Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Review: 100 Middle English Lyrics

A Fair Trade Book (hurrah!)


Title: One Hundred Middle English Lyrics

Author: Robert D. Stevick

Date: 1994

Publisher: University of Illinois

Publisher's recent review of this book: 

ISBN: 0-252-06379-1

Length: 189 pages including glossary, plus index

Quote: “One Hundred Middle English Lyrics was published first in 1964, and it remains the only students’ text of the lyrics that aims at fostering the linguistic competence necessary for understanding the poems in Middle English.”

In order to “foster linguistic competence” Stevick chose a technique that may be unique. Middle English, as everyone knows, had no standard spelling rules. In fact, because of the variety of dialects spoken in England (not even to mention Scotland), it had no real standard of grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary either. People who learned to write learned the alphabet used in Latin and adapted it to English as seemed best to them. (At this time most of the superfluous “silent” letters that clutter up English spelling today seem to have been pronounced, at least by some people at some times.) So five versions of what seem to have started out as one religious poem have been collected. The first word of at least four of them is the one that became “when,” and it appears as “vyen,” “wenne,” “quanne,” “qvanne,” and possibly also as “wose.” (Chaucer usually spelled it “whan,” but sometimes “whanne” when the word’s position in a line of poetry indicates that saying “whan-nuh” would have suited the metre.)

The obvious ways of resolving the linguistic problems in Middle English poems would be (1) to print the words as they appear, or in some cases where the original script is faded as the editor reads them, with notes indicating what each word is believed to have become in modern English; (2)to “translate” a Middle English poem into a new poem that expresses more or less the same thought in modern words; or (3) to teach the students what is known about how to interpret the old manuscripts, show them copies of the manuscripts, and let them read as best they can.

Personally, for scholarly purposes I prefer a compromise between (1) and (3). Once students have some idea of the range of possibilities it’s not at all hard to figure out that the following lines all express the same general idea…

                “Wose seye on rode Ihesus is lef-mon…"

                “Wenne hic soe on rode idon Ihesus mi leman…"

                “Quanne hic se on rode Ihesu mi lemman…"

                “Vyen I on the rode se Faste nailed to the tre…"

                “Qvanne I zenke onne the rode Quorupe-one thu stode…”

After copying those ten lines, which Stevick’s students claimed to find so difficult, it took me less than three minutes to generate the following response:

“In other words, ‘When on the Crucifix I see Jesus who so lovèd me’…”

Admittedly someone did, at some point, have to explain to me that “the Rod” or “Rood” at this period meant the Cross rather than a rod or rood of distance, or the road that measured many a rood, and I remain unsure what “Quorupe-one” became, but I suspect that even in grade seven I would have figured out the general idea expressed by these lines.

Stevick, however, has chosen to try to regularize all the different dialects and spelling-quirks in the direction of Chaucer’s. Thus “I, me, my, myn” always represent the words that became “I, me, my, mine,” although (as seen above) “I” might have been written as “ic” or “hic” or “Y” or “ie.” Or, in a complete stanza:

                “Murie a tyme I telle in may
                Wan bricte blosmen breketh on tre;
                Theise foules singe nyt ant day:
                In ilche grene is gamen and gle”

…becomes,

                “Myrie a tyme I telle in May
                Whan brighte blosmes breken on tree;
                Thise foweles syngen nyght and day:
                In ilke grene is gamen and glee.”

This makes this introductory course book an easy, accessible read for high school students, pub singers and sing-along audiences, Renaissance Faire performers, pop singers, and anyone who's interested in really old vintage poems and songs. You don't have to be taking a course in Middle English to enjoy this book. Pubs should keep a few copies on hand for sing-along purposes, because everyone who's struggled through even part of the Canterbury Tales can read, sing, and understand the dialect in which these versions are printed.

Included in this collection are “Somer Is I-comen In” (yes), two versions of “I sing of a Maiden,” “Wynter Wakeneth All My Care,” “The Agincourt Carol,” “Adam lay I-Bounde,” “Now Bithenk Thee, Gentilman, How Adam Dalf and Eve Span,” a relative of “I Gave My Love a Cherry” that begins “I have a yong suster,” “I Dar Not Seyn Whan She Seyth Pees,” two versions of “Timor Mortis Conturbat Me,” “Bryng Us In Good Ale,” two versions of “Care Awey,” “Alone Alone Alas Alone,” “Make We Myrie Bothe More and Lasse,”  “The Faucon Hath Born My Make Awey,” and other favorites of pub singers and Renaissance Festivals everywhere. As Stevick explains, there is evidence that some of these “lyrics” were sung, and we even have some idea of some of the tunes to which they were sung; the only reason for calling others “lyrics” is that they’re short and in theory could have been sung. At least one is a sonnet.


There are still undergraduate courses for which this textbook is used (yes, posting the review in October is meant to encourage undergraduates to support their campus bookstore if possible). The copy I have is still usable, though not as shiny and pretty as the one you can get from U.I. It's also a Fair Trade Book, which means that, as long as Stevick remains alive, if you buy a copy here we'll send 10% of the total cost of the book and shipping (not the surcharge for online payment) to him or a charity of his choice. For used copies, that means $5 per book, $5 per package (one more copy of 100 Middle English Lyrics or another textbook of your choice would fit into the package for the same $5), $1 per online payment, total of $10 or $11, we send $1 to Stevick or his charity, and if you add another Fair Trade Book to the package (which would normally make the total price $15 or $16) we send $1 to that author or his or her charity as well.