Why Middle English?
Because it allows us to study large quantities of historical English texts that were produced in a multilingual context and in a manuscript culture, with all the fluidity and variability of handwritten text production.
Because of the abundance of linguistic variation in this period, when there was not yet an established standard model for writing, and linguistic habits could vary tremendously: in relation to geography, genre, function, audience, educational background and other factors – identifying these is a research question in itself.
This makes Middle English an extremely interesting area of study, not least from the point of view of the changes in technology and literacy practices in our own time, which may cause us to question things that were taken for granted in a print culture: the identity of a text, the necessity of a standard language, the boundaries between languages.
We deal with real writers and readers, which makes Literacy Studies a central discipline for us: from the start, we have been closely connected to the Stavanger MA and PhD programmes, with virtually everyone in the team involved in one or both of them in some capacity.
What do we do?
A central task so far has been to produce text corpora – digital collections of texts transcribed directly from images of the manuscripts, which can be either read or searched, and which have a great potential as research materials. We are making available texts that would otherwise have to be studied in archives or libraries, and providing ways of analysing the variation found in them in relation to various kinds of information – date, place, genre, function, social status, gender.
In 2008, we launched the first version of the Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C), based on samples of texts of various genres (from cookery books to saints’ lives) localized in A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (LALME) and dated to ca 1325-1500. The latest version, MEG-C 2011.1, contains 410 texts and over 800,000 words.
In August 2012 we started a new project, The Language and Geography of Middle English Documentary Texts, funded jointly by the Norwegian Research Council and the University of Stavanger. This project has focussed on documentary texts (legal, administrative and business documents and letters) that are dated and connected to specific places. Relating Middle English variation to real people and places, rather than reconstructing expected dialect patterns, was a new approach at this point, and one that has developed over the project period.
In 2017, we launch the first version of a Corpus of Middle English Local Documents (MELD), with transcriptions of administrative texts and letters from the period 1399-1525. This is the result of several years’ work and visits to archives and medieval castles, photographing parchments and rolls, and we expect that it will be a useful resource for much research in years to come.
... and we have also been producing some of that research as we go along: pragmatic studies of medieval letters, studies of punctuation and handwriting, of sounds and spellings, vocabulary and multilingual practices. And there have been Masters and PhD projects on medieval drama, interjections, religious heresy, alchemical texts and witchcraft trials.
What happens next?
The funding of the MELD project ended in December 2016. The first instalment of the MELD corpus will be formally launched at the 10th International Conference of Middle English (ICOME 10), held at UiS 31 May - 2 June 2017. The full version, complete with maps, will follow.
Some of the research results from the project will be presented in a book volume with the working title Records of real people: linguistic variation in Middle English local documents, edited by Merja Stenroos and Kjetil V. Thengs. Others have appeared and will continue to appear in published articles and chapters.
... and we are applying for more external funding, hoping to launch a new project building on the MELD corpus and bringing in other materials, and new research questions dealing with multilingualism, standardisation and gender, as well as visual literacy. At the Faculty of Arts and Education, we now have a strong basis with several colleagues working with historical English. We have materials and research questions aplenty, and can provide great opportunities for both MA and PhD theses – do get in touch if this might be something for you!