Middle English

Saara Nevanlinna, Päivi Pahta, Kirsti Peitsara and Irma Taavitsainen

(Adapted, with the publisher's permission, from Rissanen, Matti - Merja Kytö - Minna Palander (1993), Early English in the computer age: explorations through the Helsinki Corpus. Berlin - New York: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 33-51. Minor changes have been made to remove outdated statements.)

In our major period division, we apply the traditional dates 1150 and 1500 to mark the beginning and end of Middle English. In literary and linguistic studies and descriptions, this period is often divided into the Early and Late Middle English periods. The first two centuries are characterized by the scantiness of texts written in English and a fairly narrow selection of text types; to a large extent, these centuries still look back to the Old English literary and textual tradition. Late Middle English, on the other hand, paves the way for the Modern period, in view of both literature and nonliterary writings, and of language development. New genres of writing emerge and the development of the Southern standard begins. All these differences between Early and Late Middle English reflect, of course, more general trends of development in society and culture.

Because of these differences between Early and Late Middle English, we have found it convenient to divide the Middle English part of our introduction into two sections, discussing ME1 and ME2 (1150–1350) separately from ME3 and ME4 (1350–1500).

1. Early Middle English, 1150–1350

1.1. Introduction

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought about a number of social changes that are reflected in the literature produced in England during the Early Middle English period. The Anglo-Saxon nobility was practically wiped out in the battles against the conquerors, and a new French-speaking upper class took its place. For several generations nearly all important positions in church and state, as well as most of the great estates, were held by Normans, who had strong ties with the continent, and continued to use their own language. Some knowledge of English was common among those who habitually spoke French, and among the English-speaking middle class there was certainly a large number who knew French. English remained the language of the common people. The close connection between the French-speaking upper class and the continent broke down in the thirteenth century when England lost her continental possessions. This was also reflected in the relation between the two languages spoken in the country, and English began to gain ground among the upper class (for discussion see, e.g., Briggs 1985 and Partridge 1982; Strang 1970).

The Conquest and the social changes that followed it caused a gap in English writing: much of the literature produced in England during the Early Middle English period was written either in French or in Latin. To begin with, written English was mainly directed at an uneducated audience and dealt with instructive topics. Continuity with the Old English literary tradition was strong, but with the spread of English among the upper class, new types of literature appeared in English. The increasing influence of the French literary tradition is reflected in the emergence of new genres based on French models.

The texts representing the Early Middle English period are divided into two subsections: ME1 and ME2. These are much smaller than the Late Middle English ones; this is largely due to the historical causes discussed above. Both prose and verse texts are included. The subperiods, the number of words, and the division into prose and verse are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The Early Middle English period in the Helsinki Corpus: A quantitative overview





ME1 1150–1250




ME2 1250–1350








1.2. Types of text

The selection of text samples aims at covering all major text types available from this subperiod. The texts included in the Early Middle English subsections are indicated in Table 2.

Table 2. Early Middle English texts arranged by prototypical text category and text type, with word counts


Prototypical text category

Text type


Word count


Secular instruction

Handbook: medicine

Peri Didaxeon



Vespasian Homily 3


Religious instruction


The Ormulum


Trinity Homilies


Vespasian Homilies


Bodley Homilies


Lambeth Homilies


Sawles Warde


Religious treatise

Ancrene Wisse


Hali Meidhad


Vices and Virtues


Nonimaginative narration

Religious treatise

Holy Rood-Tree



The Peterborough Chronicle


Layamon's Brut


Biography: life of saint










The Proclamation of Henry III


Religious instruction


Kentish Sermons


Religious treatise

Dan Michel, Ayenbite of Inwyt




Nonimaginative narration


Robert of Gloucester


Historical Poems


Biography: life of saint

The Life of St. Edmund (South English Legendary)


Imaginative narration


Man in the Moon


Dame Sirith and Interlude


The Fox and Wolf


The Thrush and the Nightingale



Beues of Hamtoun


Kyng Alisaunder




King Horn




The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter




Song of the Husbandman


Satire on the Consistory Courts


Satire on the Retinues of the Great


It is obvious that many of the early texts in this period go back to Old English originals. This is probably true of many of the Trinity, Vespasian, Bodley and Lambeth Homilies, which reflect a continuity with the Old English homily traditions, both Ælfrician and other. One of the Vespasian Homilies (3) is a Middle English version of the Old English Dicts of Cato. We decided to include it for the sake of comparison, coding it as "philosophy/secular instruction", while the other Vespasian homilies are coded as "homilies/religious instruction". A new type of homily, i.e., verse homily, partly attributable to French influence, emerged in the Early Modern English period. In our corpus this new genre is represented by The Ormulum.

Another religious text type showing continuity with Old English is that of saints' lives, labelled as "nonimaginative narration" according to the same principle as in the Old English section. This popular medieval genre is represented by samples from the twelfth-century Katherine Group and the thirteenth-century South English Legendary. Religious treatises are also well represented and include Vices and Virtues, Hali Meidhad and Ancrene Wisse in ME1, and Ayenbite of Inwyt and Bestiary in ME2. The Bible samples come from an early fourteenth-century text, The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter.

Continuity with Old English is also reflected in the earliest Middle English texts of secular character, i.e., historical writing. From ME1 we have included The Peterborough Chronicle, and Layamon's Brut, a verse chronicle based on Wace's Anglo-Norman metrical version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. In ME2 only verse chronicles are found, and the representatives of this tradition are Robert of Gloucester and a number of shorter historical poems. All verse histories show a highly imaginative and lively type of narrative writing with plenty of space for descriptive material and dialogue. The only other representative of factual nonreligious prose is Peri Didaxeon, a collection of medical recipes anchored to the Old English tradition.

In Early Middle English new types of imaginative writing emerge, mainly through French influence. Romances reflect the preoccupations of the age of chivalry and the ideals of social behaviour in aristocratic society. Because of their highly specific characteristics, the romances are labelled as a separate text type, although they bear close affinity to the other types of fiction. The Middle English vernacular verse romances were either translated from or fashioned upon Anglo-Norman models, and we have included samples of four of them: Beues of Hamtoun, Kyng Alisaunder, Havelok and King Horn. Imaginative narrative writing is also found in shorter poems from ME2, such as Man in the Moon and the fables The Thrush and the Nightingale and The Fox and Wolf, which represent themes common in the folklore of many countries and have been included because of their interactive, lively and down-to-earth expression. Dame Sirith and Interlude, which are ultimately based on the same source, may be regarded as predecessors of Late Middle English drama.

Finally, we have decided to include in our corpus three poems which could be described as "social criticism": Song of the Husbandman, Satire on the Consistory Courts and Satire on the Retinues of the Great. As these poems cannot be conveniently grouped with any other texts of the Middle English period, we have followed the same practice as with Old English verse and coded their text type as X.

1.3. Other textual parameters

The majority of the material in the ME1 subsection is in prose. The only metrical texts which were regarded as too valuable to be excluded are The Ormulum and Layamon's Brut; the former because it is the author's holograph with unique orthography, and the latter as an early example of secular historical writing. In ME2, writings in verse prevail, as only a few prose texts are available from this subperiod. Prose only occurs in Kentish Sermons, Ayenbite of Inwyt, and The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter, and in the only official document included in our corpus from the Early Middle English period, The Proclamation of Henry III. These four texts comprise one-third of the word count in ME2.

The material in ME1 does not contain any direct translations, although some of the texts, like Layamon's Brut, are based on foreign originals. In ME2 the majority of the texts rely on foreign sources, although their exact relationship to these sources is not always known. Translations from French include some romances and Ayenbite of Inwyt, which is based on Les Somme des Vices et des Vertues (by Frere Loren of Orleans, 1279) and was translated into the Kentish dialect by Dan Michel of Northgate in 1340. The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter is a literal translation from French and Latin psalters by an unknown writer in the early fourteenth century.

The authors of most texts in this part of our corpus have remained anonymous. In ME1 the author can be specified in the case of The Ormulum and Layamon's Brut; some homily samples are probably based on ÆIfric's Old English writings. In ME2 the only known authors are Dan Michel of Northgate and Robert of Gloucester, who was one of the three recensors of the Chronicle named after him, and responsible for the portion that applied to contemporary history.

The dialectal distribution of our Early Middle English texts covers all the main Middle English dialect areas with the exception of the North, for which no material is available. No attempt has been made to achieve a balanced dialectal distribution of texts (cf. Section 2.7 below). The majority of the material in the first Middle English subsection comes from the Western parts of the country, which reflects the continuing influence of the Old English West-Saxon standard. These texts include, e.g., the Katherine Group, Layamon's Brut and Ancrene Wisse from the West Midlands, and Holy Rood-Tree and Peri Didaxeon from the Southern dialect area. The East Midland texts include The Peterborough Chronicle and The Ormulum.

By the beginning of the second subperiod London extended to nearly the present-day boundaries of Central London and had become the most important town in England. The influence of the West was decreasing, and the shift of focus towards the East is seen in the increasing number of Eastern texts in our corpus. In ME2, West Midland texts consist of a number of poems, and Southern texts include, e.g., Robert of Gloucester and the South English Legendary. Texts classified as East Midland also contain southerly examples of early fourteenth-century language from the greater London area in extracts from, e.g., Beues of Hamtoun (in the Auchinleck MS), The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter, and The Proclamation of Henry III. More northerly East Midland texts in ME2 are Havelok and Bestiary, both of which show traces of dialectal substrata. The Kentish dialect is represented by Ayenbite of Inwyt and some homilies.

2. Late Middle English, 1350–1500

The texts representing the Late Middle English period are divided into two subperiods: ME3 and ME4. The first period covers the time in which English gradually became accepted in all fields of life. The span of the second period is defined by the spread of the standard, and by the conventional point in dividing Middle and Early Modern English.

2.1. Introduction

2.1.1. Social conditions

The latter half of the fourteenth century witnessed the emergence of a new national feeling in England as a result of the war with France, and medieval local concerns gave way to wider national interests. Society underwent profound changes with the break-up of the feudal system, and social classes were reorganized. A new class of wage-earning labourers emerged, the middle classes increased in wealth, and changes in social status became more common.

London was growing rapidly in importance. There was a constant influx of people from the wool-trading Midlands to the capital, which was the main overseas trading port. The prestige of London was further enhanced when the central government and highest legal offices were permanently located there. This gave rise to a new class of secular professional scribes, whose task was to record and copy the official documents for the rest of the country.

Frequent outbreaks of plague took many lives during this period and reduced the population considerably. This had consequences for education, as the number of clerical teachers who could have maintained the tradition of teaching in Latin decreased. The degeneration of the clerical institutions began to be criticized by early forerunners of the Reformation, such as Wycliffe and his followers, who advocated the importance of vernacular writing.

2.1.2. Linguistic situation and literary culture

By the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century the linguistic situation in England had become totally different from that of the Early Middle English period. English had gradually become accepted as the language of all fields of life: government, religious teaching, secular instruction and entertainment. At the same time the English language had undergone profound changes. The shift from local to national was rapid: at the beginning of the Late Middle English period all writing was dialectal, but by the end of it the national standard had spread to all kinds of writing, even in the North (LALME 1986, 1: 27).

The rising prosperity of the upper middle class is reflected in its literary culture: works that had earlier been reserved for the highest layers of society now reached larger audiences. Literacy in the practical sense, meaning the ability to read, increased among the upper middle classes. Vernacular writing extended from scientific academic treatises to private correspondence. The first printing press was set up in England in 1476, but many texts, e.g., The Pricke of Conscience and The Canterbury Tales, continued to circulate widely in manuscript form. Printed books became, however, more readily available at more reasonable prices, though the numbers of early copies were probably not very high. In addition, books that had previously reflected only local concerns now began to be distributed nationwide.

Many of the developments that continue in the Early Modern English period are first met in ME4: new genres emerge, the readership widens, and the rising numbers of handbooks and commonplace books witness a new enthusiasm for instruction and edification. Besides secular informational prose, the relevant religious writing was made available in the vernacular. From the fifteenth century onward large numbers of personal papers are also extant. For modern scholars, more information about the background of texts is available, which makes the sociolinguistic approach possible.

2.2. Prose and verse

In both subperiods ME3 and ME4 prose predominates. Because verse was still common in religious texts, historiography and fiction in the ME3 period, some verse had to be included for these text types to be representative. The only verse in ME4 is found in drama, as plays from this period are extant only in rhyming couplets. All in all, less than one fifth of the texts in the Late Middle English corpus are verse. The time span, the word count and the proportion of prose and verse in these subgroups are shown in Table 3.

Table 3. The Late Middle English period of the Helsinki Corpus: A quantitative overview





ME3 1350–1420


140,380 (76.2%)

43,850 (23.8%)

ME4 1420–1500


193,750 (90.6%)

20,100 (9.4%)



334,130 (83.9%)

63,950 (16.1%)

2.3. Prototypical text categories, text types and texts in Late Middle English

In ME3, the types of text labelled as sermons and official letters are introduced for the first time. In ME4 two important new text types, drama and private letters, emerge. The latter two are of special interest for the overall aims of the corpus, and therefore are represented by several samples from a variety of moralities and miracle plays and collections of letters.

Table 4. ME3 texts arranged by prototypical text category and text type, with word counts.


Prototypical text category

Text type


Word count




Thomas Usk, Appeal(s)


Petitions, Returns, Judgements, Testaments and Wills






Secular instruction

Handbook: astronomy

Geoffrey Chaucer, Astrolabe


The Equatorie of the Planetis


Handbook: medicine

A Late Middle English Treatise on Horses


Science: medicine

A Latin Technical Phlebotomy




Geoffrey Chaucer, Boethius


Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: The Tale of Melibee


Religious instruction


The Northern Homily Cycle (the Expanded Version)



Wycliffite Sermons



The Benedictine Rule


Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum


Religious treatise

John Purvey, The Prologue to the Bible


The Cloud of Unknowing


Robert Mannyng, Handlyng Synne


The Pricke of Conscience


Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: The Parson's Tale


Nonimaginative narration


Cursor Mundi


The Brut or the Chronicles of England


John Trevisa, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden


Imaginative narration


Mandeville's Travels



Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales:
The General Prologue,
The Wife of Bath's Prologue,
The Summoner's Tale,
The Merchant's Tale,
The Tale of Melibee


John Gower, Confessio Amantis



Official letter

Henry V, Letter(s); London Letters




John Wycliffe, The Old Testament (Genesis and Numbers)


John Wycliffe and John Purvey, The New Testament (John)


Table 5. ME4 texts arranged by prototypical text category and text type, with word counts


Prototypical text category

Text type


Word count




The Statutes of the Realm (III)








John Shillingford, Document(s)



Proceeding: deposition



Secular instruction

Handbook: medicine

The 'Liber de Diversis Medicinis' in the Thornton Manuscript


Handbook: other

Robert Reynes of Acle, The Commonplace Book


John Metham, Physiognomy


Handbook: astronomy

John Metham, Days of the Moon



Science: medicine

The Cyrurgie of Guy de Chauliac


Religious instruction


Middle English Sermons (MS Royal)


John Capgrave, Capgrave's Sermon


John Mirk, Mirk's Festial


Dan Jon Gaytryge, Sermon


In Die Innocencium


Richard Fitzjames, Sermo Die Lune



Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum


Religious treatise

The Book of Vices and Virtues


The Book of Margery Kempe


Julian of Norwich's Revelations


Walter Hilton's Eight Chapters


Richard Rolle, The Bee and the Stork


Richard Rolle, Prose Treatises


Richard Rolle, The Psalter




William Caxton, The Prologues and Epilogues


Nonimaginative narration


John Capgrave, Abbreuiacion of Cronicles


William Gregory, The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London


Biography: life of saint

The Life of St. Edmund (in Middle English Religious Prose)


Imaginative narration


William Caxton, The History of Reynard the Fox



Thomas Malory, Morte Darthur


The Siege of Jerusalem



Drama: mystery play

Ludus Coventriae




The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle


The York Plays


Digby Plays



Private letter

John Shillingford, Letter(s)


Paston Letters


The Stonor Letters


The Cely Letters



Official letter

Paston Letters




Richard Rolle, The Psalter


Though secular writing was increasingly common, religious texts prevail in these periods. In ME3 and ME4 the following categories contain religious subject matter: homilies/sermons, [1] rules, religious treatises, history, biographies, and Bible translations. Religious topics are also found in early plays. Secular writing is classified into the following areas: law, documents, science, handbooks, philosophy, prefaces and epilogues, travelogue, fiction, romance, and private and official letters. Even these categories reflect the medieval prevalence of religious thinking in their frequent biblical and moral references.

After a gap of four centuries, legal texts written in English appear again in the second half of the fifteenth century. English documentary material can be found earlier: these writings can be divided into "statutory" and "nonstatutory" (X), on the basis of whether they deal with generalizing stipulations, such as the Mayor's proclamations, or more individual and specific petitions and judgements.

Secular instruction emerges again after disappearing in ME2. It has been our aim to represent the range of these writings as fully as possible within the limits set by the size of the corpus. Scientific treatises continued to be written in Latin, but increasing numbers of, e.g., medical texts appear at the end of the fourteenth and in the fifteenth century. These medical texts have been divided into handbooks and scientific treatises on the basis of their assumed audience (general versus professional). A strictly academic medical treatise is included in ME3 and therefore a surgical text was chosen to represent the scientific category in ME4. Continuity is also provided by the inclusion of a medical remedy book representing the most popular type of medical writing (cf. Peri Didaxeon of ME1).

As in earlier periods, nonimaginative narration is represented by histories and biographies - the latest life of a saint (St. Edmund) dates from the fifteenth century. Extracts from a city chronicle are included in ME4.

Caxton's prologues and epilogues are coded as a separate text type. These short, independent explanations and contemplations on the contents and purpose of the translated works reflect Caxton's own use of language, and they have been considered predecessors of essays introduced into English about a century later.

2.4. Original works and their copies

The division into subperiods makes working with the Helsinki Corpus more practical, but it causes certain problems concerning genre development and text type representation. Manuscript tradition and scribal practices had to be taken into account when ascribing texts to the subperiods. In several cases the edited copy is considerably later than the original text. According to the current view a scribe could treat the exemplar he was copying principally in three ways: he could copy literatim, translate into his own dialect, or he could do something between these alternatives (McIntosh 1973 [1989]: 92). In most cases scribes converted the language into their own dialect; it remained unchanged only rarely (LALME 1986, 1: 13).

As far as we know, the majority of the manuscripts of ME3 are contemporaneous with the originals, but only the documents and official letters can be considered to be originals. The originals of three texts, Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum, Mannyng's Handlyng Synne and Cursor Mundi, date back to ME2, and The Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible, generally ascribed to Purvey, is probably not contemporary with the original. The question remains open (i.e., coded X) with the Treatise on Horses and the works of Chaucer, with the exception of the Astrolabe. In the same way in ME4, many of the original texts date from the previous period, or their date is not known. Richard Rolle's works are placed in ME4 although he lived in the early fourteenth century, because all extant manuscripts date from the fifteenth century. The latest manuscript included in ME4 is the miracle play Candelmes Day from the Bodleian MS. Digby 133, dated c. 1512 by the scribe. The language of the text is, however, traditionally regarded as Middle English, and this has caused the deviation from our general practice of subsection placement according to the date of the manuscript.

2.5. Continuity

One of our compilation principles was to provide continuity. This requirement is met with the inclusion of Chaucer's Boethius and Wycliffe's Bible. The former is paralleled with Alfred's Boethius (OE2) and the versions in each of the three Early Modern English periods, the latter with Ælfric's Bible translation and the West-Saxon Gospels (OE3), Tyndale's Bible (EModE1) and The Authorized Version (EModE2). The Life of St. Edmund (ME4) is a deversified prose text of the legend; the original version in the South English Legendary is included in ME2. Reworking verse into prose was common at the time when this collection of legends had already lost its popularity; the verse text had obviously become out of date and provincial in tone, style, vocabulary, and form (Görlach 1972: 8). Two versions of Vices and Virtues are included in the corpus (Vices and Virtues in ME1 and The Book of Vices and Virtues in ME4). The same is true of Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum (in ME3 and ME4, see above).

2.6. Authors

The authors of 15 of the 35 texts in ME3 are known. As a central literary figure in this period, Geoffrey Chaucer is represented by as many as nine texts. Owing to their different types, his texts are found in four text type groupings: handbooks (Astrolabe), philosophy (Boethius and part one of The Tale of Melibee), religious treatises (The Parson's Tale) and fiction (further extracts from The Canterbury Tales). The six other writers are: Thomas Usk (documents), John Purvey and Robert Mannyng (religious treatises), John Trevisa (history), John Gower (fiction), and Henry V (letters). It is impossible to establish which of Wycliffe's assistants translated his Bible. All these known authors were male and of high professional rank. This also mainly applies to ME4 authors, most of whom are mentioned by name, though background knowledge may be lacking. However, female authors are introduced for the first time in ME4 (Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, and some authors of private letters, such as Margaret Paston) and the range of authors' professional status also becomes wider, and no longer merely "high professional" (for example Metham, or Reynes).

2.7. Dialect

In ME3 (1350-1420) all writing was dialectal. The time limits for ME4 (1420-1500) were established with regard to the rise of the national standard. Since ME3 is an important period for study of the roots and early rise of the standard variety of English, all text categories that have been suggested as influential in this development are included in the subsection: London English, both the Chancery type (documents) and the court type (Chaucer, Gower), and the Wycliffite writings (see Samuels 1963). The importance of London is noted in the choice of texts, and other parts of East Midlands, especially Norfolk, are represented as well. There are only a few texts from the West Midlands or the South. The spread of the standard is reflected in the texts of ME4, e.g., the Paston letters show a gradual disappearance of local forms and spellings in favour of more standard forms.

The values given to the dialect parameter are somewhat complicated. LALME had not come out when we compiled the corpus, and therefore we relied on the MED Supplement and the individual text editions for dialect definition. This part was revised later so that the localization of LALME is given whenever possible. For practical reasons, abbreviations of the main dialect areas and the source are used in coding the parameter, and the location is indicated in the Manual. We were presented with a problem at this point: LALME usually gives the localization by county and grid reference, but for Northern texts the reference is often more general. Most traditional maps of the main dialect areas follow the lines drawn by Moore, Meech and Whitehall (1935), which run across county borders. Jordan (1925, 1934) adopted a system which takes the county borders into account. For the sake of precision we adopted Jordan's classification. In the code values, the source of information for our coding is given as the letter L (LALME) or O (other, i.e., principally MED).

We would like to emphasize that the diachronic part of the Helsinki Corpus does not aim at being a corpus of historical dialects, although this parameter provides additional information that may prove useful to scholars. In our choice of texts dialectal distribution was not decisive; other factors, e.g., text type, were considered more important. The main dialect areas are not evenly represented, but the focus changes from West to East Midlands according to the importance of the area in the extant literature of the period and the development of the language in general. [2] By the end of the period standardization had almost been completed, and in Late Middle English texts the parameter should be labelled "localization" rather than "dialect". For example, Caxton's language can hardly be described as dialectal, although the value EMO (East Midland, other) has been ascribed to it on external evidence. The parameter gives us information about the original place of writing of the Late Middle English texts, and it should not be interpreted as an indication of dialectal writing (versus standard).

2.8. Foreign originals

Relationship to a foreign original can be established for nine ME3 texts. Translations from Latin are the scientific Phlebotomy, Trevisa's translation of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon, Wycliffe's Bible translation (The Vulgate) and the Northern Homily Cycle (the Expanded Version). Chaucer's Boethius is based on both the Latin original, Latin commentaries by Nicholas Trivet and others, and a French prose version by Jean de Meun (Benson 1990: 1003-1004). The Tale of Melibee closely follows the French Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence by Renaud de Louens (Benson, p. 923). The origins of Mandeville's Travels are uncertain: it was probably composed in Anglo-Norman (Blake 1970: 371-403).

Aelred of Rievaulx's De Institutione Inclusarum is included in two independent translations. The first of these (ME3) derives from Latin and only includes the last twenty sections. The second (ME4) renders the whole work from French. Another ME4 work that derives from French is The Book of Vices and Virtues. The Cyrurgie of Guy de Chauliac and Rolle's Prose Treatises are translated from Latin. The main part of Caxton's work consists of translations, e.g., The History of Reynard the Fox goes back to a Dutch original.

2.9. Written versus spoken language

One of the overall aims of the Helsinki Corpus is to provide material that is as close to the spoken language of the time as possible. The relationship to spoken language is difficult to establish for early texts. Only the Wycliffite Sermons may have some such connection in ME3, though there is no decisive evidence. All the other texts represent written language, but only the documents and official letters representing the extreme end of the continuum have been classified as strictly formal. The two new text types that emerge in ME4, drama and private letters, bring us closer to the oral mode: drama imitates speech within its own constraints, and private letters contain passages with a colloquial tone, although the beginnings and endings follow set formulas (cf. Davis 1967: 7, 15). Private letters have been marked as "written", although some of them were taken down from dictation. Both plays and letters have been described as "interactive".

2.10. Sociolinguistic parameters

Private correspondence in Middle English provides the earliest data for sociolinguistic studies. The value "informal" is applied to private letters and the participant relationship ranges from intimate equal to intimate up or down (wife to husband and vice versa).

We have made the distinction between scientific writings and handbooks on the basis of the audience or readership, i.e., either professional or nonprofessional. The sociolinguistic aspect was decisive in the choice of handbooks. John Metham's and Robert Reynes of Acle's backgrounds and readership are well known, which makes the application of sociolinguistic parameters possible. Such exact information is increasingly available towards the end of ME4, and in the following periods.


[1] Following traditional terminology, the Northern Homily Cycle (the Expanded Version) (ME3) is the latest text labelled as "homily". The Wycliffite Sermons of the same subperiod are labelled as "sermons", and this term is used to describe all later sermon-type texts.

[2] In the present version of the Helsinki Corpus, London English is included in the East Midlands area, as is done in MED.


Benson, Larry (ed.) 1987 [1990]. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blake, Norman F. 1970. "Late medieval prose", in: W. F. Bolton (ed.), The Middle Ages. (History of Literature in the English language.) London: Sphere Books.

Briggs, Asa 1985. A social history of England. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Davis, Norman 1967. "Style and stereotype in early English letters", Leeds Studies in English n.s. 1., 7-17.

Görlach, Manfred 1972. The South English Legendary, Gilte Legende and Golden Legend. (Braunschweiger anglistische Arbeiten 3.) Braunschweig: Technische Universität Carolo-Wilhelmina-Institut für Anglistik and Amerikanistik.

Jordan, Richard 1925, 1934 [1974]. Handbook of Middle English grammar: Phonology. Translated and revised by Eugene Joseph Crook. The Hague - Paris: Mouton.

LALME = Mclntosh, Angus - M. L. Samuels - Michael Benskin - Margaret Laing - Keith Williamson 1986. A linguistic atlas of late mediaeval English. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

McIntosh, Angus 1973 [1989]. "Word geography in the lexicography of mediaeval English", in: McIntosh, Angus - M. L. Samuels - Margaret Laing, 86-97.

McIntosh, Angus - M. L. Samuels - Margaret Laing 1989. Middle English dialectology: Essays on some principles and problems, edited and introduced by Margaret Laing. Great Britain: Aberdeen University Press.

MED = Kurath, Hans - Sherman M. Kuhn et al. (eds.) 1954-2001. Middle English dictionary. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press - London: Geoffrey Cumberlege and Oxford University Press.

Moore, S. - S. B. Meech - H. Whitehall 1935. "Middle English dialect characteristics and dialect boundaries", Essays and Studies in English and Comparative Literature. (University of Michigan Publications in Language and Literature 13.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Partridge, A. C. 1982. A companion to Old and Middle English studies. London: André Deutsch.

Samuels, M. L. 1963 [1989]. "Some applications of Middle English dialectology", in: McIntosh, Angus - M. L. Samuels - Margaret Laing, 64-80.

Strang, Barbara M. H. 1970. A history of English. London - Colchester: Methuen & Co.