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A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary

A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary

by Kenneth Sisam, J. R. R. Tolkien
A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary

A Middle English Reader and Vocabulary

by Kenneth Sisam, J. R. R. Tolkien

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Scholarly and highly informative, this anthology represents a distinctive contribution to the understanding and enjoyment of Middle English literature. Kenneth Sisam's well-chosen extracts from writings of the 14th century illustrate a rising new spirit in vernacular works. Selections include excerpts from such tales as Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight and the Gest Hystoriale of the destruction of Troy, the immortal Piers Plowman, John Wycliffe's translation of the Bible, political commentaries, and poetry. In addition to notes on each selection and an informative appendix, this volume features an extensive glossary by J. R. R. Tolkien. Best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was an Oxford University professor of linguistics whose "vocabulary" offers an effective and practical complement to this outstanding anthology.

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ISBN-13: 9780486440231
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 02/11/2005
Edition description: Two Volumes Bound as One
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 718,006
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

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A Middle English Reader and A Middle English Vocabulary


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Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
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ISBN: 978-0-486-13141-2



A.D. 1303

What is known of Robert Mannyng of Brunne is derived from his own works. In the Prologue to Handlyng Synne he writes:

To alle Crystyn men vndir sunne,
And to gode men of Brunne,
And speciali, alle be name,
Þe felaushepe of Symprynghame,
Roberd of Brunne greteþ [??]ow
In al godenesse þat may to prow;
Of Brunne wake yn Kesteuene,
Syxe myle besyde Sympryngham euene,
Y dwelled yn þe pryorye
Fyftene [??]ere yn cumpanye....

And in the Introduction to his Chronicle:

Of Brunne I am; if any me blame, Robert Mannyng is my name; Blissed be he of God of heuene Þat me Robert with gude wille neuene! In þe third Edwardes tyme was I, When I wrote alle þis story, In þe hous of Sixille I was a throwe; Dan[??] Robert of Malton, þat [??]e know, Did it wryte for felawes sake When þai wild solace make.

From these passages it appears that he was born in Brunne, the modern Bourn, in Lincolnshire; and that he belonged to the Gilbertine Order. Sempringham was the head-quarters of the Order, and the dependent priory of Sixhill was near by. It has been suggested, without much evidence, that he was a lay brother, and not a full canon.

His Chronicle of England was completed in 1338. It falls into two parts, distinguished by a change of metre and source. The first, edited by Furnivall in the Rolls Series (2 vols. 1887), extends from the Flood to A. D. 689, and is based on Wace's Brut, the French source of Layamon's Brut. The second part, edited by Hearne, 2 vols., Oxford 1725, extends from A. D. 689 to the death of Edward I, and is based on the French Chronicle of a contemporary, who is sometimes called Pierre de Langtoft, sometimes Piers of Bridlington, because he was a native of Langtoft in Yorkshire, and a canon of the Austin priory at Bridlington in the same county. Mannyng's Chronicle has no great historical value, and its chief literary interest lies in the references to current traditions and popular stories.

Handlyng Synne is a much more valuable work. It was begun in 1303:

Dane Felyp was mayster þat tyme
Þat y began þys Englyssh ryme;
Þe [??]eres of grace fyl þan to be
A þousynd and þre hundred and þre.
In þat tyme turnede y þys
On Englyssh tunge out of Frankys
Of a boke as y fonde ynne,
Men clepyn þe boke 'Handlyng Synne'.

The source was again a French work written by a contemporary Northerner—William of Wadington's Manuel de Pechiez. The popularity of such treatises on the Sins may be judged from the number of works modelled upon them: e. g. the Ayenbyte of Inwyt, Gower's Confessio Amantis, and Chaucer's Parson's Tale. Their purpose was, as Robert explains, to enable a reader to examine his conscience systematically and constantly, and so to guard himself against vice.

Two complete MSS. of Handlyng Synne are known: British Museum MS. Harley 1701 (about 1350–75), and MS. Bodley 415, of a slightly later date. An important fragment is in the library of Dulwich College. The whole text, with the French source, has been edited by Furnivall for the Roxburghe Club, and later for the Early English Text Society. It treats, with the usual wealth of classification, of the Commandments, the Sins, the Sacraments, the Requisites and Graces of Shrift. But such a bald summary gives no idea of the richness and variety of its content. For Mannyng, anticipating Gower, saw the opportunities that the illustrative stories offered to his special gifts, and spared no pains in their telling. A few examples are added from his own knowledge. More often he expands Wadington's outlines, as in the tale of the Dancers of Colbek. Here the French source is brief and colourless. But the English translator had found a fuller Latin version—clearly the same as that printed from Bodleian MS. Rawlinson C 938 in the preface to Furnivall's Roxburghe Club edition—and from it he produced the well-rounded and lively rendering given below.

Robert knew that a work designed to turn 'lewde men' from the ale-house to the contemplation of their sins must grip their attention; and in the art of linking good teaching with entertainment he is a master. He has the gift of conveying to his audience his own enjoyment of a good story. His loose-knit conversational style would stand the test of reading aloud to simple folk, and he allows no literary affectations, no forced metres or verbiage, to darken his meaning:

Haf I alle in myn Inglis layd
In symple speche as I couthe,
Þat is lightest in mannes mouthe.
I mad noght for no disours,
Ne for no seggers, no harpours,
But for þe luf of symple men
Þat strange Inglis can not ken;
For many it ere þat strange Inglis
In ryme wate neuer what it is,
And bot þai wist what it mente,
Ellis me thoght it were alle schente. (Chronicle, ll. 72 ff.)

The simple form reflects the writer's frankness and directness. He points a moral fearlessly, but without harshness or self-righteousness. And the range of his sympathies and interests makes Handlyng Synne the best picture of English life before Langland and Chaucer.


MS. Harley 1701 (about A. D. 1375); ed. Furnivall, ll. 8987 ff.

KAROLLES, wrastlynges, or somour games,
Whoso euer haunteþ any swyche shames
Yn cherche, oþer yn cherche[??]erd,
Of sacrylage he may be aferd;
Or entyrludes, or syngynge,
Or tabure bete, or oþer pypynge—
Alle swyche þyng forbodyn es
Whyle þe prest stondeþ at messe.
Alle swyche to euery gode preste ys lothe,
And sunner wyl he make hym wroth
Þan he wyl, þat haþ no wyt,
Ne vndyrstondeþ nat Holy Wryt.
And specyaly at hygh tymes
Karolles to synge and rede rymys
Noght yn none holy stedes,
Þat my[??]t dysturble þe prestes bedes,
Or [??]yf he were yn orysun
Or any ouþer deuocyun:
Sacrylage ys alle hyt tolde,
Þys and many oþer folde.

But for to leue yn cherche for to daunce,
Y shal [??]ow telle a ful grete chaunce,
And y trow þe most þat fel
Ys soþe as y [??]ow telle;
And fyl þys chaunce yn þys londe,
Yn Ingland, as y vndyrstonde,
Yn a kynges tyme þat hyght Edward
Fyl þys chaunce þat was so hard.

Hyt was vppon a Crystemesse ny[??]t
Þat twelue folys a karolle dy[??]t,
Yn wodehed, as hyt were yn cuntek,
Þey come to a tounne men calle Colbek.
Þe cherche of þe tounne þat þey to come
Ys of Seynt Magne, þat suffred martyrdome;
Of Seynt Bukcestre hyt ys also,
Seynt Magnes suster, þat þey come to.
Here names of alle þus fonde y wryte,
And as y wote now shul [??]e wyte:
Here lodesman, þat made hem glew,
Þus ys wryte, he hy[??]te Gerlew.
Twey maydens were yn here coueyne,
Mayden Merswynde and Wybessyne.
Alle þese come þedyr for þat enchesone
Of þe prestes doghtyr of þe tounne.

Þe prest hy[??]t Robert, as y kan ame;
A[??]one hyght hys sone by name;
Hys doghter, þat þese men wulde haue,
Þus ys wryte, þat she hy[??]t Aue.
Echoune consented to o wyl
Who shuld go Aue oute to tyl,
Þey graunted echone out to sende
Boþe Wybessyne and Merswynde.

Þese wommen [??]ede and tolled here oute
Wyþ hem to karolle þe cherche aboute.
Beune ordeyned here karollyng;
Gerlew endyted what þey shuld syng.
Þys ys þe karolle þat þey sunge,
As telleþ þe Latyn tunge:

'Equitabat Beuo per siluam frondosam,
Ducebat secum Merswyndam formosam.
Quid stamus? cur non imus?'

'By þe leued wode rode Beuolyne,
Wyþ hym he ledde feyre Merswyne.
Why stonde we? why go we noght?'
Þys ys þe karolle þat Grysly wroght;
Þys songe sunge þey yn þe cherche[??]erd—
Of foly were þey no þyng aferd—
Vnto þe matynes were alle done,
And þe messe shuld bygynne sone.

Þe preste hym reuest to begynne messe,
And þey ne left þerfore neuer þe lesse,
But daunsed furþe as þey bygan,
For alle þe messe þey ne blan.

Þe preste, þat stode at þe autere,
And herd here noyse and here bere,
Fro þe auter down he nam,
And to þe cherche porche he cam,
And seyd 'On Goddes behalue, y [??]ow forbede
Þat [??]e no lenger do swych dede,
But comeþ yn on feyre manere
Goddes seruyse for to here,
And doþ at Crystyn mennys lawe;
Karolleþ no more, for Crystys awe!
Wurschyppeþ Hym with alle [??]oure my[??]t
Þat of þe Vyrgyne was bore þys ny[??]t.'

For alle hys byddyng lefte þey no[??]t,
But daunsed furþ, as þey po[??]t.
Þe preste þarefor was sore agreued;
He preyd God þat he on beleuyd,
And for Seynt Magne, þat he wulde so werche—
Yn whos wurschyp sette was þe cherche—
Þat swych a veniaunce were on hem sent,
Are þey oute of þat stede were went,
Þat <þey> my[??]t euer ry[??]t so wende
Vnto þat tyme tweluemonth ende;
(Yn þe Latyne þat y fonde þore
He seyþ nat 'tweluemonth' but 'euermore';)
He cursed hem þere alsaume
As þey karoled on here gaume.

As sone as þe preste hadde so spoke
Euery hand yn ouþer so fast was loke
Þat no man my[??]t with no wundyr
Þat tweluemo<n>þe parte hem asundyr.

Þe preste [??]ede yn, whan þys was done,
And commaunded hys sone A[??]one
Þat <he> shulde go swyþe aftyr Aue,
Oute of þat karolle algate to haue.
But al to late þat wurde was seyd,
For on hem alle was þe veniaunce leyd.

A[??]one wende weyl for to spede;
Vnto þe karolle as swyþe he [??]ede,
Hys systyr by þe arme he hente,
And þe arme fro þe body wente.
Men wundred alle þat þere wore,
And merueyle mowe [??]e here more,
For, seþen he had þe arme yn hand,
Þe body [??]ede furþ karoland,
And noþer <þe> body ne þe arme
Bledde neuer blode, colde ne warme,
But was as drye, with al þe haunche,
As of a stok were ryue a braunche.

A[??]one to hys fadyr went,
And broght hym a sory present:
'Loke, fadyr,' he seyd, 'and haue hyt here,
Þe arme of þy doghtyr dere,
Þat was myn owne syster Aue,
Þat y wende y my[??]t a saue.
Þy cursyng now sene hyt ys
Wyth veniaunce on þy owne flessh.
Fellyche þou cursedest, and ouer sone;
Þou askedest veniaunce,—þou hast þy bone.'

[??]oe þar nat aske [??]yf þere was wo
Wyth þe preste, and wyth many mo.
Þe prest, þat cursed for þat daunce,
On some of hys fyl harde chaunce.
He toke hys doghtyr arme forlorn
And byryed hyt on þe morn;
Þe nexte day þe arme of Aue
He fonde hyt lyggyng aboue þe graue.
He byryed <hyt> on anouþer day,
And eft aboue þe graue hyt lay.
Þe þrydde tyme he byryed hyt,
And eft was hyt kast oute of þe pyt.
Þe prest wulde byrye hyt no more,
He dredde þe veniaunce ferly sore;
Ynto þe cherche he bare þe arme,
For drede and doute of more harme,
He ordeyned hyt for to be
Þat euery man my[??]t wyth ye hyt se.

Þese men þat [??]ede so karolland,
Alle þat [??]ere, hand yn hand,
Þey neuer oute of þat stede [??]ede,
Ne none my[??]t hem þenne lede.
Þere þe cursyng fyrst bygan,
Yn þat place aboute þey ran,
Þat neuer ne felte þey no werynes
As many †bodyes for goyng dos†,
Ne mete ete, ne drank drynke,
Ne slepte onely alepy wynke.
Ny[??]t ne day þey wyst of none,
Whan hyt was come, whan hyt was gone;
Frost ne snogh, hayle ne reyne,
Of colde ne hete, felte þey no peyne;
Heere ne nayles neuer grewe,
Ne solowed cloþes, ne turned hewe;
Þundyr ne ly[??]tnyng dyd hem no dere,
Goddys mercy ded hyt fro hem were;—
But sungge þat songge þat þe wo wro[??]t:
'Why stonde we ? why go we no[??]t?'

What man shuld þyr be yn þys lyue
Þat ne wulde hyt see and þedyr dryue?
Þe Emperoure Henry come fro Rome
For to see þys hard dome.
Whan he hem say, he wepte sore
For þe myschefe þat he sagh þore.
He ded come wry[??]tes for to make
Coueryng ouer hem, for tempest sake.
But þat þey wroght hyt was yn veyn,
For hyt come to no certeyn,
For þat þey sette on oo day
On þe touþer downe hyt lay.
Ones, twyys, þryys, þus þey wro[??]t,
And alle here makyng was for not.
Myght no coueryng hyle hem fro colde
Tyl tyme of mercy þat Cryst hyt wolde.

Tyme of grace fyl þurgh Hys my[??]t
At þe tweluemonth ende, on þe [??]ole ny[??]t.
Þe same oure þat þe prest hem banned,
Þe same oure atwynne þey †woned†;
Þat houre þat he cursed hem ynne,
Þe same oure þey [??]ede atwynne,
And as yn twynkelyng of an ye
Ynto þe cherche gun þey flye,
And on þe pauement þey fyl alle downe
As þey had be dede, or fal yn a swone.

Þre days styl þey lay echone,
Þat none steryd oþer flesshe or bone,
And at þe þre days ende
To lyfe God graunted hem to wende.
Þey sette hem vpp and spak apert
To þe parysshe prest, syre Robert:
'Þou art ensample and enchesun
Of oure long confusyun;
Þou maker art of oure trauayle,
Þat ys to many grete meruayle,
And þy traueyle shalt þou sone ende,
For to þy long home sone shalt þou wende.'

Alle þey ryse þat yche tyde
But Aue,—she lay dede besyde.
Grete sorowe had here fadyr, here broþer;
Merueyle and drede had alle ouþer;
Y trow no drede of soule dede,
But with pyne was broght þe body dede.
Þe fyrst man was þe fadyr, þe prest,
Þat deyd aftyr þe do[??]tyr nest.
Þys yche arme þat was of Aue,
Þat none my[??]t leye yn graue,
Þe Emperoure dyd a vessel werche
To do hyt yn, and hange yn þe cherche,
Þat alle men my[??]t se hyt and knawe,
And þenk on þe chaunce when men hyt sawe.

Þese men þat hadde go þus karolland
Alle þe [??]ere, fast hand yn hand,
Þogh þat þey were þan asunder
[??]yt alle þe worlde spake of hem wunder.
Þat same hoppyng þat þey fyrst [??]ede,
Þat daunce [??]ede þey þurgh land and lede,
And, as þey ne my[??]t fyrst be vnbounde,
So efte togedyr my[??]t þey neuer be founde,
Ne my[??]t þey neuer come a[??]eyn
Togedyr to oo stede certeyn.

Foure [??]ede to þe courte of Rome,
And euer hoppyng aboute þey nome,
†Wyth sundyr lepys† come þey þedyr,
But þey come neuer efte togedyr.
Here cloþes ne roted, ne nayles grewe,
Ne heere ne wax, ne solowed hewe,
Ne neuer hadde þey amendement,
Þat we herde, at any corseynt,
But at þe vyrgyne Seynt Edyght,
Þere was he botened, Seynt Teodryght,
On oure Lady day, yn lenten tyde,
As he slepte here toumbe besyde.
Þere he had hys medycyne
At Seynt Edyght, þe holy vyrgyne.

Brunyng þe bysshope of seynt Tolous
Wrote þys tale so merueylous;
Seþþe was hys name of more renoun,
Men called hym þe pope Leoun.
Þys at þe court of Rome þey wyte,
And yn þe kronykeles hyt ys wryte
Yn many stedys be[??]ounde þe see,
More þan ys yn þys cuntré.
Þarfor men seye, an weyl ys trowed,
'Þe nere þe cherche, þe fyrþer fro God'.

So fare men here by þys tale,
Some holde hyt but a troteuale,
Yn oþer stedys hyt ys ful dere
And for grete merueyle þey wyl hyt here.
A tale hyt ys of feyre shewyng,
Ensample and drede a[??]ens cursyng.
Þys tale y tolde [??]ow to <make> [??]ow aferde
Yn cherche to karolle, or yn cherche[??]erde,
Namely a[??]ens þe prestys wylle:
Leueþ whan he byddeþ [??]ow be stylle.



Sir Orfeo is found in three MSS.: (1) the Auchinleck MS. (1325–1350), a famous Middle English miscellany now in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh; (2) British Museum MS. Harley 3810 (fifteenth century); (3) Bodleian MS. Ashmole 61 (fifteenth century). Our text follows the Auchinleck MS., with ll. 1–24 and ll. 33–46 supplied from the Harleian MS. The critical text of O. Zielke, Breslau 1880, reproduces the MSS. inaccurately.

The story appears to have been translated from a French source into South-Western English at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It belongs to a group of 'lays' which claim to derive from Brittany, e.g. Lai le Freine, which has the same opening lines (1–22); Emaré; and Chaucer's Franklin's Tale.


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Table of Contents


I. Robert Mannyng of Brunne's Handlyng Synne,
II. Sir Orfeo,
III. Michael of Northgate's Ayenbyte of Inwyt,
IV. Richard Rolle of Hampole,
V. Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight,
VI. The Pearl, ll. 361–612,
VII. The Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy,
VIII. Piers Plowman,
IX. Mandeville's Travels,
X. John Barbour's Bruce,
XI. John Wiclif,
XII. John Gower,
XIII. John of Trevisa's Translation of Higden's Polychronicon,
XIV. Political Pieces,
XV. Miscellaneous Pieces in Verse,
XVI. The York Play 'Harrowing of Hell',
XVII. The Towneley Play of Noah,
Appendix: The English Language in the Fourteenth Century,
A Middle English Vocabulary By J.R.R. Tolkien,

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