Shakespeare and Eye Spy, Oh My

Early Modern English:

This is a weird category a lot of people have problems with. The stuff in here is from the Rennaisance, so it’s not what most of you might consider “modern”. Writers like Shakespeare fit in this category, and if you were ever forced to sit through an awkward read aloud of “The Taming of The Shrew” in an English class in school then you will remember that very few English speakers can actually read the stuff.

At this point in English, though, the letters look a lot like what we use today, and many of the spellings are similar to our current spelling system. Additionally the Renaissance saw the creation of the first universities where students of upper and middle classes were taught standardized spelling and grammatical forms of the language and used the newly invented dictionaries mass produced via the new printing press to bring greater literacy to the masses- at least the Middle Class masses.

The Game

This is the third entry in this series of “Eye Spy” posts. In previous posts the rules were that you’d gain points if you could decipher the letters, more points if you could pick out whole words, and even more points if you could figure out entire sentences. All of that is over now. This is a form of Modern English, after all, so the fonts are really similar to what we’d see today. The challenge today is figuring out what the old spellings and old fashioned vocabulary actually means.



Here we have an early compilation of Shakespeare’s plays. Keep in mind that very few pages of the actual scripts survive, because they were used and reused by the actors on the stage, so my understanding is that mostly all we have left are early anthologies of his work which were made a little after the originals. I am not actually a Shakespeare scholar, however, so referencing one of them might be a good idea if you want a better history of his work.

I didn’t just include his work because Shakespeare is one of the most famous Renaissance writer. He’s important because he was at the beginning of a new wave of English authors who actually wrote in their own language- English- instead of using a fancy language only a few rich people and scholars could understand. (Cough, Latin, cough. But actually sometimes Ancient Greek was used for this as well.)

I can make out every word on this page, of course, but the challenge in this edition of the series is not really to spot individual words, but rather to be able to understand what the writing actually means.

It’s clear that tragedie=tragedy, and scena=scene, and finis=finish. But it can be a little hard to understand the whole content. I recommend that if you want to give the challenge on this one a full go, you check out an annotated edition of one of the plays, and that should give a translation side by side the original text so you can check if your guesses at translation are accurate or not.

Challenge Round



This is “The Prince,” by Machiavelli. Can you figure out what is written here?

Don’t worry if you can’t, this one was a trick entry! “The Prince” was originally written in Italian, so it’s not really a test of your ability to decipher English. Fooled you!

Imperfectum A Diabolo


This one is a historical text, probably vaguely medical. It’s written by Philippi Theophrast (what a mouthful that name is too!) It’s written in Latin and I can’t find out anything about it because I don’t speak or read Latin at all. Bonus points if you can figure out anything about this one. I definitely made this a challenge round.


We have had quite a series of posts this month about the History of The English Language. If you want to read the entire series you can visit the English Language tab posted in the top of this post’s page, or go to the first post here. I’ve been posting them every Wednesday this month and enjoying it a lot.

How about you? Do you like this series? Can you figure out the meaning of the challenge round texts?


Playing “Eye Spy” with Middle English

Middle English

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

Continuing my series of posts playing around with the history of the English language starting with episode one, and continuing with Old English I Spy, here we are today playing with Middle English.

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.

Which words can you decipher?

Playing “Eye Spy” with Old English

Old English

The period we call “Old English” lasted from 450-1100 AD. The first version of the English language started when three Germanic tribes invaded the land we today call England. All three tribes spoke a roughly similar language, and in very little time their languages merged into one.

You can read more about the overall history of the language here.

Today we are going to have fun with the language and play a game of I Spy. Normally Eye Spy (or sometimes I Spy) is a game- using specific I Spy series books or just using passing landmarks as a car trip game- and you look through many different objects to find a select few. It’s sort of like the kid’s game version of hunting through the cupboard to find the things you need to make dinner but you can’t find the parmesan because someone hid it in the cupboard even though you’ve always put it away in the refrigerator.

Today we’re going to look at different snippets of Old English and see if you can decipher any letters in it. Bonus points if you can figure out any whole words!

Library of Congress collection

For practice I first included a rough alphabet of the letters. Keep in mind this alphabet was written in modern times for modern audiences to be an approximation of Old English letters and not clones of originals. Additionally, this was made into a typeface, while everything originally written in Old English was handwritten so there will be variations in handwriting and lettering styles. So, now that we have somewhere to start, let’s go!

Example of Old English

This is a snippet from Beowulf. Can you figure out any of the letters in this?

My guess is that thesecond sentence starts with “Oft”, an old timey version of the word “often”.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is supposedly the longest piece of intact Old English writing we have- even longer than Beowulf- according to Wikipedia. Use your own judgement on the accuracy of that. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is basically an early encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon history, hence the name.

My best guess is that the first word looks like “Brittene”, which I would guess means Britain, but keep in mind I am new to this particular game of Eye-Spy and I have very untrained eyes for it so who knows if I’m right.

Bede’s Historical Ecclesiastes

Bede’s Ecclesiastes recorded snippets of the Synod of Hatfield in year 679 many years after the fact. If you want to read one theory as to why he limited his work to only some portions of that meeting I found an interesting post from Proffesor Miranda Wilcox at the blog for the Medieval Studies division of York University.

I included this post as the last one because, to me, it is the hardest to decipher. I have no clue what it says, and I can only pick out a handful of letters like the distinctive “l” and “p” and all of the larger illuminated letters on the left side.

Which words can you decipher?