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Michiko Ogura, Words and Expressions of Emotion in Medieval English
by Erik Carlson

Ogura, Michiko. Words and Expressions of Emotion in Medieval English. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013. Studies in English Medieval Language and Literature 39. 345 pp. ISBN: 978-3631627747. $72.95 cloth.

The history of the emotions has become a busy field of study,[1] and Michiko Ogura’s book is aimed at contributing to our understanding of how the emotional vocabulary of English developed during the Middle Ages. Specifically, Ogura intends to present “a diachronic survey of words and expressions of emotion in connection with their syntactic and stylistic environments” (11) by sampling a corpus of Old and Middle English texts with occasional references to Early Modern English, represented by the King James Bible. In describing the emotional words and expressions of Medieval English, this book reaches “three conclusions: (1) lexical supersession, (2) syntactic continuity and (3) semantic ambiguity” (127), noting that many Old English emotion words were replaced by borrowed vocabulary, that participial constructions as well as now-obsolete impersonal and reflexive structures remained fairly stable through the period, and that, in a corpus of this scope, clear distinctions cannot always be made between the semantic territories of different words (127-9). These linguistic facts are too well-known to suffice as the conclusion to a book, and while the final paragraph qualifies these generalities with a philological appeal that “each lexeme has its own history,” this study pursues only a few cases singly. The book’s primary contribution to the field of historical linguistics is the application of syntactic arguments from Ogura’s Old English ‘Impersonal’ Verbs and Expressions[2] to illustrate the syntactic continuity of emotional expressions during a period of lexical change. This volume offers a descriptive survey of lexical supersession in the form of lists of examples, but its semantic claims and its arguments about the causes of lexical supersession are insufficiently supported.

The introductory chapter opens a semantic argument by gathering the words under consideration, with portions of the book’s lexicon listed by date of first attestation in the OED and the Middle English Dictionary and then by semantic field as the words are categorized in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED; Ogura usefully digests this information into a chronological table, as well. As the preface observes, distinguishing emotions from character traits, actions, or other circumstances is difficult. Although scholars including Hans-Jürgen Diller have suggested applicable criteria, this book avoids the difficulty by casting the lexical net widely: coward, avenge, and revenge make the list. Such inclusiveness reflects the need for a framework in which to identify the relevant vocabulary as well as to advance claims about its semantic structure. Ogura argues that “lexemes were roughly divided into those for the troubled state of mind and those for the blessed state of mind in Old English and then in early Middle English, after around 1200-1230 onwards, they became subdivided into anger, envy, hate, etc. and joy, happy, mercy, etc. as more subtle states of mind became lexicalized by Old French and Old Norse loan words” (129), a process depicted graphically on page 16. This book does not look for fine distinctions in Old English emotional vocabulary because, in comparing Old and Middle English Psalter texts, Ogura finds one-to-one correspondences between Old and Middle English emotion words to be uncommon and that “the more we examine the texts, we encounter further complex correspondences” (129). This begs the question by assuming that lexical variety reflects semantic variety in Middle English, but not in Old English. An argument that specifies criteria for identifying semantic diversity in either language while taking account of the textual histories of the Old and Middle English Psalters as well as their Latin source texts could support Ogura’s conclusion, but it does not appear in this book.

Chapter two provides a view of changing vocabulary during the Old and Middle English periods, gathering “typical examples that illustrate the different choice of words in order to show the causes of the lexical variety and supersession” (25). These examples are quotations from 27 works and groups of works arranged roughly in chronological order, beginning with a brief treatment of Old English poetry and ending with Arthurian literature in Middle English. This final section compares Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur with the Alliterative Morte D’Arthur and the anonymous Le Morte Arthur to demonstrate that “Texts written on the same literary theme do not always make the same choice of words, when they are written in different periods of time, like Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae (see 2.4), or when they are written in different style, like the death of King Arthur” (61). The argument looks to style and prosody as a cause for lexical variation, noting but not discussing the three works’ different dates and dialects. As importantly, there is no indication of which editions of these works are used, a crucial point for Malory. A clearer account of Ogura’s corpus as well as of the scholarship on textual tradition and context would help every part of this chapter, especially those treating the Gospels, where the Mercian and Northumbrian glossators of the Rushworth Gospels appear to be conflated, and Wærferth’s translation of Gregory’s Dialogues, a text whose manuscript history has been well studied. While an exhaustive integration of the textual criticism on the works treated here would overburden any single book, accounting for the textual history of Cursor Mundi would help extend the lexicological argument beyond an observation that four manuscripts of diverse origin “provide us with different choice of words of emotion together with some syntactic changes,” and that “a dialectal difference can be noticeable at times” (56).

Seeking causes for lexical supersession, the sections on Old English poetry and the Gawain-group look to prosody. Regarding Old English, Ogura posits that low alliterative frequency corresponds with a low rate of survival, suggesting that “we cannot easily define that less alliterating words are likely to survive into Modern English.” This conclusion is derived from a chart that provides inconclusive data: of the twenty-four words listed as highly alliterating, ten survive: wynsum, glæd, lað, wrað, sar, sorg, grimm, mildheortnes, and hete, as winsome, glad loath, wrath, sore, sorrow, grim, mild heartedness, and hate—perhaps wop, cognate with weep, may be admitted; on the other hand, of the eight words classified as less alliterating, four survive: bliss, lufu, þanc, and dream, as bliss, love, thanks, and dream (with semantic alteration) (25). Regarding Piers Plowman and the works of the Gawain-group, Ogura compiles statistics about the alliterating and rhyming frequency of native and borrowed emotional vocabulary, noting that alliteration serves fourteenth-century poetry differently from Old English verse, and that “the classification between highly alliterating and less alliterating becomes almost meaningless” (59). These samples do not suggest that prosody contributes reliably to lexical supersession or survival.Chapter Three is meant to “discuss synonyms” that “show semantic conflict or rivalry” (65). Six semantic fields are treated: anger, fear, joy, sorrow, comfort, and envy. Here Ogura’s interest in syntax and semantics bears fruit: the collocation of Old English fær and afyrhtan may contribute to the semantic change of Old English fær “sudden peril” to “fear,” as Ogura argues (68). In addition, Ogura documents the semantic overlap of dread and doute in Middle English, though she reiterates her position that lexical variation in the Old English vocabulary for “the troubled state of mind” results from “diachronic, regional, or translational differences” without seeking distinctions of meaning (71).

Chaucer makes a welcome appearance in chapter four as Ogura directs our attention to God’s love and the seven deadly sins, which overlap with emotional vocabulary. Some interesting lexical problems arise: In Ogura’s corpus, Chaucer alone uses ire, accidie, and avarice for Latin ira, acedia, and avaritia, which raises questions about the paths through which terms for the seven deadly sins arise: Anglo-Saxon translation (wrath), borrowing of French translations (gluttony), and borrowings that imitate the Latin. This chapter collates a great array of data, but its reticence to analyze leaves its purpose unclear. It opens with the statement: “In the semantic field of emotion, the lexical comparison among medieval texts is not enough, but themes peculiar to these texts should be considered at the same time” (89). It does not examine the relationship between the themes, the lexicon, and its semantic structure, devoting attention instead to the order and number of the deadly sins, which it treats as a phenomenon of English philology, without reference to the extensive scholarship on the relevant problems of doctrine and textual tradition, even though Morton Bloomfield’s encyclopedic book on the subject appears in the bibliography. The great difficulty of balancing lexicology with textual criticism in a study of this scope is epitomized in a case from this chapter. Regarding Vercelli Homily 3, Ogura suggests that sleacmodnes and unrotnes, listed together as the third sin, are “coupled to correspond with the later ‘sloth’” (94). The implicit chronology undermines the lexicological claim. The question of how these two words represent one sin is bound up in unexamined problems of textual history: if the compositor of this homily (or his source) is conflating two distinct lists of the cardinal vices or deadly sins, which lists are they, and are these two words crowding onto acedia or tristitia? No semantic conclusion can be drawn without an answer to this question. The conclusion this chapter reaches is that the translations of the deadly sins in Medieval English “were not strictly in one-to-one correspondence” (98).

Ogura turns to syntax in chapter five, “Impersonal and Reflexive Constructions.” Tracing the development of these syntactic structures, Ogura identifies triggers for syntactic change, a contribution that usefully complements emotion studies that prioritize non-linguistic context. For example, Ogura demonstrates that the Old English gelician “like, please” used to function impersonally until the borrowed word please took over the impersonal usage and like became personal (125). Less convincing are the statistical charts designed “to show the increasing tendency of the ‘impersonal’ verbs used with the nominative of thing” in Old English by sampling a text of the Cura Pastoralis and Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (101). While Ogura points out that the charts show an apparent increase, with “impersonal” verbs taking the nominative of thing 16 times (11.6% of “impersonal” verbs) in Aelfric versus 8 times (5.7%) in Cura Pastoralis, this result has a log likelihood score of 2.89, which is below the threshold of significance. More interesting is that 138 “impersonal” verbs are counted here from Aelfric’s text of 205,576 words, versus 141 from the 68,556 words of the Hatton manuscript of the Cura Pastoralis.[3] A clearer account of sampling methods, and of the representative quality of these two texts, is necessary.

A few lexicological errors appear in the book. Old English irre is erroneously derived from Latin ira (15, 65) and conflated with Middle English ire, which is correctly identified as a borrowing from French (127). While Latin ira must have influenced the sense development of irre, the variety of Germanic cognates (Old High German irri, Old Saxon irri, Gothic aírzjai) weighs heavily against a Latin origin for the Old English word (“*aírzeis”).[4] In a quotation from Guthlac A, orlege “fate” is wrongly identified as a form of ege “fear” (68). The first attestation of coward from the Middle English Dictionary is taken from the entry on cou-herde “cowherd” (18).

Unfortunately, the editing for this volume is spotty. Typographical errors are common and some sentences are syntactically incoherent: “This means that the reflexive construction is especially fond of among the West Saxon texts” (117); “As many citations read, the word meant the hurt that had done to someone and the act raised the emotion of shame, anger and/or grief” (65). On the second page, a paragraph is printed twice.

The bibliography is incomplete, missing editions for a number of the texts sampled here. This is especially important because Ogura relies on her own, undescribed corpus (24). Respecting scholarly studies, fifteen of the thirty-two listed items are Ogura’s own work; only one article by another author is from the decade prior to this book’s publication. Recent scholarship on emotions and on syntax, notably on transitivization, is not considered or engaged. The appendices that occupy the greater part of this 345-page volume are tables of varying words taken from the Old English Psalter glosses and the Gospels in Old and Middle English, plus a few pages of “Formulaic Expressions of Emotion in Old English Poems.” They are not discussed in the rest of the book, but they do complement its descriptive utility.


Erik Carlson
University of Arkansas-Fort Smith

[1] The development of this field in recent decades is surveyed by Jan Plamper in “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History and Theory 49 (2010): 237-265. Plamper interviews these prominent scholars whose works have deeply affected the field, prompting them to reflect on their own work and methods as well as to discuss new developments. Medievalists may take special interest in Rosenwein’s work, especially her book Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006). In Piroska Nagy and Damien Boquet’s Le Sujet des Émotions au Moyen Âge (Paris: Beauchesne, 2008) essays of theoretical and historical interest are balanced with arguments founded on word study—Rosenwein’s contribution, “Emotion Words,” seeks to describe a method for identifying emotion words that takes into account the changing shape of this category in antique and Medieval texts. Hans-Jürgen Diller also outlines practical criteria for distinguishing emotional vocabulary from the standpoint of historical lexicology in “Emotions in the English Lexicon,” in English Historical Linguistics 1992, ed. Francisco Fernández, Miguel Fuster, and Juan Jose Calvo (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1994), Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 113, 219-34. In this article Diller argues that corpora must be rigorously limited to be useful for studying emotional vocabulary, an idea he also develops in “Joy and mirth in Middle English (and a little bit in Old)” Middle English Miscellany: From Vocabulary to Linguistic Variation, ed. Jacek Fisiak (Poznan: Motivex, 1996), 83-105.

For ancient and Medieval understandings of emotions and an orientation to primary sources, see Simo Knuuttila, Emotions in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004) and Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000). See also the web resources, including a bibliographical database, assembled by Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy at EMMA: Les émotions au Moyen Âge.

[2] Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1986, Anglistica 25. 

[3] Ann Taylor, et al., “YCOE, Text Information,” in The York-Toronto-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose. Department of Language and Linguistic Science. University of York. 2003. Web. 10 Aug. 2014.

[4] “*aírzeis.” Lehman, Winfred P. A Gothic Etymological Dictionary. Leiden: Brill, 1986.



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Erik Carlson, "Michiko Ogura, Words and Expressions of Emotion in Medieval English," Spenser Review 44.2.45 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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