Reading 15th Century English - Introductory Level

One of the best ways to understand Middle English is to read it out aloud. This will help you become familiar with the metrical and rhyming patterns, but also with recognising the vocabulary.

Read the letters out loud

Spellings have changed over the centuries, there are also some key differences in pronunciation:

  • A short ‘a’ has the sound of modern German ‘Mann’ rather than modern English ‘hat’.
  • A short ‘o’ is closer to ‘long’ than to American ‘got’.
  • A short ‘u’ is as in ‘put’ rather than ‘putt’.
  • For diphthongs, ‘au’ has the sound of ‘ou’ in modern ‘loud’.

All consonants are pronounced:

  • In a word like ‘knight’, the ‘k’ and ‘gh’ (= ‘ch’ in modern German ‘ich’) are audible.

Listen to Margery Brews' ‘Valentine letter’ from the British Library web site.

The ‘Basics’ of Middle English

There are a few general patterns about how nouns, verbs and pronouns are formed. This section is a prelude to reading the comprehensive guide to Middle English language in the core text. Please remember these are general guidelines and one of the key characteristics of Middle English is the variation that exists, so that each text needs to be studied as a separate entity.

What was disappearing in the language by this time?

  • Inflections: in contrast to Old English, the inflections that had indicated the number and case of nouns were gradually being simplified in favour of prepositions. Inflections that had once indicated the tense and person of verbs were reducing in favour of auxiliary verbs.
  • Coinage: this is the idea of combining existing words together to make new ones; there were enough loan words and new vernacular words by this time.
  • Primarily because of the availability of French terms, it became less common to form new compounds by adding prefixes and suffixes.

What are some of the main features of Middle English?

  • Nouns: Middle English retains two separate noun ending patterns from Old English to indicate the plural. The strong -s plural form has survived into Modern English, while the weak -n form is today rare (as in oxen, children, brethren).
  • Verbs: As a general rule, the first person singular of present tense verbs ends in -e (ich here), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest), and the third person in -eþ (he comeþ).
  • In the past tense, weak verbs are formed by an -ed(e), -d(e) or -t(e) ending. These, without their personal endings, also form past participles, together with past-participle prefixes derived from the Old English ge-: i-, y- and sometimes bi-.

Strong verbs form their past tense by changing their stem vowel, as in Modern English.

  • Pronouns: Middle English inherits its pronouns from Old English:
First PersonSecond PersonThird Person
nominativeic, Iweþuyeithitho, heo, heye
accusativemeusþeyow, owmeusþeyow, hi, ho, heo
genitivemin, miureþinyower, owerhishishre, horehore, heore
dativemeusþeyow, owhimhimhirehom, heom

To complicate things, we also have to remember that abbreviations regularly appear in the Paston letters, so ‘me’ might not be a pronoun, but a contraction of ‘men’, for instance, as in this letter: “causeth me to set the lesse be us”. Me more often refers to men or they, than the first person singular use we are so used today.

Norfolk Dialect found in the letters

  • “xuld” = should
  • “qwhan” = when
  • “ryth” = right
  • “to bear him on hand” = to accuse
  • “cursyd-hertyd” = shrewish
  • “lwmysch” = disliked family foe
  • “schyttyl-wyttyd” = indecisive

Step 1: Transcription

Reading, or interpreting, and writing out the letters on the page is, however, only the first step. The opening of Margery Brews’ Valentine letter, for instance, transcribes as:

Ryght reverent and wurschypfull and my ryght welebeloved Voluntyne I recommande me unto yowe, ffull hertely desyring to here of yowr welefare whech I beseche Almyghty God long for to preserve un to hys plesur and yowr herts desire.

If you want to develop specialized skills in medieval hands, visit here
However, medieval transcription skills are not a requisite for taking part in the Paston Footprints project! A number of editors have got there before you for the medieval letters, so it is the next two stages where we are looking for volunteers.

Step 2: Modernisation

This stage is what it says, the updating of spelling and punctuation.

Right reverend and worshipful and my right well-beloved Valentine, I recommend me unto you, full heartily desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God to preserve unto his pleasure and your heart’s desire.

Step 3: Translation

Writing for a modern reader. This is a subjective process. In this one example, for instance, is ‘respected’ a good replacement for ‘reverend’? ‘Honourable’ for ‘worshipful’? God’s ‘will’ for his ‘pleasure’?

Most respected and honourable and my most dearly-beloved Valentine, I commend myself to you with all my heart, desiring to hear of your happiness, which I pray Almighty God to preserve according to His will and your heart’s desire.

What can help greatly in these judgement calls, is using Middle English Dictionary. You will find that words have, often, a large range of meanings, and working out the nuances of which to select is often gleaned from the context of the letter.

Of course, you could use even more poetic licence, and render a 21st century reading, such as:

I rate you, you’re straight down the line and I love you so much, my Valentine sweety. You’ve got my heart, totally. I’m desperate to hear if you’re happy. Oh God, I hope you stay okay and your heart bursts too.

But some may object to such a loose translation, arguing that’s more of a transfiguration! Interested in giving it a go? You can read the transcriptions of various editors curated on this site and attempt modernizations and translations. All volunteers welcome. Please sign up here to volunteer.