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  • Dialect, Rhyme, and Emendation in Sir Tristrem1
  • Ad Putter, Judith Jefferson, and Donka Minkova

I. Introduction

The thirteenth-century romance of Sir Tristrem is one of the earliest Middle English (ME) romances. Based on the Anglo-Norman Tristan attributed to Thomas, it is the only ME witness to the Tristan legend before Malory, and, although the surviving text is not complete (the end is missing), it nevertheless preserves more of the story than do all the surviving fragments of Thomas’s Tristan combined. While only one copy of the romance survives—in the famous Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates’ 19.2.1, ca. 1330), it was evidently well-known at the time, for there are allusions to it in a number of ME works (Cursor Mundi, 17; the Middle English Mirror, p. 1; the Laud Troy Book, 17–18; and Robert Mannyng’s Chronicle, I, 97–100).2 [End Page 73]

In view of Sir Tristrem’s literary importance, it is disappointing that there exists no thorough modern edition and that we lack a consensus about where the poem was written. Two early editors of the poem, Sir Walter Scott and George McNeill, thought the poem was Scottish.3 Eugen Kölbing, in what is still the most detailed edition of the poem, was also tempted to place it in Scotland near “Erceldoun” (present-day Earlston in Berwickshire), that being the place where, according to the prologue of Sir Tristrem, “Tomas” told the story to the narrator (1–2).4 Angus Mc-Intosh has since demonstrated, mainly on the basis of vocabulary, that Sir Tristrem cannot possibly be Scottish,5 though of course there remains the possibility that the poem as we have it was indeed inspired by an earlier Scottish story.6 McIntosh’s essay, however, shows no sign of familiarity with the work of Bertram Vogel,7 who had earlier drawn attention to the conspicuous absence of features that one would expect to find in the poem if it had been written in the far North, be it Scotland or the English North. As Vogel pointed out, OE hw is represented by wh, but not by Scottish qu(h) or by any other q spellings (qu, qw, qwh) found in early older Scots and of course also in many northern English dialects. We might add that there are no traces of s for s(c)h in shall, that the use of <i> after vowels to indicate vowel length is, despite suggestions to the contrary,8 not attested in this poem, and that neither rhymes nor spellings show any sign of the fronting of OE ō to /ø:/ or /y:/ that took place in Scotland and the north-ernmost counties of England (Northumbria, Cumbria Westmorland, and [End Page 74] Durham).9 More controversially, Vogel argues that both the Auchinleck scribe and the original poet were southerners, and that the northernisms in Sir Tristrem are best explained as dialect borrowings by a London-based poet who had lived in the North or who was at any rate familiar with the language there.

Granted that the Tristrem poet was not writing in Scotland or in the northernmost part of England, where in England was he from? Recent scholarship has left the question open. A Manual of the Writings in Middle English cautiously gives the dialect of the poem’s original composition as “South East Midland? Northern?,”10 and the poem’s most recent editor, Alan Lupack, concludes:

The preponderance of non-northern forms must be given due weight in a discussion of the dialect of the poem; and Vogel is certainly correct in asserting that we should not assume Sir Tristrem is northern. Rhyme words, often prized as linguistic evidence since they are more likely to be authorial, appear in both southeastern and northern forms. Perhaps it is impossible to decide absolutely; but the question of the poem’s dialect is worth further consideration. It may even be that additional literary-critical study of Sir Tristrem will shed some light on the question.11

How exactly a literary-critical study of Sir Tristrem can shed light on the question of dialect is not clear to us, but it...