Reading and Translating Middle English


*   Set time aside (at least 15 minutes) to practise reading and translating Middle English every day; continue daily practice even after the Middle English part of the module has finished.

*   Where available, look at other editions of the texts (a list of editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is given below). Read the introductions, look at the notes, glossaries and further reading lists. Read summaries where they are available. (There are also animated versions on YouTube: see SGGK part 1, SGGK part 2, and SGGK part 3).

*   Identify the patterns of different spelling practices (see below); recognizing how easier words or words familiar from Modern English are spelt in Middle English will help with harder or less familiar words.

*   Think about the purpose(s) of translation and the nature of the work being translated. For example, although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales, and Troilus and Criseyde are written in verse, they are narratives, so should be translated into prose (unlike lyrical verse). Translating into ‘good Modern English’ means just that: making the story sound as if it had been written in Modern English for a modern audience, so try to balance literal translations with judicious use of colloquial terms which may adequately express meaning in less stilted language.

*   Be aware that many words in Middle English that appear identical or similar to their Modern English counterparts do not have the same meaning: for example, Middle English buxom means ‘obedient’ or ‘submissive’, so when Chaucer’s Merchant asks ‘“who kan be so buxom as a wyf?”’ (IV [E] 1287), he is referring to character, not physical appearance. Similarly, lewd (usually spelt lewed in Middle English) means ‘uneducated’ or ‘ignorant’, so Proserpine’s reference to men being ‘as lewed as geese’ in The Merchant’s Tale (IV [E] 2275) is not a comment on the vulgarity or the chastity of either men or geese.

*   Use a modern dictionary which shows the etymologies of words; when looking words up, think about their journey into Modern English. Consult the Middle English Dictionary and compare how words are used in the quotations shown.

*   Try reading Middle English aloud.

*   To improve understanding of Middle English and how it works, make sure you know the basics and terminology of modern English grammar. See, for instance, Using’s Glossary of English Grammar Terms. offers some helpful explanations and examples of verb tenses (see, for instance, the mini-tutorials and in-depth tutorials).


Harvard University: Middle English Teaching Resources Online (METRO)

From METRO’s anouncement: ‘METRO is a virtual classroom designed to teach students how to read and analyze Middle English texts. Through a series of self-testing exercises, students are invited to explore the meter, grammar, syntax, diction, and figural language used by a variety of Middle English poets. Currently, METRO features Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, and the Wakefield Master, with plenty of room for expansion. You can download or listen to streaming extracts from a variety of Middle English poems from Internet sources. Most of the webpages reproduce the relevant part of the text onscreen.’ METRO can be used free of charge.



Old English

The vernacular language of Britain after about 600ad until the Norman Conquest is Old English (sometimes known as Anglo Saxon), a Germanic language found in manuscripts and inscriptions. Old English is thought to have been brought by three tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes), who invaded and occupied Britain in the fifth century.

Old English developed four major dialects (Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, Kentish) with differences in spelling. Most extant Old English examples are in the West Saxon dialect.

‘A page from the manuscript of Beowulf’, reproduced from William J. Long, English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World (Boston: Ginn and Co, 1919; repr. as The Project Gutenberg EBook of English Literature, by William J. Long (Project Gutenburg, 2004),

Old English has various letter-forms which have not survived into Modern English:

Many Old English words have survived, via Middle English, into Modern English; these include blood (OE blōd), grass (OE græs), great (OE great), iron (OE īren), listen (OE hlysnan), play (OE plega), summer (OE sumor), tail (OE tægl).

Old French

Old English literature came to an end with the Norman Conquest in 1066. For the next two centuries, the language of the court was French; and when the English language (Middle English) reappeared it was very different from Old English, and displayed the influence of both Norman French (known as Anglo-Norman) and Parisian French (Old French). Both the Gawain-poet and (to a greater extent, because he was based in London and spoke French) Chaucer display an extensive vocabulary of Old French words in their works; the Gawain-poet often has a string of alliterating words derived from Old French. In the north of England, the language was contained borrowings from the Scandinavian languages collectively known as Old Norse.

Many Modern English words ultimately derive from Old French; these include ancestor (OF ancestre), courage (OF corage), enemy (OF enemi), flower (OF flour), money (OF moneie), power (OF poer).


Although Latin was the language of the church and official documents in Britain throughout much of the Middle Ages, Latin loan-words in Middle English are comparatively rare, although, of course, the Old French words which come into Middle English ultimately derive from Latin; for example, Middle (and Modern) English age comes from the Old French aage, which comes from Vulgar (i.e. vernacular) Latin and ultimately derives from Latin aetas. Few words come from Latin directly into Middle English.

Old Norse

Like Old English, Old Norse is a Germanic language. Invasions of Britain, from c.788ad, extensive settlements by the Vikings (mainly Danish in England, and Norwegian in north Britain and Ireland) and Norse rule of some areas of England led to Old East Norse words and names being absorbed into the local language. Viking rule was overturned by the Norman Conquest (and it is worth noting that the Normans were originally Danish and Norwegian settlers in northern France; by 1066, they had been in Normandy for only five generations, although their language had completely changed).

A number of words in Modern English ultimately derive from Old Norse; these include anger (ON angr), husband (ON husbondi = master of the house), raise (ON reisa) and sky (ON sky = cloud).


Middle English letters

The letter forms yogh and thorn used in Old English continue into Middle English. Thorn retains its equivalences with Modern English th, while yogh approximates a variety of Modern English letters and letter-combinations, including gh, y, and w. Here are some examples from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Some editors modernize yogh and thorn; others do not, so it is useful to be able to recognize what the letters represent.



There is no standardized spelling (or punctuation) in Middle English. In the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the king’s name appears in the following forms:

while the hero’s name appears as:

This name, in fact, shows a Latin influence: the Latin form is Gualganus or Walganus; in Old French, he becomes Gauvain.

It helps to be able to recognise the kinds of spelling variations used in the texts. Common ones include:


The first page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,

manuscript BL Cotton Nero A.x., f. 91a (reproduced from Wikipedia)



Basic Grammar

For reading and translation purposes, there is no need to have a comprehensive grounding in Middle English grammar, although it helps to understand the basics thoroughly. The following sources supply more or less detailed grammatical information:


*   A basic grammar by Mau McInerney at Haverford College.

*   A Brief Introduction to Middle English Grammar from the English Department at the University of Calgary.


*   A Book of Middle English, ed. J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, 2nd edn 1996). The Introduction to this anthology of texts covers Middle English grammar in detail.

*   Karl Brunner, An Outline of Middle English Grammar, trans. Grahame Johnston (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963). Now out of print, but widely and cheaply available second hand.

*   The Appendix to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon (1925, rev. ed. Norman Davis, OUP 1967) provides much grammatical detail.



Editions of the text with full glossaries and notes, with material on vocabulary and pronunciation:

*   Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. A. Burrow (Penguin Classics, 1987).

*   The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Malcom Andrew and Ronald Waldron, Edward Arnold (1978, rev. ed. University of Exeter Press, 1987).

*   Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J. R. R. Tolkein and E. V. Gordon (1925, rev. ed. Norman Davis, OUP 1967). The full text, although not the editorial apparatus, is available online from the Corpus of Medieval English Prose and Verse at The University of Michigan.



A concordance is an alphabetical list of the words occurring in a book or a writer’s work, each provided with details of location and/or examples of context.  Concordances can be useful for looking at words in other contexts and analysing the changes in meaning: does an identical word have the same meaning in each context?


*   Gerard NeCastro, at the University of Maine, hosts a Chaucer concordance.


*   Kottler, Barnet and Alan M. Markman, A Concordance to Five Middle English Poems: Cleanness, St. Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Patience, Pearl (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1966).



Looking at Middle English manuscripts can be rewarding, both from the viewpoint of the text and the illustrations. Here are some links to manuscript reproductions online:

*   Facsimiles of three illustrated manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, hosted by Kevin Kiernan at the University of Kentucky.

*   Caxton’s printed editions of The Canterbury Tales on the British Library website.

Illustration of Chaucer the Pilgrim,  adjacent to the opening text of The Tale of Melibee, from the Ellesmere manuscript



Help with pronunciation, or simply a flavour of what the narratives might have sounded like to their original audience, can be found in various versions of various Middle English texts available for listening or download online. Use a search engine to locate these, using the title and additional search terms such as ‘mp3’ or ‘audio’.


There are also recordings available to purchase, on CD or as downloads, and at a very reasonable price (currently with a 50% discount for individuals buying downloads), from The Chaucer Studio, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales, and Troilus and Criseyde. The Chaucer Studio also has numerous recordings of medieval texts in other languages: Old English, Old French, Old High German, Middle High German, Italian and Old Norse.



Listen to extracts from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Troilus and Criseyde

The Chaucer Studio has very kindly given permission for this site to host a couple of short extracts from its recordings of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Troilus and Criseyde:


SGGK extract 1: lines 130–150

Edition: J. A. Burrow (modernized and standardized spelling)


Now wyl I of her servyse say yow no more,
For uch wye may wel wit no wont that there were.
An other noyse ful newe neghed bilive,
That the lede myght have leve liflode to cach;
For unethe was the noyse not a whyle sesed,
And the first cource in the court kyndely served,
There hales in at the halle dor an aghlich mayster,
One the most on the molde on mesure high.
Fro the swyre to the swange so sware and so thik
And his lyndes and his lymmes so longe and so grete,
Half etayn in erde I hope that he were,
Bot mon most I algate mynne hym to bene,
And that the myriest in his muckel that myght ride;
For of bak and of brest al were his body sturn,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smal
And all his fetures folwande, in forme that he hade

Ful clene;

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enker-grene.


SGGK extract 2: lines 2106–2113

Edition: J. A. Burrow (modernized and standardized spelling)


‘For he is a mon methles and mercy none uses.
For be hit chorle auther chaplayn that bi the chapel rides,
Monk auther masseprest auther any mon elles,
Him think as queme him to quelle as quik go himselven.
Forthy I say the, as soth as ye in sadel sitte,
Com ye there, ye be kylled, may the knyght rede,
Trawe ye me that truly, thagh ye had twenty lives

To spende.



Edition: Tolkien & Gordon, rev. Davis (original spelling)



T&C extract 1: Book III, lines 1394–1407

Edition: The Riverside Chaucer (modernized spelling)

Thise ilke two of whom that I yow seye,
Whan that hire hertes wel assured were,
Tho gonne they to speken and to pleye,
And ek rehercen how, and whan, and where
Thei knewe hem first, and every wo and feere
That passed was; but al swich hevynesse
I thank it God was torned to gladnesse.

And evere mo, when that hem fel to speke
Of any wo of swich a tyme agoon,
With kissyng al that tale sholde breke
And fallen in a newe joye anoon;
And diden al hire myght, syn they were oon,
For to recoveren blisse and ben at eise,
And passed wo with joie contrepeise.

T&C extract 2: Book V, lines 1058–1071

Edition: The Riverside Chaucer (modernized spelling)

‘Allas, of me, unto the worldes ende,
Shal neither been ywriten nor ysonge
No good word, for thise bokes wol me shende.
O, rolled shal I been on many a tonge;
Thurghout the world my belle shal be ronge;
And wommen most wol hate me of alle.
Allas, that swich a cas me sholde falle!

`They wol seyn, in as muche as in me is,
I have hem don dishonour, weylawey!
Al be I not the first that dide amis,
What helpeth that to do my blame awey?
But syn I see there is no bettre way,
And that to late is now for me to rewe,
To Diomede algate I wol be trewe.’




Other audio resources

*   The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Norton Topics Online has audio files of a range of Middle English texts, including extracts from The Canterbury Tales. SGGK lines 1–19, read by Marie Boroff, is Number 4 in the list.

*   The whole (nearly 8 hours!) of Troilus and Criseyde read in Middle English by Kevin Johnson, downloadable in mp3 or ogg vorbis formats (LibriVox).

* some interesting material on Chaucer’s language plus links (some sadly broken) to other sites, including tutorials and audio files


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Page last updated: Friday January 01, 2016 14:50