It has already been shown that the rapid rise and spread of the Midland dialect during the fourteenth century practically put an end to the literary use of Northern not long after 1400, except in Scotland. It affected Southern in the same way, but at a somewhat earlier date; so that (even in Kent) it is very difficult to find a Southern work after 1350. There is, however, one remarkable exception in the case of a work which may be dated in 1387, written by John Trevisa. Trevisa (as the prefix Tre- suggests) was a native of Cornwall, but he resided chiefly in Gloucestershire, where he was vicar of Berkeley, and chaplain to Thomas Lord Berkeley. The work to which I here refer is known as his translation of Higden. Ralph Higden, a Benedictine monk in the Abbey of St Werburg at Chester, wrote in Latin a long history of the world in general, and of Britain in particular, with the title of the Polychronicon, which achieved considerable popularity. The first book of this history contains 60 chapters, the first of which begins with P, the second with R, and so on. If all these initials are copied out in their actual order, we obtain a complete sentence, as follows:—“Presentem cronicam compilavit Frater Ranulphus Cestrensis monachus”; i.e. Brother Ralph, monk of Chester, compiled the present chronicle. I mention this curious device on the part of Higden because another similar acrostic occurs elsewhere. It so happens that Higden’s Polychronicon was continued, after his death, by John Malverne, who brought down the history to a later date, and included in it an account of a certain Thomas Usk, with whom he seems to have been acquainted. Now, in a lengthy prose work of about 1387, called The Testament of Love, I one day discovered that its author had adopted a similar device—no doubt imitating Higden—and had so arranged that the initial letters of his chapters should form a sentence, as follows:—“Margarete of virtw, have merci on Thsknvi.” There is no difficulty about the expression “Margarete of virtw,” because the treatise itself explains that it means Holy Church, but I could make nothing of Thsknvi, as the letters evidently require rearrangement. But Mr Henry Bradley, one of the editors of the New English Dictionary, discovered that the chapters near the end of the treatise are out of order; and when he had restored sense by putting them as they should be, the new reading of the last seven letters came out as “thin vsk,” i.e. “thine Usk”; and the attribution of this treatise to Thomas Usk clears up every difficulty and fits in with all that John Malverne says. This, in fact, is the happy solution of the authorship of The Testament of Love, which was once attributed to Chaucer, though it is obviously not his at all.
But it is time to return to John Trevisa, Higden’s translator. This long translation is all in the Southern dialect, originally that of Gloucestershire, though there are several MSS. that do not always agree. A fair copy of it, from a MS. in the library of St John’s College, Cambridge, is given side by side with the original Latin in the edition already noticed. It is worth adding that Caxton printed Trevisa’s version, altering the spelling to suit that of his own time, and giving several variations of reading.