Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


The Nun's Priest's Tale on CD-ROM
Leicester: Scholarly Digital Editions, 2006

Review by Susan Yager

Reading and editing are inextricably linked, though that link is often invisible. Chaucer and Shakespeare, even Shelley and Joyce, would be difficult for most readers without prior editorial effort, but few readers think at length about the editions they encounter. Students, even scholars, may quote from a "standard scholarly edition" with little awareness of the multiple editorial choices that have gone into it.

Such an attitude is impossible if one has explored the Nun's Priest's Tale on CD-ROM, a recent publication from Scholarly Digital Editions and part of the digital Canterbury Tales Project. Once an edition is in print, even sophisticated users tend to assume it is a fixed and perfect text, but this electronic treatment presents an atomized Nun's Priest's Tale, including every variant in every line, in all the complexity of its transmission history.

I use the word treatment rather than edition because, like the Canterbury Tales Project's earlier releases, this CD-ROM does not contain an edition as such. Rather, as its website explains, the CD-ROM offers "a full set of materials for study of the text." These materials include images, word and line collations, commentary on differences among the manuscripts and early printed versions, and other resources, but not an edited text that can be clicked on and read. This makes the Nun's Priest's Tale on CD-ROM a useful companion to, though in no way a replacement for, Derek Pearsall's edition of the Nun's Priest's Tale in the Variorum Chaucer.

The first few publications to appear in this series, published by Cambridge University Press, were admirable, particularly in presenting manuscript images in wonderful detail, but their design was sometimes cumbersome and their software, DynaText, does not function on more recent computer systems. The more recent releases, published by Scholarly Digital Editions, use a new, Web-based software called Anastasia, which enables much quicker browsing among sections of the CD-ROM.

Opening the CD-ROM (using Safari and OS X), I found the icons somewhat different from what is described in the installation directions. The way into the material, however, is highly intuitive, with a stunning opening image of the Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 198 and an array of choices for navigating: images, collation, stemmatic commentary, articles, and a database which enables users to make specific comparisons of variants among manuscripts.

One can spend a profitable time simply browsing the manuscript images, especially the Oxford manuscript and the woodcuts of Caxton's second edition. The image collection will likely be most attractive to students and non-specialists, as the manuscript capitals and illuminations are so readily available. Each image can be greatly enlarged and could easily be used for a course in paleography. However, several of the manuscripts, unfortunately including Ellesmere, are not in color, which is a disappointment.

Also captivating are the collations, as the user can remember a line, find it, notice a pattern, and examine manuscript variants as quick as thought. The collations are also linked to the Stemmatic Commentary, which in turn refers often to the Pearsall edition. The Anastasia software allows for instant navigation among image and text files. Launching in the user's web browser, the software responds to browser commands to enlarge text size, for example. Pop-ups and mouseovers permit ease of reading and quick access to notes, while a menu bar permits one to browse with little back-tracking. Unfortunately, Anastasia times out when launching long files, such as the entire Stemmatic Commentary section; this phenomenon occurred on three computers with different platforms and browser software.

The commentary, articles on the manuscripts and technical matters, and a lengthy introduction are all up to date, even though the CD-ROM has been in the works for a decade. Included, for example, is Linne Mooney's work identifying Adam Pinkhurst as Chaucer's scrivener. Frustratingly, the introduction and the Stemmatic Commentary often go into detail on the same lines; while the key lines (and key variants) naturally attract attention, I found myself wishing for more detail and wider variety in the commentary.

Minor problems appear, some of which are peculiar to an electronic text. For example, a popup box explaining Norman Blake's position with regard to the Hengwrt manuscript leads to an unfinished note. The articles are signed, but often the authors' bylines appear only in the whole-text files, not in the anchor links. Interestingly, there are also inconsistencies of tone that may prove characteristic of electronic communications: for example, one article uses honorifics, last names, and first names interchangeably.

In some respects—particularly in its professionalized language and level of technical detail—the CD seems meant for a highly specialized audience; students would certainly profit from a glossary of phrases like facilior lectio. In general, however, students and teachers alike will find much to admire and learn from in this treatment, and the (perhaps mythical) general reader of the Nun's Priest's Tale will also prosper if the CD-ROM, and others like it in the series, succeed in refocusing literary critics' attention on textual matters. Dispelling the persistent fantasy of a single recoverable text, the Nun's Priest's Tale on CD-ROM, like the other contributions of the Canterbury Tales Project, brings us closer to the history of actual readers and specific scribes who worked to copy and promulgate Chaucer's story.