Oh Middle English, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
I’ve just come up for air out of the wonderful world of Victorian tourism (a paper on the 19th cent. definitions of “real” travellers) and before I plunge into the 17th cent. and “right reason” in Paradise Lost, I want to share some of my latest discoveries in Middle English with you.
First, did you know that medievals wrote fanfiction for the Canterbury Tales universe? (Slight exaggeration alert) Enter The Canterbury Interlude and the Tale of Beryn. I haven’t got around to reading the whole thing yet, but the gist of the tale is as follows: Rich doting parents Faunus and Agea have son, Beryn. Son turns scoundrel. Mother gets sick. Son refuses to come to deathbed. Father remarries. New wife Rame unimpressed by Beryn, schemes to transfer inheritance to her own son. Father dies, reconciles with son on deathbed. Rame convinces Beryn to trade inheritance for five ships full of merchandise (not a bad deal?). Beryn agrees, sails to Falsetown, in the land of Imagination. Excrement encounters the proverbial fan. Beryn loses important game of chess. Beryn cheated out of his ships. Beryn accused by woman of having slept with her. Beryn accused by blind man of having stolen said blind man’s eyes. Disaster averted by clever jester named Geffrey.
Second, the Kentish dialect is crazy. Even by the standards of Middle English. Take the Ayenbite of Inwyt, a 14th century translation by Dan Michel of a French book written in the late 13th century for Philip II of France. (The Ayenbite has its own peculiarities, not all of which can be laid at the feet of Kentish.) Here’s a sample of the style:
Þe herte is ase is þe uoȝel þet wolde uly to his wylle and bote hy by ofhealde be þe ges of beleaue and of loue hy ulyȝþ perilousliche zuo þet hy hyre spilþ and ualþ ofte into þe grines of þe uoȝelere of helle. Þet is þe dyeuel þet ne wylneþ bote to nime þane uoȝel.
(The author is saying that the heart is like a bird [vogel -> fowl] that wants to fly to its will, and unless it is held back by the jesses of belief and love, it flies perilously high and often falls into the snares of the fowler of hell – the Devil, whose whole aim is to catch the bird.) A far cry from the Middle English of The Canterbury Tales or The Cloud of Unknowing! One of the interesting features of Kentish absent from other dialects like Northumbrian is the representation of the labiodental fricative as if it were voiced (v for f), for example, in uly and uoȝel (u here represents modern v). Maybe it really was voiced?
Third, the word habundance will always be dear to my heart. Here’s an example of it in its natural habitat from the Welles Anthology:
hevy thoughtes and houge depe sykyng
pensyffe partyng putteth me to payne
greate habundance of Sore wepyng
Largely Issuying the walter fro my breyne…
Fourth – I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – the Scots dialect is amazing. So I was very happy to stumble upon The Taill of Rauf Coilȝear yesterday. Rauf is a churl who unwittingly hosts emperor Charlemagne when the emperor is separated from his retinue by a storm. For reasons that are difficult to explain, but have to do with different kinds of etiquette and an extremely imperious form of hospitality, Rauf flies into a rage and punches Charlemagne in the head. Charlemagne restrains his impulse to beat the living daylights out of Rauf with some difficulty, and then they sit down together with Rauf’s wife and enjoy a lovely meal. Charlemagne pretends to be “Wymond of the Wardop,” a gentleman of the Queen’s chamber, and invites Rauf to court. To make a long story short-er, Rauf soon shows up at court and is quite surprised to find “Wymond” rather grander than he’d let on. The emperor graciously knights him, and he goes on to battle a camel-riding saracen named Magog. The combatants are parted by Roland, who manages to get Magog to convert to Christianity – he tries bribery, but Magog recks not his riches – and then the three become sworn brothers and ride triumphantly back to Charlemagne. Here’s a verse to give a sense of the style of the whole:
The carll beheld to the knicht as he stude than;
He bair, gravit in gold and gowlis in grene,
Glitterand full gaylie quhen glemis began,
Ane tyger ticht to ane tre, ane takin of tene.
Trewlie that tenefull was trimland than,
Semelie schapin and schroud in that scheild schene;
Mekle worschip of weir worthylie he wan,
Befoir, into fechting with mony worthie sene.
His basnet was bourdourit, and burneist bricht
With stanis of beriall deir,
Dyamountis and sapheir,
Riche rubeis in feir,
Reulit full richt.