Global Chaucer and Digital Humanities: Whither and Why?

On 2 and 3 February 2017, Global Chaucers’ ambassadors, Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington, traveled to the University of Virginia in order to speak to the Scholars’ Lab and the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium about “Digital Hospitality” on Thursday afternoon, and to lead a roundtable on “Linguistic and Cultural Hospitality” with the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium on Friday morning. In addition to the two events’ lively Q&As, we enjoyed ample opportunities to enjoy rich conversations with UVa faculty and graduate students before and after the scheduled sessions. Their probing questions and thoughtful suggestions helped us think about some of the next steps available to Global Chaucers.  All in all, the two days became less about what we shared with our UVa colleagues and more about the unusual luxury of measuring Global Chaucers’ development thus far and assessing the directions it could take in the future.

When we started this blog in September 2012, we didn’t really know what direction our fledgling project would take.  We were uncertain about what sort of global Chaucers were out there—and we certainly didn’t know how we could respond to what we did find. And though we had a website with a list of the translations and appropriations we had tracked down, it wasn’t entirely clear to us that we had a Digital Humanities project.

While we still aren’t certain the directions Global Chaucers will take, we now realize we have a viable DH project. Beyond the ongoing blog reports and the initial catalog of print texts, our website takes advantage of its ability to provide links to graphic novels, poetic performances, translators’ readings, spoken word and standup, and non-spoken languages (such as ASL). Our principles of digital hospitality and openness require, however, that along with embracing the inherent advantages of a digital archive we must also acknowledge and address the unanticipated challenges figured by two curious examples we’ve encountered.

In April 2015, we were pleased to discover a tweet by Sarah Bickley with her exciting, playful, and brilliant emoji translation of the first 20 lines of the General Prologue. We reached out to her, asking her permission to post on the site and added this screenshot with the link. This act of emoji translation—which went viral on twitter over the next week or so—invites such fascinating questions as “are these lines legible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the GP?” In any case, our archiving of this tweet through a blog post demonstrates one downside to digital communication: its transience. Since the posting of this link, Sarah has since closed her twitter account, and the snapshot that now remains on the blog is a ghost of its former viral life.

On the first Whan That Aprille Day in 2014 (encouraged by the Chaucer Tweeter, LeVostreC), we posted the opening lines in twelve different languages. Some of the non-Roman scripts did not display well, so we took screenshots and posted them online. What we have discovered, though, is that the pleasure of encountering the text in an array of unfamiliar scripts and tongues is not accessible to all. One of our collaborators is blind, and she uses a screen reader to access online material; that device cannot read non-English texts or scripts. Moreover, image files without alt-text are completely inaccessible (there might as well be nothing there). The screen-grabbed emoji poem is likewise completely inaccessible for her at present. Likewise, any audiovisual materials hosted on our site are currently inaccessible to Deaf or hard of hearing visitors unless we embed captions. What might seem like digital openness to many can end up excluding some.

Just as the principle of digital hospitality requires us to rethink our digital presence, the principles of linguistic and cultural hospitality also require us to reconsider how we imagine Global Chaucers and its collaborators.  We began thinking that we would be creating an archive of data and texts that we would then analyze and disseminate.  Although we remain the project’s primary ambassadors, the active interest and participation of other scholars, translators, and enthusiasts means that we shouldn’t resist participants ready to take Global Chaucers in new directions. Not only does information want to be free, so do the voices and data assembled under the Global Chaucers rubric. We hope that the project becomes multi-faceted, with some of its aspect thriving without our direct involvement.

So what are some of the new directions that our UVa conversations helped reveal?

  • It’s time to rethink our initial parameters of “post-1945 translations and appropriations of The Canterbury Tales.” Our catalog now includes translations of and engagements with Troilus and Criseyde, The Parlement of Fowles, and Chaucerian lyrics; and the catalog spans works from as early as the sixteenth century.
  • Our catalog is diverse enough to justify bringing in colleagues with coding expertise, so that we can creating a database coding our collected information about the various translations—languages, translators, tales, dates, and source texts, for instance. That database will then be used to do more outwardly visible work, such as classroom-friendly mapping projects.
  • We need to determine the best way to archive the various forms of graphic, visual, and audiovisual media, including the possibility of a new infrastructure for such material. If Global Chaucers is to encourage an inclusive dialogue about Chaucer as well as more to provide more routes of access that allow us to discuss problematic aspects of his verse, then we need better ways to archive and present information.
  • We need to consider if its desirable to switch the Global Chaucers site into a maker space rather than a user space. If we decide to move in that direction, then we will need help to make the change.

Although we are not certain about the shape Global Chaucers will take, we are confident it will adhere to its initial values of digital, linguistic, and cultural hospitality despite the challenges those values might pose.  For these reasons, we were gratified to learn that our UVa colleagues shared not only our enthusiasm for Chaucer’s global reception but also our commitment to creating a global community.

Thank you Justin Greenlee, DeVan Ard, Zach Stone, Bruce Holsinger, Elizabeth Fowler, Anna Brickhouse, and the Scholars’ Lab staff for your gracious hospitality and for the opportunities to share our work and to learn from you.



Teaching the Wife of Bath through Adaptation


Reading Agbabi and Breeze
Reading Agbabi and Watching Breeze

Here on the Global Chaucers blog we’ve addressed how Chaucerian material moves across time and space, and the variety of voices featured in this venue have explored academic research methods, translation studies, artistic creation, and online community. In this posting, I offer some thoughts on how the Global Chaucers project can shape undergraduate teaching.

A few weeks ago (in my introductory survey of literature of the early British Isles), we spent our class session discussing modern-day adaptations of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (WBP) and Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT). Here was the assignment posted on the course blog:

This week we discussed the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue as well as her entire performance. Before our next class, please view these short online videos (modern-day adaptations of the Wife of Bath’s performance). As you watch these adaptations, consider these questions: 1. How does each performance invite you to re-consider aspects of Chaucer’s original? 2. Which adaptation is your favorite?

The Wife of Bath’s Tale (1998): animation by Joanna Quinn. Modern English rendition with intriguing visuals.

The Loathly Lady (2009): words by Prof. Wendy Steiner, music by Paul Richards. Very loose comic opera (musical) adaptation of the WBT.

The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market” (2009): poem by Jean “Binta” Breeze. Modernization of the WBP heavily influenced by Jamaican varieties of English, filmed by the poet herself on site in London (more info on this poet here).

The Wife of Bafa” (2013): spoken word adaptation of WBP by Patience Agbabi (London poet of Nigerian ancestry); note also the text of the poem and the poet’s reflections on her composition process. Note: This performance closely follows the text published in Ababi’s Transformatrix (2000); a new version of this work interspersing the WBT itself appears in Agbabi’s Telling Tales (2014).

[OPTIONAL] The Lover’s Confession: Three Tales by John Gower (2014): Machinima adaptations of three of Gower’s Confessio tales. Producer/director Prof. Sarah Higley recorded these cyber-performances live using avatar-actors in Second Life. If you wish, you can go directly to The Tale of Florent (2014), which is Gower’s analogue to the WBT (you can also read the original Middle English text of Gower’s version).

We read and discussed both WBT and WBP (in that order) before moving on to these adaptations. The questions I posed before class were deliberately open-ended, and we opened our discussion by considering the animated version of the WBT by Joanna Quinn. Since the basic elements of the plot remain unchanged, our conversation quickly started to consider what the new visual medium adds to the story. Students immediately noted that the axe- and sword-wielding Queen (and silent reaction shots from the women assembled at court, including the unnamed maiden whose rape launches the story) all work to foreground the importance of female agency throughout this story. The toggling from stop-action animation (for the pilgrimage frame narrative) to a fluid style of drawing (for the tale itself) suggest the Chaucerian work’s concurrent layers of fictionality.

Our conversation about these adaptations became especially lively when we started to compare the reinventions of WBP by Jean “Binta” Breeze and Patience Agbabi. While these interpretations are quite distinct, approaching these two videos as a pair helped us to think more creatively about the performance context of Chaucer’s WBP itself. In Agbabi’s work, students picked up on the comic delivery of this piece as well as its new cultural context: this Nigerian immigrant, named Mrs. Alice Ebi Bafa, reveals much about her life just as she seeks to sell her wares. Equal parts autobiography and sales pitch, this dramatic conceit draws out the economic discourses used throughout the Wife of Bath’s portrait and prologue. At the same time, the audible laughter in response to Agbabi’s performance speak back to the Wife of Bath’s claim that her “entente nys but for to pleye.”

Our discussion concluded with Breeze’s performance of her own version of the WBP in a variety of English influenced by Jamaican oral traditions; the nonstandard spelling in the printed text suggest an oral quality and the performance captures rhythms and cadences of speech that evoke a broader Jamaican diaspora. The site of this performance–Brixton Market, which has been for generations the center of a diverse Afro-Caribbean immigrant community (the so-called “soul of Black Britain“)–provides a new cultural setting for a monologue about sex and marriage. The narrator delivers her performance as she moves through the physical space of the market, passing by produce stands and busy shoppers. Serendipitous reaction shots (note the passing woman’s disapproving and/or amused glance at the speaker at 1:01) suggest the disruptive qualities of the Wife of Bath character. She performs in a way that conspicuously thwarts the rhythms of everyday life and perceived norms of social behavior. The conspicuous headdress she wears resonates with the garments worn by the Chaucerian Wife of Bath but here the clothing also serves as a clear marker of ethnic difference (or, to put it another way, ethnic belonging).

Screenshot from Breeze performance
A passerby reacts to Breeze’s interpretation of the Wife of Bath.

One issue that came up in our discussion was whether Breeze’s revision of the Wife of Bath replaces the problematic medieval Alisoun with new kind of modern cultural stereotype (one of the students remarked that this kind of performance is not too far from the “sassy black woman” archetype described in this encyclopedia of popular media tropes). Another student in class who happens to come from a family of Jamaican ancestry chimed in to observe that the dress and style of speech in Breeze’s performance seemed culturally appropriate (insofar as features of her pronunciation, grammar, and intonation were concerned). Through these student reactions to Breeze’s performance, a new overarching question had emerged. Does such an adaptation risk substituting one set of (medieval misogynist) tropes with a contemporary (sexualized) ethnic stereotype?

Brixton Market panorama
Thinking about space: Brixton Market [photo taken March 2014].
Discussing the unintended consequences of Breeze’s performance in Brixton Market also gave our class an opportunity to consider some of this work’s possible connections to the broader context of life in Washington, D.C. (where my institution is located). Brixton Market, known as the “soul of Black Britain,” has recently been rebranded as “Brixton Village” with shops that once sold African and Caribbean groceries or textiles increasingly replaced by trendy hip(ster) bars and restaurants. The panoramic photo above (which I took during a visit to Brixton Market earlier this year) offers some indication of how this market has changed since the time Breeze filmed her video. In the photo above, a traditional produce shop with colorful awning (center) stands next door to a stylish new artisanal cheese shop/bar (left). In a conversation with some students after class, we ended up talking about a similar process of “gentrification” occurring in historically black and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods within in D.C., and local blogs are increasingly voicing concern over whether the historical character of these neighborhoods can be preserved as they continues to change. By “updating” the medieval Wife of Bath by transplanting her to Brixton Market, Breeze’s recorded performance had posited yet another unanticipated question. What does it mean for an ethnically marked voice to embody the authentic character or spirit of a given place? How does the word “gentrification” take us back to the discussions of gentillesse and urban identity explored in the Wife of Bath’s performance?

In the end, no clear “favorite” emerged from the discussion of these videos (indeed, students recognized that these works had disparate audiences and motivations). What emerges most strongly from conversations like this how adaptations can reacquaint us with well-known works of the past. In addition to showcasing features of texts that we have forgotten, ignored, or dismissed (as Candace notes so well in her earlier posting on translations), adaptations can challenge our received readings of texts we think we know well.

I encourage members of the Global Chaucers community (or anyone who happens to come by this site!) to consider integrating postmedieval adaptations when you teach Chaucer. Thinking across time and media does more than show how historically-distant texts might be “relevant” to contemporary audiences. Such a process has the capacity to make us more mindful of how profoundly our readings of medieval texts are actively shaped by the social environment of our own time and place. Bridging the gap between the present and the past isn’t just about making the medieval seem familiar (or, as undergrads in the US are wont to say, “relatable”); a cross-temporal approach also requires the capacity to disrupt our thinking about the present, to move us outside of our own comfort zones and customary frames of reference.

Further Reading:

Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Global Chaucer,” in Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, ed. Gail Ashton (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015).

Kathleen Forni, Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2013), Ch. 4, “The Canterbury Pilgrimage and African Diaspora” (with particular interest in diasporic and postcolonial renditions).

David Wallace, “New Chaucer Topographies,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 3-19.

Michelle R. Warren, “‘The Last Syllable of Modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean,” postmedieval 6.1 (2015), forthcoming.

Michelle R. Warren, “Book Review Essay: Classicism, Medievalism, and the Postcolonial,” Exemplaria 24, 3 (Fall 2012): 282-92.

Whan That Aprille Day 2014

by Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy

#WhanThatAprille trending on twitter
Snapshots from twitter: #WhanThatAprilleDay is trending! The day has just begun, but participants around the world have already posted videos; images of books, texts, and cakes; and tweets in languages ancient and modern.

Happy April!

In a recent posting, the famous Chaucer blogger and tweeter (@LeVostreGC) called for “Whan That Aprille Daye”: an occasion for people around the world to perform, tweet, or otherwise “celebrate al the langages that have come bifor, and alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse.” The mission is to “remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past.”

Follow #WhanThatAprilleDay hashtag on twitter and social media to join in on the fun.

Some excellent items of note that have already appeared online:

To join in this spirit of play, we are posting renditions of the opening lines of the General Prologue in diverse and sundry modern languages. Some are in prose, some in verse (free verse or rhyme). Those of you know the Middle English lines very well will certainly recognize many echoes in the Romance and Germanic languages.

Afrikaans (John Boje, 1989)

Wanneer Aprilmaand milde reënbuie bring
wat Maart se droogheid heeltemal deurdring
en elke aar met daardie vog bedek
wat kragtig bloome tot die lewe wek,
wanneer die westewind met soete geur
sy asem uitblaas op swak lote deur
die bos en hei, en die jong son gegaan
het tot de helfte van die Ram se baan,
en al die voëltjies opgeruimd uitsing
wat hele nagte met oë oop verbring
(dus prikkel die natuur hul handelswyse),
dang an mense graag op pelgrimsreise,
en swerwers hunker na die vreemde strande
van verre heiliges in vele lande.

Arabic (Majdī Wahbah Abd & Al-Ḥamīd Yūnis, 1983)

Screen Capture





Catalan (Marià Manent, 1955)

Quan l’abril amb les pluges ve que alleuja
l’eixut del març, que penetrà a la rel,
i banya cada vena aquella limfa
que amb la seva virtut farà brotar la flor;
quan el Zèfir suau, amb la dolça alenada,
fa sortir en tots els boscos i brugueres
les tendres fulles, i el Sol, jove encara,
es troba a mig camí de Capricorni,
i ocells menuts fan una melodia
dormint tota la nit amb ulls oberts
(així els dóna coratge la Natura),
la gent ja té desig de romiatges
i busquen els romeus camins estranys
cap a temples famosos, per llunyedanes terres;
i assenyaladament, des dels confins de tots
els comtats d’Anglaterra, a Canterbury acuden
cercant el màrtir sant i beneït
que els donà ajut en temps de malatia.

Mandarin Chinese (Fang Chong, 1983)

[for more information, see this previous blog posting]

General Prologue in Mandarin Chinese (Chong, 1983).

Danish (A. Hansen, 1901)

[see this previous posting for more on Danish translations]

Naar i April de friske Byger trænge
Ned i den tørre Muld paa mark og Enge
Og alle Rødder bade sig i Regn
Og skyde Blomster frem som Livsenstegn,
Naar Zefyr med sit friske, milde Pust
Hen over Krat og Hede lunt har sust.

French (Louis Kazamian, 1908, repr. 1942)

Quand Avril de ses averses douces
a percé la sécheresse de Mars jusqu’à la racine,
et baigné chaque veine de cette liqueur
par la vertu de qui est engendrée la fleur;
quand Zéphyr aussi de sa douce haleine
a ranimé dans chaque bocage et bruyère
les tendres pousses, et que le jeune soleil
a dans le Bélier parcouru sa demi-course;
et quand les petits oiseaux font mélodie,
qui dorment toute la nuit l’œil ouvert,
(tant Nature les aiguillonne dans leur cœur),
alors ont les gens désir d’aller en pèlerinage,
et les paumiersde gagner les rivages étrangers,
allant aux lointains sanctuaires, connus en divers pays;
et spécialement, du fond de tous les comtés
de l’Angleterre, vers Canterbury ils se dirigent,
pour chercher le saint et bienheureux martyr
qui leur a donné aide, quand ils étaient malades.

Frisian (Klaas Bruinsma, 2013)

Wannear’t april mei al syn swiete buien
oant yn ’e woartel poarre ’t maartske druien,
en alle ieren baaid’ yn sok in sop,
waans krêft it blomte wer ta libben rôp.
en bywannear’t ek Zéfirus wer aaide
mei swiete amm’ yn alle hôf en heide
de teare leaten, en de jonge sinne
heale baan rûn hat troch Aries hinne
en lytse fûgels melodijen meitsje
dy’t nachts wol sliepe, mar mei d’ eagen weitsje
(sa priket de natoer har yn ’e herten),
dan langet folk in beafeart yn te setten,
en pylgers sykje fiere, frjemde strannen
om hilligen bekend yn folle lannen;
om dan foaral út eltse krit’ en hernen
fan Ingelân nei Kenterboarch te tsjen en
de hill’ge, sill’ge martler op te sykjen,
dy’t harren holpen hat yn harren sykten.

German (Martin Lehnert, 1962)

Wenn milder Regen, den April uns schenkt,
Des Märzes Dürre bis zur Wurzel tränkt,
In alle Poren süßen Saft ergießt,
Durch dessen Wunderkraft die Blume sprießt;
Wenn, durch des Zephyrs süßen Hauch geweckt,
Sich Wald und Feld mit zartem Grün bedeckt;
Wenn in dem Widder halb den Lauf vollzogen,
Die junge Sonne hat am Himmelsbogen;
Wenn Melodieen kleine Vögel singen,
Die offnen Augs die ganze Nacht verbringen,
Weil sie Natur so übermüthig macht: –
Dann ist auf Wallfahrt Jedermann bedacht,
Und Pilger ziehn nach manchem fremden Strande
Zu fernen Heil’gen, die berühmt im Lande;
In England aber scheint von allen Enden
Nach Canterbury sich ihr Zug zu wenden,
Dem heil’gen Hülfespender aller Kranken,
Dem segensvollen Märtyrer zu danken.

Japanese (Masui Michio, 1995; repr. 2012)

General Prologue in Japanese (Masui 2012)

Korean (Dongil Lee, 2007)












Brazilian Portuguese (José Francisco Botelho, 2013)

[See this preview and previous blog posting]

Quando o chuvoso abril em doce aragem
Desfez março e a secura da estiagem,
Banhando toda a terra no licor
Que encorpa o caule e redesperta a flor,
E Zéfiro, num sopro adociacado,
Reverdeceu os montes, bosques, prados,
E o jovem so, em seu trajeto antigo,
Já passou do Carneiro do Zodíaco,
E melodiam pássaros despertos,
Que à noite doormen de olhos bem abertos,
Conforme a Natureza determina
–É que o tempo chegou das romarias.

Turkish (Nazmi Ağıl, 1994)

Nisan that yağmurlarıyla gelip
Kırınca Marttan kalan kuraği ve delip
Toprağı köklere işleyince, kudretiyle
Çiçekler açtıran bereketli şerbetiyle
Yıkayınca en ince damarları,
Zephirus da dolaşarak kırları, bayırları
Soluyunca can katan ılık,
Tatlı nefesini körpecik
Filizlere, toy güneş yarı edince
Koç burcunkaki devrini, bütün gece
Uyumayıp börtü böcek
Şarkılar söyleyince (tabiat dürtükleyerek
Uyanık tutar onları) işte o dem,
Hacca gitmeye büyük bir özlem
Duyar insanlar.

P.S. Follow @JonathanHsy on twitter; he’ll tweeting and retweeting throughout the day!