Chaucer Online

JAN 17, 2023

Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website, created by Professor Larry Benson, has guided millions of readers since its launch in the 1980s. In anticipation of The Wife of Willesden‘s arrival at A.R.T., Professor Daniel Donoghue shares the story of this rich public resource. 

A screenshot of Harvard's Geoffrey Chaucer Website in the early 2000s, showing a portrait of Chaucer surrounded by hyperlinks to areas of the website.

“Geoffrey Chaucer” is an unlikely name to find in the vanguard of the digital humanities, but there’s an unheralded story that puts him there, thanks to a Harvard professor’s labor of love. Shortly after the publication of The Riverside Chaucer in 1987, its editor, Larry Benson, retrieved a copy of the magnetic tapes that Houghton Mifflin used to print the book, because he recognized the potential for using machine-readable texts in scholarship and teaching. He was ahead of his time in this regard. When The Riverside Chaucer was published, email was still a novel curiosity. Reference works like dictionaries and encyclopedias were available only in printed form. The Text Encoding Initiative, which standardized the format of digital texts, didn’t issue its guidelines until 1994. Wikipedia launched in 2001. You get the idea. After Benson converted the tapes, his plan for them made him a pioneer of what we now recognize as the digital humanities.

Benson soon launched Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website to help with his large lecture course on The Canterbury Tales, which enrolled as many as 300 students in the 1980s and 1990s. At its core were the full texts and a complete glossary of the Tales taken from those magnetic tapes, but that was only the beginning. The site included notes explaining what the Wife of Bath’s scarlet stockings signified. A click of the mouse brought up excerpts from The Romance of the Rose illustrating how Duenna, a seasoned expert on the tricks of love, inspired the Wife of Bath’s rhetoric. Other links led to summaries of courtly love, medieval astronomy, the Black Death of 1349, important scholarly articles, and much more. It was a self-contained library with everything a student of Chaucer might need to know. There was nothing like it.

Word spread quickly, and Harvard’s Chaucer webpage soon attracted a global audience. A site counter installed in 2004 recorded 83 million visits (and who knows how many millions before 2004?). It was sought out by everyone from high school students to seasoned scholars, because anyone with an internet connection could access it just by entering “Harvard Chaucer” in their browser. Each new visitor has vindicated Benson’s egalitarian vision for the study of Chaucer.

Benson did most of the work himself, by which I mean he pecked away at his personal computer’s keyboard writing code in the Unix operating system. Whether his choice of Unix was prescient or lucky, he chose a portable language that is still an industry standard, unlike other choices in the late 1980s. And because Benson worked alone he kept it simple: he did not embed third-party proprietary products, which would inevitably grow outdated. His website’s simplicity added to its longevity.

A few years ago, the site migrated to a new platform and was given an updated appearance, but the core elements and the core mission remain the same, bringing Chaucer and his world to an audience far beyond what could be imagined in medieval London, Canterbury, or Bath.

Daniel Donoghue, Ph.D., is the John P. Marquand Professor of English at Harvard University. 

Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer website as it appeared in the early 2000s. Courtesy of the Harvard English Department.
Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, c. late-14th Century CE by an unknown British artist. This oil on panel painting is currently in the collection of the Harvard Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.

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