Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, February 13, 2009

Will translations: Edward I

Today I had sudden impulse to teach myself Anglo-Norman, so I shall translate some mediaeval royal wills, beginning with the first that we have in the vernacular: Edward I.

I’m sure there are translations out there for most of them, but all I have is a facsimile of the 1780 edition[1] complete with long-s and blotches from the printing press. Caveat lector: I don’t speak modern French (though I can read it slowly), never mind middle French or its variants, and I have no dictionary for it. So if you chanced to come here via Google looking for a translation - don’t use this one. Its accuracy is in no way guaranteed!

I sit here at my desk, surrounded by a monolingual Italian dictionary, a bilingual modern French one and the Oxford Latin Dictionary, with the Oxford English Dictionary open in another browser tab. None of these can help much with the real problem words (the verbs too short to have a recognisable stem and whose vowels are unreliable due to conjugation and unstable spelling), but they make hunting down hunches fun!

This is a sample of the French. It’s the easy bit - the opening.

En nun du Pere, du Fitz, e du Seynt Esprit, Amen. Nus Edward, einsne filz au noble Roy d’Engleterre, fesoms nostre testament, en nostre bon sen, e en nostre bone memorie, le Samedis procheyn apres la Pentecouste, e le an de nostre seygnur mil, deu cent, septsaunt secund, en certe manere. En primes, nus divisoms a Deu, e a nostre dame Seinte Marie, e a tuz seyns nostre alme; et nostre cors enseuelir, ou nos esseketurs, ceo est a saver, sire Johan de Bretayne...


In June 1272, Prince Edward was in Acre on crusade. A Muslim assassin infiltrated the stronghold and stabbed him seriously, possibly with a poisoned dagger - though that may well be a later embellishment, added so that we could have the pretty detail of his wife Eleanor devotedly sucking the poison from the wound. That is, presumably, the occasion on which he dictated this will. Details of wording like “we have had our seal set on this testament” rather than “we have set our seal” may suggest his weakness when this was written, which must have been rather frightening for a man who was so active and vigorous for most of his life. Apparently he never got around to making another will, even when he became king later that year and had a good many more things to “ordiner”. Perhaps it was on his to-do list - right after “subdue those Scots good and proper”.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. We, Edward, firstborn son of the noble King of England, make our testament, being in sound mind and memory, the first Saturday after Pentecost, in the year of our Lord 1272, in this manner. Firstly, we commit our soul to God, to our lady Saint Mary, and to all the saints; and our body to be buried where our executors, that is to say, sir John of Bretagne, sir William de Valence, sir Roger de Clifford, sir Payn de Chautros, sir Robert Tiletot, sir Otho de Gradisson, Robert Burnett and Anthony Bek, or any of them will have determined. To them we give and grant full power to ordain for the good of our soul, that all our assets, be they movable or not[2], be used in such a manner as to repay our debts, and redress the wrongs that we have done by our own hand or that of our deputies[3], and repay our people for their service[4], in a manner that seems good to them.

And because we know well that our belongings cannot suffice for this, we desire and permit that the abovementioned executors shall have full power, which we grant them as far as we are able, to order and manage all our lands in England, Ireland, Gascony and all our other lands, that they may hear from[5] them in the same manner that we did when they were in our hands, without selling or giving them away, and together with them to hold the guardianship of our children until they should come to their full age, to carry out our testament and grants of charity in England, and then to do what our executors see is best to be done; to do these things, we designate a hundred thousand pounds.

And, after our bequests are made, and our alms-giving carried out, we desire that the revenues of the aforesaid lands be kept for the benefit of our children, and that they be delivered into the hands of the aforesaid executors, until the coming of age of our aforesaid children.

And, if by chance it happen that the our lord the king, our father, should die before the coming of age of our children (which God forbid), we desire that the realm of England, and all the other lands that may pass down to our children, be delivered into the hands of our aforesaid executors, together with our dear father the Archbishop of York[6], and sir Roger, and other upstanding men of the realm, that they may reach an agreement[7] on any affairs that may arise, until the coming of age of our children named above, and that the revenues of the aforementioned lands be gathered and guarded by the hands of our aforementioned executors, and delivered to our children when they are of full age, to their benefit.

And furthermore we desire and ordain that two or more of our executors have the power to hear our accounts and receive[8] from all our bailies, wherever they may be, since our departure from England.

And then, if they cannot prove that they have faithfully rendered each account, and if none of our bailies be dead, let his heirs be bound to render the account for him[9].

Regarding the dowry of our dear wife Eleanor, we desire that she keep in each detail everything that was so designated when we had the chance[10], and if these are not paid to her, we desire that she have everything that right and law will give her, according to the customs and laws of England.

And also we desire that where not all of our executors can go to see to the terms of this our testament, that four or more, in the name of the others, shall have the power for themselves and for the others to fulfil the aforesaid terms.

And to that end, we pray to our holy father the apostle[11], that he may see these terms kept, and enforced, and confirmed; and that he may pray for our dear father, that he may ensure that these things we have named be kept stable and firm across all of his realm and power, to the farthest reaches of the land.

In witness of these things, we have had our seal set on this testament, and we have begged sir John Archbishop of (Syria? Tyre?)[12], and Vicar of the Holy Church of Jerusalem, and the honourable fathers, Brother Hugh de Revel, master of the Hospitallers, and Brother Thomas Bérard, master of the Templars, so that they also have set their seals to this document, together with our abovenamed executors in witness of these things that have been said.

Given at Acre, the Saturday abovenamed, the eighteenth[13] day of June, in the 55th year of the reign of the king our father.


[1] ‘Edward I’. Nichols, John. A collection of all the wills, now known to be extant, of the kings and queens of England. London: Society of Antiquaries, 1780. Reproduced in facismile by Kessinger, 2007. 18-21. (Actually, it’s A COLLECTION of all THE WILLS, now known to be extant, of the Kings and Queens of ENGLAND, Princes and Princesses of WALES, and every branch of the BLOOD ROYAL, from the reign of WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR, to that of HENRY the SEVENTH exclusive. with EXPLANATORY NOTES, and a GLOSSARY. Why don’t we have titles that double as blurbs anymore? And it’s incorrect: Will’s will, such as it is, is included, as is that of Henry VII - but it was printed as an afterthought.)

[2] “tuz noz beyns, moebles e noun moebles” - I’m uncertain as to whether to translate “moebles” as “furniture”, but I think the sense is broader than that, to general movable possessions. I have to say I am very very tempted to translate “beyns” as “baths”. Clearly, Edward went native in Acre and tied up all his wealth in a very expensive exotic bath collection, some of them so large they would never be moved. This would explain the need to sell them off before returning to England, so that Henry III never has to know about his son’s shameful Eastern indulgences.

[3] “baliz”. In the absence of any helpful dictionary at all I decided to get creative and interpret this as a Frenchification of “bailies” (ie, bailiffs, men appointed to command or guard a stronghold/land in its lord’s absence). It was only after that it occurred to me that the word was probably French in origin anyway. The OED confirms this and suggests “baliz” would be an acceptable spelling; my modern French dictionary suggests that the only survivor is “bailleur” (sponsor, backer); my modern Italian dictionary gives “balia” (nurse, emphasis on the first syllable) and “balìa” (literary/obsolete, absolute authority or one to whom this was given, emphasis on -li-) and states that the second originates from Old French “baillie”. It gives no etymology for the first, which in itself suggests that it, like the vast majority of Italian words, comes direct from the Latin (”baiulus”, porter/carrier/bearer of a burden) and that Italian then later imported the “same” word with a different meaning from the French, keeping it alongside their own version. I love it when Italian does that. And I may well be alone in finding all this fascinating!

[4] “rendre a nostre gent’ lur servise” - I’m divided on whether this refers to formally paying the barons and other lords who followed him to Acre for their military service, or to paying off the gentlemen of his household, or possibly other servants - I’m not sure how specific the word would be with regards to class at this point.

[5] “en... ourir”: I can’t quite think of the English idiom, but I’m guessing it means ‘hear’ in the sense of hear pleas, receive messages, sit at the centre of the web - ie, order, run.

[6] I am very pleased with myself for working out that “le erceuesk de everwyk” is “the Archbishop of York”. For my next trick, I can even give him a name - Walter Giffard!

[7] “akondrunt” - I hereby make the executive decision that the first “n” should be “r”, because it makes more sense that way.

[8] The object of “receyvere” is left implicit - presumably messengers, or accounts, similar to “en ourir” above.

[9] The change from the plural to the singular is in the text. It isn’t clear whether he means the bailies or the executors, but logically the burden of proof would lie with the bailies.

[10] “ceo ke fust nome quant nus les pusams”. I think
pusams” must be the 1st person plural in the perfect indicative of “poer” (which seems to be the infinitive of “pouvoir” for this scribe, though it only occurs as a noun), and it makes sense grammatically, but it’s not clear whether he’s referring to some verbal agreement he made with Eleanor (or her relatives), or perhaps the contracts drawn up for the marriage.

[11] “a nostre seynt pere l’apostle”. Which apostle? The choice is yours! It could possibly be read as “seynt Pere l’apostle” (”pere” in the sense of “father” is spelt earlier as “piere”, so it’s not too great a leap), but that doesn’t explain the “nostre”. In itself “nostre” implies a prayer to Edward’s namesake saint, the Confessor - but he wasn’t an apostle.

[12] “Sur”. I don’t know enough about the theocratic and secular bureaucratic divisions of the Holy Lands at this point to know what the archbishoprics were, or even what “Syria” or “Tyre” was considered to be. But “Vicar of the Holy Church of Jerusalem” was surely a rather forlorn title by now!

[13] I think! On the entirely unscientific basis that “le disutime” just sounds like “the eighteenth”.

Monday, February 9, 2009


I don't understand.

I just can't begin to comprehend, on a real level, either how this could happen or what it means, for everyone out there who is affected by it in realer terms than I am.

I walk up and down the main street here, in inner suburbian Melbourne, and everyone is standing in clusters, swapping stories. Making connections. Trying to understand, or just acknowledging, sharing, trying to feel as if we're doing something just by feeling some little shadow of the grief and loss with them. I sat in a coffee shop and read through every article in the Herald Sun on the fires, and I was in tears by page two, and I had to keep going out of some weird feeling that I had to, at least, hear the stories. Some form of vigil, or acknowledgement.

I can't write - I tried. I'm too distracted to do anything resembling real work. It doesn't seem real at the moment. It will pass, I know, it will recede as everything does, into a memory of sympathy and statistics. But while it's still real, oughtn't we try to keep it open? There's so little that we can really do, and I've already done what I can in donations, and can volunteer myself for various relief work in the next few days when the fires die down and the aftermath sets in, but I can't escape the feeling that more important than the material acknowledgement is the knowing, the feeling. Not letting the story fade.

But I still feel, inescapably, helplessly, like I ought to do more, do something.

Perhaps we're meant to.

Stories from today:
- A man, already on fire, was saved by his beloved horse when he was pushed over the fence down into the creek below. He was sure the horse must have died, given the impossible flames he would have had to run through; but when he climbed out of the creek once the fires had passed, the horse was standing in the middle of the panic with minor burns around his eyes and nose.
- Someone in the paper reported being approached by a badly burned man, blackened, skin hanging off him, carrying his baby daughter, who wasn't touched. He said "I've lost my wife, I've lost my sons, please make sure she's okay, she's all I've got left". They didn't see him again.
- A man I passed on the street is waiting to drive up to see if his holiday home is alright.
- One man was driving, fleeing the flames, but with the smoke so thick he couldn't see the flames were also in front of him. The first thing he knew of it was when the car in front of him, carrying his neighbours, just - exploded. I don't know how he survived. I doubt he does.
- Julia Gillard, our deputy PM, renowned for her unshakeable demeanour, had a shaking voice and a tissue in hand when she spoke about the bushfires yesterday. Our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has labelled the arsonists mass murderers.
- Several radio stations, usually frivolous in their subject matter, have had people calling in to tell their stories, voices shaking, in tears, sometimes unable to finish. It doesn't matter. We know what they mean.
- A woman in the coffee shop was waiting for news of her cousin.
- The town of Flowerdale was "forgotten" by the world - emergency services abandoned them on Saturday evening when the fire trucks were called away to a nearby town, and in the chaos no one got back to them until journalists arrived last night, to find the survivors huddling in the central pub.
- A distant friend of my grandmother had a stepdaughter who was presumed dead, but he refused to believe it. He hired a helicopter and flew over where she'd last been, hunting, and eventually returned with her - alive. And the whole town celebrated, even those people who had never known her, because one person had returned alive who had been supposed dead, and for one moment the ever-climbing death toll missed its foothold and slipped a step back.
- And a picture that is a story all by itself, taken from the Herald Sun:

Police now fear that the death toll may rise to 300 or more.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

131 deaths, and counting.

This is not what my blog is meant to be for, and apologies to anyone who just wants mediaeval matter, please feel free to skip, but... stories need to be told. Skip to the end to just get to the donation links, if you're so inclined.

For those of you who don't know, this weekend saw the worst bushfires in Australia's history. Ash Wednesday 1983 was our previous record: 76 deaths. Huge swathes of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were burned, and across the Bass Strait in Tasmania, my parents could smell the smoke.

But the death toll for the fires that are still burning across Victoria and New South Wales stands, so far, at 131 [Update: 173] - in a time when we are better prepared, better organised, better informed. And the count is still rising. Bodies are still trapped in cars, crashed on roads as they tried to flee fires that came on faster than anyone could guess, driven by fierce winds and exacerbated by a hotter, dryer summer than any on record. There are undoubtably many bodies still trapped in burnt-out houses, but emergency crews have more pressing priorities than digging them out. Saturday was our hottest day on record - 46.5 where I live, 47.8 in other parts, doubtless furnace-like from radiant heat where the firefighters were.

My aunt and uncle live in Wandong. They're lucky - their house and their neighbours' are apparently the only two left standing in the town [Update: their neighbours' house is gone, and theirs now stands alone in a mess of black]. The official death count for Wandong is four - and the town is tiny - but from the snatches of conversation we've had with them (phone lines are out, of course, so they have to use their mobile batteries sparingly - they know many more people who have died. They evacuated on Saturday afternoon with the flames on their doorstep. They had waited too long, because their beloved border collie, lame in two legs, had fled in panic and they couldn't find her. They were also desperate for news of their block of land, not far outside the town - they knew the fires had been through that area. They keep four horses on it, have been restoring the old buildings on the land (both of them work for Heritage Victoria) and gradually restoring the native bush in the area. They went up to the block Saturday night, found the horses miraculously alive, and spent all night fighting spot fires there. They lost everything on the block, years of love and hard work, but the horses are still alive - I don't know in what condition [Update: Liz says next time there's a fire she'll stick with the horses - clearly they know what to do. The horse float in the shed on the block is burned to cinders, but the land rover right next to it is untouched]. Sunday [Update: and Monday, and Tuesday], they spent helping move everyone's livestock (at least that which didn't need euthanasia) to other areas, and fighting every-present spot fires, and Chloe (the collie) miraculously turned up at a friend's a long way away.

They are the lucky ones. Many of their friends are dead, almost all have lost their houses and near on everything they own. Some were uninsured. Many plantations, farms, land blocks in the area are devastated, and of course most places of employment in the town are burned out. Wandong is effectively destroyed as a community. And the pattern repeats itself across the state.

I think most people didn't realise the scale of this until they read this morning's newspapers, and heard the interviews on the radios with survivors and victims. All day, I've been having the same conversations with customers at our bakery - swapping stories, commiserating for relatives' or friends' losses, marvelling over escapes, repeating over and over "Isn't it awful? You just feel so helpless". Everyone feels so shell-shocked. It even creeps into ordinary exchanges that you usually wouldn't consider - "Good morning, how are you?" "Oh, I'm well, I'm fine - at least compared to so many other people out there today".

When I came home from work, I went through my wardrobe to see what I could spare. I ended up with five big garbage bags full of clothes, blankets and linen (alright, so my wardrobe may glut slightly) and another bag with miscellaneous things like childrens' books, umbrellas, sunglasses and handkerchieves, which I'm sure a lot of people will need right now. The Salvation Army is collecting anything people can spare to distribute to families who need them. If you're in Victoria, please consider it - I know most people can't spare much, but when people have lost everything, even a spare shirt so you can wash the one you've got on must mean something, mustn't it?

Monetary donations can be made from anywhere in the world to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army (or here for non-Australian donors). If you're in Victoria, again, consider donating to the Myers Bushfire Appeal (just go in to any Myers store): they'll give your money straight to the Salvation Army, but double it with their own money.

I will go and ring my grandmother again. She lives in Drouin, in Gippsland - one of the larger fires is burning through the Bunyip national park near there, but it's heading away from her now. We will swap stories, again, the same ones we've been telling other people all day, passing on the stories we heard in return. Because that's what people do - we reach out with out voices, we share stories, we make meaning.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Musings on the Canterbury Tales and double-narration

The problem with the Canterbury Tales is that it’s impossible to know, in any given tale or exchange, to what extent Chaucer is being serious and to what extent he’s subverting what he appears to be serious about. Is The Knight’s Tale a straightforward solemn tale of chivalric values and nobility, or is it a complete parody of those tales, the characters it portrays and the society that spawned them? Are we meant to take the Prioress’ virulent anti-Semitism completely seriously, or believe that Chaucer was poking fun of the prejudices of his own society and actually thought Jews were rather nice? I think most critics today would agree that the answer falls somewhere between these two extremes, which would render any attempt to come up with a solid, consistent interpretation rather futile. The difficulty is not just that each tale carries multiple meanings but that those meanings often seem to be mutually exclusive, as if there were two voices constructing the tale, competing for dominance, each contradicting the other in what they want the audience to believe.

Well, but there are, aren’t there? The Miller tells the story to the pilgrims, but who tells it to us?

The Miller’s Tale is indisputably a fabliau, however you choose to define that genre. It contains sex romps, lascivious descriptions of the female body, explicit language, fools being duped, savoir conquering avoir, subversion of the regular social order, and of course farting. As such, it’s exactly the sort of tale the drunken Miller would tell, particularly in the context of “quiting” the Knight’s tale of chivalry and nobility. The trouble is, the tale we actually have is beyond the capabilities of that man "that for dronken was al pale, / So that unnethe [hardly] upon his hors he sat" (I A 3120-21). On the most literal level, he’s far too drunk to consistently rhyme a long poem to that standard. If you protest that ‘twere to consider too curiously to consider thus, do we believe the Miller has the vocabulary to discuss in such detail the workings of alchemy? or the university learning to give us Nicholas’ speeches and quote Solomon? Most seriously, the subtle little moments that warn of distant judgement and remind us of morality and sin could never have come from the Miller, to undermine the characters whose antics he seems to relish so.
And thus lith [lie] Alison and Nicholas
In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas,
Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge,
And freres [friars] in the chauncel gonne [began to] synge. (I A 3653-56)
The passing of time during their bedroom frolics could be described or marked in any number of ways, but this and the continual glancing references to the social presence of religion (Absolom first sees Alisoun at mass, etc) shape a subtle commentary to the decidedly profane actions in counterpoint to them, well beyond the abilities - or interest - of the Miller.

So, let us hypothesise the presence of another author/narrator here, and let us call him... Geoffrey?

The Canterbury Tales is presented as a recounting of pilgrim-Chaucer's journey and the tales the pilgrims tell to each other. But are we meant to be experiencing it as pilgrim-Chaucer does - hearing the words of the others just as he does - or are we supposed to be reading his later retelling of it, reshaped through the poet's pen into the form of verse? One narrator, laid over the other, doubling and reshaping what the first has given us? I'm probably considering too curiously again, but distinguishing between the Miller and pilgrim-Chaucer would imply a division, and possibly contention, between type/content and form/detail of the poem. This double-narrator effect would account for the internal contradictions, and the impression the tale gives of mocking itself.

The same theory could then be extended to The Reeve's Tale, in which the malicious delight of the narrator in tearing down the miller and seeing his wife and daughter raped/seduced is underminded by quiet details of the characterisation of the students, the women, and the narrator himself. The solemn, high tone of the Knight in telling his tale is undercut by the bickering of Palamoun and Arcites, by the initial uncertainty of the narrator, by Theseus' possibly self-serving attitude to ruling, and the Prioress' self-righteous hysteria by the tiresome depiction of little Hugh and the extravagance of the Jews' eviler-than-Dr-Evil evilness.

The same quietly sardonic voice undercuts the apparent tone of all those tales, and it's tempting to ascribe it to Chaucer. It's tempting to use the double-narrator idea to read, dissect, pin down, all the tales and the intermediary scenes. But it doesn't really hold up as a consistent theory.

Firstly, which Chaucer are we talking about - Chaucer-the-pilgrim or Chaucer-the-poet (and is there really any point distinguishing between them)? If the first, can we believe that the wide-eyed, eager pilgrim of the Prologue and the bombastic poet of Sir Thopas could slyly undermine the stories he retells in this way? If the second - well, we knew Chaucer was the poet anyway, so ascribing the retelling to him demolishes the whole point of the double-narrator theory altogether.

Secondly, the same sardonic voice is present in every other poem of Chaucer's that I've read, despite the lack of narrator-layering. In fact, Chaucer's ability to simultaneously construct and demolish is (to my mind) one of the most characteristic things about him.

Thirdly, the theory itself is mostly an extension of an assumption which rests on taking the characters entirely too literally, as real people rather than poetic creations in themselves.

But surely we're supposed to believe in these characters? If not, where's the story? And if so, surely by the same token we are meant to take the Knight seriously, and feel the same lasciviousness regarding Alisoun as the Miller does in describing her, and want to see and enjoy the Friar's Summoner getting his come-uppance, as all summoners we know deserve. We have to be involved on an emotional level with the ostensible intent of the story, not only because it makes the subtle questioning more effective and potent if we feel ourselves morally implicated as well as the characters, but because it simply makes a better story that way.

Quotes from the Canterbury Tales taken, of course, from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Benson, 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.