Beautiful old English words

November 13, 2014
20 Forgotten Words :: English

Medieval Compliments, or, How to call someone 'beautiful' in Middle English

This is for the person who found my blog by googling how to say 'very beautiful' in Middle English. It's such a nice query that I feel inspired to answer it, for the benefit of any future romantics who may stumble over this page and want to know this useful fact.

To start with, whatever you want to call 'very beautiful', you couldn't go wrong with 'fairest'. This is a multi-purpose Middle English word of praise which you could use to describe a man or a woman, human, angel, animal, place, building, object, precious stone - pretty much anything. But I'm assuming this is for romantic purposes, so tell a girl 'thou art fairest of all thing', and that's a perfect medieval compliment. Here are some other ways to elaborate:

- tell her she is "of alle women fairest to behold" (or 'of alle men', as in Ancrene Wisse - 'most beautiful to look upon')
- or that there "was none fairer in world but [insert name here] alone" (from William of Palerne, l.4437)
- or she is "fairest of fair" (from the Knight's Tale; self-explanatory)
- or the "fairest flower of any field" (from a prayer to Mary)

Lots of the best examples of these kind of epithets come from poems addressed to Mary or Christ, but that doesn't make them inappropriate to apply to lovers, I think; the religious poems are deliberately employing the diction of romantic love, and there's often little to distinguish between descriptions or epithets applied to Mary and those applied to a female object of love.

The common conception of vintage Hollywood movies that medieval people went around calling each other 'sweet lady' and 'sweet lord' is, basically, true. You should feel free to call your beloved 'sweet' on as many occasions as possible; take your example from this poet, who is addicted to the word. You could try "sweet lemman" but might want to be a bit careful with that one - 'lemman' ('beloved') wandered downwords in the social scale over time, and descended from a word that could be used of Christ to one that described a woman one might be implying was a prostitute; so if your addressee is particularly sensitive to medieval sociolinguistics, steer clear of 'lemman'. If you tell her (or him; this one is unisex) that you're using it strictly in a thirteenth-century sense you might get away with it.

I'm personally very fond of the word 'leof', 'dear', which is good Old English too; 'my sweet leof' is a perfectly lovely way to address someone.

There's always "my dear heart", or for that matter "myn lykyng", or "my sweeting, my dear heart, mine own dear darling" - why not?

The carol One that is so fair and bright is full of excellent descriptors: I particularly recommend telling your beloved that she is "brighter than the day's light" or calling her "Lady, flower of all thing"; and there's "Of all thou bearest the prize" again.

This is an absolute tour-de-force of compliments, although perhaps a little over-the-top for my taste. None of the Harley lyrics do much for me, but you or your beloved might like them.

"Fair love, let us go pleye —
Apples be ripe in my gardayne;
I shal thee clothe in a new array;
Thi meat shal be milk, honey, and wine.
Fair love, let us go dine —
Thy sustenaunce is in my crippe, lo!
Tarry thou not, my fair spouse myne!"

Elsewhere in the same poem, Christ calls the soul "My fair spouse and my love bright" - a very nice way to talk to your wife.

How about a speech like this?:

"What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun,
My faire bryd, my sweete cynamome?
Awaketh, lemman myn, and speketh to me!
Wel litel thynken ye upon me wo,
That for youre love I swete ther I go.
No wonder is thogh that I swelte and swete;
I moorne as dooth a lamb after the tete.
Ywis, lemman, I have swich love-longynge,
That lik a turtel trewe is my moornynge.
I may nat ete na moore than a maide."

Things didn't end much better for Troilus and Criseyde, but if you are a woman who would like to compliment a man you could still pinch some of this:

swych a knyghtly sighte, trewely,
As was on hym was nought, withouten faille,
To loke on Mars, that god is of bataille.
So lik a man of armes and a knyght
He was to seen, fulfilled of heigh prowesse;
For bothe he hadde a body and a myght
To doon that thing, as wel as hardynesse;
And eek to seen hym in his gere hym dresse,
So fressh, so yong, so weldy semed he,
It was an heven up-on hym for to see.

Of alle men was he mest meke,
Lauhwinde ay and blithe of speke;
Evere he was glad and blithe -
His sorwe he couthe ful wel mithe.
It ne was non so litel knave
For to leyken ne for to plawe,
That he ne wolde with him pleye.
The children that yeden in the weie
Of him he deden al here wille,
And with him leykeden here fille.
Him loveden alle, stille and bolde,
Knictes, children, yunge and holde -
Alle him loveden that him sowen,
Bothen heye men and lowe.
Of him ful wide the word sprong,

See also:
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2 year old daughter knows her words :)
2 year old daughter knows her words :)
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