Midwinter Middle English
December 27, 2016 8:29 AM   Subscribe

The language of Chaucer and Malory, Middle English can be surprisingly approachable for modern English speakers even 800 years later (although knowing a little French or German doesn't hurt). Let's dive in!

To get started there's the venerable Middle English Dictionary and the Historical Thesaurus of English. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary might also come in handy.

For texts to read there's The Electronic Canterbury Tales and the Malory Project's facsimile editions of Le Morte Darthur.

For a really deep dive there's the Middle English Texts Series, collecting hundreds of texts, often with substantial introductions and links.

There's also the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, which "brings together in highly-structured, interconnected, and approachable form the information scholars need regarding subject matter, authorship, dates, manuscript transmission, and poetic form of all surviving Middle English verse from c. 1200 to c. 1550, including that found in manuscripts, incunabula, inscriptions, wall paintings, monuments, etc." The DIMEV only contains partial transcripts, but there is usually enough information to find a complete copy elsewhere online.

The ongoing Middle English Grammar Project's corpus includes transcriptions of hundreds of Middle English texts, many of them from legal documents, government records, and medical and scientific works.

Finally, linguistics nerds may appreciate the linguistic atlases of Early Middle English and Late Medieval English, together spanning the entire Middle English period.
posted by jedicus (10 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Oooooh, I see a deep hole on the internet. I'll be down it, if anyone needs me.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 9:05 AM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I took a class freshman year on The Canterbury Tales, which we read in Middle English, taught by a fusty old professor who seemed to be straight out of central casting: tweed jacket, elbow patches, gin blossoms (it's possible that this last is an invention of my memory, though he was well-known as a boozer). Brilliant Chaucer scholar, and one whose early website you've probably visited if you've ever researched the topic.

I have exactly two memories of the class. First, the section instructor, on whom I had an entirely unfounded teenage crush, blushing and stammering with embarrassment when discussing what, exactly, Chaucer had meant when he wrote "queynte".

Second, of the professor. Lectures were given in a middle-sized hall that held maybe 50 or 75 students, enough that speakers normally used a microphone. This particular hall was outfitted with a wired lavalier microphone that hung in a loop around the lecturer's neck like a pendant. One morning there was a malfunction with the strap that held the microphone in place, and after several people tried and failed to fix it, somebody suggested that he hold the microphone while he delivered his lecture.

He slapped his hand on the lectern and shouted, with genuine frustration, "I will not hold a microphone like some kind of crooner!" This last word he practically spat, treating it with the disdain normally reserved for sex criminals.

If anybody asks about my time at college, I lead with that story, which, I think, sums it up pretty well.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:10 AM on December 27, 2016 [18 favorites]

It's been roughly 20 years since I read any Chaucer, but I'm enjoying Laura Kinsale's novel For My Lady's Heart, which includes some Middle English dialogue. It's interesting how much it helps maintain the line between "these people don't always think like we do" and "these people are idiots".* I'm not sure whether anyone else has tried this tactic when writing medieval historical romance, but in this case, it works.

* Required to avoid the Eight Deadly Words.
posted by asperity at 10:28 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Terrific resources, jedicus! Thanks.
posted by the sobsister at 11:09 AM on December 27, 2016

I find it a lot easier to parse Middle English if I read it aloud; I'm not sure if it is just because I go slower, or if the actual sound is easier to relate to modern english (I don't hear words when I read.)
posted by tavella at 11:10 AM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I find it a lot easier to parse Middle English if I read it aloud; I'm not sure if it is just because I go slower, or if the actual sound is easier to relate to modern english (I don't hear words when I read.)

Me too. I can kinda hear it in my head, but aloud just works waaaay better.

My undergrad Chaucer classes were, fortunately, smaller affairs with no mic required, and we were all press-ganged into taking turns reading aloud. Also, I had a great feminist prof who was all about how filthy the Canterbury Tales really were.

It was also a great workout. My Chaucer course was back-to-back with my 18-plays-in-two-semesters Shakespeare course. The mandatory texts? The Riverside Chaucer and the Riverside Shakespeare. On my back or over my shoulder, those two heavy motherfuckers accompanied me for two semesters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

For that reason, I'm jealous of the online resources available now - they were just coming into their own when I was in university. There was much talk of "some hypertext resources you might want to access," but I had to hump those texts around.

But! I still own them to this day, and bust them out when the mood strikes to read a W.S. play or I need to get my Middle English on with Chaucer.

Nice post, Jedicus!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:14 PM on December 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

he mandatory texts? The Riverside Chaucer and the Riverside Shakespeare.

I've kept none of my college textbooks except for The Riverside Chaucer. That ought to say something, although what I'm not sure (except that I chose the wrong major).
posted by uncleozzy at 2:30 PM on December 27, 2016

One of the Victorian evangelical novels I'm always reading has an amusing scene in which a man is reading Chaucer to his sister, and doing some rapid editing on the fly.

The mandatory texts? The Riverside Chaucer and the Riverside Shakespeare.

I took Chaucer with one of the Riverside Chaucer's text editors (for Troilus and Criseyde). The final exam included an extra credit question: "Who edited Troilus and Criseyde in the Riverside Chaucer?" You knew when people got to the question because of the sudden outburst of giggles. I can only imagine, though, what happened to anyone who missed the question...
posted by thomas j wise at 3:32 PM on December 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The final exam included an extra credit question: "Who edited Troilus and Criseyde in the Riverside Chaucer?"

Ha ha ha.

The clerk, with his M&M broun, surely?
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:21 PM on December 27, 2016

I'd been told by people who should have known better that Chaucer would be a drag, especially given the prof's insistence on reading the CT in Middle English. Instead, it a delight.

There was no glossing over the problems of Chaucer's worldview, but there was also shared joy in his genius as a poet and storyteller. The prof was one of those old-school types who joined curmudgeonly rigor and a ready laugh at the absurd.

Later, in a grad school, a different teacher - sleek, polished, German, polyglot to the max, and married to a French beauty who made everyone clumsy with adoration - made sure we memorized huge swaths of the Tales and was mildly amused when we showed only passing familiarity with nominalism.

These links are wonderful! And if anyone gets really turned on by this stuff, the next level up is reading Gawain in the original. Maybe that's worth a post of its own someday.

Back to Geoffrey. Here is one of my favorite passages from his works, and from all of poetry. It's from the closing stanzas of Troilus and Criseyde:

O yonge freshe folkes, he or she,
In which that love up groweth in youre age,
Repeyreth hom fro worldly vanyte,
And of youre herte up casteth the visage
to thilke God that after his ymage
Yow made, and thynketh al nys but a faire,
This world that passeth soone as floures faire.
posted by Caxton1476 at 6:43 AM on December 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

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