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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

e) Linguistics and toponymy

1) Linguistic medievalism in the twenty-first century

Oliver M Traxel

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1Academic involvement with medievalism can be found in many different fields, such as history, literature, and media studies, but surprisingly there are hardly any works on linguistic issues. This frequent oversight is strikingly illustrated, for example, in the recent Cambridge Companion to Medievalism (d’Arcens 2016a), which has no contribution on language. However, a significant number of compositions in, as well as translations into, Old English and Middle English is available, in the form of both longer texts, shorter passages, and individual words. These compositions and translations have been carried out at various times, for various purposes, in various ways, and with various degrees of success.

2This paper focuses on some of the most recent occurrences of linguistic medievalism with regard to the English language. It follows up on the speaker’s studies of the different forms of medievalist Old English (Traxel 2018) and Middle English (Traxel 2019), as encountered, for example, in films and TV series or in historical novels. Leaving aside the two areas of actual medieval evidence reproduced in modern media and modern poetry incorporating Old English or Middle English stylistic features and imagery, attention is drawn to four major categories of linguistic medievalism: (i) Neo-OE/ME: academically sound, modern creations that generally follow linguistic rules of grammar and word formation; (ii) Pseudo-OE/ME: modern creations paying attention to some linguistic rules but also containing several modern features, e.g., in spelling, grammar and vocabulary; (iii) Mock-OE/ME—playful attempts at using some OE/ME features, frequently ignoring linguistic rules, often for humorous reasons; (iv) Updated OE/ME: modernisation of attested OE/ME evidence.

3Categories (i)-(iii) may not always have clear boundaries, and they are here treated together; category (iv) is discussed later in the paper due to its rather different nature. Some examples are provided and put into a wider context. Particular attention is paid to the motivations and challenges encountered when creating something that looks as if it could belong to an earlier language stage. The following questions concerning linguistic medievalism are discussed: Where is it encountered? How much is created? Who is behind it? How is it created? Why is it done? For whom is it intended? What purpose does it serve? The answers show that this field of study provides a variety of material to be discussed and that there are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account with regard to media, amount, creators, methods, reasons, audiences, and usefulness.

4In contrast to modern creations that evoke the impression of being written in Old English or Middle English, there is also evidence for the reverse process: both language stages can be linguistically updated for a modern audience, with regard primarily to spelling but also to grammar and vocabulary. In fact, updated Old English and Middle English differ significantly from one another with regard to both purpose and implementation. Updated Old English modernises mainly the form of individual words or morphemes attested during the Old English period; it can be seen as a hypothetical experiment that intends to revive extinct words. Updated Middle English, on the other hand, concerns full texts; these are modernised for speakers of Present-Day English who struggle with the original language, e.g., literature students, actors, or interested laypeople. It represents an alternative to a proper translation, which is more idiomatic rather than word for word. In contrast, translations are the only possibility for rendering Old English texts understandable to audiences not familiar with this language stage, as an updated version of, for example, Beowulf would still be incomprehensible to them.

5The aim of this paper is to draw attention to a hitherto frequently neglected type of medievalism and to show that there is a large amount of material worth investigating. A symposium with the title New Creations - Old Sources: Modern Takes on Past English Language Stages, scheduled to take place in Stavanger, Norway, on 30 August 2021, is dedicated to this field and even extends it by also including recent creations based on Early Modern English.


6D’Arcens 2016a
Traxel 2018
Traxel 2019


University of Stavanger

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

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