"We have all these copies, and they're related in many ways," said Robinson. "We are working to understand how they relate to each other, how they copy from one another."
Adding to the complexity of transcribing about 30,000 pages of Middle English text are the slight variations in spelling and grammar between each manuscript. Written in the late 14th century, The Canterbury Tales pre-dates both the printing press and the standardized spelling that came with it. When writing, scribes abided by regional dialect, he explained. "The manuscripts themselves are a very good record of how people wrote English in different parts of the country."
Robinson used a line from the poem The Nun's Priest's Tale as an example. Appearing in most modern versions as "And no wine drank she, either white or red," a Middle English translation reads as "No wyn drank she, neither whit ne reed." However, the line may vary from one version to another; wyn may become wyne or wynne, whit may turn into white or whyte, and so on, depending on which scribe copied it.
To keep track of all the subtle variations between manuscripts, Robinson uses a computer program originally used in the natural science disciplines to map DNA-level variations in animal species. The transcribed pages are run through the program, which records and charts the spelling and grammatical differences. When all the data are entered, Robinson hopes to understand how the texts descended and developed over time.
"It's really quite groundbreaking to figure out how to take manuscripts, put them inside the system and get useful results from it," said Robinson.
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