March 15: Sir Orfeo vs. his mythological counterpart, Orpheus

Sir Orfeo is a retelling of the classic Greek myth Orpheus.  If that story is unfamiliar to you, here is a link of a synopsis:

The similarities between the two are clear; yet our Middle English version makes some distinct changes to the classic story (particularly the ending).  What are the differences between Sir Orfeo and the classic Orpheus and what can this tell us about Medieval English culture/literature?

Punctuation, Intertextuality and the Standardization of English

The section that intrigued me the most about chapter one of the OUMEM begins immediately after the chapter’s introduction- particularly the discussions of punctuation and figurative language in early medieval manuscripts.  In the poem modernly referred to as The Blacksmiths, the speaker narrates the happenings of two blacksmiths at work.  He/she uses onomatopoeias to create the noises of the blacksmiths panting from their work as well as pounding iron- “tik . tak . hic . hac .” and so on (Kerby-Fulton 42).  The scribe uses the periods as an indication of where the reader should stop or pause.  With a pause between each noise, the reader can more realistically imagine the blacksmiths swinging their arms into their air (the pause) before crashing their hammers down into the softened metal (the onomatopoeia).  Simple punctuation was nothing new at this time period; upon a small bit of research I learned that periods (or similar punctuation symbols) could be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman writing- the “periods” signaled when/how long the orator should pause before continuing.  Although punctuation was far from becoming standardized, we see here some of the earliest predecessors to modern English grammar.  The purpose of the periods in this excerpt from The Blacksmiths is to render the poem more intelligible to the reader.  Punctuation essentially serves that exact same function today.

Another interesting point this chapter raises is the presence of idioms in early English manuscripts.  Kerby-Fulton points out two uses of the regional word “goke/goky” to refer to a cuckoo- one of the northern dialect in Chorister; one from the Southwest Midlands dialect by Langland.  She mentions that it is uncertain whether this example of jargon was common throughout different regions or whether it was a “signal of influence” (44).  As many of you guys have already noted on this blog, the concept of intertextuality in a world before printing presses, widespread literacy and the standardization of written English is incredible.  Yet the content of the stories in these manuscripts were likely spread orally as well as through print media.  It’s amazing to think of the pains the people went through to create and spread information and literature.  In the modern world of print and digital media, it’s something we definitely take for granted today.

Similarities between Middle English and other foreign languages

The platform activities really helped me make sense of the Middle English text in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Of course English wasn’t completely standardized in terms of spelling at this point in history; so I always assumed the only way to make sense of the language was through context clues.  I know now that there are grammar patterns and those can help the reader understand who/what is the subject, direct object, verb, etc.  The verbs have rough conjugations and the forms of nouns are relevant to their number/gender.  As a Spanish-speaker, this immediately reminded me of basic Spanish grammar.

Take, for example, the Middle/Modern English verb “say/saye” and the Spanish verb “hablar” (to speak).

says/sayes/sayez- you speak; hablas- you speak.  Both verbs, ending with an “s” (or -as,-es, -ez, or whatever the case may be for Middle English) denotes the singular second person form of the verb.

sayn/sayen- they speak; hablan- they speak.  Both verbs, ending with an “n”, denote the plural third person form of the verb.

talkande- talking; hablando- talking.  Both verbs, ending with an “-ando/-ande” denote the present participle (gerund) of the verb.  Neither of these verbs would make sense to use as verbal nouns.

Of course, although English (both middle and modern) are both influenced by Latin, it has plenty of other factors that contribute to its creation as well.  As college students, it is very likely that everyone in this class has taken a few foreign language courses (and very likely in Romance languages).  Finding a parallel between Middle English and another language that you (at least sort of) know can help you commit this stuff to memory.  At least I know that thinking this way helped me.  I hope it helps you too!