Online Secondary Sources for Studying Medieval Literature


The Middle English Dictionary--the pre-eminent source of year-specific definitions of Middle English words is now available for free from the University of Michigan.  Don't bother with the OED when reading Middle English.  This is a far more complete set of definitions with far more Medieval examples because of the dictionary's focus.


Concordance to the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer--a concordance is a word list, a kind of author- or work-specific usage dictionary, which tells you exactly where an author uses specific words you may be studying as evidence for close reading analysis or semiotic coding as part of a structural binary.  If you can demonstrate that the word you are studying is used rarely, or only in certain circumstances, you may be able to show it had an unexpectedly specific connotation for Chaucer and his audience.


THE WORLD WIDE STUDY BIBLE--now hosted on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library site, this is an accurate, searchable text base containing all the books of the Christian bible, including apocrypha.   For medieval authors, the Douay-Rheims translation is closest to the Vulgate Latin text they would have known--see below for a better text of Douay-Rheims.  For renaissance and seventeen-century authors, the King James Version usually will be appropriate.


THE DOUAY-RHEIMS BIBLE--after Protestant translators began flooding Europe with contending vernacular translations (i.e., English, French, German, etc. vs. the Vulgate Latin), the Catholic Church fought back by producing what they claimed (and most modern scholars believe) was a more accurate, less thesis-motivated translation of the Vulgate.  All medieval scholars typically quote the Douay-Rheims, as do renaissance scholars until 1604, when the newly crowned successor to Elizabeth, James I, ordered a new translation of the bible which bears his name.  This site is maintained by Scriptours.com as a free demonstration site run by Abelware, a Christian software company, but the site's apparatus may contain unscholarly information (e.g., the reference to the language of the D-R text as "old English")..


THE VULGATE LATIN BIBLE--this was the text which would have been known to Christians in Chaucer's time, with the exception of the "Lollard" followers of GC's contemporary John Wycliff, who translated portions of it into Middle English despite the threat of execution for this heretical act.  The Internet Sacred Texts Archive, which maintains this site, is a non-profit group promoting understanding of many religious traditions, and they offer reading texts from Eastern, Western, traditional and esoteric religions.


THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA--an indispensable introduction for the undergraduate to the Church's view of its own beliefs, major figures, and most important events.  It is not "scholarly" in the sense of being produced by scholars who are independent of papal authority, but it is a carefully checked, "doctrinally correct," vision of history.  As a starting place, it's great.


The Medieval Review--an excellent source of scholarly reviews of books on medieval subjects, including books published as early as 1992, and as recently as this year.


Labyrinth--an excellent source of primary texts online, scholarly articles (though limited in number on any one topic), and links to other reliable scholarly web sites.


A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 to 1580 (Mayhew and Skeat, 1888)--Project Gutenberg's digitized transcription of this early resource for medievalists, also available in facsimile in case you have doubts about the transcription (e.g., it doesn't make sense in ModE!).  In general, you should be using the Middle English Dictionary, available above, but if that site is down, this will do in a pinch.


Online Annotated Bibliography to the First Thirty Years of Chaucer Review--like a specialized slice of the MLA Bibliography, but better because human beings have written brief annotations about the contents of the articles.  For sources after 1997, you have to go to MLA, but it's good for a quick survey of the early work on your topic.


ORB (Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies)--a site containing some very useful general information, some peer reviewed essays relevant to Chaucer and Medieval Studies in general, and a large number of links to other sites, some of which contain non-scholarly information (caveat surfer!).


The Chaucer MetaPage-- a "source of sources" web site that's perpetually in development.  Currently it includes links to other instructors' web pages devoted to Chaucer, the Studies in the Age of Chaucer bibliography (a useful tool for locating topics for annotation or preparing for papers), and some resources to help you refine your ability to read Middle English. 


The Internet Medieval Sourcebook--Paul Halsall's (Fordham University) invaluable collection of primary and secondary sources for historical and cultural background on a wide range of medieval topics ranging from law to religion to rural peasant life to gender and marriage. 


Joe Turner's Gawain Romance Project--Joe (Goucher '05) was my English 240 student and became interested in the way Sir Thomas Malory and the Pearl-Poet represented the character of "Sir Gawain."  Malory altered his sources to make Gawain a considerably more violent, unreliable, and vocally abusive knight, and the Pearl-Poet's "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" used Gawain to gently mock the conventions of Arthurian chivalry, especially its pretensions to perfection of character in the figure of the knight.  Behind these radically different Gawains, Joe reasoned, there must be a tradition of representing Gawain the poets drew upon.  This web site contains the results of an independent study Joe pursued in Fall 2004 to analyze the main strains of the surviving Gawain romances.


Fourteenth-Century English Prices for Goods and Services--Kenneth Hodges put together this list of prices paid for commonplace foods, tools, and other commodities according to six historians' research.  Even if authors are exaggerating, which they often do when describing goods and services, this can help one determine the number of times their audiences were expected to smack their foreheads and cry "hoo!"


Converting Currency Values from "Then" to "Now"--  The Economic History web site (Miami University / Wake Forest University) furnishes several ways of computing the relative value of currency in modern terms.  Getting very old currency conversions (e.g., to Chaucer's era, 1340-1400, or Shakespeare's, 1564-1616) may require you to convert twice, from gold to British pounds (then) and from British pounds (then) to British pounds (now, or as of 2004 [closest]).  The results are not precise enough for banking, but they do wonders to clarify the significance of gifts, prices, bribes, etc.


Guide to Early English Currency, Roman Numerals for Dates and Currency, and Tally Sticks--Before England converted to decimal system currency in the twentieth century, they used "pounds, shillings, and pence," as well as some other specialized coinages (e.g., the "mark).  Here's how to count your change in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.


Guide to Manuscript Spelling Conventions--If you are reading a "diplomatic transcription" (no characters "regularized" to ModE) or a facsimile of a medieval manuscript, you will encounter odd spelling and odder characters for some sounds like "th" and "gh."  Once you learn them, though, the secrets of the scribes will be revealed to you.


Roman Britain--Between 43 CE and 410 CE, the island medieval people knew as "England" was a Roman province called "Britannia."  Guy de la Bedoyèré has compiled a generally reliable time line of the mainly military and economic information available about the relations between this increasingly influential colonial outpost and the Roman imperial central government.  Though outside the scope of most studies of medieval English literature, this period's lasting influence on English culture can be found in the Latinity of the English Christian Church and its enduring cultural influence.   Though the site's author is a careful reader  and writer, the site contains links to non-scholarly information (caveat surfer!).


Blacksmith Guild of Central Maryland--Smiths were among the most advanced practitioners of technology in the medieval world.  Modern smiths can tell us a lot about the crafts which made the world medieval people lived in, especially in the larger villages and cities, which would be defined, among other ways, by their possessing at least one smithy.  Smiths were discovering and transmitting the secrets of chemistry, metallurgy, and physics long before those fields of knowledge emerged as "sciences" in the Seventeenth to Eighteenth Centuries.  One of the "mysteries" practiced by guilds, smiths operated according to the traditional apprenticeship system in which novices apprenticed themselves to a master smith (usually for a period of seven years in most guilds), working for the master in return for training in successively more arcane levels of the craft.  At the end of the apprenticeship, the novice graduated to journeyman level and could enter the guild as a member, before passing tests of mastery and taking on his own apprentices.  These modern smiths study ancient texts on the craft and learn by practice, "reverse-engineering" the processes that must have been necessary to produce ancient but lost achievements like "Damascus steel."  Note, too, that today's smiths include not a few women among their number.