The Enriched Digital Chaucer

My name is Keri Thomas, and I’m a KESS funded PhD student with the English & Creative Writing Department at Aberystwyth University. The Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS) is a major European Convergence programme led by Bangor University on behalf of the HE sector in Wales. Benefiting from European Social Funds (ESF), KESS will support collaborative research projects (Research Masters and PhD) with external partners based in the Convergence area of Wales (West Wales and the Valleys). I am currently working within the National Library of Wales (NLW) on research supporting the digitisation of the Hengwrt Chaucer (MS Peniarth 392D), the oldest known manuscript version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

The Hengwrt manuscript is the “ugly step-sister” to the Cinderella that is the Ellesmere Chaucer, and the latter is the one on which most modern editions of The Canterbury Tales are based. However, since the work of Manly & Rickert the Hengwrt has acquired a much greater degree of prominence, and is an item of great prestige. The original manuscript dates from the 15th century, and is heavily stained and damaged; despite this, it is one of the jewels of the NLW’s collection. Further research has led academics to believe that both the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts were copied by the same scribe; indeed, Professor Linne Mooney [Speculum, 2006] has posited the theory that the hand responsible was that of Adam Pinkhurst, and that Pinkhurst’s probable association with Chaucer himself could suggest that the Hengwrt manuscript is Chaucer’s own, definitive version of the Tales, created during Chaucer’s lifetime.

The importance of the Hengwrt manuscript is indisputable, and the need for a digital version of it inarguable. Digitisation will provide access to a much wider community, and open up new ways of analysis and research. The National Library of Wales emphasises social inclusion and the importance of education and learning, and because of its geographical isolation electronic services are an ideal method of making the Library’s collections more widely and easily available through remote access.

Using the Hengwrt Chaucer and the National Library’s planned exhibition of the manuscript in 2014 as my framework, my own research attempts to give consideration as to why we should digitise, and what digitisation does to our understanding of a manuscript. To that end I am considering the book as an object, and how we acquire knowledge, as well as ideas of authenticity and “genuineness”. Are we able to incorporate and communicate the intellectual content and context of manuscripts, and deliver that in a digital format? Is it an adequate method for transferring knowledge?

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