Translating Middle English

So I’ve been doing something new and unusual lately – translating Middle English. For no good reason, really. Middle English Reading Group, who put up with my whims in text selection, normally read without preparation and without translation. However, a few weeks ao Sir Tristrem proved too much for about half the group members. ‘Too much’ is a funny thing – with a few notable exceptions, most MERG members over the years have developed a facility for grabbing the ‘gist’ and rolling with it, but this year we have a handful of members who prefer to prepare in advance of reading, and want to understand every line.

Now Sir Tristrem is an odd text – it screams NORTHERN NORTHERN NORTHERN as you read it, but the intro tells me there are unique southern word forms scattered throughout. I happen to like northern dialects, so I’ve fallen into the habit of paraphrasing action or description after it’s been read, and translating dialogue. It’s counter-intuitive for me: I don’t normally translate Middle English, and I try to get a feel for the language rather than ever having learned it.

However, it’s kind of satisfying to translate on the fly (whereas anything more than glossing on paper would feel redundant).  And I don’t know about the others (who are reading the text aloud, to be followed by my translation/paraphrase), but it’s absolutely accelerated the speed at which I pick up a facility for this particular author’s dialect and word use. Nifty! I may have to do this again…

Sir Tristrem isn’t, I find, a particularly elegant text (iambic quadrameter? Who does that? Blech). But every so often the poet has a way with words. I present to you the first meeting of Tristrem and Morgan, who killed his father:

Tristrem speke bigan:

“Sirking, God loke the

As Ythe love and an

And thou hast served to me.”

The douke answerd than,

“Y pray, mi lord so fre,

Whether thou blis or ban,

Thine owhen mot it be,

Thou bold.

Thi nedes tel thou me,

Thine erand, what thou wold.

(ll. 837-47, ed Lupack – Tristan began to speak: “Sir king, may god look upon you as I love and cherish you and you have served me.” The duke then answered, “I pray, my lord so noble, whether you bless or curse, may it be your own [fate], you bold man. You must tell me your errand, what you would [do/have].”)

I like that. It’s a deft instance of that truth-and-lies doublespeak which Beroul’s Iseut is particularly good at – here, manipulation with words is shown as Tristan’s skill long before we meet Iseut, and as a part of the masculine world of politics and combat, too. Interesting!


Fun with St Ethelreda: some thoughts on the Wilton Life

Toward the end of semester, it was determined that Middle English Reading Group should make forays out of the well-trodden path of romance and into the exciting world of hagiography. Predictably, for any group with me at the head, we began with the Wilton Life of St Ethelreda.

Flagstone in Ely cathedral - here stood the shrine of St Ethelreda

What to say about the Wilton Life? Well, as our most august group member informed us all, it is not a patch on Ælfric’s version, or even Bede’s. It’s also not nearly as much fun as the Anglo-Norman Vie Seinte Audree. But, at least to me, that doesn’t make it entirely unremarkable.

I was immediately enamoured of the composer’s dialect: not terribly difficult to read, but sort of charming. The text is early 15th century, apparently composed at Wilton itself. The scribe and/or author has used he interchangably for ‘he’ and ‘she’ – I assume that’s what happens when you haven’t quite abandoned the Old English heo nor yet caught onto this nifty she term – which made it quite an adventure at times to figure out who was talking about what. I like that the editor, Mary Dockray-Miller, didn’t clean that up, although I take issue with some of her translation choices.*

As an example, consider this description of the fate of King Colwolf (Ceowulf), who by þe Danys was put ouȝt and dedde. (Deposed and killed, according to the translation.) I just like that description. Put out and dead-ed. Straight to the point, and rhyming with redde, two lines above.

Something I like about both this Life and the Anglo-Norman Vie is their interest in recounting Anglo-Saxon history, in making sure we know both from what family Ethelreda is descended, and what the political circumstances were like at the time. I confess I can’t remember if Ælfric’s Life does the same, and obviously Bede’s account is embedded in his Historia Ecclesiastica (and I now have a list of other Lives of Audrey which I have yet to read), but bear with me here.

It seems to be a thing, that lives of Ethelreda have to go with a historical and geographical description of England – and the Wilton author certainly doesn’t have the same source as the Anglo-Norman author.  Dockray-Miller tells us that the Wilton author’s geographical and historical information comes from John Treviea’s English translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, which wasn’t even written at the time that possibly-Marie-de-France composed the Anglo-Norman version; June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban tell us that the Anglo-Norman author abbreviated her genealogical information from ‘her source’, which I think but am not quite certain, because their introduction isn’t quite clear, is probably the Liber Eliensis or something like it.

The Anglo-Norman focuses on Audrey’s relatives, with minimal extra political detail, but gives thorough coverage of the religious careers of her female relatives. The Wilton life is fascinated with geography, describing each of the seven kingdom’s of Anglo-Saxon England, where its borders lie, something about its founding, and its political history, before zoning in on East Anglia. Both texts make a link between St Edmund and St Ethelreda, interestingly – the Wilton version privileges him in its overall history of East Anglia before telling us that it was in East Anglia that Ethelreda was born; the Anglo-Norman Vie tells of several co-operative posthumous miracles performed by the two saints.

Medieval - a woman readingBy and large the geographical descriptions in the Wilton life are straightforward, but can anyone clear this one up for me:

Þe kyndam of Northumbrelondys þe sixste kyndam was,

þe which upon þe Est syde and also upon þe west syde had þe sowthe se.

The kingdom of Northumberland was the sixth kingdom, that which had upon the East side and also upon the West side the south sea.

The south sea. On the east and the west of Northumberland. BECAUSE THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. Anyone happen to be secretly an expert in Middle English geography and want to clear that up for me?


* One, replacing the Middle English names for all the characters with their Anglo-Saxon equivalents; two, being apparently unable to distinguish between thyncan and thencan, and thereby rendering many seeming-processes as thinking-processes. I JUST CARE A LOT ABOUT THOSE TWO VERBS, OK.

Fun with Middle English!

This semester, at the recommendation of one of my former students, Middle English Reading Group have been working our way through the middle section of the Prose Merlin. We started off with ‘Merlin and Nimiane’, the section recommended to me by my student C., who is secretly very sappy; and we’re finishing up with ‘The Banishment of Bertelak; and King Arthur and King Lot’.

The Prose Merlin, folks! It has everything you need!

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracing– Romance! C. is right: Merlin and Nimiane are adorable, and come with the twisted angst of the fact that not only do *you* know she’s going to destroy him, so does he. Guinevere and Arthur are pretty cute, too: after their betrothal she helps arm him for his departure, and he arms her with a kiss. D’AWWW.
– Gawain! Lots of Gawain! Gawain is the leader of the children (by which, apparently, we mean young men, which is a pity, I was enjoying the vision of Gawain toddling around at the head of a pack of boys); he’s the bestest fighter ever; he’s all the allegorical symbols; he nearly kills his own father; he’s the flower of all chivalry… and so on and so forth. This author is happy to feed my Gawain obsession.

– Crossdressing FOR ALL! We had two weeks of great fun with Merlin and Grisandolus, which seems to be a variant on the story found in the Anglo-Norman poem Silence: a daughter, an only child, is raised as a son and goes to court as a knight; eventually she is sent to hunt for Merlin, and he reveals her secret. Meanwhile, the queen is committing adultery – in this case, she has twelve young boys shaven and dressed as girls, to be her personal entertainment – and Merlin reveals that, too. It’s very exciting.

Monty Python's King Arthur, shouting– Slapstick! In the battle between King Arthur and King Lot there’s a fabulous scene where King Arthur is stuck under his own horse, and King Lot is trying to pull Arthur’s helmet off so he can decapitate him, but the helmet won’t go, and he’s stuck there pulling and pushing and trying to get this helmet off, until someone comes to rescue Arthur.

– Kidnaps, escapes, hijinks, and Guinevere being awesome – there’s a pretty spiffy kidnap story involving Guinevere on her wedding night, and her suspiciously similarly-named half-sister Guinevere. Our Guinevere puts up a spirited fight, is aided by plucky and fortuitously placed good guys, and ends up saving herself by clinging to a tree (her assailants, pull as they might, cannot dislodge her). It’s fun, funny, and there’s a rather sweet scene of her father comforting her afterwards.

MERG have been having great fun with this text – we had a few newbies but by this stage in semester everyone seems to be following easily. Last week there were plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” and laughter in all the right places. I don’t suppose the author of the Prose Merlin expected that the text would still be good performative reading in half a millenium’s time, but I don’t think it’s lost much for the passage of time.

IAS update #2 – Gawain and Guinevere, my two favourite Arthurian peeps

[Note: both these papers, and my recaps of them, deal with encroachment on personal and physical autonomy; the second in particular covered some distressing gendered violence in the narrative structure.]

The first paper I went to at Bristol was on what might just qualify as my favourite subject – the objectification (or, in this case, commodification) of Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Warning against the wyles of women – David Sweeten

This paper moved very fast, especially in the middle, so I missed chunks of it, but I really look forward to reading a hard-copy version at some point

David began with this quote:

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingFor were I worth al the wone of wymmen alyue,
And al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde,
And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde

Þer schulde no freke upon folde bifore yow be chosen.

[ll. 1269-71,75; Tolkien & Gordon 2nd ed. (ed. by Norman Davies); my quotation, not David Sweeten’s.]

Gawain, or Gawain-as-husband, is something which can be purchased with appropriate wealth. David went on to argue that Gawain’s honour is also a commodity to be bargained for: he read the bedroom scenes not as Lady B’s attempt to sleep with Gawain (or purchase sex from him), but an endeavour to get him to accept the girdle. She takes her time setting up the appropriate stakes: first offering a too-high price (sexual favours for his honour) in order to make the lower price, the girdle, more acceptable. The values of the items in question – Gawain’s honour, and the girdle, seem slippery: Lady B. can reduce Gawain’s standing by questioning his identity; and her revelation of the properties of the girdle forces him to re-value the item within the context of the exchange.

As well as this reading, which was fun in its own right, David offered some historical context. He argued that the poem is both rooted in its NW Midlands homeland, and closely tied to London politics of the day. SGGK’s anxiety about women’s commodification of male honour he linked to contemporary anxiety about the position of influence held by Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III. The nobility of the NW Midlands relied heavily on direct royal patronage: Alice’s strong influence over Edward threatened that relationship.

I really liked this paper. But then, I really like most things which have to do with someone bossing poor Gawain about.*

Next up, I missed the first five minutes or so (but enjoyed the rest of)….

The Queen was in her Parlour: Guinevere and Space – Kristina Hildebrand

This paper was in a session (“Women in Arthurian Literature”), which, perhaps due to its snazzy content and perhaps due to its respected moderator, Bonnie Wheeler, was so jam-packed that people (myself and David Sweeten included) were sprawled on the floor around the edges of the room.

Kristina argued that Guinevere marks out and defines royal space; her presence identifies civilisation in the text. This power is not to be confused with political clout, but it seems to be impossible to rule England without her.

Gwen, with crown

Guinevere is a stable figure at the centre of the court (for the most part), when compared to, say Iseult, who comes and goes from her husband’s court. She has a defined space, her personal chamber: Kristina talked about the stress in the social fabric of Malory’s Arthurian world caused by differing values placed on the queen’s space. To Arthur, he alone should have access to it; Gawain argues that because the queen has a public function as rewarder of knights, her chamber is a public space.

With this framework set up, Kristina talked about Guinevere in Meleagaunt’s castle: her space grows smaller and smaller; she attempts to defend a single room, and in the end she cannot even maintain control over her bed. This is a pretty distressing situation by any measure, but the framework Kristina set up around it, in which Guinevere’s space is not just about her person but her identity as queen, the whole process sent chills up my spine. Not-good chills, except insofar as I admire the careful authorial choices necessary to produce such effects.

Guinevere, then, is under constant threat: she is most safe inside Arthur’s court, but never entirely so. Kristina drew in Igraine, here, who was not safe even within her husband’s court; and then she asked if the convent to which Guinvere retires is a safe personal space at last? There, she has authority, and ought to be able to prevent male encroachments on her territory. However, Lancelot ignores her command and tries to see her. Kristina noted that Guinevere is saved, in the end – by death. Only God can protect her; and even then, only terminally.

I liked this paper! It was Relevant To My Interests, even if it was about Malory. Totally worth scrunching up on the floor for.


* I feel I ought to specify, since apparently many people assume otherwise, that I do not personally wish to shag Gawain! Boss him about, sure. My feeling on Gawain is that he should be my big brother, and his life would be much better if he had me to tell him how to run it.** And many other people’s lives would be improved because I would be bossing Gawain about, and not them. What, you mean you don’t all have fictional characters you want to adopt? *sidles off*

** I have a feeling the Maiden With Small Sleeves shares my feelings on Gawain, too.

Leeds Report #7, or, more fun with Middle English

Lest I turn into the inestimable Jon Jarrett and wind up posting recaps six months or more after the conference in question… on with the recaps!

Because I have my priorities straight, I’ve already reported on one paper from session 1314,  ‘English Romance, Nation, and (Obscene) Scribal Innovation’: it had speculations on the sex lives of bishops.

You might be interested to know that the rest of that session was interesting and intriguing, too!

Medieval - a woman readingFirst, Michael Johnston talked about The Circulation of Middle English Romance.

  • He began by talking about increase in book production in London in the late 14th century, where, he noted, romance was largely left out of the flourishing literary culture. London manuscripts  exhibit a continuity of format, style, and genre, and they’re just not so fond of romance. This was demonstrated with reference to several Chaucer and Langland MSS.
  • A number of romance manuscripts, on the other hand, have strong ties to particular provincial households. Johnston presented several examples of particular traceable manuscripts. Then, drawing on similar data to that which Gareth Griffith was using in his paper, he talked about the general presentation of romance manuscripts, and noted that those which come with fancy script and decoration usually contain more ‘elevated’ genres (typical of London book production) in addition.
  • Why is romance not favoured by London book producers and/or buyers? Johnston wants to know; he didn’t have concrete answers for that at this stage, but he noted the need to look at Middle English genres in socio-historical context in order to find such answers.

Anglo-Saxon shieldNext up, Hiroki Okamoto gave a paper entitled Contesting English History: From ‘here’ to ‘ferd’ in Havelock the Dane. I found it a little hard to follow, but I look forward very much to seeing a printed version one day.

  • He looked closely at the use of the terms here and ferd, both words for an army. The Havelock-poet never uses the more common noun host, and Hiroki Okamoto argued that here and ferd are loaded terms – that here in both OE and ME is usually used for invading forces, whereas ferd usually connotes Anglo-Saxon royalty.
  • Before Gottrich’s speech (an Englishman, who rails against the disorder and general evilness of Danes), the terms here and ferd are used in that pattern, with Danish forces being a here. However, Hiroki Okamoto argued – and I had a little trouble following this, since it’s been a while since I read Havelock and also I have scrappy notes in my conference notebook so bear with me – that Gottrich’s speech is deliberately overblown: that it’s not meant to make the audience hate Danes, but to see Denmark as a disorderly place needing to be put in order by Havelock.
  • After that speech, though, something changes: the word ferd becomes more common, and Havelock’s forces – which are invading England! – are a ferd now.
  • Hiroki Okamoto is convinced that the poet is deploying these words deliberately; and that the use of loaded terms, especially ferd, with its royal connotations, contributes to a revisionist idea of English identity, and is perhaps closely linked to the Scandinavian cultural presence in Lincolnshire.

Leeds Report # 4, or, the one with all the riches in.

Until I see a footnote, that's just an opinionQuite a number of lit scholars I know tell me that they don’t go to Leeds because there aren’t enough lit papers to make it worth their while. While I concede Leeds is tilted toward the historical side of things, I actually found that really handy. For one, conferences are good way of picking up on interesting historical discussions – and a medievalist who isn’t interested in history is a very odd medievalist indeed. But more importantly, for me as a noob, the fact that there were fewer lit papers meant you kept seeing the same faces enough times that you eventually got to know some of them.

Session 616, the title of which I have forgotten, but which was chaired by Ad Putter, stands out in my mind because it lead to me meeting not only Ad, but also the eminently excellent Gareth Griffith, and one Rebecca Kerry, whose taste in medieval romances turns out to dovetail nicely with my own. As my week in Bristol for the IAS was punctuated by the recurring necessity of flinging myself on the mercy of Gareth in order to find out where I was going and what I was doing, having met him in advance was rather handy. And I had a lovely conversation with Rebecca at the IAS while we waited for something, which is how I know she has fabulous taste in ME romances.

Whatever the title of this session may have been, it dealt mostly with the handling of wealth in Middle English texts.

Rebecca Kerry – Gifts and Loans in A Geste of Robyn hode

This paper was structured around the debated reading of one line, in which Robin makes a loan of what is supposed to be four hundred pounds, but Little John measures out either ‘eight and twenty score’, or ‘eighteen score’, depending on the manuscript. Editors usually amend this reading to ‘eighteen and two score’, but Rebecca argued that ‘eight and twenty score’ is the correct reading.

In her interpretation, the loan is not a loan but a gift – she notes that the knight engages Mary as guarantor, but Mary can hardly be expected to pay back the loan. The subsequent arrival of the cellarer of St Mary’s with 800 pounds, of which Robin’s men soon liberate him, is heralded as Mary’s repayment of the loan, lending a farcical element to the entire deal. And then when the knight returns, Robin doesn’t ask for repayment, but instead gives him more.

She then talked about the difference between a gift exchange economy and a commodity economy (Ad Putter’s terminology). The Abbot of St Mary’s, to whom the knight owes money, clearly operates on a commodity economy, with the aim of amassing profit. Robin, on the other hand, seems to operate on a gift economy, with the aim of amassing debtors. In a commodity economy, once items have been exchanged or debts paid off, the two parties can part ways. Gifts, on the other hand, are rarely exchanged at exact value: gifts increase and proliferate, and cement social obligations between parties.

Rebecca argued that the two economies co-exist in A Gest of Robyn Hode, but the poem overall is more positive toward a gift-exchange economy.

Megan Glass – Feasting in Middle English Romance

Very Merry KnightsLooking specifically at the Auchinlek MS (for reasons of time and convenience), Megan’s paper raised questions about the social values associated with feasting in romance. The 14th century, despite famine, plague and social unrest, was a time of ostentatious feasting amongst the nobility, and she found it striking that feasting is so rarely featured in romances. Evidence from the Auchinlek MS suggests that when feasting is featured, the focus is not on wealth itself – food, decoration and entertainment are given relatively little attention compared to gifts and the guests. While both gifts and guests may be ostentatious and wealthy, the focus is on the feast’s role in creating and maintaining social bonds and cohesion.

Gareth Griffith – Weath, fantasy and reality: MSS of Middle English Romance

Gareth’s interest is in what descriptions of wealth meant to ME romance authors – specifically, whether the audience identified with, or aspired to the level of, the characters who possess wealth. Gareth works on this rather nifty project, and the paper in part came out of his research there.

He started by looking at how much wealth manuscripts themselves display. He had a fabulous graph of manuscript dimensions, which we all looked at, very seriously, until he pointed out that all it told us was that most of the romance manuscripts are more or less book-shaped (that is, around 20x30cm give or take). He found no relationship between size and ostentation. Then he told us about some of the whacky outliers, such as two Bod. MSS which are tall and thin, or Bod. 264, which is really huuuuuge.

Liber - a medieval MSAs a tentative trend, he found that really fancy manuscripts tended not to have detailed descriptions of wealth. Gareth says it seems like people who can afford fancy things perhaps weren’t so interested in *descriptions* of fancy things, but he noted other factors, such as the high level of description in alliterative poems compared to prose or rhymed text. He also noted that some regional mansucripts seem to be trying to be fancier than they are – he talked about the Lincoln-Thornton MS (i didn’t write down the actual MS number) which has fancy capitals and illustrations despite having scruffy, apparently non-professional script.

There wasn’t a hard-and-fast argument here (or if there was, I didn’t write it down, which is always possible), but Gareth told interesting stories about manuscripts for 20 minutes! This is something I appreciate in a paper.

Leeds Update # 2 – the one with the swyving

Note: I’m  back in Sydney, where it is still technically winter, but often warmer than English summer anyway. I have a whole wardrobe of clothes at my disposal, many many books, a kitchen to play in (and a housemate to bother me into eating when jetlagged <3), a class to teach and a thesis to write. Back to normal, in short. The next week or so of posts is already in the scheduled posts pipeline; we’ll see how long I can keep this regular-blogging thing up after that.

During the dance at Leeds, a lovely person asked me if I was coming to her paper the next day, and promised me that there would be dick jokes. As everyone knows by now, I am all about the dick jokes.1 So instead of going to hear ADM talk seriously about Carolingian women (which I did want to hear, but one has one’s priorities…) I went to hear Carissa Harris talk about dick jokes.

Sex in the Middle Ages: Satisfaction Guaranteed!As it turns out, this paper was far more than just amusing medieval comments about penis size, although there was plenty of that. It was entitled ‘”Mi lordis tente serveth me not thus!”: Obscene scribal innovation in 15th-century Manuscripts of the Canturbury Tales’. Carissa’s work here was so good, so thoroughly researched and clearly laid out, that I would be doing it a disservice to rehash it entirely. You will all just have to take my word that you should read anything she writes.

But a brief summary of things I learned from her paper:

Fact: Chaucer restricts his female characters to euphemistic terms: swyve is rarely used, but never used by women. Men on the other hand have access to both euphemism and direct crudities.

Fact: Scribes altered the text of the tales in two key ways: one is to reduce Chaucer’s existing obscenities, swapping swyve out for more fuzzy terms; another is to add in more swyving, often by putting swyve in t he mouths of female characters.

Stop, Revive, Scribe: Campaign  Against Scribal ErrorAnalysis: Carissa gave examples from several manuscripts, but particularly a group of three manuscripts which all contain the same group (although not all contain the totality of this group) of scribal additions. These additions added in quite a bit more description to the sex scenes in The Merchant’s Tale. Most notably, May gets some first-person speech, in which she describes her preference for her lover’s cock over that of her husband; she gets to use the word swyve; and her pleasure becomes a focus in the scene.

Carissa posits that since scribal emendations often function to ‘normalise’ texts felt to be aberrant, whichever scribe or series of scribes is responsible for this series of additions felt that a sex scene which *didn’t* give any heed to the woman’s enjoyment wasn’t really sufficiently normal.

IN SHORT: This was a truly fantastic paper, with detailed manuscript readings, good critical background, and excellent delivery. Plus, it had dick jokes in it. I will very much look forward to reading a published version of this material one day.


1. Even my students know this. I like to think my inner twelve-year old is amusing, at least…