Transcribing R. North’s Verses


From loue aboue a spendyng breath

Ys lent to us to leade oure lyfe

To lyve to dye whan hatefull death

Shall rydd us hēnce and stynt oure stryfe

My ynward mane to heavenly thy nos wold trade me

And styll thy’s flesh doth evermore disswade me

-R North

Retaine, Refuse, no frend, no foe,

Condeme, alowe, no chance, no choise

your fame, your life, shall end, shall growe

no badd, no good, shall pine, reioice

So helpe, so hate, mistrust your frend

as blisfull daies your life may end


The above text, embedded from the
As I worked through the transcription, I made a number of observations about the language employed as well as the text as a whole. In the following short reflection, I will be focusing on the physical aspect of the page as well as its content to draw out some conclusions — specifically philological ones – pertaining to the two verses at hand: “From loue aboue a spending breath” and “Retaine, refuse, no frend, no foe.”
To begin, it’s worthy to take a look at the physicalities of the page to try to draw out some observations related to the history of the text. The piece has the tell-tale signs of a Middle-English (or at the very least, an old) text: the old parchment is part animal skin, the worn-out binding, the faded beige/yellowed colour of the paper, and the small tears here and there. These and other elements of paratextuality such as the ink used and the lines drawn are suggestive of the manufacturing processes of the time.

The verses are also six lines each, with some starting in capital letters and others not, which tells us something about the poetic form and structure of the time. What’s more interesting about the page itself, however, is what we can see happening with the ink. If one were to take a closer look, there seems to have been a different text or a different variation of the same text under the current one. The ink is this verse (“From loue aboue a spendyng breath”) is clear and defined, as opposed to the second verse. This leads me to hypothesise that the verses were written, then the first verse was erased and updated — which would explain the differences in lettering (but more on that below) — and the second was not, eventually fading out. Of course, this is just an educated guess at best, and there’s no way of knowing more unless extensive research is conducted.

Such research would delve into the evolution of the penmanship of the author. There are subtle differences in the way the same letter is written from the first verse to the second, such as “ℰ” instead of “e.” If the author rewrote the first verse on the spot, then it’s peculiar that the first verse have that version of “e” and the second not. And if he rewrote/wrote over the first verse at a later stage, then I question its presence at all, given the fact that the first version (ℰ) is older than the second. This could go back to a number of things, such as the tendency to write certain words in certain ways. For example, when I write my last name, I change the “M” and the “R,” as such:

The possibilities are infinite, and that’s part of what makes this transcription exercise hard and fascinating at the same time.
On a more textual note, the differences between the Middle-English and Modern– English verses are plentiful. The most obvious difference is in the fact that the “e” was dropped from the end of a lot of words (growe VS grow; oure VS our; helpe VS help).

Another change is in the usage of “y” and “i.” In Modern English, a myriad of words begin with the letter “i,” but in the verses, the letter is scarce (what is today known as “inward” is “ynward” in the text. Similarly: “lyfe,” “styll,” “stryfe”). The pronunciation of the two is almost reversed, in fact; “daies” is Modern English’s “days,” so the phonetic aspect is different. Furthermore, the Modern English “S” changes its form depending on its placement within the sentence. It alternates between its modern use and its old one (ſ), with the latter changing form when joined with an “h” — a stylistic choice.
The examples of the “e,” “i,” “y,” and the “s,” or better yet, the evolution of these letters from Old to Middle and from Middle to Modern is an example of what is known as remediation. Remediation is the process of remedying a certain media — of correcting it. This by no means suggests that these symbols needed to be corrected. They simply fell out of disuse as readers let go of them for a simpler version. And as this process of transcription is digitalised in the media, the work both loses some of its value as well as gains some new values, which in and of itself is fascinating.

Finally, something I noticed about my personal handwriting is how easy it is to write in cursive in Modern English versus Middle English. The letters in the latter seem to be more stand-alone with few exceptions. That said, since penmanship is such a subjective thing, and I’m not acquainted with the language well enough to see if I can use it in cursive writing, that’s a point that remains particular to me.
In the grander scheme of things, transcription, extreme close-reading, and distanced-reading become important in understanding different aspects of an old text from a more contemporary analytical and literary paradigm to arrive at observations and conclusions pertaining to the historicity, contextuality, and paratextuality of the text.