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MIDDLE ENGLISH Short forms ME, M.E. From one point of view, the second stage of the single continuously developing ENGLISH language; from another, a distinct language that evolved from OLD ENGLISH (OE) and slowly turned into MODERN ENGLISH (ModE). ME began when the linguistic effects of the Norman Conquest were complete (c.1150) and came to an end at the start of the period that scholars generally call EARLY MODERN ENGLISH (c.1450). Three features of ME contrasted with OE: a greatly reduced system of grammatical inflections; greatly increased lexical borrowing from other languages, in particular FRENCH and LATIN; and a highly varied and volatile ORTHOGRAPHY. Surviving texts indicate that there was no uniform way of writing ME, and as a result texts are sometimes easy to read without much help, sometimes more difficult, and sometimes well-nigh impossible. The following sentence, from CHAUCER'S late 14c translation of Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy: opening, Book I, prose VI), is representative:
First woltow suffre me to touche and assaye the estat of thy thought by a fewe demaundes, so that I may understonde what be the manere of thy curacioun?

Word for word in more or less modern usage, this sentence runs:
First wilt thou suffer me to touch and try the state of thy thought by a few demands, so that I may understand what be the manner of thy curation?

In more relaxed modern usage still, it might be:
First will you let my try the state of your thinking by asking a few questions, so that I can understand the way you cure people?

In the original sentence, many words have the same spelling (but generally not the same pronunciation) as ModE, and their meaning is often the same (first, me, and, the, of, thy, thought, by, a, so, that, I, may, what, be), some have a similar spelling (but not pronunciation) to present day usage, and much the same meaning (touche, estat, fewe, understonde, manere), or similar spellings but rather different meanings and uses (suffre, demaundes), and some are variously alien at first encounter yet become less so after translation (woltow, assaye, curacioun). In terms of grammar, the most obvious difference between ME and strict standard ModE (as shown by means of this specimen sentence) is the loss of the second-person pronoun (thou, etc.) in everyday usage, though the form was present in Early ModE and continues to be widely and easily understood. Another is the loss of the subjunctive form as used in so that I may understonde what be. In terms of pronunciation, ME can very broadly be said to blend Germanic and Romance sound systems, words of Germanic origin being pronounced more or less with the values of Old English, words of Romance origin being pronounced more or less as in Norman French.


As a spoken VERNACULAR, ME was continuous with OE, but as a written medium it did not have the erstwhile autonomy or prestige of OE prose and verse. Instead, it competed unequally with Latin and French through most of its history. Latin was the dominant literary and ecclesiastical language in Europe long before the Norman Conquest and well into the Renaissance, while NORMAN FRENCH became after the Conquest the primary language of the cultivated classes of England, sharing with Latin high prestige in literature and administration; the legal profession in particular was permeated by French and Latin. As a result, English, the language of a conquered people, made scant literary and official appearance in documents during the two centuries after the Conquest, and no dialect had precedence over any other. In the 14c, Chaucer's much-admired contemporary John Gower wrote his vast poem Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Confession) in English (yet with a Latin title), but also wrote long poems in Latin and French. Such multilingual expertise was normal among the writers and scholars of the day.


The four great DIALECT boundaries of OE developed in ME as follows: (1) The vast Mercian dialect area divided into East Midland and West Midland. (2) Kentish became part of a wider South-Eastern dialect to the south of the River Thames. (3) West Saxon, latterly the most prestigious OE dialect, especially for literature, shrank westward to become the South-Western dialect, which entirely lacked the prominence of its OE ancestor. (4) Northumbrian divided into the Northern dialects of England and the Lowlands of Scotland. Scholars generally refer to ME north of the border as Middle SCOTS, which developed its own courtly use and literature. In addition to the growth of a separate national variety in Scotland, slowly spreading at the expense of GAELIC, ME was carried through invasion and settlement westward into Wales and Ireland. Although the city of London was close to the South-Eastern dialect, the distinctive usage of the capital towards the end of the ME period was primarily influenced from north of the Thames, by East Midland. It was the high form of this eclectic metropolitan variety that in due course became the primary source of modern standard English.

Pronunciation and spelling

(1) In the main, the sounds of ME were the same as those of OE, and for several lifetimes after the Norman Conquest the written language retained many of the characteristic features of OE orthography. In due course, however, script and style changed radically under the influence of NORMAN FRENCH, obscuring for later readers the continuity of the pronunciation system. Whereas OE spelling was relatively stable and regular, ME spelling varied greatly from place to place, person to person, and period to period, offering many variants for the same words: for example, OE lēaf (ModE leaf) became ME lief, lieif, leif, lefe, leue, leeue, leaue, etc. (2) The special OE letters ash (æ), wynn (ρ), yogh (ʒ), and eth (ð) went out of use early in the ME period; thorn (þ) remained longer and appears sporadically in early 15c Chaucer manuscripts. (3) The distinctive short and long vowel pairs of OE gave way to a system in which the lax or tense state of the tongue (and not the duration of the sounds themselves) distinguished such sounds as the /ɛ/ of vers (verse) from the /e/ of wep (weep). (4) Some ME sound changes altered vowel values, resulting for example in the present-day vowel differences between singular child, staff (a large stick) and plural children, staves. (5) The OE pronunciation of the first consonant in the initial cluster cn- (as in cnāwan to know) continued for centuries, though the new spelling was kn-. It died out only in the later stages of ME, leaving its mark, however, in contemporary spelling, as in know, knee, knight (with their ‘silent’ fossil k). (6) Similarly, the voiceless velar or palatal fricative of OE (as in German ach and ich) continued in use for most of the period in England and continues to the present day in Scots. It has usually been represented in ModE by gh, leaving its silent fossils in such words as dough, night, through, thought, thorough. In Chaucer's line ‘A knight ther was, and that a worthy man’, knight (OE cniht) was pronounced /knɪxt/ or /knɪçt/. (7) Consonants coming between vowels were increasingly elided, with the result that many OE disyllables have been reduced to ModE monosyllables: for example, earlier OE hlāfweard (‘loaf-ward’) became later OE/early ME hlāford and laford, then 13c louerd, and 15c lord; OE fuʒel (bird) developed into 12c vuhel, 13c fuwel, 14c fouxl and foul (etc.), becoming 16c fowle, foule (etc.), and ModE fowl. (8) The voiced values /v/ and /z/ of the OE letters f and s became distinctive sounds in their own right, distinguished fat from vat and seal from zeal.


(1) While the sound system of ME was relatively unchanged from OE, the inflectional system was greatly reduced, possibly because of close, long-term contacts between native OE speakers and first Danish- then French-speaking settlers. (2) The main classes of verb inflection survived, but the distinction in STRONG VERBS between the singular and the plural of the past was on its way out in Chaucer's day: for example, for the verb bind (from OE bindan to bind), he had the past singular bond (from OE band) and past plural bounde (from OE bundon), but bond was soon to vanish as ModE bound took over both the singular and plural. (3) The occasional surviving inflectional suffixes for the plural and the infinitive in Chaucer's day likewise soon disappeared, and the four-case OE inflections for the noun were reduced to two (common and possessive) as in ModE. (4) The OE function words (pronouns and articles, conjunctions, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs) remained in ME and largely survive to the present day.


(1) By and large, the everyday vocabulary of OE has survived into ME and ModE, as in the following sets, with OE first, then typical ME, then ModE: bricg, bregge, bridge; fæstnian, festen, fasten; īegland, eland, island; langung, longinge, longing; nīwe, newe, new; strang, stronge, strong. (2) As a result of the Norman Conquest and the great social and political changes that came in its wake, many OE words fell entirely out of use, often being supplanted by words of French provenance: for example, eftsīð was replaced by retorn, retorne, retourne, etc. (return), eorlscipe (‘earlship’) by nobilite, nobylyte, etc. (nobility), and lārcwide by conseil, counseil, etc. (counsel). (3) In the centuries immediately after the Conquest, English took on the basic forms and patterns of its present-day dual Germanic and Romance vocabulary: for example, native-based freedom as against French-based liberty; hearty versus cordial; kingly and royal (and also regal, directly from Latin); knight and chevalier, knighthood and chivalry; lawful and legal, unlawful and illegal, unlawfulness and illegality; pig and pork, sheep and mutton, calf and veal, cow and beef. See BISOCIATION, NORMAN FRENCH.


ME words generally bear a fair resemblance to their present-day descendants, with the result that reading ME without help, though by no means always easy, is far simpler than reading OE: the OE sentence Gemiltsa mīnum suna (c.1000) is entirely foreign to speakers of ModE, but the ME equivalent Haue mercy on my sone (though only about 385 years more recent and with a distinctive pronunciation) shows its antiquity in only two small oddities of spelling. The grammatical functions signified by the suffixes on all three OE words in this sentence are gone; the grammatical function of my sone is indicated not by a case ending as in OE but by the preposition on (absent in OE); and the function of haue is indicated by word order. The OE word gemiltsa has vanished, replaced by a phrase composed of OE haue in its ME form, and ME mercy, borrowed from French. See ANGLO-IRISH, CAXTON, CHANCERY STANDARD, ENGLISH LITERATURE, GREAT VOWEL SHIFT, HISTORY OF ENGLISH, LAW FRENCH, PROSE.


Below are two brief textual specimens. The first is from the 13-14c: the opening lines of an anonymous lyric poem. The second belongs to the late 14c, and is also anonymous: the work of a West Midlands poet that continues the alliterative verse patterns of OE.

1. Verse: Alison

Bytuene Mersh and Averil,
When spray biginneth to springe,
The lutel foul hath hire wyl
On hyre lud to synge.
Ich libbe in love-longinge
For semlokest of alle thinge-
He may me blisse bringe;
Icham in hire baundoun.

Between March and April,
When the twigs begin to leaf,
The little bird is free
To sing her song.
I live in love-longing
For the seemliest of all things-
She may bring me bliss;
I am in her power.

(From The Norton Anthology of Poetry, coordinating editor Arthur M. Eastman, New York 1970, p. 5)

2. Verse: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (opening lines)

Sithen the Sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye,
The borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes,
The tulk that the trammes of tresoun there wrought
Was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.
Hit was Ennias the athel and his highe kynde,
The sithen depreced provinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneghe of al the wele in the west iles.

After the siege and the assault were ceased at Troy.
The city crumbled and burned to brands and ashes,
The man who the plots of treason there wrought
Was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth.
It was Aeneas the noble and his high race,
Who after subjugated provinces, and lords became
Wellnigh of all the wealth in the western isles.

(Adapted from the version in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, general editor M. H. Abrams, 5th edition, vol. 1, New York, 1986, pp. 232–3)

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Middle English literature

Middle English literature, English literature of the medieval period, c.1100 to c.1500. See also English literature and Anglo-Saxon literature.


The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 traditionally signifies the beginning of 200 years of the domination of French in English letters. French cultural dominance, moreover, was general in Europe at this time. French language and culture replaced English in polite court society and had lasting effects on English culture. But the native tradition survived, although little 13th-century, and even less 12th-century, vernacular literature is extant, since most of it was transmitted orally. Anglo-Saxon fragmented into several dialects and gradually evolved into Middle English, which, despite an admixture of French, is unquestionably English. By the mid-14th cent., Middle English had become the literary as well as the spoken language of England.

The Early Period

Several poems in early Middle English are extant. The Orrmulum (c.1200), a verse translation of parts of the Gospels, is of linguistic and prosodic rather than literary interest. The Owl and the Nightingale, of approximately the same date, is the first example in English of the débat, a popular continental form; in the poem, the owl, strictly monastic and didactic, and the nightingale, a free and amorous secular spirit, charmingly debate the virtues of their respective ways of life.

The Thirteenth Century

Middle English prose of the 13th cent. continued in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon prose—homiletic, didactic, and directed toward ordinary people rather than polite society. The "Katherine Group" (c.1200), comprising three saints' lives, is typical. The Ancren Riwle (c.1200) is a manual for prospective anchoresses; it was very popular, and it greatly influenced the prose of the 13th and 14th cent. The fact that there was no French prose tradition was very important to the preservation of the English prose tradition.

In the 13th cent. the romance, an important continental narrative verse form, was introduced in England. It drew from three rich sources of character and adventure: the legends of Charlemagne, the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, and the British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Layamon's Brut, a late 13th-century metrical romance (a translation from the French), marks the first appearance of Arthurian matter in English (see Arthurian legend). Original English romances based upon indigenous material include King Horn and Havelok the Dane, both 13th-century works that retain elements of the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition.

However, French romances, notably the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes, were far more influential than their English counterparts. In England French romances popularized ideas of adventure and heroism quite contrary to those of Anglo-Saxon heroic literature and were representative of wholly different values and tastes. Ideals of courtly love, together with its elaborate manners and rituals, replaced those of the heroic code; adventure and feats of courage were pursued for the sake of the knight's lady rather than for the sake of the hero's honor or the glory of his tribal king.

Continental verse forms based on metrics and rhyme replaced the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line in Middle English poetry (with the important exception of the 14th-century alliterative revival). Many French literary forms also became popular, among them the fabliau; the exemplum, or moral tale; the animal fable; and the dream vision. The continental allegorical tradition, which derived from classical literature, is exemplified by the Roman de la Rose, which had a strong impact on English literature.

Medieval works of literature often center on a popular rhetorical figure, such as the ubi sunt, which remarks on the inevitability—and sadness—of change, loss, and death; and the cursor mundi, which harps on the vanity of human grandeur. A 15,000-line 13th-century English poem, the Cursor Mundi, retells human history (i.e., the medieval version—biblical plus classical story) from the point of view its title implies.

A number of 13th-century secular and religious Middle English lyrics are extant, including the exuberant Sumer Is Icumen In, but like Middle English literature in general, the lyric reached its fullest flower during the second half of the 14th cent. Lyrics continued popular in the 15th cent., from which time the ballad also dates.

The Fourteenth Century

The poetry of the alliterative revival (see alliteration), the unexplained reemergence of the Anglo-Saxon verse form in the 14th cent., includes some of the best poetry in Middle English. The Pearl, a Christian allegory, is a poem of great intricacy and sensibility that is meaningful on several symbolic levels. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the same anonymous author, is also of high literary sophistication, and its intelligence, vividness, and symbolic interest render it possibly the finest Arthurian poem in English. Other important alliterative poems are the moral allegory Piers Plowman, attributed to William Langland, and the alliterative Morte Arthur, which, like nearly all English poetry until the mid-14th cent., was anonymous.

The works of Geoffrey Chaucer mark the brilliant culmination of Middle English literature. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are stories told each other by pilgrims—who comprise a very colorful cross section of 14th-century English society—on their way to the shrine at Canterbury. The tales are cast into many different verse forms and genres and collectively explore virtually every significant medieval theme. Chaucer's wise and humane work also illuminates the full scope of medieval thought. Overshadowed by Chaucer but of some note are the works of John Gower.

The Fifteenth Century

The 15th cent. is not distinguished in English letters, due in part to the social dislocation caused by the prolonged Wars of the Roses. Of the many 15th-century imitators of Chaucer the best-known are John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve. Other poets of the time include Stephen Hawes and Alexander Barclay and the Scots poets William Dunbar, Robert Henryson, and Gawin Douglas. The poetry of John Skelton, which is mostly satiric, combines medieval and Renaissance elements.

William Caxton introduced printing to England in 1475 and in 1485 printed Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. This prose work, written in the twilight of chivalry, casts the Arthurian tales into coherent form and views them with an awareness that they represent a vanishing way of life. The miracle play, a long cycle of short plays based upon biblical episodes, was popular throughout the Middle Ages in England. The morality play, an allegorical drama centering on the struggle for man's soul, originated in the 15th cent. The finest of the genre is Everyman.


See J. W. Wells, Manual of the Writings in Middle English (1916–51); R. M. Wilson, Early Middle English Literature (3d ed. 1968); M. Schlauch, English Medieval Literature and Its Social Foundation (1956, repr. 1971); J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and Their Work (1982).

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"Middle English literature." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Middle English

Middle English Form of the English language in use from c.1100 until c.1450. This period saw the borrowing of many words from Norman French. Grammatical gender was superseded by natural gender, and the use of an Anglo-Norman writing system caused radical changes in spellings. In literature, the Arthurian romances were influenced by the French troubadours tales of chivalry. The ‘alliterative revival’ in native poetry was led by Langland, Malory, Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer. Other forms include the mystery plays. See also English literature

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Middle English

Mid·dle Eng·lish • n. the English language from c.1150 to c.1470.

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