Prue Shaw (Dante: University College London), Edvige Agostinelli and Bill Colman (Boccaccio: CUNY), Dorothy Severin (Spanish Cancioneros: University of Liverpool), Lance Schacterle (James Fenimore Cooper: Worcester) and Michael Stolz (Wolfram's Parzival: University of Göttingen).

We must end this brief history on a sadder note. In May 2004 our long-time leader and guide (formerly, director of the project and of the project steering group) Norman Blake suffered a stroke. We continue to hope for his full recovery. 

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