Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales #1

Philo ME

Hello and welcome to the first post in this Philology sub-category!
It has been 6 weeks since I first came into contact with this amazing thing called: Philology. I must confess, I think I’m in love!
However this post will not be about me drooling over this amazing thing.
This post will be about what I’ve learned during these last 6 weeks about Medieval England from roughly 1100 – 1500 CE. This includes the following topics:

  • Periodization
  • Middle English Language
    • vocabulary
    • grammar
  • Society
    • Three estates
    • Religion
    • Medieval writing
  • The Canterbury Tales
    • Geoffrey Chaucer
    • Chaucer’s language and versification
    • Physiology and imagery

I will discuss all the things above but, especially for you I’ll not post it all at once but rather in three different post.
This will be a series about Medieval England!


When there’s spoken about the Middle English language, one speaks of the language spoken in England roughly between 1100 and 1500 CE. This, obviously didn’t happen in one day. Folk didn’t suddenly decide to drop the Old English and start with something new, just because they could.
The key event, or at the very least an event with great influence, was the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE. For those of you unknown with this event, here’s a short recap:
King Edward the Confessor died in 1066 and proclaimed Harold Godwine his heir (whom back then was the most powerful man in England). However Edward had a cousin, William the Conqueror, the duke of Normandy. That cousin didn’t agree with Harold being proclaimed king and so he invaded England. He succeeded and according to legend Harold died by an arrow shot through the eye and so William became the new king of England. –> The Norman Conquest.

The Middle English period ended in the 16th century due to a lot of change (including the Reformation and the printing press among other things).

Middle English Language

There’s a lot that can be said about the language used in the Middle English period. Yes, it is called Middle English (ME) but because of some great changes it can be very difficult to actually pinpoint what ME is.
For this part about the language, vocabulary and grammar I’ve used the information provided by my tutors and Horobin; Chaucer’s language.

For starters during this time period, ME was actually a mix of three different languages: 1. Latin 2. French and 3. Old English.

  1. Latin was used by the scholars of the society and by the clergy. So anything church-related was done in Latin as was anything that had to do with academics and official documents.
  2. French was used in a whole different setting altogether.
    Because of the Norman Conquest, French became quite the thing back in the day. This because of a very simple reason, being that the whole upper-class was now French. French became the language of the court and was used for administrative and legal purposes. You can well imagine that when you were able to speak French at the time, the whole world (well at least high-society England) could be at your feet… it was a prestigious language. Court lived French, breathed French and yes, ate French (this will be explained later on).
  3. I will not bother you with anything Old English (OE) related yet. For now it’s just good to know that it exists and was formed mostly by the Norse Language, remember the Vikings (Old English was spoken during roughly 600 – 1100 CE).

These three languages mashed together formed ME. This became the language of the common folk. Everyone could speak or at least understand ME while not everyone could understand French and only knew what needed to be known in Latin for church.

Are you still with me? Great!

After a couple of hundred years, there was a shift.
The French had finally adapted (hurray) and so the ‘common’ English language started to be used at court as well, pushing the language up the ladder of importance.

When speaking the language there is a catch here and there. Yes there are other languages in the text, but ME has its own difficulties. First of all there is the: you-need-t-pronounce-every-single-letter thing. Which is just like I said that you need to pronounce every letter when reading a ME text out loud. There are exceptions like combining words but that’s something for another time.
Another difficulty lies with open and closed vowels. For those of you who interested in knowing more about ‘the great vowel shift’ here’s a link.


Like I mentioned before ME was a trilingual language (Latin, French and OE).
At this point we already know that since the battle of Hastings French became the language for the well-to-do people, and since French became so very popular eventually ME existed for about 70% out of French loanwords. Here’s why:

French loanwords were used for a lot of things, here’s a list:
– Government and Administration
– Religion
– Law
– Army and navy
– Fashion, Meals & Social sphere
– Art, Learning, Medicine

See the meals in there? Yes? Okay now here’s why that’s in that tiny list:
Often words coexisted together. So in this case for meat, there can be multiple words for one animal. One used when talking about a living animal and the other used for when the animal was dead and served on a plate (i.e. sheep and mutton).

At the time, common folk usually spoke regular English. But that was not where their vocabulary ended, they also knew a bit of basic Latin that they needed for church (remember? Latin was the language used for clergy and academics). For some reason though women weren’t allowed to learn Latin, the only women familiar with the language were nuns.
People from the middle class (see more over this in society) often did speak some or acceptable French. They, like the common folk, knew their Latin for church business and some even were a part of the clergy or were scholars.
All men and women at court spoke, for at least the first part of the Late Middle Ages, French and of course Latin. There was even some special vocabulary used at court or used to describe people from the upper class. For example, a short introduction about the Knight in the Canterbury Tales:
‘verray, parfit gentil knightHe loved ‘trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisie
– Gentil meant noble. Noble referred to him being of noble birth. A miller or a farmer could never be gentil because he can’t be from noble birth (but mind you that this is a cliché used in novels. When the unknowing farmer’s kid is suddenly the lost son of the king etc… ).
– Trouthe meant loyalty honour and moral soundness.
– Curteisies meaning everything that had to do with the complex court ideals (I’ll come back to that next time).

Regular English at the time was known by everyone, knowledge of Latin and French was influenced by the three estates (see society).

When comparing ME to Present day English (PDE) there might be words that you could understand when reading The Canterbury Tales for example. While some words like sweete can be easily translated into sweet, words like boxum went through a change over the years. This is called semantic change, when a word looks the same but its meaning changed. Boxum, in ME, meant obedient and so when talking about “For who can be so buxom as a wyf” you’re talking about a wife being obedient and not like the PDE boxum meaning a busty/curvy woman.

Because ME is a language in the transition stage and is a trilingual language there’s also a great variety of spelling. Take the ME word for shoe-> ‘shō’:
– shoes, sheon, shon, shoon, shons, sheos… and so on and so forth.
How could there be so many ways to write the word shoe?! You might wonder… and believe me when I saw that I’ve been thinking about that myself for some time as well.
The thing is that in the ME language there was no set of rules for spelling like in this time. It was actually quite straightforward because people stuck to what they knew was right. So when one used to speak in a northern dialect, that same person wrote down exactly what he/she said and so it could come to pass that the exact same word written in a southern dialect was written entirely different.


ME was, like I said before, a language in transition and so not only the vocabulary and the spelling changed but the grammar did as well.

In that +-400 years time ME changed from a synthetic to an analytic language.
When a language is synthetic everything relies on the inflexion to indicate the grammatical function of the words. But when a language is analytic everything relies on word order, prepositions and auxiliaries to indicate the grammatical function of the words.
So the language evolved from OE to late ME and to give you a clue to what that change exactly was, here’s a little something that will make it a bit clearer:

  • OE: dæġes ond nihtes
    by day and by night’
  • Early ME: be nihtes and be dæies
  • Late ME: bi night and bi dai

See how there’s only the inflexions in OE while in early ME there is a slight change, showing how the transition evolved, and by the end in late ME there’s no inflexion at all.
This is how infinitive OE: macian changed into PDE: to make.

So with no fixed set of rules for spelling, the changing grammar and with a massive vocabulary from OE to French and even Latin, for poets like Chaucer the ME language was like icing on a cake.

There were also different ways to indicate the plural form of a noun.
No matter if a word is a nominative, accusative of dative the plural ending is -es. But there can be other ways to end a plural (i.e. according to Chaucer), these being -ys, -is, -s or when a noun ends with a -t the plural ends with a -z. When talking about a genitive, possessive, the plural ends with an -s.

The pronouns are pretty much the same as they are in PDE, thought they have slight differences in spelling and with an exception in the third person plural were ME hem -> PDE them and ME hir -> PDE their. But bear in mind that hir can also mean she, it all depends on the context.
For those who are more interested in a sketch of the Pronouns click here.

But it’s not that easy, it never is.

Remember that right after the Norman Conquest the French language influenced OE? It left a mark not only on the vocabulary but also on the use of certain pronouns, in this case ‘ye’ and ‘thou’.
For those of you familiar with the French language: It’s like tu and vous.
‘Ye’ is a plural and was first of all used to address two or more people. But here’s where the French influence kicks in. It was also used for one person, this often in formal occasions, at the court and to show respect.
‘Thou’ is singular and was used when one knew another more intimately. It was a less formal form but with a catch. Where ‘ye’ was used to show respect, ‘thou’ was used to express lack of respect or even anger.

The Middle English verbal system is a complicated one. If you want to see a good outline of the system, including auxiliaries and a table of Chaucer’s verbal system, then click here.

For now all there is to know about ME verbs is that there are weak and strong verbs. The verbs are also ‘born’ weak or strong and so unlike adjectives they can’t be changed from strong to weak and vice versa.
This is not so unfamiliar for people who already know the Dutch language, it is however rather difficult for the regular English (native) speaker because for as far as I know there is no such thing in PDE. Here’s a short line-up so you’ll get a picture of what I mean. If there are any Dutch readers reading this, I’ll compare it with Dutch.

  1. Strong verbs: the stem vowel changes in the past tense. There is no -d, -ed or -t added here.
    As a past participle strong verbs end in -en.
  2. Weak verbs: in the past tense the weak verbs get an additional -d, -ed or -t.
    When there is both a change in stem vowel and a -d, -ed or -t is added, the added inflexion overrules the stem vowel and so the verb will be weak.
  3. Comparison with Dutch:
    Strong: Ik loop
    Ik liep
    Ik heb gelopenWeak: Ik fiets
    Ik fietste
    Ik heb gefietst

Just like verbs, adjectives can also be weak or strong. But like I already brought to your attention: adjectives can change from strong and weak depending on the context.
First of all the adjective modifies the noun, so for example it’s not just a man but a worthy man. In this case worthy is the adjective. Keep this in mind as well: weak and strong adjectives are only applied when: 1. OE monosyllabic adjectives that end with a consonant. 2. When the adjective modifies a proper noun (a name) or 3. Forms a part of a vocative expression (where someone is being addressed directly).

An adjective is weak when:
Modified by determiner the, demonstratives this/ that and possessive pronouns.
An adjective can’t be weak when following indefinite article: a.
When the adjective is weak there’s an -e at the end.
An adjective is strong when it is not weak… (No really?!)


During a time of nearly constant change, the language changed as well.
With a trilingual language, a lot of French influences and no clear rules about grammar; writers had a lot of freedom using different words and different forms of spelling whenever they wanted to use or needed it.
Though it might seem so long ago, ME is actually not that distant as one might think. Knowing ME is a way to understand how PDE came to exist and even though it seems hard at first, with a little practise it’ll seem like you’ve known the language your whole life.
ME has been through a lot in actually a very short time, a time of turbulence and change, where people started to think ‘outside the box’ as it were. The language became less important with the Norman Conquest but eventually it returned to glory and society started to appreciate it once more.

Next in this series about Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales-> Society: Three estates, religion and medieval writing.


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