Medieval Drama and Language
This article is still missing a few resources but will be finished soon. Stay tuned and thanks for your patience!
This article is associated with the Folger Institute's 2016-2017 year-long colloquium on Teaching Medieval Drama and Performance, which welcomed advanced scholars whose research and pedagogical practice explore historical, literary, and theoretical dimensions of medieval drama from the perspective of performance.
Why learn and teach Middle English?
It’s hard to appreciate or even understand medieval drama without thinking about the language in which it was written and performed. Students most often come to early English plays in modernized or even translated editions translations, which can strip away the nuances of the source text. The rhythms of the plays — not to mention the many jokes! — are best studied in their natural habitat, so to speak.
Most of the English playtexts traditionally counted as medieval are written in a form of the English language called Middle English, as distinct from Old English (an early form of the language closer to English’s Nordic and Germanic roots), and Modern English (the form of the language we speak today). This was the dominant form of English ca. 1100 - 1500, but its influence lingered well into the Early Modern period. As with Modern English, Middle English existed in a number of regional dialects. Some plays are written in dialects closer to our Modern English; others are written in more challenging and remote dialects.
Though the language may seem daunting at first to many students (and some teachers), the more you read—and the more you read aloud — the easier it will get.
What did Middle English sound and look like?
Medieval drama is most commonly taught in “English” or “literature” classes, which usually involve a lot of silent reading. However, as with drama from any period, these plays were meant to be performed, and so the best way to understand these Middle English plays — to appreciate their nuances and revel in their textures — is to read them aloud.
But how? What did Middle English sound like? Barring time travel, we can never know for sure, but linguistic deductions have given us a fairly good guide for accurate pronunciation. Of course, like all languages, there was no one way to pronounce Middle English: the difference between the speech of a Londoner and a Yorkshireman would have been as different — if not more so — in 1400 as it is today. Most scholars and medieval literary readers tend to rely on a standard set of consonant and vowel sounds based on the London dialect spoken by Chaucer. Once a student is familiar with these sounds, it’s easy to gain confidence in reading and performing Middle English.
There are two basic rules of thumb for spoken Middle English: pronounce everything, and make your vowels strange. Some students have compared the sound of Middle English to a thick Scottish brogue: the ear hears a language that sounds kind of familiar, but try to follow the meaning and it becomes foreign at the same time. Part of the real pleasure and excitement of teaching Middle English arises from this simultaneous experience of closeness and distance — it can really fire up the imagination and deepen curious interest.
This guide gives you everything you need in order to pronounce Middle English like a proper medieval Londoner. It makes a great in-class handout, too, which students can hold onto and refer to as they read, practice, and recite inside and out of class.
As for what Middle English looked like, there are two main things that students notice when encountering it for the first time. The first is that there are no consistent spelling rules (which didn’t begin to enter English until the 18th century); you will certainly see the same word spelled in multiple different ways, even by the same author.
The other is that Middle English has letters that are no longer part of our alphabet:
|When you see...||Think of Modern English...||Some Middle English words...|
|Ȝ ȝ (“yogh”)||[we need German here: ich]
|Þ, þ (“thorn”)||think
In early Middle English, you may also encounter Æ, æ (“æsc” or “ash”), which makes the same sound as in Modern English “cat,” or Ð, ð (“eth”), which was used interchangeably with Þ, þ in Old English. But these had generally fallen out of use by the 14th century.
Note on dialects
The medieval plays we most commonly encounter in anthologies hail from outside London, from whose dialect early modern English and our modern English proceeded. This means that the language of these plays is going to seem less familiar than what you may have encountered in Chaucer. A well-glossed edition (we've included some suggestions in our resource list below) will help you and your students grapple with these linguistic differences — though they become significantly less strange after a few weeks of working hands-on with the texts. The York and Chester cycles, along with the Towneley manuscript, all have connections to the north of England, and so their vocabulary will include many words that have since dropped out of the language. The N-Town plays and many of the morality and saint plays are more closely connected to East Anglia, which, in addition to vocabulary differences, sometimes shows unique spelling conventions (i.e., xall instead of schalle for Modern English “shall”). If you venture outside the anthology, you can also find plays coming from London whose dialect will be more familiar, especially Lydgate’s court entertainments.
How do we best learn and teach Middle English?
The best thing to do to get comfortable with Middle English is to immerse yourself and your students in it. Spend plenty of time in class reciting lines together and exploring linguistic nuances. Encourage students to be curious about differences and to actively interrupt class conversations to ask about the words on the page: after all, if they are having difficulty understanding the text, it’s likely that others are as well!
Sometimes a little story helps: why do antique shops across the country bear a sign that reads “Ye olde shoppe”? Because y and þ look very similar in late medieval scribal hands, and because early modern foundries and printers found it easy (and cost-efficient) to get rid of the increasingly extraneous letter þ, as spelling became more and more standardized over the 1500s.
How to build confidence in Middle English pronunciation
(for more info and tips from our classrooms, please have a look at this handout)
- Be as breezy and carefree about speaking Middle English as you want your students to be. Remember, we’re not going to offend native speakers if we get it wrong!
- Speak aloud, speak loud, and speak often. Incorporate pronunciation activities into as many class meetings as possible to get Middle English into your students’ bodies and voices.
- Always drill vowels before a pronunciation exercise. Vowels take practice, and repeating them often is the key to getting comfortable with Middle English overall.
- Include recitation and/or memorization milestones in your syllabus. Drama is meant to be memorized: working with the rhyme, alliteration, etc., of a passage can really help students get the feel for the language.
Middle English exercises
Of course, simple immersion is never enough; everyone needs a bit of help getting started. It’s a good idea to begin the semester with a few simple exercises that help acquaint everyone with the look and sounds of Middle English.
[PDFs of all exercises coming soon!]
- In-class "around the room" exercise
- “Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse” in-class exercise
- Sentence translation homework assignment
- Phonic transcription homework assignment
“Best practices” for working in Middle English:
- When possible, use glossed and annotated editions and make sure all students know to check both the in-text glosses and end-of-text glossary to help resolve questions.
- Introduce students to the Middle English Dictionary and spend a little time in the classroom explaining some of its quirks to make searching easier. Encourage them to bookmark the Middle English Dictionary and keep it open on their laptops or phones while they read. The MED can be a little tricky to use, since Middle English spelling is not standardized, so here are some tips for navigating its interface.
- Encourage students to keep a running list of unfamiliar words, either on a sheet of paper or in a note on their laptop or phone and keep track the number of times they look up a word (either in a glossary or the MED). Once they look up the same word 3 times, they should memorize it!
- Suggest that students recite the text with a classmate or roommate.
- Record yourself reciting sections of the text that you make available for the students to listen to through the course website, YouTube, etc.
- Empower students to get as far as they can with the original before trying to work through moments of non-comprehension; if they get frustrated, have them make a note to ask about the passage in class, and keep reading.
For more information
- The Middle English Dictionary
- The General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: great for an extended opportunity to listen and follow along
- “How to Speak Middle English” YouTube series by thatoneguyinlitclass
- The History of English podcast
History of the English Language texts
Best for technicalities
- Barbara Fennell, A History of English, A Sociolinguistic Approach (Blackwell, 2001)
- Stephan Gramley, The History of English: An Introduction (Routledge, 2012)
Best for a general, easy-to-read overview
- Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language (Arcade, 2011)
- David Crystal, The Stories of English (Overlook, 2005)
Best for connecting language change to historical events
- Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language (Routledge, 2012)
Good editions of Medieval Drama for those new to Middle English
- The Broadview Anthology of Medieval Drama, ed. Fitzgerald and Sebastian (Broadview Press, 2012)
- The editors have heavily modernized the Middle English, which obscures much of the original language and makes pronunciation exercises difficult. If you want to encounter the Middle English more directly, opt for another edition. Also includes translations of medieval Latin, Cornish, and Welsh plays.
- Medieval Drama: An Anthology, ed. Walker (Wiley-Blackwell, 2000)
- The foot-of-the-page glossing system can be challenging to work with, but this edition gives you a comprehensive sampling in the original Middle English.
- Medieval Drama, ed. Bevington (Wadsworth, 1975)
- An older edition, with marginal glosses and a different selection of edited plays than is found in either Broadview or Walker.
- Any of the TEAMS editions (currently available: N-Town Plays, York Plays, Croxton Play of the Sacrament, Mankind, Everyman, Lydgate’s Mummings. Other volumes are forthcoming!)
Page written by
Andrew Albin, Fordham University
Heather Mitchell-Buck, Hood College