Middle English Texts
Read the following account of the Death of King Arthur from Lawman’s Brut. This poem, written around 1200 in the Southwest/West Midland area of England, is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin ca. 1138-39. It is called the Brut because it begins with the story of the Trojan hero Brutus (not the one from Julius Casear) escaping the flames of Troy and heading west to found Britain. Brutus is thus called the eponymous founder of Britain, the person who gave it its name, though all of this of course is legend rather than fact.
Translate the passage into modern English, then comment on the marked words, noting peculiarities of Middle English, differences between Old and Middle English, or differences between Middle and Modern English, or all of these. You may comment on any additional linguistic matters as well.
Le Morte d’Arthur
Arthur wes forwunded, wunder ane swithe.
wounded wondrously and deeply
Ther to him com a cnave1 the wes of his cunne2.
knave, boy who was kin
He was Cadores sune, the eorles3 of Cornwaile.
Constantin hehte the cnave; he wes than kinge4 deore.
hight, was called
Arthur him lokede on, ther he lai on folden,
And thas word seide mide sorhfulle heorte:
“Constantin, thu art wilcume. Thu weore Cadores sone.
Ich thee bitache here mine kineriche.
And wite mine Bruttes5 a to thines6 lifes;
guard Britons ever lifetime
And hald heom all tha laghen tha habbeoth i-stonden a mine daghen,
hold laws have stood days
And alle tha laghen gode tha bi Utheres daghen stode.
“And Ich wulle varen7 to Avalun to vairest alre maidene,
fare, go fairest of all
To Argante, there quene, alven swithe sceone;
(=Morgan le fay) elf very beautiful
And heo8 scal mine wunden makien alle i-sunde,
Al hal9 me makien mid haleweighe drenchen10.
whole healing drinks
And seothe Ich cumen wulle to mine kineriche
And wunien mid Brutten mid muchelere wunne.”
live, dwell Britons great joy
Aefne than worden ther com of se wenden11
Even (at) words sea travelling
That wes an sceort12 bat lithen, sceoven mid uthen;
short boat moving shoved waves
And two wimmen13 therinne, wunderliche i-dihte;
And heo nomen Arthur anan and a-neouste hine vereden
they took anon next to him (fared) went in
And softe hine a-dun leiden, and forth gunnen hine lithen.
down lay (pl.) against them (they) went, moved
Tha wes hit i-wurthen that Merlin seide whilen,
Then become, happened what said before
That weore unimete care of Arthures forthfare.
was unmeasured sorrow forthfaring [going forth]
Bruttes i-leveth yete that he bon on live
believe yet be(s) alive
And wunnien in Avalun mid fairest alre alven,
lives of all elves
And lokieth evere Bruttes yete whan Arthur cumen lithe.
look Britons comes back
Nis naver the mon i-boren of naver nane14 burde i-coren
Isn’t never born never none woman chosen
The cunne of than sothe of Arthur sugen mare.
that can sooth say
But while wes an witeghe, Merlin i-hate;
while, once (there) wizard named, called
He bodede mid worde — his quithes weoren sothe —
bodede, told with words quoths, sayings sooth
That an Arthur sculde yete cum Anglen to fulste.15
should the Angles aid, save
Some hints, questions, guidelines:
1 How was cn-/kn- pronounced in OE, ME, MnE? How has the meaning of knave changed?
2 Comment on changes in kin, kind
3 Why does eorl end in -es?
4 Why does king end in -e?
5 Why are Britons called Brutes here?
6 Comment on the pronouns thy, thu, thines.
7 Why is fare written with a v in this text? And vairest, alven, vereden?
8 Comment on heo and the other 3rd person singular pronouns.
9 Is there a connection between hal, whole, and heal?
10 How has the meaning of drench changed?
11 How has wendan evolved in Modern English?
12 Why is sc- pronounced sh- in Modern English? Can you think of other examples?
13 Discuss the history of the word woman.
14 You may have learned that two negatives make a positive; how do you account for all the negatives in this sentence?
15 Comment on Middle English spelling as contrasted with spelling in Modern English.