The Wycliffite Bible and ‘Central Midland Standard’: Assessing the Manuscript Evidence

The Wycliffite Bible and ‘Central Midland Standard’: Assessing the Manuscript Evidence

By Matti Peikola

Nordic Journal of English Studies, Vol 2, No 1 (2003)

Introduction: M. L. Samuels’ article “Some applications of Middle English dialectology” belongs to those rare pieces of scholarship which continue to be discussed and debated forty years after their original publication. Basing his arguments largely on orthographic evidence, Samuels outlined four types of incipient written standard in late ME (Types I-IV). Of these, Type IV (‘The Chancery Standard’) is the one most widely discussed by subsequent scholars with regard to its role in the evolution of Standard English. The interest shown in Type I (‘The Central Midland Standard’ or CMS) has been of a different, less diachronic kind, because its usage seems to have waned towards the end of the 15 th century.

Why did CMS decline in spite of its apparent initial success and wide dissemination at the turn of the 15th century? The fate of its usage has sometimes been linked with that of the Lollards; since Wycliffite texts have traditionally been viewed as the core of the writing produced in Type I, the stigmatisation of Wycliffism has been presumed to have cast a shadow over the prestige of CMS. It is also possible to see the ultimate reason for the demise of CMS in its failure to make its way into administrative writing. Recent research on standardisation shows that this function is likely to be decisive in the ultimate establishment of a standard language. The possible association of Type I with the University of Oxford, and its widespread use in medical and scientific writing make CMS appear primarily as belonging to the academic register, in a marked functional contrast to the administrative Type IV.

Before questions about the rise and fall of Type I can be meaningfully posed and answered, however, it is necessary to clarify in what sense, if any, can CMS really be regarded as a coherent, historically attestable entity. That Samuels’ Types can hardly be viewed as standards proper is a position currently shared by most scholars. Although we have much evidence of late medieval awareness of orthographic variation in English, and comments about the communicative facility provided by Midland speech can be found in coeval sources, it is highly doubtful whether these attitudes as yet betokened an intentional prescriptivist ideology of standardization. The methodological difficulty of reconstructing a standard language almost entirely from orthographic evidence has also been noted by those researchers who prefer to see standardisation as a phenomenon extending to all levels of language.

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