Your Medieval ABCs

We all remember reading ABC books when we were children. In medieval England, there was something similar, with a poem known as the ABC of Aristotle. Here are two of these texts in translation.

Historians have come across at least 15 manuscript copies of the ABC of Aristotle. They were copied between the mid-15th and early 16th centuries and were typically found with other texts for educating or offering advice on matters of daily life. While the text teaches some words, its main aim is to give the reader moral instruction usually by avoiding various bad behaviors.


The first translation was done by Edith Ricket as part of The babees’ book: medieval manners for the young, published in 1905. It translates the version found in MS Lambert 853:

Whoso wills to be wise and worship desires,
Learn he one letter and look on another,
Of the A B C of Aristotle. Argue not against that.
It is counsel for right many clerks and knights a thousand,
And eke it might amend a man, full oft,
For to learn lore of one letter, and his life save;
For too much of any thing was never wholesome.
Read oft on this roll, and rule thee thereafter.
Whoso be grieved in his ghost, govern him better;
Blame he not the bairn that this ABC made,
But wite he his wicked will and his work after.
It shall never grieve a good man, though the guilty be mended,
Now hearken and hear how I begin.


Be not —

A too Amorous, too Adventurous, nor Argue too much.
B too Bold, too Busy, nor Babble too long.
C too Courteous, too Cruel, nor Care too sorely.
D too Dull, too Dreading, nor Drink too oft.
E too Elenge, too Excellent, nor too Earnest neither.
F too Fierce, too Familiar, but Friendly of cheer.
G too Glad, too (vain-)Glorious, and Gelousy thou hate.
H too Hasty, too Hare-brained, nor too Heavy in thy Heart.
J too Jetting, too Jangling, nor Jape not too oft.
K too Kind, too Keeping, and beware of Knaves’ tricks.
L too Loth, too Loving, nor too Liberal of goods.
M too Meddling, too Merry, but as Measure asketh.
N too (an-)Noying, too Nice, nor too New-fangled either.
O too Overbold, too Overthwart, and hate thou Oaths.
P too Praising, too Privy with Princes or dukes.
Q too Quaint, too Querulous, and Queme thy master.
R too Riotous, too Revelling, nor Rage too Rudely.
S too Strange, too Stirring, nor Stare too strangely.
T too Toiling, too Tale-bearing, for Temperance is best.
V too Vengeful, too Envious, and (a-)Void all Villainy.
W too Wild, too Wrathful, nor Waste, nor Wade too deep.

For a Measurable Mean is best for us all.
Learn this or go Lacking.

Here are what some of the lesser-known words mean:

Wite = Blame
Elenge = Melancholy
Gelousy = Jealously
Jetting = Ostenatious
Jangling = Chattering
Jape = Joke
Nice = Particular
Overthwart = Obstinate
Privy = In the confidence of
Queme = Please

15th-century manuscript showing a folio with a sample alphabet. British Library Add MS 88887, f. 26r

The second translation was done much more recently by Ian Cornelius, from an article he wrote in 2021. He examines the version found in the manuscript British Library, Additional 60577, which is also known as the ‘Winchester Anthology’. According to Cornelius, this version is the most unique of all the surviving versions, with many different words used.

May Christ’s cross be our helper with grace [and] mercy in our every need.

A [Be not] too amorous [nor] too daring; think before you answer.
B [Be not] too anxious [nor] too bold; do not jest too freely.
C [Be not] too cruel [nor] too grasping; do not worry over-much.
D [Be not] too dull [nor] too fearful; do not drink excessively.
E [Be not] too dejected [nor] too exalted; take care to follow virtue.
F [Be not] too vigorous [nor] too weak; avoid false fellowship.
G [Be not] too severe [nor] too scolding; let good governance suffice.
H [Be not] too meek [nor] too rash; hew not too high.
I [Be not] too gossipy [nor] too joking – never with your superior.
K [Be not] too gracious nor too crude; beware of vulgar habits.
L [Be not] too cheerful [nor] too generous; look before you leap.
M [Be not] too merry [nor] too mournful; a mean is a good portion.
N [Be not] too foolish [nor] too annoying; stinginess is worthless.
O [Be not] too outrageous [nor] too contrary; be obedient.
P [Be not] too privy [nor] too open; be gracious at leave-taking.
Q [Be not] too clever nor too forward in asking questions.
R [Be not] too unruly [nor] too sorrowful; rule yourself by reason.
S [Be not] too prodigal [nor] too frugal; spend in due season.
T [Remember(?)] to temper your tales well and guard well your tongue.
V [Be not] too rude nor too fair; consider before you marry.
X To Christ we pray, wherever we be
That we might learn this ABC.


The babees’ book: medieval manners for the young, by Edith Ricket, is available through

Ian Cornelius’ article, “The text of the “ABC of Aristotle” in the ‘Winchester Anthology’,” was published in Anglia. You can read it via Loyola Univeristy Chicago eCommons.