Above: The Pastons’ House in Norwich (photo rights: A J Chandler, 2015)
The East Midland Dialect:
It is usually possible to make sense of late Medieval documents written in the east Midland and London dialects because they provide the basis for Standard English as written today. The fifteenth century was a period of transition to modern English (MnE), so we talk of the period from about 1450 as marking the development of ‘Early Modern English’ (EMnE).
In reality, the transition has its identifiable origins in the East Midlands dialect of the early fifteenth century. Margery Kempe (c. 1373-1439) was from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, who gave up on married life as a result of her mystical experiences in order to devote herself to pilgrimage. In the 1420s, she dictated a book describing her visions, temptations and journeys. As the text was dictated, it provides reliable evidence of ordinary speech at that time. The dialect is east Midland, but we cannot tell how accurate the scribe’s reproduction of Margery’s speech actually was, especially as the only surviving manuscript was copied in mid-century. Here is her description of her marriage in verbatim translation:
When this creature was twenty years of age or something more she was married to a worshipful burgess of Lynn and was with child within short time as nature wills. And after that she had conceived she was in labour with great fevers till the child was born and then what for labour she had in childbirth and for sickness going before she despaired of her life, thinking she might not live…
The opening of the book is shown in facsimile below, and given in transcription here:
Here begynnyth a schort tretys and a comfortabyl for sinful wrecchys, wher in thei may haue gret solas and comfort to hem, and vryndyrstonyn the hy and vnspe cabyl mercy of ower soueryn Sauyowr cryst Ihesu whoe name be worschept and magnyfyed wythowten ende. That now in ower days to vs unworthy deyneth to exercysen hys nobeley and hys goodnesse.
The Pastons were a prosperous family who also lived in Norfolk (see photo above). A large collection of their letters written between the 1420s and 1500s have survived. The letters cover three generations of the family and are a valuable source of evidence for historians as well as students of language development. Much of the period was troubled by the political upheavals of the Wars of the Roses, reflected in the letters. As well as letters from Agnes Paston to her husband William, the collection includes a valentine letter from Margery Brews to the third generation John Paston, written in 1477, partly in rhyme. They were married later that year:
…and if ye commande me to kepe me true where euer I go
iwyse I will do all my might zowe to love and neuer no mo
and yf my freendys say that I do amys thei thei shall not me let for to do
myn herte me byddys euer more to love zowe truly ouer all erthely thing
and yf thei be neuer so wroth I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng
no more to yowe at this tyme but the holy trinite hafe yowe in kepyng and I besech zowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only zour selfe…
…be zour own MB
(Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Norman Davis (ed.), OUP, 1971)
The London Dialect:
William Caxton was the first English printer, setting up his printing press in London in 1476. It began a revolution in the production of books, which no longer had to be copied individually by hand. Of course, copying did not die out completely, and Caxton was more than just a printer of other people’s writing. He also translated and edited many of the books printed, providing a large number of prefaces and commentaries.
In 1482, Caxton printed a revised text of Trevisa’s 1385 translation of Higden’s Polychronicon. This provides an excellent example of some of the changes in the language which had taken place over the hundred years between the two editions. Caxton found Trevisa’s language old-fashioned and out of date, as he said in an epilogue:
William Caxton a symple persone have endeuoyred me to wryte fyrst overall the sayd book of ’Proloconycon’ and somewhat have chaunged the rude and old Englyssh, that is to wete certayn wordes which in these dayes be neither vsyd ne vnderstanden.
Caxton’s modernised version of John of Trevisa’s description of the languages of Britain shows some interesting differences with the original texts. It illustrates the lack of standardisation in Middle English and the way in which differences in the dialects of ME were reflected in writing.
A standard form of a language develops in a nation or society only when the need becomes evident and pressing. The invention of printing was one factor in the complex of political and economic changes in England by the end of the fifteenth century, which led in time to acceptance of the educated London dialect as the basis of Standard English.
One of Caxton’s problems as printer and translator is clearly illustrated in a famous story that he tells in the preface to his translation of a French version of Virgil’s Latin poem The Aeneid, called Eneydos. A revolution in communications was brought about by the printing of books. A book might be bought and sold anywhere in the country, but which dialect of English should the printer use? For example, there were at least two words for egg, the one in OE and the other from ON. The story is about the difficulty of asking for eggs for breakfast, but for Caxton it illustrates the problem of choosing a language in translation:
Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes nowe write, egges or eyren?
This was just one of the problems that needed to be resolved in the agreement of a standard literary form of English over the next two centuries. If you examine Caxton’s language in detail, you notice that he did not devise a regular spelling system, and that many of his decisions about spelling and grammar were already out of date by the 1480s. Below is a very short example of Caxton’s printing. It is an advertisement, dating from about 1478, from Caxton’s edition of the Sarum Ordinal, the book of church services for Salisbury:
If it plese ony man spirituel or temporal to bye ony pyes of two and thre comemoracios of salisburi use enpryntid after the forme of this preset letter whiche ben wel and truly correct, late hym come to westmo nester in to the almonesrye at the reed pale and he shal haue them good chepe
Supplico stet cedula
In 1485, Caxton published a noble and joyous book, entytled ‘Le Morte Darthur’. He described it in these words:
… a book of the noble hystoryes of the sayd Kynge Arthur and of certeyn of his knyghtes after a copy unto me delivered. Whyche copye Syr Thomas Malorye dyd take oute of certeyn books of frensshe ad reduced it into Englysshe.
Malory made his translations and adaptations from French while in prison. He wrote the following at the end of one of the books making up the collection:
And I pray you all that redyth this tale to pray for hym that this wrote, that God sende hym good delyveraunce sone and hastely. Amen
Malory died in prison in 1471. Caxton’s printed book was the only known version of Malory’s legends of King Arthur until 1934, when a manuscript was found in the Fellows’ Library of Winchester College. It was not in Malory’s own hand, but more authentic than Caxton’s book, which has many alterations and omissions. Below is a facsimile of the opening of the fourth story, The War with the Five Kings, in the first of the manuscript books, The Tale of King Arthur:
The first six lines of the facsimile were written by the principal scribe, while the rest was written by a second scribe. Not only is the handwriting clearly different, but so too is the spelling.
A collection of letters and memoranda of the Cely family, written in the 1470s and 1480s, gives us authentic handwritten evidence of London English a century after that of Thomas Usk’s, and contemporary with the Paston letters. The Celys were wool merchants, or staplers. They bought fleeces in and sold them to merchants in Calais and Bruges. The letters and accounts provide historians with primary evidence about the workings of a medieval English business, and give students of language examples of late medieval commercial English, as well as evidence of the speech and writing habits of the London merchant classes of the period.
The collection contains letters written by forty different people. Most are from two generations of the Cely family, father and sons. Like the Paston letters, they show that there was as yet no standardised written English. The spelling is not good evidence for the pronunciation of spoken English, partly because we do not know the sounds given to each letter, but also because the spelling of each of the authors was so irregular. Individual writers show many inconsistencies of spelling. The following text is not a letter, but a note of political events and rumours in the troubled times leading to the deposition of Edward V and the accession of the Duke of Gloucester as Richard III. The first five items are written as facts; the rest, beginning with if are rumours. As jotted down notes, they are not always grammatically clear:
There is great romber* in the realm, The Scots has done great in England. (The Lord) Chamberlain is deceased in trouble. The Chancellor is disproved* and not content. The Bishop of Ely is dead.
If the King, God save his life, were deceased. (If) the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril. If my Lord Prince were, God defend, were troubled*. If my Lord of Northumberland were ded or greatly troubled. If my Lord Howard were slain.
Lord Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, had been executed in June 1483. The Chancellor was Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York. ‘My lord prinsse’ was the Duke of York, Edward V’s brother. The Earl of Northumberland and John Howard were supporters of the Duke of Gloucester; ‘movnsewr sent jonys’ is a pseudonym, to disguise the name of Sir John Weston, from whom George Cely got the rumours.
Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: MacMillan.