By Jean Balchin 05/04/2018


Last week, the results of the Science Media Centre Video Competition was judged. It was an incredible competition, open to previous participants of the SMC’s science video workshops. There were eight entries, and the judges were incredibly impressed with the creativity and quality of the entries. I was fortunate enough to watch all eight entries and chat to a number of the participants. This week and next, we’ll be running a series of articles on the various projects. Today we’re looking at Professor Simone Marshall’s project on a very special and mysterious manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400). Wikimedia Commons.

Who was Chaucer, and what are the Canterbury Tales? 

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) is known as the Father of English literature, and is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages. A Renaissance-man of sorts, Chaucer achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher and astronomer, as well as maintaining an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. He is best known for his works The Canterbury Tales, The Book of the DuchessThe House of FameThe Legend of Good Women and Troilus and Criseyde.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English between 1387 and 1400. In the Tales, Chaucer uses the tales and descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Chaucer’s use of such a wide range of classes and types of people was without precedent in English. Although the characters are fictional, they still offer a variety of insights into customs and practices of the time.

So what’s special about this particular manuscript? 

Okay, it’s not a manuscript, it’s a book… Anyway, this 1721 edition of Chaucer is quite infamous around the world for being the worst edition of Chaucer ever published! The editor, John Urry, died before it was published, and so no one could quite figure out what he was doing with his editing. Actually, it is quite bad, because he literally made up the Middle English as he went along, but it’s also interesting, because it’s sort of a funny mix of Middle English and 18th-century English, and so it’s like a window on 18th-century attitudes to Chaucer.
I think the Auckland City Library copy is the only one in NZ, so I took a look at it last year for the first time, and found these unique engravings by John Mortimer.

Who was John Hamilton Mortimer?

John Mortimer (1740-1779) was a London painter, engraver, and etcher who won a lot of awards in London for his historical painting. A lot of the subjects of his works relate to English nationalism, and he produced a number of exhibitions of literary subjects, most notably twelve illustrations of Shakespeare’s works.

Did Mortimer draw the pictures upon which the engravings were based? Or did he copy another artist? 

Mortimer engraved and etched his own illustrations. He exhibited his works at the London Society of Artists every year from 1762 until 1777.

You can see the collection of Mortimer’s prints here. 

What are your goals with this research project?

I’m curious about Mortimer, of course. What were the circumstances that meant he produced these fabulous engraving of Chaucer but then never published them? But mostly I’m curious about this particular copy: who owned it before Sir George Grey? Because whoever owned it had access to Mortimer’s unpublished engravings and then had the Chaucer rebound to include the engravings. Clearly the engravings were important to someone in the 19th century. All of this is interesting because it points to how literary history is valued through time. Someone thought this edition of Chaucer was important, that these engravings were important, and then later Sir George Grey clearly thought this was important to bring to New Zealand. All of these tiny moments point towards how people reveal their social and political values. Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the cornerstones of English cultural history: how societies have responded to his works across the centuries reveals a wealth of information about those societies. Today, in New Zealand, we have to consider what our relationship is with our English colonial past, and Chaucer is one of the symbols of that relationship. Do we still value his works? If we do, then why? What does that say about us?

What got you interested in science (English?) communication?

I’m not a scientist, I’m a literary scholar. Sometimes I like to call myself a literary archaeologist, because I uncover stuff about literature that people have forgotten, and then I ask ‘why have we forgotten this?’. It’s a little bit like the Da Vinci Code, but without the car chases.

Why do you think science communication is important?

I see so much about Science Communication in the media, as a concerted effort to bring science to the general public. This is great, and needs to be done. I think, however, that some people think that the Humanities is all about writing poems, and performing plays, and composing music, and so forth (which, by default, gets plenty of media attention). Some of that does happen, but they forget that mostly what we do in the Humanities is we take the poem, or the play, or the piece of music, or whatever, and we explain what it means and why it is important. We are not so much the producers of arts, we are the interpreters of arts, and this is important, because what we do is help to show the world what humanity values. Our role as Humanities scholars is to explain who we are and why we are the way we are. What could possibly be more important than that? Perhaps a cure for cancer is more important? But which cancer should be researched and cured? These are the questions that a Humanist investigates to reveal what we value and what matters to us.
A woodcut from William Caxton’s second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483 – NOT the Mortimer version!

What’s your favourite medium for communicating your research?

In academia, we are required to publish in academic journals and books. This is recognised in our disciplines, and will continue to be the most esteemed place for our research. But surely, as academics, we are employed by the public taxpayer and so should be accountable to the taxpayer. Therefore, I feel that increasingly we must disseminate our research to the general public as well as to our academic audience. The mainstream media is not interested in publishing research by Humanities scholars (we regularly hear of the latest from Nature or Science, but when did you last hear of the latest research from Shakespeare Quarterly or Review of English Studies?), but we can still disseminate our research to the general public through social media. Thus, increasingly, you will find us publishing our research as videos on YouTube, and on Twitter and Facebook, as a means of circumventing mainstream media while still reaching the general public with our research.

Comments from judges

Simone’s video was very well received by the judges. In fact, she was granted second place in the competition. According to Baz, the video had a “great intro, titling text and music in keeping with era, dissolving through stills to a great piece to camera.” Simone ensured the video was”nicely framed” and looked up into the camera, keeping the viewer engaged. One qualm was that the viewer was only granted “a fleeting glimpse at the images” presented. 

The narrative of this video is excellent; Simone “posits a discovery up front, climbs into some evidence and then leads us into the next quest,” namely, “how the book and illustrations come to be.” 

According to Dacia, Simone’s video was

“One of the most polished examples we’ve judged from this or previous contests. Excellent use of music and the close ups of the engravings make us appreciate the beauty hidden away in these rare books. Love Simone’s use of action shots and selection of backdrops for her pieces to camera. All are beautifully lit and exposed so the colours really stand out. Great delivery and a really warm, engaging presence on camera. Whispering in the library and turning to gaze off into the distance at the close were brilliant touches. Top notch.”

Finally, Tessa commented:

“This video was tight and was really well put together. There was a good mix of speaking to camera and other movement shots. I liked the zoom into photo feature as a way to give static images some movement, but in this case as the images were the subject of the video, I would have appreciated more time to examine them as non-moving images.”

Associate Professor Simone Marshall is interested in anonymity in medieval literature, fifteenth-century English literature, medieval women’s literature, palaeography and codicology, academic writing, digital modes of writing. You can learn more about her work here.

Next month, the Science Media Centre will take its popular science video making workshops to Auckland and Hamilton, offering more researchers the chance to get science video savvy.  

These video workshops (produced in collaboration with Baz Caitcheon) focus on giving scientists the tools and skills to communicate their research in short videos aimed at an online audience. You’ll learn how to capture footage that can then be used on platforms like Youtube and Vimeo and news websites like Stuff and Herald Online.

WHERE: Auckland, AUT (Wednesday, May 2nd, 8.30am – 12.30pm)
Hamilton, (date TBC)

You can learn more about these workshops and apply for them here.