MV#13 — Phylogeny & The Canterbury Tales — Peter Robinson

The physical solidity of books encourages notions of “the text” or “the canonical edition”. The challenges to this view from post-modernist thought are well known. But there are other ways in which this model of a static text may fail.

Our guest this week is Peter Robinson (my dad!) who takes us through his work on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This is a paradigmatic case of a work of literature that defies understanding as fixed text. Originally it would have been read, or performed. What exists now are fragments of transcripts of performances. And copies of those fragments. And copies of copies.

SplitsTree analysis of 44 manuscripts of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. From: The phylogeny of The Canterbury Tales

Using techniques from phylogenetics, Peter has led efforts to piece together the relationships between these manuscripts. By tracing how transcription errors (or edits) appear to propagate, we can create a family tree of the texts, just as we can trace the propagation of biological traits through generations.
Sounds simple?

After 30 years of working on this, we’re really just beginning to understand what a representation of a textual tradition using these tools gives us.

Peter Robinson

Finally, I know what my dad does for a living!


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