Medieval Speech Bubbles illustrated in this picture from Medievalbooks.nl
One of the least-used aspects of history for re-enactors is probably language. In the SCA in particular, it would be impossible to communicate if the Landsknechts spoke Renaissance German to the Vikings, who spoke ancient Norse. If the Elizabethan re-enactors spoke Elizabethan English to the early Anglo-Saxon re-enactors, they wouldn’t understand the Elizabethans even though both are speaking the same root language.
That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s nothing to be done about how we communicate amongst ourselves. There is still something we can do with the language we mostly all speak, at least to each other, to sound a little bit more historic. Consider, if you will, the following perfectly good, modernly usable, and historic English words:
Hackle (noun). Origins include the Old Norse according to etymonline.com. In Old Norse, hekla was a hooded garment (frock/shirt). The Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online indicates that ofer-hacele refers to a cope or hood. In Old English the word also appeared as hacele, meaning a hooded coat or cloak. It also refers to the coat of an animal (dogs get their hackles up) or the neck plumage of a bird, according to Yourdictionary.com. Such ‘outer neck/shoulder coverings’ meanings seem to have transferred to the modern fishing lure made of a “cape” of male bird’s neck feathers and also as the metal tool name used since the 1500s, such tool used to comb flax or hemp fibers in preparation for spinning. It resembles the risen hackles of a dog. As a re-enactor you might acquire a hackle for yourself. Or look in your garb chest, where it could be hiding, thinking it’s an ordinary hood.
Historical use: from Teutonic Mythology by J.S. Stallybrass, London, 1883, vol. 3, “ON (ed: Old Norse.) hokul m. and hekla f., AS (ed: Anglo Saxon) hacele f. means garment, cloak, cowl, armor…And now remember Odin’s dress: the God appears in a broad-brimmed hat and a blue and speckled cloak (hekla bla, flekkot).”
Cupidity (noun) Contrary to modern usage, the erotic sense of the Latin word (a bubbling up of lust), in Modern English means ‘Overwhelming desire for wealth or possessions.’ It is often used to mean a lust for things, prestige, or power. Occasionally (let’s hope not here in our kingdom), it could apply to a fighter whose lust for the crown overwhelms his or her sense of fair play.
Used in an historical sentence: “Oh blind, oh ignorant, self-seeking cupidity which spurs as so in the short mortal life and steeps as through all eternity.” Dante Alighieri, The Inferno. (b. 1265).
Sleight (Noun or verb). Appears as early as the 12th century, From Old English (sleighthe) and Old Norse (sloegð), meaning trickery or out-witting, this word now means something akin to dexterity in a magic trick (sleight of hand) or a strategy. We could refer to our super-secret strategy for the field battle at Pennsic as sleight, if it involves cleverness or intrigue.
Used in an historical sentence: “Thus may we see that, wisdom and riches, beauty ne sleight, strengthe ne hardyness, ne may with Venus holde champartye.” Chaucer, A Knight’s Tale.
Waif (noun) Etymology Dictionary Online tells is that rather than referring to a thin person or homeless child (which it came to mean in the 1600s), in Anglo-Norman the word waif (gaif) meant lost property, flotsam, or stray animals. Oxford Dictionary Online tells us waif could be referring to the item a fleeing thief throws away. If unclaimed, the property was turned over to the Lord of the Manor. Sounds like the perfect label for an event’s lost-and-found trove! Your Dictionary also tells us that outside our period of history the word’s meaning preserved that relation to the water, as a waif is the name of the pole, pennon attached, used to mark the whale’s body so other crafts knew the carcas was claimed.
Bauchle (noun or verb). Etymology Online tells us that rather than meaning perplexed, as in modern English, the 15th c. word Baffle stems from a respelling of the Scottish bauchle, which meant to publicly disgrace someone, particularly a disgraced knight. Also from the old French bafoeur, which meant to abuse, ridicule, or trick someone. Caledonian Mercury’s website offers the information that the word typically meant a person who had passed their prime, or such a thing that should be discarded, such as an old shoe worn down at the heel. It can often refer to the act of defamation, as well as the person or object. More modern usage points to meaning confusion or a device used to impede the movement of liquid, light, or sound.
Used in an historic sentence: from an Adam Scott prayer recorded in 1865: An entreaty to God to give a young man some spark of ambition “….For if ye dinnae, he’ll be but a bauchle in the world, and a back-sitter in the neist.” Don’t we all know someone like that?
For more reading on the subject, and more great ways to medieval size your vocabulary, please visit these sites:
Anglo-Saxon to Modern English translation tool (also works in reverse).
Librarius, the Middle English to Modern English alphabetical listing.
An invaluable article that will help you figure out how to understand weirdly spelled words from Chaucer’s England.
Medieval England, a Phrase Book