The British Library has digitized the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is now accessible online. This project took two and a half years to complete and includes 25,000 images of the intricately illustrated medieval manuscripts.
This is a significant accomplishment for the library, which possesses the biggest existing compilation of Chaucer’s works. The introduction of the digital platform is expected to facilitate further studies on the 14th-century writer, who was renowned as a poet, courtier, soldier, diplomat, and member of parliament. His most well-known piece is the medieval English masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer, who passed away around 1400, was praised by his fellow poet Thomas Hoccleve as the “first discoverer of our beautiful language” and is commonly recognized as the originator of English poetry. Essentially, he was the inaugural poet laureate, receiving a daily allowance of one gallon of wine from Edward III for an unknown task, believed to be for his poetic works. He was also the first person to be interred in the area of Westminster Abbey now known as Poets’ Corner.
The works and life of the individual are documented in over 60 items at the British Library, which have been recently digitised.
The 25,000 images of pre-1600 manuscripts have been carefully photographed and uploaded, including complete copies of Chaucer’s poems but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula (pamphlets).
There are 23 copies of The Canterbury Tales, which tell the story of a storytelling competition between pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury Cathedral. The first copy was written shortly after Chaucer’s death around 1400, and the collection also contains rare versions from 1476 and 1483 printed by William Caxton.
However, there are also lesser-known pieces, like his epic poem about the Trojans, Troilus and Criseyde, which served as inspiration for Shakespeare. Other works include The Legend of Good Women, a dream vision featuring tragic tales of ten female characters from classical history, legend, and mythology; translations of Roman de la Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy; and a guidebook on using the astrolabe for astronomy, in addition to numerous smaller poems.
According to Calum Cockburn, who is responsible for the project, the British Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts features a remarkable portrait of Chaucer at the start of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. The famous line, “When April with its sweet smelling showers,” is accompanied by an image of Chaucer holding an open book and a quill. This detail is particularly significant as there are very few existing portraits of Chaucer.
One of my top picks is a compilation of writings preserved in its authentic medieval cover with a fastener attached to it. And it remains in its original condition, unchanged for 600 years.
He mentioned that the digital archive had immense possibilities and that the 25,000 images were of extremely high quality. It is possible to zoom in on these images and observe details on the page that would not be visible to the naked eye. These images are truly remarkable.
We anticipate that this will serve as a strong basis for future studies. With the current advancements in technology, we can use this digital platform to exchange manuscripts, compare them, and explore questions about the transmission and copying of Chaucer’s works. We can also gain insights into the scribes involved and the readership, providing more extensive answers than previously possible.
Chaucer’s poems were carefully transcribed by hand during his lifetime and were then compiled into books and distributed among the wealthy, upper merchants, and nobility. Even after his passing, his works continued to be highly sought after.
According to Cockburn, there is a remarkable tale surrounding a royal manuscript in the collection. The manuscript is a duplicate of The Canterbury Tales and the story goes that Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, was on her way to her coronation when she was given this copy of The Canterbury Tales while crossing London Bridge. This detail is truly incredible.
The assortment is available for viewing on the British Library’s website.