Middle English is a little bit odd. The Battle of Hastings happened where the Normans had officially conquered the Anglo-Saxons and their language we call Old English. A new order had begun. That said, because Middle English is directly a mix between Old English and Old French, I still prefer to call it “Frenglish” instead of “Middle English”. It just sounds more fun that way.
And true there are other linguistic influences that happened- at some point in this messy time period some Norse invaded the language after some Viking traders did business on the isle- and sometimes when business wasn’t so hot they went into the pillaging business instead- and at the end of this period we started to see a little bit of some “scholarly” languages creep in, but that’s mostly an “Early Modern English” thing so we’ll talk more about all of that next Wednesday.
Middle English feels like it should be readable, but it definitely isn’t.
Eye Spy Game
The rules are pretty simple. All you do is look at a passage from an original Middle English work, and try to figure out what it’s saying. You get points if you can decipher the big illuminated letters, more points if you can decipher the letters in the actual body of the work, and even more points if you can figure out whole words in the passage. If you can figure out entire sentences or a whole passage then you obviously get genius points- but no cheating and looking up an already translated version of the passage!
Take this passage from Chaucer who, by the way, is probably the most famous Middle English writer. The handwriting is obviously gorgeous, but darned if I know what it’s saying.
I personally can kind of figure out that the first two words on the third line are “hateful to”. The last line looks like it starts with “For is was free and open at,” but I can’t read the last of that line.
Here we have a passage from the “Everyman” play. This Medieval play was a full on allegory, meant to illustrate each vice and sin as a character as our average joe character called “Everyman” goes on the journey of life.
I figure that the first two words say, “There begynneth a,” which I am sure means “There begins a.” As to what follows that, I can only pick out a handful of words, which is surprising because the writing looks like it should be much easier for a modern person to read than the Old English passages. Alas, I am not much better at this edition than I was at the last episode of this game.
Here we are at Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. The Arthurian legends actually come from the time of Old English, but it had always been a spoken epic. Malory was one of the first British authors to actually write about it. (As opposed to the many French books on the subject.)
What I’ve got from the first sentence is “And anyone that knew you called upon his,” something or other. I got that by translating “kyn,” which I’d guess means “ken” , which I know for sure is basically an old timey way of saying “knew”. I’m sure it would all be very frustrating if I didn’t at least know old versions of words so I was mostly just figuring out the letters of the passages and I get to skip being confused by the meanings of the words.