English in the Middle Ages
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With its fixed grammar and spelling, it was easy to abbreviate without misunderstanding. It remained the medium for international scholarship until the seventeenth century. The Catholic church used Latin in its services, so all liturgical books were written in this language until the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
The theologian John Wycliffe began to translate the Bible into English in the late fourteenth century, but the Lollard movement with which he was associated was persecuted by the authorities, so late medieval Bibles in English are rare. English was slow to take over as the language of government, law and bureaucracy, despite the fact that by a law passed in all legal pleadings had to be in English. This bill of complaint Pa L 2 dates from the late fifteenth century and is indeed in English. Detail of bill of complaint of Elizabeth Whitfield, Pa L 2.
It was not until the mid-sixteenth century that English began to appear in manorial records, and even then it was often only used to record presentments spoken in that language at the meeting of the manor court. It was a similar situation in the records of the Nottingham Archdeaconry court. In depositions written in , the words spoken by ordinary people are written in English, as they said them, but the rest of the document explaining the case is in Latin.
Rentals and accounts from landed estates are rare in English before the beginning of the sixteenth century. Most title deeds were also written in Latin until the sixteenth century and even later, although many fifteenth-century examples in English exist. They often resorted to inserting English words where necessary, for instance a person's occupation in a title deed, or a description of a particular item in an inventory which could not be accurately identified using a Latin word.
Latin continued to be used as the language of some deeds and legal documents until the early eighteenth century. Detail from title deed in Latin, , Ne D Researchers studying medieval documents must expect them to be in Latin or French. Even if they are in English, the medieval form of the language uses many words which are now obsolete or mean something different.
However, many works of literature and some important parliamentary and governmental records have been translated into modern English and published. There are also plenty of books and websites to help researchers understand the medieval Latin used in title deeds and administrative records.
- Periods: Medieval.
- Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art.
- The Middle Ages - English History;
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Campus maps More contact information Jobs. Manuscripts and Special Collections. Reading and Understanding Medieval Documents. Print Email this Page. Search this Section. After the eleventh century, French became the dominant language of secular European literary culture. Edward, the Prince of Wales, who took the king of France prisoner at the battle of Poitiers in , had culturally more in common with his royal captive than with the common people of England. And the legendary King Arthur was an international figure. Stories about him and his knights originated in Celtic poems and tales and were adapted and greatly expanded in Latin chronicles and French romances even before Arthur became an English hero.
Chaucer was certainly familiar with poetry that had its roots in the Old English period. He read popular romances in Middle English, most of which derive from more sophisticated French and Italian sources. But when he began writing in the s and s, he turned directly to French and Italian models as well as to classical poets especially Ovid.
Tim William Machan
English poets in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries looked upon Chaucer and his contemporary John Gower as founders of English literature, as those who made English a language fit for cultivated readers. In the Renaissance, Chaucer was referred to as the "English Homer.
Nevertheless, Chaucer and his contemporaries Gower, William Langland, and the Gawain poet — all writing in the latter third of the fourteenth century — are heirs to classical and medieval cultures that had been evolving for many centuries. Cultures is put in the plural deliberately, for there is a tendency, even on the part of medievalists, to think of the Middle Ages as a single culture epitomized by the Great Gothic cathedrals in which architecture, art, music, and liturgy seem to join in magnificent expressions of a unified faith — an approach one recent scholar has referred to as "cathedralism.
The texts included here from "The Middle Ages" attempt to convey that diversity. They date from the sixth to the late- fifteenth century. An Anglo-Saxon poet who was writing an epic based on the book of Genesis was able to insert into his work the episodes of the fall of the angels and the fall of man that he adapted with relatively minor changes from an Old Saxon poem thought to have been lost until a fragment from it was found late in the nineteenth century in the Vatican Library. Germanic mythology and legend preserved in Old Icelandic literature centuries later than Beowulf provide us with better insights into stories known to the poet than anything in ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry.
Particular attention is given to religious orders and to the ascetic ideals that were supposed to rule the lives of men and women living in religious communities such as Chaucer's Prioress, Monk, and Friar, who honor those rules more in the breach than in the observance and anchorites such as Julian of Norwich living apart. The Rule of Saint Benedict , written for a sixth-century religious community, can serve the modern reader as a guidebook to the ideals and daily practices of monastic life.
The mutual influence of those ideals and new aristocratic ideals of chivalry is evident in the selection from the Ancrene Riwle Rule for Anchoresses, NAEL 8, [1. Though medieval social theory has little to say about women, women were sometimes treated satirically as if they constituted their own estate and profession in rebellion against the divinely ordained rule of men. The tenth-century English Benedictine monk Aelfric gives one of the earliest formulations of the theory of three estates — clergy, nobles, and commoners — working harmoniously together.