A while ago, Stephanie asked us to guest post on her blog with advice for reading the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It occurs to me (perhaps because Tolkien was a medievalist), that a post on reading Middle English Literature might also be useful. These texts have a lot of things in common with Tolkien’s work—archaic language, unfamiliar names, unfamiliar structures—that I think can sometimes be uncomfortable for readers.
I don’t want to imply in any way that I am the master of reading, that I am not intimidated by books when other people are. Middle English was new to me, too, at one point, and I’m still discovering new texts all the time. However, I would venture to say I have read more Middle English texts than the average reader, and I have some experience teaching Middle English, as well.
Whether you’re a current student of Middle English literature, or someone just looking to start reading, I hope the tips below help!
1.) Find a text you’re interested in.
When people think Middle English literature, they usually think of Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales. While this book is certainly very interesting and very worthwhile, there’s no reason we need to limit ourselves to it. Just like modern literature, Middle English literature comes in many different genres. So before you start reading, find a story you think you’d like to read, be a historical romance, a fantasy, a saint’s life, a comedy, or a dream vision.
2.) Find a version of the text with good glosses.
Editions of Middle English texts, particularly for the student reader, generally come with glosses for unfamiliar words. Personally, I like books where glosses are in the right hand margin, not in footnotes so I can glance over quickly as I read. Online editions might hyperlink words, but, again, this format will consistently move you out of the text.
3.) Read aloud.
Reading Middle English aloud often makes it clear that the language is closer to Modern English than is sometimes indicated by the look of the words on the page. Yet a word that looks unfamiliar might actually sound similar to its Modern English equivalent. Scholars have many resources for learning to pronounce Middle English online, ranging from audio clips to handouts with bullet points. Find one that works for you (searching “Middle English pronunciation guide” should work) and start reading!
4.) Don’t be afraid to reference a modern translation.
Students especially often seem to have the idea that referencing a modern translation (which for the more popular Middle English texts are usually available free online) is cheating. If the professor specifically says not to use translations, that advice should be followed. However, I think translations are useful for students having difficulty following the text. The key, however, is to always go back and read the Middle English, after skimming the translation (or even a Wikipedia summary) to understand major plot points.
5.) Find other resources.
There’s a lot of material online for students and readers of Middle English. Youtube videos feature people reading, in authentic Middle English, excerpts from their favorite texts. Sparknotes offers outlines and study questions. Databases like JSTOR feature academic articles by scholars. Whatever you’re looking for, you can probably find it. To get you started, however, I recommend the Middle English Dictionary (note that it can be picky about spelling) and Harvard’s METRO (Middle English Teaching Resources Online) web site.
What Middle English texts have you read?