To start this discussion, it is important to have a general knowledge of the history of the English Language. It is also important to remember that many ecclesiastical and even civil documents were written in Latin as late as the 17th Century. English is most commonly divided into three general time periods; Old English, Middle English and Modern English. All of the other modern languages spoken in Europe (an for the rest of the world for that matter) can also be divided into distinct time periods based on linguistic change but I am focusing on English because of our English Common Law heritage in the United States.
In addition to Old English and Latin, the inhabitants of the British Isles spoke a language that is referred to as Anglo-Norman or French beginning with the Norman Conquest in 1066. French was dominant in the ruling classes into the 14th Century (remember that the 14th Century is the 1300s etc.). Here is an English Language Timeline. The earliest Old English inscriptions date from about 450 to 480 A.D. Some of the oldest Middle English manuscripts date from about 1150 A.D. Henry IV became the first English-speaking monarch since the Conquest.
What does this mean for genealogists? Modern English or New English began in the late 14th Century and was roughly understandable by modern English speakers in the mid-16th Century. Modern English is dated from a linguistic phenomena called the "Great Vowel Shift." See "What is the Great Vowel Shift?" As genealogists, we may not be overly concerned with how these earlier forms of English sounded, but we need to realize that they had a profound effect on vocabulary and orthography.
Here are examples of the three phases of English.
|Medieval Manuscript composed in the 11th Century|
|From the first page of Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Tale|
|A page from British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii, in which Middle English tales of Libeaus Desconus, Sir Launfal and Saint Patrick's Purgatory are also found|
Beginning Modern English
|Titlepage and dedication from a 1613 King James Bible, printed by Robert Barker.|
When genealogists venture into the world of old manuscripts for wills and probate actions, they soon find themselves embroiled in the issues of language and writing changes.
Here is a continued example of the transcription of the will I quoted in the first post in this series.
thirty fourth year of ye reign of o'r Soverereign L'd Charles ye second by ye grace
of God of England Scotland ffrance & Ireland King Defender of ye ffaith £c
& in ye year of o'r l'd God 1682 I John Walton ye elder of ye p'sh of
Kirtlington in ye County of Oxon yeoman do mak being very sick &
weake but in perfect memory do make & ordaine this my last will
& testam't in manner & forme following first I bequeath my soul
into ye hands of God my maker & my body to be buried in my p'sh
curchyard Item I give to my three daughters Margaret Dorothy &
Anne ten pounds a peece to be paid to each of them at illegible
Michaelmas next ensuing ye date hereof. Item I give to my wife
Judith my best cow, & my heifer. Item I give to my son Abraham to
five pounds to be paid at Michaelmas next ensuing ye date hereof. Item
I give to my wife Judith all ye corne now growing upon ye land belonging
to her. Item I make my illegible sons John & Abraham Joint Executors
of this my last will & testament, & w'ch goods I hav & mony I have to be
equally divided amongst betweene them, after ye five p'ds given to Abraham
is deducted & ye other Legacies
Witness my hand and seale ye day and
year above written
Sealed and delivered in ye
Probat' ... 15'o die Julij Anno D'ni 1682
.......... per jur'to Joh'is Filij .... Ex'torum
(resta? p'tate alteri) Cui comissa fuit ...........
The language of this will dates to the time of transition between Middle English and a more modern variety. When you get to this level of research, it is time to get out dictionaries. I will get into explaining the language and the law in subsequent posts in this series.
Here are the previous posts in this Will series.