How To Read Middle English Poetry

By Daniel Sawyer

[Workers rebuild Troy, in a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book: Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS Eng 1, f. 31v. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence, CC-BY-NC 4.0.]

For most people, poetry in Middle English—roughly 1100 to 1500—is a world unknown. I’d long thought this a shame, but it was only through shaping How to Read Middle English Poetry as an accessible guide for students that I grasped just how innovative and thrilling the period in truth is.

Did you know, for instance, that someone unwittingly wrote a Shakespearean sonnet more than a century before Shakespeare’s birth? Or that the first poem we can attribute to a named woman displays a unique and startlingly intricate form? And while we think of English blank verse—metrically-regular poetry without regular rhyme or alliteration—as the mainstay of things like early-modern drama and Paradise Lost, the idea occurred to poets at least twice, independently, before the third (re)invention that started its sixteenth-century flourishing. Such facts lurk in the Middle English centuries, making these in some ways the most exciting spell in English poetry’s history.

What made this period so experimental?

For centuries after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French stuck around as another spoken language alongside English—and a spoken language with more cachet. Latin, meanwhile, filled the role of the normative written language, often coming baked-in with literacy: those who learned to read learned to read in Latin, other literacies coming as a kind of by-product. 

Consequently, English lacked the reach of a prestigious tongue, but it also lacked prestige’s pressures. Several poetic traditions coexisted in English, without a clear hierarchy of prestige sorting them: it would, after all, always seem more elevated to write in Latin or French. As a result, this was the great age of experiment in English poetry.

It is in this period that we first see English poetry in alternating metres descended from post-classical Latin and early French. These metres are the ancestors of most regular verse of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. This was the metrical family in which Chaucer worked; within it, he invented the five-beat line that would one day propel poetry from Thomas Wyatt to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not to mention the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson.

At the same time, Middle English sustained a separate metrical family of poems descended from Old English verse habits: alliterative verse. Though somewhat changed from the Old English model, the verse of Piers Plowman, (most of) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and of the Alliterative Morte Arthure recognisably sits within English’s original and longest-lasting verse tradition. Such poems have a formal lineage which runs back before English was English. Also in this bucket lurks Layamon or Lawman, whose curious early Middle English Brut provokes expert debate over its classification, and offers the earliest known tales in English of King Arthur and King Lear.

Neither alternating verse nor alliterative verse held a place of straightforward prestige, distinguished from other poetry. The Gawain stanza switches between the two, showing us a poet comfortable shuttling across metrical lineages. Moreover, mixing traditions brought forth a third body of work, alliterative-stanzaic poetry, which married alliterating half-lines in alliterative metre to end-rhyme, often together with a fireworks display of other effects. One example, today known as ‘Three Dead Kings’ and preserved uniquely in the Bodleian, has a claim to the title of the most complex stanza-form in English at any time.

[The start of ‘Three Dead Kings’, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 302, f. 34r.]

In the sixteenth century and after, rising five-beat alternating lines—‘iambic pentameter’—would ascend to prestige as a standard form for art poetry. Through the same centuries, English slowly took over from Latin and French in the worlds of academia, government, religion, and the law. Today, English is a global language, and is the world’s most frequently learned tongue. For some contexts, it has come to hold the kind of roles that French and Latin once held in England: a prestige language, a source of loanwords and models.

In the twenty-first century, then, we might learn a few things by delving into the middle of English’s history, the language’s time of least social importance: Middle English teaches us to see how English is not a transparent default, but a tongue alongside others; it teaches us to appreciate the quirks in English, and in the other languages we meet. And often it is Middle English poetry that offers this lesson most clearly, while also forming a wildly creative and varied body of work in its own right.

Daniel’s book is due out in May 2024 from Oxford University Press. Readers can use the code AAFLYG6 to get 30% off either the hardback or the paperback when ordering How to Read Middle English Poetry direct from OUP.

Glopes, Pransawtes and Twyfyls: The Edge of Language in Middle English Drama

By Jenni Nuttall

Five dragonflies and four mayflies. Coloured engraving by J. Newton, ca. 1780, after J. Barbut. Wellcome Trust Collection

Like mayflies which live only for a day, some words have a single attestation in the surviving written records of English (at least as far as current searches can ascertain). The Middle English Dictionary is careful to record these one-off words in medieval English. It gives entries, albeit very brief ones, to the rarest words, allocating them the same status (at least in one way) as the most common words which have very full entries. So why are we so fastidious about, and why should we be interested in, this most ephemeral of language?

Sometimes these one-off words come about by chance – a word might have been widely used in day-to-day speech but only got snagged in writing once. Sometimes the opposite happens: a word is deliberately invented by someone at a particular moment for a particular purpose. This latter kind are called nonce words, named by the Victorian lexicographer James Murray after the phrase ‘for the nonce’ (i.e. for a specific, one-off purpose).

Some of the most deliciously odd nonce words in the Middle English Dictionary — words like ‘glope’, ‘pransawte’ or ‘twyfyls’ — are preserved in the late medieval Towneley Plays, named not for their place of performance but for the owners of the manuscript in which they are collected. Once thought to be a cycle of pageants performed in Wakefield in West Yorkshire, it’s now recognised as ‘a disparate collection of plays, of varied origin and production requirements’.

A quilt by B J Elvgren depicting the Chester Mystery Plays

Wherever the plays came from, their authors had to meet the demands of writing verse drama in long stanzas requiring lots of rhymes. While many poets nowadays veer away from full rhymes as a matter of style, medieval verse-dramatists bend words or invent words to arrive at rhyme no matter what. So in ‘Herod the Great’, the invented adjective ‘myghtyus’ (i.e. mighty-ous), rather than the usual ‘mighty’, is formed to rhyme with ‘gracious’. Or in the ‘Judgement’ play, the compound adjective ‘ill-dedy’ (i.e. ‘ill-deed-y’), describing those who are sinful, is coined to rhyme with ‘greedy’ and ‘needy’.

What would an audience think about these coinages? Would they notice them as new or unusual? These plays were written before the first dictionaries, so perhaps anything goes. Yet the playwrights seem to bend language for oddity and amusement’s sake. Can one be ‘deed-y’ in the same way that you are ‘greed-y’ and ‘need-y’? ‘Mightious’ isn’t exactly like ‘gracious’ because we have ‘mighty’ already. Like a grotesque on a misericord or a weird scene in a manuscript margin, we might think of nonce words as ornamental deformations at the edges of verse and vocabulary, not accidental ‘error’ but wilfully ‘wrong’ invention.

My hunch is that medieval dramatists and audiences appreciated the very peculiar qualities of one-off words. When Herod is presented with the plan to slaughter the Innocents, he narrates his reaction with a one-off word rhyming with ‘hope’ and ‘pope’: ‘my hart is rysand / Now in a glope’ (meaning that his heart is aflutter). Middle English already has the verbs ‘glopnen’ and (much rarer) ‘glopen’, both meaning ‘to be afraid’. A number of Towneley’s one-off words are, like these verbs, derived from Old Norse, being Northern dialect words which don’t get recorded elsewhere in Middle English. But even allowing for that, I think this word is strange. Did you hear what he said? A glope! But what’s a glope? Is he emboldened or afraid? Herod becomes a rambling double-talker in a play that sits uneasily between humour and horror.
Folios 5v and 6r from Huntington Library MS HM 1, the manuscript of the Towneley Plays’

In the Doomsday play, the devil Titivillus (famous for collecting up mumbled prayers and chatter in church, and for making scribes make mistakes) helps other devils conduct an appraisal of the bad souls come for judgement. One devil mocks a sinner’s ‘pransawte’, a blend of ‘prance’ and ‘saut’ (meaning a leap or tumble) which describes quite perfectly those twirls of delight we make in a fancy new outfit. Tutivillus calls out a woman who wears ‘twyfyls’, which might be a lispingly pronounced ‘trifles’ or a mix of ‘twice’ and ‘trifle’, some adornment that comes in a pair. Nonce words like this represent the devilish abuse of language, and also the fashion and artifice which distracts us from what really matters and the ease of error. Yet, at the same time, they are highly evocative.

Towneley’s nonce words don’t get picked up and used elsewhere. Are they thus ultimately failures? My research on poetic neologisms suggests uniqueness was consciously preserved: poets often invent neologisms modelled on earlier examples but don’t so often repeat an earlier poet’s own nonce words. Remaining a mayfly is thus a mark of success. And maybe nonce words can have meaning in their near-meaninglessness, as revealed centuries later in Seamus Heaney’s lovely poem ‘Nonce Words’ (which you can read at the foot of this page).

Heaney’s speaker takes a wrong turn on a drive which leads to a snatched moment of contemplation parked up on a freezing day. In the cold, he seems to apprehend his own mortality. Shivering, he blesses himself in the name of ‘the nonce / and happenstance’, the chance that has brought him here. The title nudges us to spot Heaney’s own nonce creations. He, like the Towneley dramatists, exercises his right to personalise language, to invent words which live as briefly as mayflies or, as the poem tempts us to think, as briefly as humans and their creations, unique and ephemeral.  Yet thanks to the careful custody of lexicographers, nonce words can outlast their brief moment — how, Heaney asks, might we do the same?

Jenni Nuttall is a Lecturer in English at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She tweets and blogs about medieval literature at @Stylisticienne and, and has recently written about the history of gibberish for and History Today.