For my project I have decided to create an online exhibit/website based around Geoffrey Chaucer and his contributions to the development of English vernacular literature, with particular attention to the Canterbury Tales. This is a topic that I know a bit about from an essay I wrote last year and in doing the research for this essay I found the topic to be surprisingly interesting. It combines several different areas of historical study including the history of languages, the history of the British Isles, and unsurprisingly the history of the Catholic Church (which most aspects of medieval history centre around). The main goal of this project is to create a place where people could go to get a better understanding of Chaucer’s contribution to English vernacular literature but also as a place where people could learn about the Canterbury Tales. Before I had done any research on this topic I had only a vague understanding of Chaucer and in doing preliminary research I discovered that he is considered by some to be the “father of English literature” due to his writing of the Canterbury Tales and its role in establishing literature in the English vernacular. Seeing as nothing is ever that clear-cut, diving deeper in to the topic shows that while Chaucer was an influential figure in developing English literature, there were many other contributing factors that helped to cement the Canterbury Tales as one of the most influential written works in the English language. These contributing factors (for example the movement to translate the Bible into English before Chaucer’s writings) will be the basis of one of the sections for learning about the Canterbury Tales.
I am imagining something like Sparknotes (Here is the Sparknotes for the Canterbury Tales) where there is different sections for different topics I would want to cover, such as links to the actual writing, plot summaries, historical context, lesson plans focusing on the writings, other resources people could check out if they were so inclined, etc.. Seeing as this would be very similar to a Sparknotes site or anything like it, I would be providing additional analysis (using some of the Digital Humanities tools we have experimented with in class) and information about the Canterbury Tales. Including things like the historical significance of Chaucer’s works, and things like a text-analysis of his writing, maps plotting out important areas mentioned in the writing, even modern day examples of how influential Chaucer’s writings still are would be things I plan on including. When it is completed, this project should be a place where somebody would go if they had to do research on Chaucer or the Canterbury Tales, or if they were a teacher looking for a way to teach this topic to their class, or even if it’s just somebody who is interested in Chaucer or English literature in general and looking for any information they can find. I think that creating this project within a Digital Humanities framework is beneficial because it allows for more people to access it, and makes the information presented about the topic easier to digest than if it was just simply written in a textbook.
There are some projects that are similar to the one I am imagining, and in planning for my own project, have looked at a few of them for inspiration (and to make sure I am not just copying other people’s work). As mentioned above, Sparknotes and other sites here, here, here, and here are examples of similar projects that focus on teaching about the Canterbury Tales and give similar resources like study questions, and lesson plans (some of which you have to pay for) as well as other resources to check out. In looking for these similar projects, I have yet to find one that does exactly what I want to do, that is provide a deeper analysis of the text than just a study guide. I want to create a place where the text itself is secondary to the historical significance and analysis.
Some of the tools that I plan on using are website design, text analysis, interactive mapping, among others. I decided to create a website for this project because of the flexibility and simplicity it allows for the user. If I were to create a blog site for this project and included all that I want to, the finished product would not be ideal. A blog would be difficult and tedious to select different pages or articles that hold the information. If I was to access this project as a student looking to research Chaucer I would not want to go through different blog posts or archives just to find the piece of information I need, and would probably close that webpage and look for another resource. Creating a website would also allow me to be more flexible in how I present my information through different sections and pages. I also think that a website would be more visually appealing than any other format. The text analysis is something that interests me because it’s not something that you see very much. In class we have done several text analysis experiments with the Google N-gram viewer, world clouds, and text token ratios that I think would be an interesting thing to include in my project. Using some of these text-analysis tools would be a nice little feature to give extra information on Chaucer or Canterbury Tales. For instance using the N-gram viewer to chart the usage of Chaucer and Canterbury Tales in written sources over time would be a cool way to see how time has remembered these two key aspects of English literature. The text token ratio could be used to compare Chaucer’s writing with other prominent authors of English literature, which would also allow for a view of how literature in the English language has changed over time. The only issue with any information gathered through any of these text analyses is that it would rely on assumptions from either myself or the user of the site about what they mean. For example, if the text token ratio showed that Charles Dickens used more distinct text tokens in some of their works than Chaucer did in his, what would that mean? Does it signify that Chaucer is less proficient a writer than him and does that even matter? These are a few of the questions that I will have to answer when creating these text analyses in my project. The idea of using maps as a tool is another topic we have looked at in class and for this project, I think it would be a great fit. The Canterbury Tales is about a group of people from different areas of medieval society telling stories to each other as they make a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Creating/using a map that would outline the route that these characters would have taken on this pilgrimage and pointing out important areas on a map would be a very interesting take on the study of the Canterbury Tales, putting it into the context of history and geography.
The new skills I will have to develop and use for this project are essentially the skills mentioned above in the previous section. I am not the most technologically knowledgeable person so most of these Digital Humanities tools are new to me and will take some time to get comfortable with. Website creation and design is probably the most challenging thing about this project since it is the most technical aspect. I will probably be using Wix or Weebly as a way to build my website, like most people in class, because I have no interest in creating the site on my own using HTML. In high school I took a computer programming class and soon realized that computer coding and programming was not my thing, I don’t remember anything from that class, least of all any HTML programming information.
Obviously in creating this project I will have to conduct some research in order to be able to create an educational tool. Since this topic is something that I have already written a paper on, it should be easier and less time-consuming to find all of the relevant information that I need to create this project. One of the parameters for this write-up asks how I am going to either create new data or re-purpose old data. My plan so far would see me taking information from other sources (and crediting those of course) to provide the bulk of the educational information. I still have the bibliography from my own essay and other sources I had collected and consulted. Some of these sources are scholarly journals such as Andrew Cole’s “Chaucer’s English Lesson” which talks about how Chaucer came to use English as a literary language (key to the purpose of my project), or books like Lynne Arner’s “Chaucer, Gower, and the Vernacular Rising Poetry and the Problem of the Populace After 1381” which outlines many of the contributing factors to the rise of English vernacular literature, which would help to provide historical context to the Canterbury Tales. I would also be creating my own, new, data through the text-analysis I have mentioned above, and with this new data I could try and put Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales in the context of English literature as a whole.
In summary, my project idea is to create a web-resource where people could go and quickly learn about Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales, and why it has been remembered in history due to its part in helping to develop English as a literary language. Ideally this project, when completed, will be something that I wish I could have had when I was writing my essay about this topic a year ago.