Reading the Alliterative Morte Arthure

A page for English 344, The Arthur of the Britons

As we read the Alliterative Morte Arthure, we are going to spend some time working on reading the poem aloud. This page gives you samples, 25-30 lines each, upon which we will concentrate, as well as some very basic tools for pronouncing the language. Note that all of this is quite simplified: there are exceptions to most of the rules noted below. For more precise instructions, exercises, and samples, visit some of the links below.

I have concentrated on the vowels because they seem to cause the most trouble. I have used modern word equivalents for the sounds (rather than phonetic symbols). These rules are drawn from Helge Kökeritz, A Guide to Chaucer’s Pronunciation. Note that this guide and the resources linked below all relate to Chaucer’s language. The language of the Alliterative Morte Arthure is more northern, and would doubtless have sounded rather different from the London English of Chaucer’s day. It can be helpful to think of modern northern dialects with which you are familiar: Yorkshire, perhaps.

I have also recorded myself reading the whole poem, in sections or in one long file, here: The Alliterative Morte Arthure Aloud. These are not perfect recordings by any means, but I hope they will encourage you to experiment with your own reading aloud.

You can find translations of the passage below on the page Translating the Alliterative Morte Arthure.

Short Vowels

a – as in German Mann or French patte

e – as in bed

i, y – as in sit

o – as in dog

u – as in put

When is a vowel short? Single vowels before single or double consonants usually are short if the same word has a short vowel today. Exceptions are words like bread, breath, dead, heaven, where the vowel is like French père; and gone and hot, where the vowel is like law.

Long Vowels

a, aa – as in German Vater or French art

e, ee, ie – as in German sehen, French été: use this sound when the modern word has a sound like he, see

e, ee – as in there: use this sound when the modern word has -ea, as in speak, dream, and also head, bread

i, y – as in see

o, oo – as in German Sohn, French chose: use this sound when the modern word is like food, good, blood, other

o, oo – as in law: use this sound when the modern word is like most, stone, throat

u – as in French tu

When is a vowel long? Single vowels and digraphs (a combination of two letters to represent one sound, as in sea or see) are long if the modern word has a long vowel or a diphthong. Words spelled with -oo today are always long, even if we now pronounce them with short vowels. There are exceptions to these notes about long vowels: these include the fact that a and o are usually short when followed by f, s, th, and r.


ai, ay, ei, ey – aim for something between the sounds in lake and like

au, aw – a bit like the sound in house

eu, ew – rather like few; while there is another, somewhat different sound also corresponding to this spelling, this sound should get you started

ou, ow, ough – as in moon: use this sound when the modern word is like house, course, or through

ou, ow, ough – rather like know: use this sound when the modern word has a similar sound, or, before -ght, a sound as in law

Faking It

While I encourage you to use the other resources listed here to learn to pronounce Middle English more precisely, what I’m most interested in is that you should get some sense of how a poem like the Alliterative Morte Arthure works through its sounds. As with other languages, you need to have the nerve to make mistakes in order to progress to oral reading. Many people find they can at least start the process by using vowel-sound equivalents from various European languages: you’ll notice that French and German are both used in the simplified outline on this page. Marry those sounds to some kind of regional British accent, and you’re on your way…

Other Resources

How to Read Chaucer is a set of lessons from the Harvard Chaucer page (be sure to click the triangle next to Index at the left of the page to access the lessons

Chaucer’s Middle English: Don’t Be Intimidated! is a brief video that aims to demystify Middle English

Now grete glorious God through grace of Himselven
And the precious prayer of his pris Moder
Sheld us fro shamesdeede and sinful workes
And give us grace to guie and govern us here
In this wretched world, through virtuous living
That we may kaire til his court, the kingdom of heven
When our soules shall part and sunder fro the body
Ever to beld and to bide in bliss with Himselven;
And wisse me to warp out some word at this time
That nother void be ne vain but worship til Himselven
Plesand and profitable to the pople that them heres.

Ye that lust has to lithe or loves for to here
Of elders of olde time and of their awke deedes,
How they were lele in their law and loved God Almighty
Herkenes me hendely and holdes you stille,
And I shall tell you a tale that trew is and noble
Of the real renkes of the Round Table
That chef were of chivalry and cheftains noble
Both wary in their workes and wise men of armes,
Doughty in their doings and dredde ay shame,
Kind men and courtais and couth of court thewes,
How they won with war worshippes many,
Slogh Lucius the lithere that lord was of Rome,
And conquered that kingrik through craftes of armes;
Herkenes now hiderward and heres this story! (1-25)

The -gh is sounded rather like -ch in German

Roll your r’s, if you can: initial r- was probably still trilled even in Chaucer’s language, and in more northern dialects, the r- probably has even more force, wherever it occurs

Then he romed and rored and rudely he strikes
Full egerly at Arthur and on the erthe hittes;
A sword-lenghe within the swarth he swappes at ones
That ner swoones the king for swough of his dintes!
But yet the king sweperly full swithe he beswenkes,
Swappes in with the sword that it the swang bristed;
Both the guttes and the gore gushes out at ones.
That all englaimes the grass on ground there he standes!

Then he castes the club and the king hentes;
On the crest of the crag he caught him in armes,
And encloses him clenly to crushen his ribbes;
So hard holdes he that hende that ner his herte bristes!
Then the baleful birdes bounes to the erthe,
Kneeland and cryand and clapped their handes;
“Crist comfort yon knight and keep him fro sorrow,
And let never yon fend fell him o life!”

Yet is that warlaw so wight he welters him under;
Wrothly they writhen and wrestle togeders,
Welters and wallows over within those buskes,
Tumbelles and turnes fast and teres their weedes,
Untenderly fro the top they tilten togeders,
Whilom Arthur over and other while under,
Fro the heghe of the hill unto the hard rock,
They feyne never ere they fall at the flood marches;
But Arthur with an anlace egerly smites
And hittes ever in the hulk up to the hiltes.
The thef at the ded-throwes so throly him thringes
That three ribbes in his side he thrustes in sonder! (1124-51)

Pronounce both the k- and the n- when they occur together; remember “You and all your silly English k-n-ig-ihts”

Pronounce the -l- in “half”

Initial gi- is pronounced like the -g- in modern English “age”; this sound can also be spelled with a j-

“My name is Sir Priamus, a prince is my fader,
Praised in his partyes with proved kinges;
In Rome there he regnes he is rich holden;
He has been rebel to Rome and ridden their landes,
Warrayand wisely winters and yeres
By wit and by wisdom and by wight strenghe
And by worshipful war his owen has he won.
He is of Alexander blood, overling of kinges;
The uncle of his aiele, Sir Ector of Troy.
And here is the kinreden that I am of come,
Of Judas and Josue, these gentle knightes;
I am apparent his eier, and eldes of other;
Of Alexandere and Afrike and all tho out-landes
I am in possession and plenerly sesed.
In all the pris citees that to the port longes
I shall have trewly the tresure and the landes
And both tribute and tax whiles my time lastes.
I was so hautain of herte whiles I at home lenged
I held none my hip-height under heven rich;
For-thy was I sent hider with seven score knightes
To assay of this war by sente of my fader;
And I am for surquidrie shamely surprised
And by aunter of armes outrayed for ever!
Now have I told thee the kin that I of come,
Will thou for knighthede ken me thy name?” (2595-2619)

The -g isn’t pronounced in -gn in a word of French origin, such as regne

Initial h- is silent in loanwords from French, like hautain

Into Tuskane he turnes when thus wel timed,
Takes townes full tite with towres full high;
Walles he welt down, wounded knightes,
Towres he turnes, and tourmentes the pople,
Wrought widowes full wlonk wrotherayle singen,
Oft werye and weep and wringen their handes;
And all he wastes with war there he away rides;
Their welthes and their wonninges wandreth he wrought!

Thus they springen and sprede and spares but little,
Spoiles dispiteously and spilles their vines,
Spendes unsparely that spared was long,
Speedes them to Spolett with speres ynow!
Fro Spain into Spruysland the word of him springes
And spekings of his spenses; despite is full huge.
Toward Viterbo this valiant aveeres the reines;
Avisely in that vale he vitailes his bernes,
With Vernage and other wine and venison baken
And on the Viscounte landes he vises to lenge.
Vertely the avauntward voides their horses
In the Vertenonne vale the vines i-monges;
There sujournes this soveraign with solace in herte,
To see when the Senatours sent any wordes,
Revel with rich wine, riotes himselven,
This roy with his real men of the Round Table,
With mirthes and melody and manykin gamnes;
Was never merrier men made on this erthe! (3150-75)

Try to sound the w- in wlonk (good luck…)

“Do call me a confessor with Crist in his armes;
I will be houseld in haste what hap so betides.
Constantine my cosin he shall the crown bere,
Als becomes him of kind, if Crist will him thole!
Berne, for my benison, thou bury yon lordes
That in batail with brandes are brought out of life,
And sithen merk manly to Mordred children,
That they be slely slain and slongen in waters;
Let no wicked weed wax ne writhe on this erthe;
I warn, for thy worship, work als I bid!
I forgive all gref, for Cristes love of heven!
If Waynor have well wrought, well her betide!”

He said “In manus” with main on molde where he ligges,
And thus passes his spirit and spekes he no more!

The baronage of Bretain then, bishoppes and other,
Graithes them to Glashenbury with glopinand hertes
To bury there the bold king and bring to the erthe
With all worhsip and welth that any wye sholde.
Throly belles they ring and Requiem singes,
Dos masses and matins with mornand notes;
Religious reveste in their rich copes,
Pontificalles and prelates in precious weedes,
Dukes and douspeeres in their dole-cotes,
Countesses kneeland and claspand their handes,
Ladies languishand and lowrand to shew;
All was busked in black, birdes and other,
That shewed at the sepulture with syland teres;
Was never so sorrowful a sight seen in their time! (4314-41)