The Ancrene Wisse

In the East Midlands the Peterborough Chronicle of 1132 was being written in a simplified English with hardly any endings. Meanwhile the south-west Midlands remained conservative, closer to the OE of Alfred. The most substantial survival is the Ancrene Wisse, written between 1225 and 1240. The dialect is called the AB language, ‘A’ from Ancrene and ‘B’ from Bodleian, diverse manuscripts in the Wohunge and Katherine groups. An abbey in Herefordshire is a strong candidate for source of Ancrene. It contains advice for anchoresses, who were women who chose to be confined to a cell attached to a church. The instructions given to anchoresses are for extreme withdrawal into pious privacy, including how to dig their own graves. Here is the first non-Latin paragraph of one of the 17 surviving manuscripts.

I the Feaderes ant i the Sunes ant i the Hali Gastes nome her biginneth Ancrene Wisse.
“Laverd,” seith Godes spuse to hire deore-wurthe spus, “the rihte luvieth the”. Theo
beoth rihte the luvieth efter riwle. Ant ye, mine leove sustren, habbeth moni dei i-cravet
on me efter riwle. Monie cunne riwlen beoth, ah twa beoth bimong alle thet ich chulle
speoken of thurh ower bone, with Godes grace.
The an riwleth the heorte, ant maketh efne ant smethe withute cnost ant dolc of woh inwit ant of wrei3ende the segge, ‘Her thu sunegest’, other ‘This nis nawt ibet 3et as wel as hit ahte.

Goto for an ME dictionary.

The first thing to observe is phonology. The West Saxon diphthong /eo/ occurs in beoth and speoken. The spelling moni for “many” is unexpected, and AB may be following the <æ/o> before nasal rule found in Black Country. Dei for “day”, not pluralised, is also unexpected. The final in OE dæg seems to have gone.

Turning to nouns, we see that loanwords from French such as grace appear not to decline at all, so Godes grāce uses only the minimal morphology of MnE. Important religious words retain most of their OE inflections: ancrene is regarded as genitive plural for “of anchoresses”, though in OE it would be -ena. Sustren appears to be the -en plural of OE suster; elsewhere the case endings swustre (acc.) and swustra (gen.) are still found.

What genders and case agreement are preserved in Ancrene? Spus and spuse might be a male and a female spouse. The phrase … seith Godes spuse to hire deore-wurthe spus appears to include an OE feminine dative pronoun hire. The adjective deore-wurthe “worthy”, comes from OE dýr-wurþe and would have ended in -um in OE. The sentence is rather unusual to the modern reader, as it appears to be the bride of God talking to her husband Christ! East Midlands English had abolished adjectival agreement and West Midlands AB adjectives do not seem to change their endings to agree with nouns, though this a tentative judgment.

As to pronouns, we find in the second person “thou/ thee” thu/ the and in the plural “ye” is 3e/ ow/ ower. This had been written by scribes in late OE as ġe to show it was now fricative but here written with a yogh “3” , which might be pronounced either like MnE “ye” or “che”. Modern English has dropped all second person forms apart from “you, your”. It appears that the plural was found more respectful when addressing superiors. Yow and yower persist in modern Black Country. The dual pronouns wit/ unc and ġit/ inc are not to be seen in ancrene, though they do appear occasionally in Brut. Modern English is quite conservative in its pronouns, having retained four, e.g. “I, me, my, mine”. (Strictly, one of them is a possessive adjective.) The ancrene pronouns look fairly familiar.

The negative verbs of OE are still strongly in evidence in EME this nis nawt ibet (“this is not atoned”). All n- verbs have now disappeared from MnE, except in the phrase “willy-nilly” but negation in a single verb is still found in Black Country. Double negatives are now discouraged in schools, whereas OE might use two, three or even four negatives to give emphasis. Double negation is still usual in the 13th century Cuckoo Song, ” Sumer is icumen in”. The third line below might be translated as “don’t never stop now”.
cuccu cuccu,
wel singes þu cuccu,
ne swik þu nauer nu

Verb conjugations in AB have more forms than in the Peterborough Chronicle of 1132, but fewer than in OE. Segge ‘says’ is the AB form of seien, which conjugates 1sg. seie, 2sg. seist, 3sg. seieth, pl. seien. OE had dozens of forms, if subjunctives, duals etc. are included. We MnE has up to five forms, though four in this example: “say, says, saying, said, [have] said”.

The adverb withute has disappeared in MnE in the sense “on the outside” but is still found in Scots, e.g. “without Scotland” and in just one hymn “… without a city wall”. Its opposite inwit occurs near the end of the quotation above. It is unusual for any language to gain or lose prepositions and their associated adverbs.

Ancrene includes loanwords from Welsh such as cader, “cradle”, highly unusual for an ME text. The uniformity of AB across the Bodleian manuscripts suggests that a scriptorium master, perhaps at Wigmore Abbey, was requiring all scribes to use his orthography, including some Welsh words. The “King’s English” that is being served by AB might be the “King of Heaven” and has little to say about politics.