ANGUS McINTOSH, University of Edinburgh
M.L. SAMUELS, University of Glasgow
MICHAEL BENSKIN, University of Oslo
with the assistance of Margaret Laing and Keith Williamson
University of Edinburgh



A project which has been a third of a century in the making might be thought to merit a detailed exposition of all the problems encountered in the course of its long history. This would throw interesting light on the complex and sometimes haphazard nature of large-scale academic research in the humanities. But a full account of that sort must await treatment in a broader context, such as I propose to publish elsewhere at a later date. I hope, however, that the introductory material following this preface, together with the sub-introductions which are prefixed to different parts of the work as a whole, will suffice to make it possible for the Atlas to be used to full advantage.

It is appropriate here, however, to call attention to the difficulties attendant upon any protracted research of a pioneering kind. No-one has expressed this better than Samuel Johnson in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language:

A large work is difficult because it is large, even though all its parts might singly be performed with facility; where there are many things to be done, each must be allowed its share of time and labour in the proportion only which it bears to the whole; nor can it be expected that the stones which form the dome of a temple should be squared and polished like the diamond of a ring.

The surviving corpus of material displaying linguistic variation in late mediaeval English is vast and is still surprisingly ill-explored. So it must be emphasised that what is presented in this atlas can be no more than a prelude to a very large enquiry indeed. To those who may find fault with the work for not being ‘definitive’ (whatever that might mean), I can only invoke Dr. Johnson again, quoting this time his words in defence of Pennant: ‘here is a man six feet high and you are angry because he is not seven.’

The material presented in the Atlas may strike students of the history of the language as dauntingly complex. It is to be hoped, however, that those who use and build on it will come to illuminate the order which underlies that complexity so that it will at least be found to manifest what Herbert Spencer, in another context, calls a ‘coherent heterogeneity’. The present work does not even attempt elaborate clarifications of the phenomena displayed in it but it may serve to make this task a little easier for others. I believe that for us to have attempted anything such ourselves would have made impossible the completion of the present work within the lifetime of its initiators.

However orderly or disorderly the ‘facts’ of late Middle English may turn out to be, there can be no doubt of their relevance to serious students of the modern language. It is therefore to be hoped that the material set forth in the Atlas will in due course be meaningfully correlated with phenomena belonging to the diverse forms of the modern language now current in different parts of the world. There can be few parallels to this fascinating state of affairs, in which the dialectal characteristics of a language at two stages of its history, over half a millennium apart, are available in such richness for detailed scrutiny and comparison.

As I have said, the full history of what became known as the Middle English Dialect Project belongs elsewhere. It is proper to record here, however, the two circumstances that led to its inception: first, my own observation of, and modest participation in, investigations of modern dialects and a subsequent conviction that students of mediaeval English had much to learn from the way such work was carried out; second, the important pioneer studies on the dialectology of Old and Middle English carried out in various centres for the most part during the half century before the second World War; such work, both because of what it achieved and because of the great deal that it failed to achieve, exerted a powerful stimulus. Active planning of a new approach to mediaeval English became possible for me in the autumn of 1952. But the initial problems, practical and theoretical, were considerable, and the project was clearly not one to embark upon lightly. One drawback was that several years of work would clearly be necessary before one could know whether the research was likely to lead to any worthwhile results. At a very early stage, I had the good fortune to persuade Michael Samuels, then a colleague in my own department in Edinburgh, to collaborate with me in this somewhat hazardous undertaking. Only after some ten years of intensive work did we feel able to assert (and in some degree demonstrate) that what we had undertaken was beginning to emerge as a rewarding and important enquiry.

Nevertheless, we had for a long time after that a problem which it was very difficult to explain to scholars who were mainly anxious simply to be put in quick possession of dialectal information for their own diverse purposes. It was this: that the nature of the material and of what we sought to learn therefrom made it impossible to produce adequate results seriatim for different parts of the country, as was done, for example, though only at a a certain price, in the county-by-county volumes of the English Place-name Society. We soon saw, as I shall explain shortly, that it would be necessary to reach conclusions about the variation manifested in all parts of the country by a considerable number of linguistic items before we could with any confidence make statements about the dialectal characteristics of any one part.

This accounts for what, in the circumstances, might otherwise seem to be a grandiose and unrealistic urge to cover far too much ground. For there were very few texts of known provenance, especially literary ones. Though there were evidently very many which were richly dialectal, the greater part of these had never even been examined linguistically and most of them were unpublished. So the bulk of our source material had to be unearthed bit by bit before it could be analysed and classified dialectally in the manner to be described more fully later in this volume. It was as if investigators carrying out a survey of modern dialects were first obliged to track down most of their informants to all kinds of unexpected hiding places instead of having (as would normally be the case) as many as they needed, readily available and adequately classified, before the start of the investigation.

In these circumstances, though the work began, as it happened, with an extensive examination of printed editions of purely northern texts, the mere preliminary isolation and identification of an adequate corpus of surviving northern material was a considerable task. It was soon perceived to entail an extension of the investigation into the distinctive characteristics of the various mediaeval dialects of the north Midlands; this in turn required the scrutiny of material from still further south. Before long it became clear that the information which was thus accumulating about the Midlands, East Anglia and southern England was richly rewarding in its own right and the scope of the work was broadened accordingly to its present dimensions.

As the work on northern Middle English proceeded, more and more literary manuscripts from the five northern counties (ultimately well over 200) were identified as such, as well as a far larger number of documentary texts. But the very considerable degree of homogeneity of most surviving examples of written Middle English from the north made the task of ‘placing’ unlocalised texts at specific points extremely difficult. In consequence, despite our best efforts, no convincing geographical arrangement of anything like all the available material originating somewhere within the five most northern counties has so far been possible. This failure, after a personal preoccupation, stretching over exactly half a century, with the mediaeval dialects of that area, is naturally a source of great disappointment to me. But its implications are themselves not without interest and importance; the mere fact of such homogeneity invites investigation. Furthermore, the problem of placing such texts may well prove less recalcitrant as more comes to be learnt about the dialectology of southern Scotland and as computer-assisted techniques for the adequate linguistic ordering of the very large mass of northern source material are perfected. In relation to this matter, as to many others, the present work will, I hope, be regarded as a necessary prelude to such further enquiries as others may care to make, and be utilised accordingly. It will have failed in one of its main purposes if it is assumed to provide answers to all outstanding problems about the dialects of late mediaeval English. What it does, in this direction, is to make feasible various kinds of research into Middle English which it has not been possible hitherto to pursue adequately. As is already evident, the result of such enquiries is of far more than purely linguistic interest. It can throw light on such varied questions as: the provenance of a literary work; the dissemination of multiple copies of it; the textual relationship between these copies; the spread of the ideas and information contained in the work, and the cultural and sociological background to such activity.

It should be noted here that in the Index of Sources printed in Volume I there are many entries referring to mediaeval Hiberno-English manuscripts, although the linguistic material has not been presented. The special problems that this corpus raises will be treated in a future study by Professor Benskin.

Sustained work on the dialectology of Early and Middle Scots has not so far been attempted. This neglected subject is of great magnitude; it will be undertaken by the Gayre Institute for Medieval English and Scottish Dialectology (founded 1984) of the University of Edinburgh, working in collaboration with scholars at the University of Glasgow and elsewhere. With the completion of the third and final volume of the Linguistic Survey of (modern) Scots, this projected complementary investigation of the language at a much earlier stage of its history has also acquired increased interest and importance. Meanwhile, the Institute has also embarked upon a long-term study of the written English surviving from the period ca. 1100 to ca. 1250.

By 1963 Professor Samuels and I realised how large a task we had undertaken and how much remained to be done. We decided, therefore, to seek financial support for it from outside. At first we secured only enough to provide us with intermittent part-time assistance. But even this help was crucial, and grateful acknowledgment of it is made to the Leverhulme Trust, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, and the Nature Method Centre, Charlottenlund, Denmark. In 1972, financial aid on a larger scale from the British Academy made it possible to engage the services of Michael Benskin, now Professor of Older English Language at the University of Oslo; as the holder of an Advanced Studies Scholarship (1969-72), he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Glasgow, working on the dialects of mediaeval Hiberno-English under the supervision of Professor Samuels. The concluding stages of the research for the Atlas were made possible by a grant of $160,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of New York in the spring of 1976. This award made possible the continuation of Mr. Benskin's research fellowship for work on the Atlas until the summer of 1984, and the appointments of Dr. Anthony Martin and Mr. Hamish Dewar, for the period October 1977 to December 1979. It also enabled us to enlist the part-time services of Dr. Margaret Laing (from 1978) and of Dr. Keith Williamson (from 1982). We are also specially indebted to Mr. and Mrs. Samuel A. Galpin of New Haven, Connecticut, who came most generously to the rescue of the project at two critical points in its financial history, one early and one late.

Over the years, the research work has had to adjust to changing conditions. There has been a marked and welcome improvement in facilities for acquiring microfilms and photocopies of mediaeval source material. The Atlas is the fuller and more comprehensive because regional archive offices have steadily grown in number, and in the size and accessibility of their holdings. Recent developments in computational techniques have brought within reach new ways of storing and processing our findings. Happily, it has in the nick of time become feasible also to produce the Atlas, both text and maps, with the aid of computers. Without such technology, a work on the scale of this one would by now have become too expensive to bring out at all.

In this connection, we owe particular thanks to Mr. Dewar, whose innovative programs were crucial to the preparation of the Atlas. More recently his work was followed up by Mr. Robert Cowham and Mr. Adrian Doyle, former computer science students at Edinburgh University; the map-formatting programs are chiefly the work of Mr. Doyle. The Atlas likewise owes much to the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre, to its former director Dr. G.E. Thomas, and to Mr. C.A. Mackinder, Principal Computing Officer, particularly for seconding Mr. Colin Holden to the project during the early part of 1984; at a crucial stage in our work, Mr. Holden wrote and implemented a complex text-formatting program, which is responsible for all of the conventional typeset in these volumes. We are also indebted to Mr. P.D.A. Schofield, head of the Edinburgh University Department of Computer Science for much sound advice, for making available to us a microcomputer (which helped to reduce the final editing to a manageable task), and for securing for us practical assistance from students under his charge. Professor Peter Buneman, now of the University of Philadelphia, and Mr. Neil Mitchison have also collaborated in computational aspects of the work. We are grateful for the assistance more recently provided by the Oxford Computing Service and especially to Dr. Ruth Glynn for helping to bring about the conversion of data into appropriate camera-ready form. The exacting task of putting the Atlas material into machine readable form was undertaken by the Data Preparation Unit of the Edinburgh Regional Computing Centre. We are indebted to Mr. W. Gordon and to Mr. W.A. Aitken for their management of this operation.

It would be difficult, and perhaps invidious, to attempt to cite individually all the people, including many students, who at different stages have contributed to cartographic work and to other time-consuming tasks; we express our thanks and appreciation to all who helped us in such ways. We are specially indebted to Mr. George Leslie for cartographic help during the earlier stages of the project and to Mr. James Renny for his expert help in the final stages of the work with map outlines and other cartographic details.

We have solicited help from a large number of repositories, both public and private, and have met in almost every case with heartening kindness and courtesy. Grateful acknowledgment is here made to the many librarians, archivists and keepers of manuscripts, both in Britain and abroad, who have given us permission to use material under their care for the purposes of the Atlas. The repositories containing such material are referred to in the Index of Sources in volume I.

I recall with particular gratitude the generous assistance received at a very early stage of the work from Professor Hans Kurath, at that time editor of the University of Michigan Dictionary of Middle English. He most kindly put at our disposal, not only all the lists of mediaeval documentary material compiled for that dictionary, but also microfilms of numerous transcripts, photostats and original texts. It is pleasing to recall that this link with Ann Arbor preceded by many years the subsequent additional association of the two projects as major beneficiaries of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The work has brought us into contact with individual Middle English scholars all over the world. We are specially indebted to Dr. Anne Hudson for her assistance with Wycliffite material, to Professor Norman Davis and Dr. Richard Beadle for much information about East Anglian material and to Professor Celia Millward for the numerous detailed analyses she made of texts written in Norfolk dialect. Such assistance as we have been able to give to others has been amply reciprocated, and it is to be hoped that the Gayre Institute will become a permanent centre for the world-wide exchange of ideas and knowledge bearing on the dialectology of mediaeval English and Scots.

I should like here to pay warm personal tribute to three scholars to whom the project owes special thanks. Almost from its inception Dr. A.I. Doyle of the University of Durham has both given strong moral support and shared with us the fruits of his great erudition. The late Dr. Neil Ker was my friend for almost fifty years; I was one of his first pupils and I owe him thanks for his unfailing readiness to bring his massive scholarship to bear on some of our problems. Thirdly, over the twenty-five years up to his retirement in l978, Mr. C.P. Finlayson, Keeper of Manuscripts, Edinburgh University Library, supervised the accumulation of a large number of photographic reproductions of manuscripts containing Middle English. Without the collection thus built up, the constant search for relevant texts and their scrutiny and analysis would have necessitated the stamina, mobility and financial resources scarcely to be found except in a squad of highly ranked international tennis players. It is a matter of great sadness that Mr. Finlayson did not live to see a work to which his own self-effacing efforts over almost three decades contributed so significantly.

The authors owe a large debt of a different kind to Professor John Burnett, Principal of Edinburgh University, for the unfailing support which, unostentatiously but effectively, he has given to the Atlas project over the last six years. We are grateful to Mr. Colin MacLean, Managing Director (Publishing), Aberdeen University Press, for the experience, understanding and good will he has brought to bear on all problems, practical and otherwise, connected with the publication of these volumes. Thanks are also due to Professor James Thorne, my successor in the Chair of English Language and now also Director of the Gayre Institute, who has given much support to the work at various critical points in recent years.

The project in its concluding stages has benefited greatly from the typing and associated skills of Mrs. Alison Bowers; it has also made use of suggestions from Dr. Patrick Stiles about the content and organisation of the introductory material. Finally, it is no exaggeration to say that the completion of the Atlas at a time anywhere near this present date would have been quite impossible without the unstinting help provided in recent years by Dr. Laing and Dr. Williamson. I wish to set on record here my special sense of indebtedness to Dr. Williamson for the great patience and skill with which he has carried out the long and difficult task of getting the entire Atlas into camera-ready form.

September 1986