Opening Up Chaucer through OER and Digital Humanities

This is the latest in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

William Arguelles is a 6th-year Ph.D. Candidate in English here at the Graduate Center. His Dissertation, Governing Bodies: Queenship, Queerness, and Bureaucracy, focuses on the interconnected lives and afterlives of three fourteenth-century queens of England, alongside historical and literary representations of queenship. William has presented his work at the Modern Language Association, The New Chaucer Society, The International Medieval Congress, The International Congress on Medieval Studies, and is delivering the Keynote lecture at the Pearl-Kibre Medieval Studies Graduate conference this May.


When I initially applied for the Open Knowledge Fellowship, I was not sure what to expect. I have always been principally concerned with ensuring my required readings and textbooks were as low-cost as possible or freely accessible. Students already pay so much for college, and it has never seemed fair to ask them to fork over even more money for the latest edition of some Norton reader they’ll barely use. As a medievalist, I also largely teach works written well before the invention of printing – let alone copyright – and so I have always been able to find some form of the text that’s either publicly available or cheaply printed. 

Somehow, I landed a graduate-level course, a first for my teaching career, on the Canterbury Tales. Most people have encountered Geoffrey Chaucer’s incomplete magnum opus at least once in their academic careers, but this was really a chance to dig in deeper on the variety of resources that my students could use to better appreciate the Canterbury Tales. I wanted students to do more than just read Chaucer, but to see all the different things that could be done with Chaucer’s work.

In addition to being the first major vernacular “poet laureate” of England, Geoffrey Chaucer and his works have been the subject of a dizzying amount of digital humanities projects.The Middle English Dictionary, from the University of Michigan, is a godsent tool for students struggling with weird Middle English words like “Konne” (learn) and “unneath” (scarcely). There are your more standard transcriptions and translations – such as Harvard’s Interlinear Chaucer or the University of Michigan’s Middle English text of the Canterbury Tales. And then you have some critical sources like The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, The University of Texas’s Chaucer Bibliography Online, The University of Alaska’s Chaucer Pedagogy site – all of which help students to make sense of Chaucer’s often-difficult and multi-layered poetry. There’s sites like Global Chaucers, which focuses on non-English language editions of Chaucer’s work, and Chaucer’s reception globally, Visualing Chaucer, which links to a variety of woodcuts, illustrations, and other ephemera attached to Chaucer’s works, and De Raptu Meo, which outlines and presents the (alleged) rape allegations brought against Chaucer in 1380, that informs much of modern pedagogy on teaching Chaucer. Other tools like the John Hopkins University’s Glossarial Concordance of Chaucer and Gower, The Huntington Library’s digitization of the Ellesmere Manuscript, The University of Toronto Library’s transcription of the Hengwrt Manuscript, and The Multitext Edition of the Canterbury Tales, which searches 5 different manuscripts of the tales, allow for unspecialized students to take on difficult manuscript history questions and close readings with ease.

And if we’re willing to step outside of Chaucer, there are even more brilliant resources that can excite and captivate students. In particular, there are a great many digital projects coming out of the University of Rochester, from subject-specific archives of Arthurian texts, Robin Hood, The Crusades, Cinderella, to their more general TEAMS Middle English Text Series, which provides access to hundreds of Middle English poems, with commentary and up-to-date editing and introductions. Similarly, the University of Michigan has their Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse – including over 300 unique texts and transcriptions. If you’re feeling like going outside of English, there’s CELT, a repository of Celtic/Irish/Gaelic texts and translations, or the Latin Library, which includes hundreds of Classical and Medieval Latin texts. If you want something historic, I’d recommend the Internet Medieval Sourcebook for general primary sources, and Princeton’s Middle English for Educators, to locate specific periods or regions. This doesn’t even include some of my favorite excellent digital humanities projects on Medieval Cloth and Textiles, Bestiaries, Musical Refrains, or Maps and Mapping – the list truly could be infinite. While this might be a little dizzying at first – the fellowship allowed me the time and space to really delve into the wonderful world of “Digital Chaucer” – and find a variety of really weird and wonderful projects academics were doing across the globe.


About the Author

Ingrid Conley-Abrams is an Adjunct Reference Librarian at the Mina Rees Library.