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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1536-1572: The Reformers and Pacifist-Anabaptists   Leave a comment


Luther’s Last Decade and His Legacy:

In the final decade of his life, Luther became even more bitter in his attitude towards the papists. He was denied another public hearing such as those at Worms and Speyer, and he managed to avoid the martyrdom which came to other reformers, whether at the stake or, in the case of Zwingli, in battle (at Kappel in 1531). He compensated by hurling vitriol at the papacy and the Roman Curia. Towards the end of his life, he issued an illustrated tract with outrageously vulgar cartoons. In all of this, he was utterly unrestrained. The Holy Roman Empire was a constitutional monarchy, and the emperor had sworn at his coronation that no German subject should be outlawed unheard and uncondemned. Although this clause had not yet invoked to protect a monk accused of heresy, yet when princes and electors came to be involved the case was altered. If Charles V were faithless to that oath, then he might be resisted even in arms by the lower magistrates. The formula thus suggested by the jurists to Luther was destined to have a very wide an extended vogue. The Lutherans employed it only until they gained legal recognition at Augsburg in 1555. Thereafter the Calvinists took up the slogan and equated the lower magistrates with the lesser nobility in France. Later historians were accustomed to regard Lutheranism as politically subservient and Calvinism as intransigent, but the origin of this doctrine was in the Lutheran soil.


Martin Luther was made for the ministry. During his last years, he continued to attend faithfully to all the obligations of the university and his parish. To the end he was preaching, lecturing, counselling and writing. At the end of his life, he was in such a panic of disgust because the young women at Wittenberg were wearing low necks that he left home declaring that he would not return. His physician brought him back, but then came a request from the counts of Mansfeld for a mediator in a dispute. Melanchthon was too sick to go, and though Luther was also very ill, he went, reconciled the counts and died on the way home.

His later years should not, however, be written off as the splutterings of a dying flame. If in his polemical tracts he was at times savage and course, in the works which really counted in the cannon of his life’s endeavour he grew constantly in maturity and artistic creativity. Improvements in the translation of the Bible continued to the very end. The sermons and biblical commentaries reached superb heights. Many of the passages quoted to illustrate Luther’s religious and ethical principles are also from this later period.

When historians and theologians come to assess his legacy, there are three areas which naturally suggest themselves. The first is his contribution to his own country. He called himself the German prophet, saying that against the papist assess he must assume so presumptuous a title and he addressed himself to his beloved Germans. The claim has been made frequently that no individual did so much to fashion the character of the German people. He shared their passion for music and their language was greatly influenced by his writings, not least by his translation of the Bible. His reformation also profoundly affected the ordinary German family home. Roland Bainton (1950) commented:

Economics went the way of capitalism and politics the way of absolutism, but the home took on that quality of affectionate and godly patriarchalism which Luther had set as the pattern of his own household.

Luther’s most profound impact was in their religion, of course. His sermons were read to the congregations, his liturgy was sung, his catechism was rehearsed by the father of the household, his Bible cheered the faint-hearted and consoled the dying. By contrast, no single Englishman had the range of Luther. The Bible translation was largely the work of Tyndale, the prayer-book was that of Cranmer, the Catechism of the Westminster Divines. The style of sermons followed Latimer’s example and the hymn book was owed much to George Herbert from the beginning. Luther, therefore, did the work of five Englishmen, and for the sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style, his use of German can only be compared with Shakespeare’s use of English.

In the second great area of influence, that of the Church, Luther’s influence extended far beyond his native land, as is shown below. In addition to his influence in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and England, Lutheranism took possession of virtually the whole of Scandinavia. His movement gave the impetus that sometimes launched and sometimes gently encouraged the establishment of other varieties of Protestantism. Catholicism also owes much to him. It is often said that had Luther not appeared, an Erasmian reform would have triumphed, or at any rate a reform after the Spanish model. All this is, of course, conjectural, but it is obvious that the Catholic Church received a tremendous shock from the Lutheran Reformation and a terrific urge to reform after its own pattern.

The third area is the one which mattered most to Luther, that of religion itself. In his religion, he was a Hebrew, Paul the Jew, not a Greek fancying gods and goddesses in a pantheon in which Christ was given a niche. The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet he is all merciful too, like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord… 

Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Pacifists:

The movement initiated by Luther soon spread throughout Germany. Luther provided its chief source of energy and vision until his death in 1546. Once Luther had passed from the scene, a period of bitter theological warfare occurred within Protestantism. There was controversy over such matters as the difference between ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’; what doctrine was essential or non-essential; faith and works; and the nature of the real presence at the Eucharist. This is the period when Lutheranism developed, something which Luther himself predicted and condemned. The Schmalkald Articles had been drawn up in 1537 as a statement of faith. The Protestant princes had formed the Schmalkald League as a kind of defensive alliance against the Emperor. The tragic Schmalkald War broke out in 1547 in which the Emperor defeated the Protestant forces and imprisoned their leaders. But the Protestant Maurice of Saxony fought back successfully and by the Treaty of Passau (1552), Protestantism was legally recognised. This settlement was confirmed by the Interim of 1555. It was during this period that some of the Lutheran theologians drove large numbers of their own people over to the Calvinists through their dogmatism.

The Battle of Kappel, in which Zwingli was killed, had brought the Reformation in Switzerland to an abrupt halt, but in 1536 John Calvin (1509-64) was unwillingly pressed into reviving the cause in French-speaking Switzerland. Calvin was an exiled Frenchman, born in at Noyon in Picardy, whose theological writings, especially the Institutes of the Christian Religion and numerous commentaries on the Bible, did much to shape the Reformed churches and their confessions of faith. In contrast to Luther, Calvin was a quiet, sensitive man. Always a conscientious student, at Orléans, Bourges and the University of Paris, he soon took up the methods of humanism, which he later used ‘to combat humanism’. In Paris, the young Calvin had encountered the teachings of Luther and in 1533, he had experienced a sudden conversion:

God subdued and brought my heart to docility. It was more hardened against such matters than was to be expected in such a young man.

After that, he wrote little about his inner life, content to trace God’s hand controlling him. He next broke with Roman Catholicism, leaving France to live as an exile in Basle. It was there that he began to formulate his theology, and in 1536 published the first edition of The Institutes. It was a brief, clear defence of Reformation beliefs. Guillaume Farel, the Reformer of Geneva, persuaded Calvin to help consolidate the Reformation there. He had inherited from his father an immovable will, which stood him in good stead in turbulent Geneva.  In 1537 all the townspeople were called upon to swear loyalty to a Protestant statement of belief. But the Genevans opposed Calvin strongly, and disputes in the town, together with a quarrel with the city of Berne, resulted in the expulsion of both Calvin and Farel.

Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he made contact with Martin Bucer, who influenced him greatly. Bucer (1491-1551) had been a Dominican friar but had left the order and married a former nun in 1522. He went to Strasbourg in 1523 and took over leadership of the reform, becoming one of the chief statesmen among the Reformers. He was present at most of the important conferences, or colloquies of the Reformers, and tried to mediate between Zwingli and Luther in an attempt to unite the German and Swiss Reformed churches. His discussions with Melanchthon led to peace in the debate over the sacraments at the Concord of Wittenberg. He also took part in the unsuccessful conferences with the Roman Catholics at Hagenau, Worms and Ratisbon.

In 1539, while in Strasbourg, Calvin published his commentary on the Book of Romans. Many other commentaries followed, in addition to a new, enlarged version of the Institutes. The French Reformer led the congregation of French Protestant refugees in Strasbourg, an experience which matured him for his task on returning to Geneva. He was invited back there in September 1541, and the town council accepted his revision of the of the city laws, but many more bitter disputes followed. Calvin tried to bring every citizen under the moral discipline of the church. Many naturally resented such restrictions, especially when imposed by a foreigner. He then set about attaining of establishing a mature church by preaching daily to the people. He also devoted much energy to settling differences within Protestantism. The Consensus Tigurinus, on the Lord’s Supper (1549), resulted in the German-speaking and French-speaking churches of Switzerland moving closer together. Michael Servetus, a notorious critic of Calvin, and of the doctrine of the Trinity, was arrested and burnt in Geneva.


John Calvin, caricatured by one of his students, during an idle moment in a lecture.

Calvin was, in a way, trying to build a more visible ‘City of God’ in Europe, with Geneva as its base and model. In his later years, Calvin’s authority in Geneva was less disputed. He founded the Geneva Academy, to which students of theology came from all parts of western and central Europe, particularly France. Calvin systemised the Reformed tradition in Protestantism, taking up and reapplying the ideas of the first generation of Reformers. He developed the Presbyterian form of church government, in which all ministers served at the same level, and the congregation was represented by lay elders. His work was characterised by intellectual discipline and practical application. His Institutes have been a classic statement of Reformation theology for centuries, as is evident from the following extracts:

Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the Institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.

We declare that by God’s providence, not only heaven and earth and inanimate creatures, but also the counsels and wills of men are governed so as to move precisely to that end destined by him.   

Lutheranism strongly influenced Calvin’s doctrine. Like Luther, Calvin was also a careful interpreter of the Bible. He intended that his theology should interpret Scripture faithfully, rather than developing his own ideas. For him, all knowledge of God and man is to be found only in the Word of God. Man can only know God if he chooses to make himself known. Pardon and salvation are possible only through the free working of the grace of God. Calvin claimed that even before the creation, God chose some of his creatures for salvation and others for destruction. He is often known best for this severe doctrine of election, particularly that some people are predestined to eternal damnation. But Calvin also set out the way of repentance, faith and sanctification for believers. In his doctrine, the church was supreme and should not be restricted in any way by the state. He gave greater importance than Luther to the external organisation of the church. He regarded only baptism and communion as sacraments. Baptism was the individual’s initiation into the new community of Christ. He rejected Zwingli’s view that the communion elements were purely symbolic, but also warned against a magical belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.

The Calvinists went further than the Lutherans in their opposition to traditions which had been handed down. They rejected a good deal of church music, art, architecture and many more superficial matters such as the use of the ring in marriage, and the signs of devotional practice. But all the Reformers rejected the authority of the pope, the merit of good works, indulgences, the mediation of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the sacraments which had not been instituted by Christ. They rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (the teaching that the bread and wine of the communion became the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrated them), the view of the mass as a sacrifice, purgatory and prayers for the dead, private confession of sin to a priest, celibacy of the clergy, and the use of Latin in the services.They also rejected all the paraphernalia that expressed these ideas, such as holy water, shrines, chantries, images, rosaries, paternoster stones and candles.

Meanwhile, in 1549 Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg for Cambridge, and while in England, he advised Cranmer on The Book of Common Prayer. He had a great impact on the establishment of the Church of England, pointing it in the direction of Puritanism. Although he died in 1551, his body was exhumed and burned during the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary. Bucer wrote a large number of commentaries on the Bible and worked strenuously for reconciliation between various religious parties. In France, the pattern of reform was very different. Whereas in Germany and Switzerland there was solid support for the Reformation from the people, in France people, court and church provided less support. As a result, the first Protestants suffered death or exile. But once the Reformed faith had been established in French-speaking Switzerland and in Strasbourg, Calvinists formed a congregation in Paris in 1555. Four years later, over seventy churches were represented at a national synod in the capital.


Henry VIII may have destroyed the power of the papacy and ended monasticism in England, but he remained firmly Catholic in doctrine. England was no safe place for William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English, as Henry and the bishops were more concerned to prevent the spread of Lutheran ideas than to promote the study of Scripture. Tyndale narrowly escaped arrest in Cologne but managed to have the New Testament published in Worms in 1525. He was unable to complete the Old Testament because he was betrayed and arrested near Brussels in 1535. In October 1536 he was strangled and burnt at the stake. His last words were reported as, Lord, open the king of England’s eyes. In the meantime, Miles Coverdale completed the translation, which became the basis for later official translations.


The title page of the first Bible to be printed in English: Miles Coverdale’s translation (1535). Coverdale had helped Tyndale to revise his translation of the Pentateuch.

Though the king’s eyes were not immediately opened, a powerful religious movement towards reform among his people was going on at the same time. Despite the publication of the Great Bible in 1538, it was only under Edward VI (1547-53) that the Reformation was positively and effectively established in England. The leading figure was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, supported by the scholar, Nicholas Ridley and the preacher, Hugh Latimer. Cranmer (1489-1556) was largely responsible for the shaping the Protestant Church of England. Born in Nottinghamshire, he was educated at Cambridge until he was suddenly summoned to Canterbury as Archbishop in 1532, as a result of Henry VIII’s divorce crisis. There he remained until he was deposed by Mary and burnt as a heretic at Oxford in 1556. He was a godly man, Lutheran in his theology, well read in the Church Fathers, a gifted liturgist with an excellent command of English. He was sensitive, cautious and slow to decide in a period of turbulence and treachery. He preferred reformation by gentle persuasion rather than by force, and, unlike Luther, also sought reconciliation with Roman Catholicism. Like Luther, however, he believed firmly in the role of the ‘godly prince’ who had a God-given task to uphold a just society and give free scope to the gospel.


Archbishop Cranmer (pictured above) was responsible for the Great Bible (1538) and its prefaces; the Litany (1545) and the two Prayer Books (1549, 1552). The driving force of Cranmer’s life was to restore to the Catholic Church of the West the faith it had lost long ago. When the Church of Rome refused to reform, Cranmer took it upon himself to reform his own province of Canterbury. He then sought an ecumenical council with the Lutherans and Calvinists, but Melanchthon was too timid. His second great concern was to restore a living theology based on the experience of the person and work of Christ. Thirdly, he developed the doctrine of the Holy Spirit which lay behind his high view of scripture and tradition, and the meaning of union with Christ. He was brainwashed into recanting, but at his final trial in 1556 he put up a magnificent defence and died bravely at the stake, thrusting the hand that had signed the recantations into the fire first. The Martyrs’ Memorial at Oxford commemorates his death, together with those of Ridley and Latimer whose deaths he had witnessed from prison a year earlier.

Several European Reformers also contributed to the Anglican Reformation, notably Martin , exiled from Strasbourg. These men, Calvinists rather than Lutherans, Bucerbecame professors at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Under the Counter-Reforming Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58), with Cardinal Pole as Archbishop of Canterbury, about two hundred bishops, scholars, ministers and preachers were burnt at the stake. Many Protestant reformers fled to the continent and became even more Calvinist in their convictions, influencing the direction of the English Reformation when they returned at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. The young Queen gradually replaced the Catholic church leaders with Protestants, restored the church Articles and Cranmer’s Prayer Book. She took the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Her Anglican church kept episcopal government and a liturgy which offended many of the strict Protestants, particularly those who were returning religious refugees who had been further radicalised in Calvinist Switzerland or France.


Scotland was first awakened to Lutheranism by Patrick Hamilton, a student of Luther, who had been burned for his faith in 1528. George Wishart and John Knox (1505-72) continued Hamilton’s work, but Knox was taken prisoner by the French in 1547 and forced to serve as a galley-slave. When freed, he studied under Calvin at Geneva and did not return to Scotland until 1559, when he fearlessly launched the Reformation. He attacked the papacy, the mass and Catholic idolatry. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots opposed Knox, but was beaten in battle. Knox then consolidated the Scots reformation by drawing up a Confession of Faith (1560), a Book of Discipline (1561) and the Book of Common Order (1564). While the Scottish Reformation was achieved independently from England, it was a great tragedy that it was imposed on Ireland, albeit through an Act of Uniformity passed by the Irish Parliament in 1560 which set up Anglicanism as the national religion. In this way, Protestantism became inseparably linked with English rule of a country which remained predominantly Catholic.


Western Europe during the Wars of Religion, to 1572.


The Empire of Charles V in 1551 (inset: The Swiss Confederation)

In Hungary, students of Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg took the message of the Reformation back to their homeland in about 1524, though there were Lollard and Hussite connections, going back to 1466, which I’ve written about in previous posts. As in Bohemia, Calvinism took hold later, but the two churches grew up in parallel. The first Lutheran synod was in 1545, followed by the first Calvinist synod in 1557. In the second half of the sixteenth century, a definite interest in Protestant England was already noticeable in Hungary. In contemporary Hungarian literature, there is a long poem describing the martyr’s death of Thomas Cranmer (Sztáray, 1582).  A few years before this poem was written, in 1571, Matthew Skaritza, the first Hungarian Protestant theologian made his appearance in England, on a pilgrimage to ‘its renowned cities’ induced by the common religious interest.

Protestant ministers were recruited from godly and learned men. The Church of England and large parts of the Lutheran church, particularly in Sweden, tried to keep the outward structure and ministry of their national, territorial churches. Two brothers, Olav and Lars Petri, both disciples of Luther, inaugurated the Reformation in Sweden. The courageous King Gustavus Vasa, who delivered Sweden from the Danes in 1523, greatly favoured Protestantism. The whole country became Lutheran, with bishops of the old church incorporated into the new, and in 1527 the Reformation was established by Swedish law. This national, state church was attacked by both conservative Catholics and radical Protestants.

The Danish Church, too, went over completely to Protestantism. Some Danes, including Hans Tausen and Jörgen Sadolin, studied under Luther at Wittenberg. King Frederick I pressed strongly for church reform, particularly by appointing reforming bishops and preachers. As a result, there was an alarming defection of Catholics and in some churches no preaching at all, and a service only three times a year. After this, King Christian III stripped the bishops of their lands and property at the Diet of Copenhagen (1536) and transferred the church’s wealth to the state. Christian III then turned for help to Luther, who sent Bugenhagen, the only Wittenberger theologian who could speak the dialects of Denmark. Bugenhagen crowned the king and appointed seven superintendents. This severed the old line of bishops and established a new line of presbyters. At the synods which followed church ordinances were published, and the Reformation recognised in Danish law. The decayed University of Copenhagen was enlarged and revitalised. A new liturgy was drawn up, a Danish Bible was completed, and a modified version of the Augsburg Confession was eventually adopted.


Heddal Stave church, Norway.

This form of construction is characteristic of this part of Scandinavia

The Reformation spread from Denmark to Norway in 1536. The pattern was similar to that of Denmark. Most of the bishops fled and, as the older clergy died, they were replaced with Reformed ministers. A war between Denmark and Norway worsened social and political conditions. When the Danish Lutherans went to instruct the Norwegians, they found that many of the Norwegians spoke the incomprehensible old Norse, and communications broke down. In Iceland, an attempt to impose the Danish ecclesiastical system caused a revolt. This was eventually quelled and the Reformation was imposed, but with a New Testament published in 1540.

Calvinists held an exalted and biblical view of the church as the chosen people of God, separated from the state and wider society. They, therefore, broke away from the traditional church structures as well as the Roman ministry. The spread of Calvinism through key sections of the French nobility, and through the merchant classes in towns such as La Rochelle alarmed Catherine de Medici, the French Regent, resulting eventually in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Philip II faced a similarly strong Calvinist challenge in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In 1565, an outbreak of anti-Catholic rioting could not be contained because all the available forces were deployed in the Mediterranean to defend southern Italy from the Turks and to lift the siege of Malta. The spread of Calvinism was a coral growth in ports and free cities, compared with the territorial growth of Lutheranism which was dependent on earthly principalities and powers.

In this, the free churches later followed them. These churches were mainly fresh expressions of Calvinism which started to grow at the beginning of the next century, but some did have links to, or were influenced by, the churches founded in the aftermath of the Radical Reformation. Only three groups of Anabaptists were able to survive beyond the mid-sixteenth century as ordered communities: the ‘brethren’ in Switzerland and southern Germany, the Hutterites in Moravia and the Mennonites in the Netherlands and northern Germany.


In the aftermath of the suppression of Münster, the dispirited Anabaptists of the Lower-Rhine area were given new heart by the ministry of Menno Simons (about 1496-1561). The former priest travelled widely, although always in great personal danger. He visited the scattered Anabaptist groups of northern Europe and inspired them with his night-time preaching. Menno was an unswerving, committed pacifist. As a result, his name in time came to stand for the movement’s repudiation of violence. Although Menno was not the founder of the movement, most of the descendants of the Anabaptists are still called ‘Mennonites’. The extent to which the early Baptists in England were influenced by the thinking of the Radical Reformation in Europe is still hotly disputed, but it is clear that there were links with the Dutch Mennonites in the very earliest days.

Reformers, Revolutionaries and Anti-Semites:

Luther had early believed that the Jews were a stiff-necked people who rejected Christ, but that contemporary Jews could not be blamed for the sins of their fathers and might readily be excused for their rejection of Christianity by reason of the corruption of the Medieval Papacy.  He wrote, sympathetically:

If I were a Jew, I would suffer the rack ten times before I would go over to the pope.

The papists have so demeaned themselves that a good Christian would rather be a Jew than one of them, and a Jew would rather be a sow than a Christian.

What good can we do the Jews when we constrain them, malign them, and hate them as dogs? When we deny them work and force them to usury, how can that help? We should use towards the Jews not the pope’s but Christ’s law of love. If some are stiff-necked, what does that matter? We are not all good Christians.

Luther was sanguine that his own reforms, by eliminating the abuses of the papacy, would accomplish the conversion of the Jews. But the coverts were few and unstable. When he endeavoured to proselytise some rabbis, they undertook in return to make a Jew out of him. The rumour that a Jew had been authorised by the papists to murder him was not received with complete incredulity. In his latter days, when he was more easily irritated, news came that in Moravia, Christians were being induced to become Judaic in beliefs and practice. That was what induced him to come out with his rather vulgar blast in which he recommended that all Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, he wrote, they should be forbidden to practice usury, should be compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned, and their books, including The Torah, should be taken away from them.

The content of this tract was certainly far more intolerant than his earlier comments, yet we need to be clear about what he was recommending and why. His position was entirely religious and not racially motivated. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. The centuries of persecution suffered by the Jews were in themselves a mark of divine displeasure. The territorial principle should, therefore, be applied to the Jews. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a programme of enforced Zionism. But, if this were not feasible, Luther would recommend that the Jews be compelled to live from the soil. He was, perhaps unwittingly, proposing a return to the situation which had existed in the early Middle Ages, when the Jews had worked in agriculture. Forced off the land, they had gone into commerce and, having been expelled from commerce, into money-lending. Luther wished to reverse this process and to accord the Jews a more secure, though just as segregated position than the one they had in his day, following centuries of persecutions and expulsions.

His advocacy of burning synagogues and the confiscation of holy books was, however, a revival of the worst features of the programme of a fanatical Jewish convert to Christianity, Pfefferkorn by name, who had sought to have all Hebrew books in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire destroyed. In this conflict of the early years of the Reformation, Luther had supported the Humanists, including Reuchlin, the great German Hebraist and Melanchthon’s great-uncle. Of course, during the Reformation throughout Europe, there was little mention of the Jews except in those German territories, like Luther’s Saxony, Frankfurt and Worms, where they were tolerated and had not been expelled as they had been from the whole of England, France and Spain. Ironically, Luther himself was very Hebraic in his thinking, appealing to the wrath of Jehovah against any who would impugn his picture of a vengeful, Old Testament God. On the other hand, both Luther and Erasmus were antagonistic towards the way in which the Church of their day had relapsed into the kind of Judaic legalism castigated by the Apostle Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, was not about abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent, but about loving one’s neighbour. This may help to explain Luther’s reaction to the Moravian ‘heresy’ in terms which, nevertheless, only be described as anti-Semitic, even by the standards of his time.

The story told in Cohn’s great book Pursuit of the Millennium, originally written six decades ago, is a story which began more than five centuries ago and ended four and a half centuries ago. However, it is a book and a story not without relevance to our own times. In another work, Warrant for Genocide: the myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 1967, Cohn shows how closely the Nazi fantasy of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy of destruction is related to the fantasies that inspired millenarian revolutionaries from the Master of Hungary to Thomas Müntzer.  The narrative is one of how mass disorientation and insecurity have fostered the demonisation of the misbelievers, especially the Jews, in this as much as in previous centuries.

We can also reflect on the damage wrought in the twentieth century by left-wing revolutions and revolutionary movements, which are just as capable of demonising religious and ethnic groups, including Jews, through their love of conspiracy theories and narratives. What is most curious about the popular Müntzer ‘biopic’, for example, is the resurrection and apotheosis which it has undergone during the past hundred and fifty years. From Engels through to the post-Marxist historians of this century, whether Russian, German or English-speaking, Müntzer has been conflated into a giant symbol, a prodigious hero in the history of ‘class warfare’. This is a naive view and one which non-Marxist historians have been able to contradict easily by pointing to the essentially mystical nature of Müntzer’s preoccupations which usually blinded him to the material sufferings of the poor artisans and peasants. He was essentially a propheta obsessed by eschatological fantasies which he attempted to turn into reality by exploiting social discontent and dislocation through revolutionary violence against the misbelievers. Perhaps it was this obsessive tendency which led Marxist theorists to claim him as one of their own.

Just like the medieval artisans integrated in their guilds, industrial workers in technologically advanced societies have shown themselves very eager to improve their own conditions; their aim has been the eminently practical one of achieving a larger share of economic security, prosperity and social privilege through winning political power. Emotionally charged fantasies of a final, apocalyptic struggle leading to an egalitarian Millennium have been far less attractive to them. Those who are fascinated by such ideas are, on the one hand, the peoples of overpopulated and desperately poor societies, dislocated and disoriented, and, on the other hand, certain politically marginalised echelons in advanced societies, typically young or unemployed workers led by a small minority of intellectuals.

Working people in economically advanced parts of the world, especially in modern Europe, have been able to improve their lot out of all recognition, through the agency of trade unions, co-operatives and parliamentary parties. Nevertheless, during the century since 1917 there has been a constant repetition, on an ever-increasing scale, of the socio-psychological process which once connected the Táborite priests or Thomas Müntzer with the most disoriented and desperate among the poor, in fantasies of a final, exterminating struggle against ‘the great ones’; and of a perfect, egalitarian world from which self-seeking would be forever banished.  We are currently engaged in yet another cycle in this process, with a number of fresh ‘messiahs’ ready to assume the mantles of previous generations of charismatic revolutionaries, being elevated to the status of personality cults. Of course, the old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what would otherwise be obvious. For it is a simple truth that stripped of its original supernatural mythology, revolutionary millenarianism is still with us.


John H. Y. Briggs (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól, A Walesi Bárdokig: Magyar-Angol történeti és irodalmi kapcsalatok. 

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.

Roland H. Bainton (1950), Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, USA: Abingdon Press.

András Bereznay (1994, 2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.





Posted February 4, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Apocalypse, Austria-Hungary, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Church, Commemoration, Early Modern English, Egalitarianism, Empire, English Language, Europe, France, Germany, Henry VIII, History, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Jews, Linguistics, Lutheranism, Martin Luther, Medieval, Mediterranean, Messiah, Middle English, Migration, Millenarianism, Monarchy, Music, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Old Testament, Papacy, Reformation, Remembrance, Shakespeare, Switzerland, theology, Tudor England, Uncategorized, Warfare, Zionism

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The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.


The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.


There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.


East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:


Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   


The Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   Leave a comment


Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340


Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375


The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.



On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches


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