...was arduous, long, and could lead to death. Well, maybe that last word is a bit melodramatic. But in the case of the Chaucer Research Project, our hyperbole isn't far from the truth.
The Chaucer Research Project began in 1924 when University of Chicago Professors of English, John Mathews Manly (1865-1940) and Edith Rickert (1871-1938), launched a systematic study of the complete works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Their goal was to produce an authoritative text of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales by painstakingly collecting, photographing, collating, and studying all existing Chaucer manuscripts.
Manly and Rickert had already worked together during World War I on cryptography for the War Department. They applied their collective linguistic and analytical skills to the study of Chaucer's works with the same fervor as they had given to cyphers during the war. At the University of Chicago, a Chaucer textual laboratory was organized in Wieboldt Hall where a small army of graduate students analyzed photostatic copies of Chaucer manuscripts for details such as lettering styles, paper marking, and ink in order to establish the manuscripts' provenance. During six months of each year, Manly and Rickert traveled to Europe to examine original manuscripts held in public and private collections for details such as ink changes, erasures, binding, and trimming that may not have been apparent in the photostatic copies in their laboratory. Their work resulted in an eight-volume edition, The Text of the Canterbury Tales, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1940.
Chaucer Project staff pictured In Wieboldt Hall at the University of Chicago. From left: B. W. Stevenson, Lucy (?) (standing), Ruth Jackson, Florence Ziegler, Walter Hendricks, Mabel Dean, Helen McIntosh, John Matthews Manly (standing), Edith Rickert, Florence Teager, Ramona Bressie. University of Chicago Photographic Files, apf1-01681.
Simultaneously with the work on the edition of the Canterbury Tales, the Chaucer Research Project grew to encompass the compilation of sources of information on Chaucer's life and on the times in which he lived. This work, which began in 1927, continued for one decade under the direction of Manly and Rickert, who employed researchers in Britain and the United States to discover and evaluate the great mass of material. They combed private and public collections for all possible sources of information on Chaucer's life, as well as for collateral information that would place his life in the proper historical setting.
Professors John M. Manly, Edith Rickert, and David Stevens bound for American aboard the Europa, 1932. University of Chicago Photographic Files, apf1-09081.
Just as Edith Rickert and British historian and archivist, Lilian J. Redstone, began to prepare a manuscript draft for the project's culmination, the Chaucer Life-Records, Rickert died at the age of 67. Exhaustion from long hours and little time off, combined with the numbing cold of some of the repositories in which Rickert labored, likely contributed to the heart attack and stroke that finished her. Sadly, her partner, John Manly, soldiered on only long enough to see their eight-volume edition, The Text of the Canterbury Tales, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1940. He, too, succumbed to fatigue and illness, and died of emphysema just a few months after the book's publication.
Edith Rickert at work in London on the Chaucer Research Project. University of Chicago Photographic Files, apf1-01685.
Following the deaths of Rickert and Manly, Lilian J. Redstone picked up the torch and compiled a preliminary draft of the Chaucer Life-Records in 1941. World War II interrupted the project for six years. In 1947, Professor of English, Martin M. Crow (1901-1997; PhD Chicago 1934), began a preliminary survey of the Chaucer Research Project records. He invited University of the Pacific Professor Clair C. Olson (1901–1972; PhD Chicago, 1938) to assist in this endeavor in 1950. The two had already worked together in the Wieboldt laboratory, and they had collaborated in 1941 to complete Edith Rickert's Chaucer's World (Columbia University Press). Crow and Olson spent years refiling, indexing, checking, cross-referencing, analyzing, and editing the Chaucer Research Project records. Crow spent several weeks in 1952 interviewing Lilian Redstone in her home in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England about the project. Lilian Redstone died in 1955. After 19 years of labor (on top of the 20 years of work that came before it), Crow and Olson finally published the Chaucer Life-Records in 1966 (Oxford, Clarendon Press). So far as I know, the deaths of Crow and Olson were not caused by the Project.
A guide to the records of the Chaucer Research Project is now online. The records not only provide information about the minutiae of Geoffrey Chaucer's life and writings, they help to tell the story of a herculean (Sisyphean?), humanistic project undertaken by a group of passionate scholars. Thomas H. Bestul sums up the enormity of the Chaucer Research Project in his article on one of the Project's contributors, "Ramona Bressie, the Study of Manuscripts, and the Chaucer Life-Records" (Medieval Feminist Forum, vol. 45 no. 1, 2009: 68–92):
Manly and Rickert’s critical axioms were characteristic of the period -- they were convinced that Chaucer could be recovered through systematic research into records which would lead to objective knowledge of Chaucer’s milieu and thereby Chaucer himself. In an historical context, the Manly-Rickert Chaucer project is an indication of the professionalization of literary study that occurred at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. In a national context, that period at Chicago can be seen as a manifestation of the enormous optimism, ambition, and entrepreneurial spirit that marked American society in the post-Wilsonian era.
Digital Humanists, take note. The concept of data mining large cultural data sets is nothing new, but thanks to the advent of computers it's a lot less likely to kill you.
M. Mills, a member of the British archival research team hired by University of Chicago faculty John Matthews Manly and Edith Rickert to work on the Chaucer Project. She is pictured with Custom House Accounts (on stand). On the document's upper membrane, Geoffrey Chaucer, who once served as a customs official, appears as a witness to the accounts' accuracy. University of Chicago Photographic Files, apf1-01683.