An Introduction To Middle English (What Is Middle English?)

An Introduction to Middle English


The English language has changed continually throughout history. In the early Middle Ages these changes were often the result of invasions or migrations; as people from other countries settled in the British Isles they brought their own languages, which combined with or even superceded the native languages.

Old English

If you were to travel back in time to the tenth century, you probably wouldn’t be able to understand a word that anyone said to you. They’d be speaking Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, as it’s sometimes called), a language very different from the English that we speak today. For a start, the grammar was entirely different – more like Latin or Russian than modern English. Words were inflected – that is to say, rather than using a preposition like ‘of’ or ‘from’ to show what is happening in the sentence, a suffix would be attached to the word. For example, a word like ‘stow’, meaning ‘place’, would have the suffix ‘um’ attached to it to mean ‘in’. And, as you can see, not only the grammar but the vocabulary was very different. Talking to a tenth-century Englishman, you’d probably only be able to recognize a few words like ‘a’ or ‘the’. Only about one-sixth of current English vocabulary has an Old English root, with the rest being foreign influences – but these are often the most important and commonly used words – such as ‘to be’. Other old words still exist in place names – you may not recognize that the word ‘stow’ means ‘place’, but there are plenty of towns called Stowe or which include it in their name. And even if you could understand a word when it was written down, Old English pronounciation was very different to today. Even the alphabet was different – there are extra letters taken from the Norse runes.

Take a look at this piece of Old English poetry and see if you can understand any of it:

W?s se grimma g?st Grendel haten,
m?re mearcstapa, se te moras heold,
fen ond f?sten

Choose what you think this is about –

· a monster living on a moor

· the arrival of an unwelcome guest at a house

· a sheep-shearing contest

In fact, these lines are from Beowulf, a great poem from the 11th century, and this description is the first time that Grendel, a monster, is described. This is how it might run in modern English:

Grendel this monster grim was called,
march-riever mighty, in moorland living,
in fen and fastness (trans R.I.Altman)

There are a few words you might recognize – ‘grimma’ is ‘grim’, ‘moras’ is ‘moorland’ and ‘fen’ is ‘fen’. A ‘march-riever’ is someone who sneaks over a border to steal from and harass the inhabitants. Some words make sense if you think about them a little more – ‘gaest’ is an evil spirit or monster, and our word ‘ghost’ is its descendent. Other words you might guess from your knowledge of foreign languages – ‘haten’ does not mean ‘hate’, but ‘called’ or ‘named’, like the German ‘heissen’. (Beowulf is a wonderful poem – try to get hold of the translation by Seamus Heaney if you can).

The Changing Language

So why did the language change? There are a number of reasons, but a major factor was the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. The Normans spoke an early form of French, which quickly became the ‘official’ language of England, overtaking the native language for governmental administration and legal matters. But the Normans and the English had to communicate somehow, and their struggles to speak changed the English language. New French vocabulary was introduced to Old English, and the English grammar gradually became simplified as the Normans struggled with it. (As well as French and English, Latin was also an important language in the Middle Ages. It was used for some government business, for education and during religious worship in church.)

Gradually Old English turned into the Middle English that Chaucer writes in – but still the official language of England was French! It was only in 1362, during Chaucer’s lifetime, that English was used at the opening of Parliament for the first time. During the same year a law called the ‘Statute of Pleading’ was passed, making English the official language of the courts and in Parliament (and even then, it took a while to get everyone to speak English). In 1399, King Henry IV became the first king of England since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English.

However, English was a still a language of low status – especially when it came to writing poetry and literature. During the 14th century, the Italians and French were experiencing an explosion of creativity – great poets like Dante, Petrach and Boccaccio were writing in entirely new ways. But English had no such great writers. This was where Chaucer made a difference – he took the language of the man in the street and turned it into a series of masterpieces. Chaucer proved that poetry written in English could be every bit as good as books in Latin or French.

Chaucer’s Middle English and Regional Dialects

To see how different Middle English is from Old English, take a look at this passage from Chaucer’s famous book The Canterbury Tales. Unlike Beowulf, you shouldn’t have any problems understanding it, even though it still looks a bit odd compared with Modern English.

A Knight there was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the tyme that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

This is the description of the Knight, one of the group of pilgrims described in The Canterbury Tales; later we’ll look at this passage more closely as we work through some ways of understanding Middle English. But if you compare this with the extract from Beowulf, you can see how English had changed between the 11th and the 14th centuries.

However, this is only one Middle English dialect; The Canterbury Tales were written in the English spoken by Londoners. In fourteenth-century England, it was far more difficult to travel around than it was today, since the only way to travel was by horse, boat, or on foot. With little contact between people from different regions, regional dialects became noticeably different. Someone from the North, for example, might find a Londoner almost incomprehensible. Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to Britian, tells a famous story about a man trying to buy eggs:

In my days it happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea into Zeland, and for lack of wind they tarried atte foreland, and went to land for to refresh them. And on of them named Sheffield, a mercer, in-to an house and asked for meat, and especially he asked after eggs. And the good wife answered, that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have eggs, and she undestood him not. And then at last another said that he would have eyren? Then the good wife said that she undestood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or Eiern, certainly it is hard to please every man, by cause of diversity and change of language.

The English we speak today developed from the English that was spoken in London, so although we can understand most of Chaucer’s language, Middle English from the north is much more difficult. Try taking a look at these lines (again, you’ll see t, which is ‘th’, so ‘te’ is spelt ‘the’ today; ? is a sort of ‘yuh’ sound, like the ‘gh’ in ‘night’ )

Tis kyng lay at Camylot vpon Krystmasse
With mony luflych lorde, ledez of te best,
Rekenly of te Rounde Table alle to rich breter,
With rych reuel ory?t and rechles mertes.

The words ‘Camylot’ and the ‘Rounde Table’ should give you a clue as to this poem. These lines are taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at about the same time as The Canterbury Tales, but by an author whose name is now forgotten. Here’s a translation into modern English:

King Arthur lay at Camelot upon a Christmas-tide, with many a gallant lord and lovely lady, and all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table. There they held rich revels with merry talk and jokes.

As you can see, the language of Gawain is half-way between Old English and Chaucer’s English. The other thing you’ll notice is that Chaucer writes rhyming poetry, as they did in Europe, whereas the Gawain poet uses alliteration, in the old English tradition that we also saw in Beowulf.

We can get some idea of how important this different language was from Chaucer’s own words - Chaucer ends his long poem Troilus and Criseyde (about the Trojan war) with a plea that his poem will be understood in different parts of Britian.

And for ther is so gret diversite [great diversity]

In English and in writyng of oure tonge, [tongue – i.e. language]

So prey I God that non myswrite thee, [miswrite – i.e. copy it out wrongly]

Ne thee mysmetre for defaute of tonge; [mismetre – i.e. get the rhythm wrong because their language isn’t very good]

And red whereso thow be, or elles songe, [red = read; elles = else; songe = sung]

That thow be understonde, God I beseche! [understonde = understool]

Of course, the English language has continued to change since Chaucer’s day - for example, Shakespeare’s English is quite different from Chaucer’s - and is still changing now. Until just a few years ago, ‘C U L8R’ was just a string of letters and numbers, but now most people know what it means!


Although Middle English can look quite tricky to start with, it isn’t difficult to work out what it means. In this section we’ll take a look at an example of Chaucer’s English, taken from the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and suggest some ways in which you can work through it to gain a clearer understanding of the language.

A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,

That fro the tyme that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrie,

Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Ful worthy was he in his lordes were,

And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,

As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,

And evere honoured for his worthynesse.

As you look at this, you will realise that you already recognise many of the words - most of the first line, for example, is made up of modern words, and you’ll also recognise ‘first’, ‘loved’ and ‘honour’. Some other words look quite familiar, although the spelling isn’t what you expect - ‘knyght’, for example, instead of ‘knight’, and ‘fredom’ instead of ‘freedom’. But there are some words that look a bit trickier - ‘bigan’, ‘riden’ and ‘trouthe’, perhaps. So how can you work out what they mean?

1. Working out the meaning - reading aloud

One of the best ways to understand Middle English is to try reading it aloud. Often a word will look strange, but will sound perfectly normal when spoken. So if you read these eight lines out, you’ll find that ‘bigan’ actually sounds like the modern English word ‘began’ - and in fact it is exactly the same word, just spelled differently.

2. Working out the meaning - change the spelling

This leads us to another way to work out Middle English. Often a Middle English word is very similar to a modern English word, but the spelling is different. So try thinking about the spelling - can you change or remove some letters from the Middle English word to make it more like modern English? The word ‘trouthe’ looks hard - but if you take away the ‘o’ and the ‘e’ it becomes ‘truth’.

3. Working out the meaning - context

There are also some Middle English words which don’t really have a modern English equivalent - for example, ‘cristendom’ and ‘hethenesse’. When you look at the first of these words you might notice that it begins with ‘crist’, which looks very much like ‘Christ’, and in fact ‘cristendom’ is an old-fashioned word meaning ‘the countries where people are Christians’. This may help to provide some context for the other word, ‘hethenesse’. The poem says that the knight had ‘riden’ (ridden on horseback) ‘As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse’. This seems to suggest that ‘cristendom’ and ‘hethenesse’ are contrasted in some way; are they opposites, perhaps? Could ‘hethenesse’ be the countries where people are not Christians? In fact, this is absolutely correct, and if you look again at the word, you may now think that ‘hethen’ looks like the modern word ‘heathen’.

4. Working out the meaning - tricky words

Just occasionally there will be Middle English words that you can’t work out at all, because the word has no modern English equivalent. In these cases you will need to use some other way of finding out the meaning. In books of Chaucer’s poetry there is often a mini-dictionary or glossary in the back; this can help out with tricky words. If this doesn’t help, you will need to look at a specialist dictionary of Middle English words, like the Middle English Dictionary. You can access this on the Internet at - the easiest way to use it is to click on ‘Lookups’ and then type in the word. There are also some other websites with Chaucer glossaries and dictionaries - see the Web Links and Resources section below.


References to other texts, etc.

Chaucer’s poetry can seem difficult because he sometimes mentions the names of people or places you haven’t heard of. Often these are people from Greek mythology, or from history or literature. It doesn’t always matter if you don’t know exactly who he’s talking about; you can usually enjoy the poetry anyway. In some cases, however, it can make the poem more enjoyable if you find out more about the person he mentions. The poem may have some notes attached to it, explaining - or you can do a search on the Internet.

The order of words

Chaucer often changes the usual order of words around, just as modern poets sometimes do. For example, he says ‘A knyght ther was’ instead of ‘There was a knight’. Sometimes he uses very long sentences, spread over several lines, which can make it tricky to work out exactly what he’s saying. But there’s no need to worry; you can usually get the ‘gist’ of it quite easily, and it doesn’t take very long to get used to unravelling Chaucer’s long sentences.

Double negatives

Your teachers or parents may have told you that you shouldn’t use the ‘double negative’; in other words, you shouldn’t say, for example, ‘I don’t want nothing’, because ‘don’t’ and ‘nothing’ are both negatives. They may have told you that these two negatives cancel each other out, making a positive - so ‘I don’t want nothing’ really means ‘I do want something’. This may be true as far as modern English is concerned, but in medieval times the opposite was true; poets and other writers used double negatives all the time to add emphasis to a negative statement. In fact, sometimes they used a triple negative, when they wanted to make a point really strongly! E.g. ‘He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde’ means ‘he very definitely never said anything bad at all’.