Monday, 2 May 2011

Medieval Compliments, or, How to call someone 'beautiful' in Middle English

This is for the person who found my blog by googling how to say 'very beautiful' in Middle English. It's such a nice query that I feel inspired to answer it, for the benefit of any future romantics who may stumble over this page and want to know this useful fact.

The phrases in this post are all real quotations from medieval sources; some of them are citations from the Middle English dictionary, because I'm lazy.

To start with, whatever you want to call 'very beautiful', you couldn't go wrong with 'fairest'. This is a multi-purpose Middle English word of praise which you could use to describe a man or a woman, human, angel, animal, place, building, object, precious stone - pretty much anything. But I'm assuming this is for romantic purposes, so tell a girl 'thou art fairest of all thing', and that's a perfect medieval compliment. Here are some other ways to elaborate:

- tell her she is "of alle women fairest to behold" (or 'of alle men', as in Ancrene Wisse - 'most beautiful to look upon')
- or that there "was none fairer in world but [insert name here] alone" (from William of Palerne, l.4437)
- or she is "fairest of fair" (from the Knight's Tale; self-explanatory)
- or the "fairest flower of any field" (from a prayer to Mary)

Lots of the best examples of these kind of epithets come from poems addressed to Mary or Christ, but that doesn't make them inappropriate to apply to lovers, I think; the religious poems are deliberately employing the diction of romantic love, and there's often little to distinguish between descriptions or epithets applied to Mary and those applied to a female object of love.

In that light, I strongly advocate that you tell your beloved that "of all women she beareth the bell." I've discussed the meaning of this phrase here, and it definitely should be revived. Who wouldn't like to get a love-letter saying "of all women thou bearest the bell"? I know I would!

The common conception of vintage Hollywood movies that medieval people went around calling each other 'sweet lady' and 'sweet lord' is, basically, true. You should feel free to call your beloved 'sweet' on as many occasions as possible; take your example from this poet, who is addicted to the word. You could try "sweet lemman" but might want to be a bit careful with that one - 'lemman' ('beloved') wandered downwords in the social scale over time, and descended from a word that could be used of Christ to one that described a woman one might be implying was a prostitute; so if your addressee is particularly sensitive to medieval sociolinguistics, steer clear of 'lemman'. If you tell her (or him; this one is unisex) that you're using it strictly in a thirteenth-century sense you might get away with it.

I'm personally very fond of the word 'leof', 'dear', which is good Old English too; 'my sweet leof' is a perfectly lovely way to address someone.

There's always "my dear heart", or for that matter "myn lykyng", or "my sweeting, my dear heart, mine own dear darling" - why not?

The carol One that is so fair and bright is full of excellent descriptors: I particularly recommend telling your beloved that she is "brighter than the day's light" or calling her "Lady, flower of all thing"; and there's "Of all thou bearest the prize" again.

Or how about Langland's description of a lady as "a full comely creature"?

This is an absolute tour-de-force of compliments, although perhaps a little over-the-top for my taste. None of the Harley lyrics do much for me, but you or your beloved might like them.

For something more Song-of-Songsy, this would not be out of place in a Valentine's card:

"Fair love, let us go pleye —
Apples be ripe in my gardayne;
I shal thee clothe in a new array;
Thi meat shal be milk, honey, and wine.
Fair love, let us go dine —
Thy sustenaunce is in my crippe, lo!
Tarry thou not, my fair spouse myne!"

Elsewhere in the same poem, Christ calls the soul "My fair spouse and my love bright" - a very nice way to talk to your wife.

How about a speech like this?:

"What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun,
My faire bryd, my sweete cynamome?
Awaketh, lemman myn, and speketh to me!
Wel litel thynken ye upon me wo,
That for youre love I swete ther I go.
No wonder is thogh that I swelte and swete;
I moorne as dooth a lamb after the tete.
Ywis, lemman, I have swich love-longynge,
That lik a turtel trewe is my moornynge.
I may nat ete na moore than a maide."

I don't recommend it, though; it didn't end well for Absalon.

Things didn't end much better for Troilus and Criseyde, but if you are a woman who would like to compliment a man you could still pinch some of this:

swych a knyghtly sighte, trewely,
As was on hym was nought, withouten faille,
To loke on Mars, that god is of bataille.
So lik a man of armes and a knyght
He was to seen, fulfilled of heigh prowesse;
For bothe he hadde a body and a myght
To doon that thing, as wel as hardynesse;
And eek to seen hym in his gere hym dresse,
So fressh, so yong, so weldy semed he,
It was an heven up-on hym for to see.


And if the man in question happens to be a good-humoured, strapping young yeoman who is loved by everyone and yet gentle and humble, steal from Havelok:

Of alle men was he mest meke,
Lauhwinde ay and blithe of speke;
Evere he was glad and blithe -
His sorwe he couthe ful wel mithe.
It ne was non so litel knave
For to leyken ne for to plawe,
That he ne wolde with him pleye.
The children that yeden in the weie
Of him he deden al here wille,
And with him leykeden here fille.
Him loveden alle, stille and bolde,
Knictes, children, yunge and holde -
Alle him loveden that him sowen,
Bothen heye men and lowe.
Of him ful wide the word sprong,
Hw he was mikel, hw he was strong,
Hw fayr man God him havede maked...

Hwan he was clothed, osed, and shod,
Was non so fayr under God,
That evere yete in erthe were,
Non that evere moder bere;
It was nevere man that yemede
In kinneriche that so wel semede
King or cayser for to be,
Than he was shrid, so semede he;
For thanne he weren alle samen
At Lincolne at the gamen,
And the erles men woren al thore,
Than was Havelok bi the shuldren more
Than the meste that ther kam:
In armes him noman nam
That he doune sone ne caste.
Havelok stod over hem als a mast;
Als he was heie, als he was long,
He was bothe stark and strong -
In Engelond non hise per
Of strengthe that evere kam him ner.
Als he was strong, so was he softe;
They a man him misdede ofte,
Neveremore he him misseyde,
Ne hond on him with yvele leyde.

[He was the meekest of men, always laughing and merry in speech; he was always glad and merry, and ever able to conceal his sorrows.  There was no child so little that he was not ready to play with him - the children who met him in the road, he would let them have their own way with him, and play with him as much as they wanted.  Everyone loved him: shy and bold, knights, children, young and old - everyone loved him who saw him, both high and low.  His reputation spread far and wide: how he was tall and strong, and how fair a man God had made him...  When he was clothed with socks and shoes, there was none that ever lived on earth, or that mother ever bore, so fair under God.  There was no man who ever held government in a kingdom who seemed so fit to be king or emperor as Havelok did when he was properly clothed.  For when they were all together at Lincoln, at the games, and the earl's men were all there, then Havelok was a shoulder taller than the tallest who was there; no one could take him on at wrestling whom he could not quickly throw.  Havelok stood above them all like a mast.  Just as he was tall, as he was big, he was also strong and powerful: in England there was no one his equal in strength.  As he was strong, so was he gentle: even if a man mistreated him again and again, Havelok never insulted him, or laid a hand upon him.]



If you wanted, instead, to praise a man in Old Norse, you could do worse than quoting Guðrun describing Sigurðr (admittedly, his dead body; but that has a certain gruesome glamour):

sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn
ða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.

'Like a green leek growing up out of the grass;
like a bright stone threaded on a string,
a precious stone among the princes.'


In another poem she says that compared to other men, he is:

sem... hjörtr hábeinn of hvössum dýrum
eða gull glóðrautt af gráu silfri.

'Like a tall stag among sharp-clawed beasts,
or red-glowing gold beside grey silver.'


Also bear in mind that an authentically medieval way of showing your love for your wife might be to decorate her books with jewels - though you might want to check she's OK with it first, unless you're the king of Scotland.


See also: Medieval Terms of Endearment

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks :)

A said...

I was one of those people googling how to praise in medival times.. LOL
Thanks :)

Clerk of Oxford said...

:)