Margaret Laing

Margaret Laing: a personal memoir

by Michael Benskin

Margaret Laing, smiling in the countryside

Margaret Laing 1953-2023

Dr Margaret Laing was one of the leading Middle English philologists of her time, and for the language of ca. 1100–1300, her authority was unrivalled. The content of the Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (LAEME, 2007) is entirely her own work, as is the preparatory Catalogue of Sources (1993), and she was co-author of the corpus of narrative etymologies linking the vocabulary recorded in LAEME to the earliest stages of English (CoNE, on-line 2013). As a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, and then as a Research Associate, she contributed to the content and codification of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (LALME, 1986); some twenty years later, with the present writer, she was responsible for creating a revised and enlarged version (published on-line as eLALME, 2013). Additionally, she was author or co-author of over thirty separate studies devoted to Middle English, notably on orthography, phonology, and exposition of texts; she also edited (and contributed to) a volume of collected papers on Middle English dialectology, and co-edited the proceedings of a conference (of which she was an organiser) on mediaeval dialectology and related disciplines. She was a regular contributor to the International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, and member of various advisory boards in both Britain and Europe. In Edinburgh, since 1987 as a Research Fellow, she was the enduring link between the first of the atlas-projects and what, via successive re-incarnations as the Middle English Dialect Project, the Institute for Medieval English and Scottish Dialectology, and the Institute for Historical Dialectology, is now the Angus McIntosh Centre.

Margaret Laing – “Meg” to all who knew her – died on 5 January 2023, four months short of her seventieth birthday, when her seeming recovery from a near-fatal A-streptococcus infection the year before was ended by a brain haemorrhage. The personal loss, hope raised only to be snatched away, is so much the harder to bear, and though this memoir is little more than a record of scholarship, it must be said at the outset that her warmth and engagement, enthusiasm and generosity, pervaded all that she did. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: Wren’s words could as well have been written of the congregation at the Memorial Service that filled St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, on February the 18th.

Meg grew up in Oxford at Mansfield College, where her father, the distinguished theologian and biblical scholar G. B. Caird, was Senior Tutor and then Principal, later becoming the Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture; her mother, Viola Mary née Newport – “Mollie” – who had read English at Oxford, was an accomplished poet. Meg’s mental make-up owed a great deal to a home that was family above all, where language and puzzles and music were part of the fabric of everyday life, and where, in face of three elder brothers, she was determined never to be left behind. Formally, she was educated at the Oxford High School for Girls, a demanding institution with a strong Classical tradition; besides Greek and Latin, her languages included French and Russian, and in all of her subjects she excelled. Her extra-curricular commitments included drama and music, choral music especially. In the sixth form, early success in the entrance examinations for the University of Oxford freed her from having to sit A-levels, St Hugh’s College having awarded her an exhibition (minor scholarship); the formalities for matriculation thus satisfied, she spent the months between in Italy, learning Italian.

Meg went up to St Hugh’s in 1971, to read for the Honour School in English Language and Literature. Her strengths in Old and Middle English were confirmed by her results in Honour Moderations the next year, and instead of taking the ordinary English course, an overwhelmingly literary progression from Beowulf to the early twentieth century, she continued with what then was known as “Course II”. This offered various combinations in the study of early English and related languages and literatures, with English philology at its core; Meg took her textual and literary options in Anglistik, with a special paper in mediaeval Latin. In those days, the English faculty at Oxford, many of whose members had known Tolkien and Lewis as their teachers, still housed a remarkable concentration of scholars who were eminent or would become so in the study of early English. At St Hugh’s, Meg’s tutors were Pamela Gradon and Avril Bruten; among others offering lectures and classes in the faculty were C. J. E. Ball, A. Campbell, Norman Davis, E. J. Dobson, Douglas Gray, R. F. S. Hamer, Anne Hudson, Bruce Mitchell, Celia Sisam, and Rosemary Woolf. Few undergraduates opted for Course II, and fewer still were allowed to take it, so even though graduate students for the B.Phil. or B.Litt. increased the numbers, the classes were small, encouraging close contact between teachers and taught. This could benefit both. Thus E. J. Dobson, in a term’s course on Ancrene Wisse, learned to look at lecture’s end for a question from Meg to forestall the vexatious interventions of a determined and misplaced graduate from abroad. Meg’s questions were inevitably well prepared, and from the answers she learned much; years afterwards she repaid, with a trenchant article defending Dobson’s stemma for the manuscripts, which had come under ill-informed attack. So much suggests a little of the academic atmosphere beyond the twice-weekly essays and their defence in one-to-one tutorials, and the hours spent in the Bodleian Library.

Study was far from the whole of Meg’s time in Oxford, though a bare record of academic achievement may read like predestination for a life of scholarship. In her final examination for the B.A., she achieved the rare accolade of a congratulatory first – at her entrance into the viva voce, the examiners applauded – and she was given her college’s prize for the most distinguished performance in finals. There were personal qualities, however, that would contribute no less to her teaching and research. One, which will surprise many, was self-doubt. For early example: at Oxford, in near despair at the difficulty of some of her Latin texts, she was reassured only in part when her father judged that even a good graduate in Classics – in which he himself was a double first from Cambridge – might be hard put to engage with them as she had thought was required. Self-doubt was to be answered by thorough preparation, as in all her scholarship and teaching; ever a spur to higher standards, it made her critical of her own work, sympathetic to her students, and willing to countenance the ideas of others.

It was Edinburgh’s good fortune that the University of Cambridge did not provide its medical graduates with the clinical practice essential to completing their qualifications. One such graduate was Ian Laing, whom Meg had known since his schooldays in Oxford with her brothers at Magdalen College School; by the summer of 1974, he was Meg’s husband. Of north-eastern Scottish family, for his clinical practice he turned to Edinburgh. At the same time, Meg was admitted as a Ph.D. student to the University, provisionally in the Department of English Language, of which Professor Angus McIntosh was then head, and to which, after a year as a lecturer in English language at Aberdeen, I had returned to resume work with McIntosh on the projected Middle English dialect atlas. In her application to Edinburgh, Meg’s proposed thesis topic was an investigation of Chaucer’s prose style, particularly in the Boece, but McIntosh decided that if she were to be taken on, it would be to work on something that would contribute to the atlas, and on condition that for practical purposes I would be her supervisor; if she insisted on Chaucer and Boece, then she would have to transfer to the Department of English Literature. Hence my first meeting with Mrs Laing was an effort made over lunch to persuade her to join the Atlas-project; steeped in Genesis-B, I watched the Tempter suborning Eve, iewde hire tacen and treowa gehet, his holdne hyge (“showed her a sign and promised good faith, his loyal intent”). I need not have feared. The outcome was neither disaster nor reproach, but close collaboration and scholarly exchange that continued until the end, and lasting friendship between our families.

Meg’s thesis, “Studies in the Dialect Material of Mediaeval Lincolnshire”, was submitted in 1978. Its timing was fortunate: as part of what in 1977 had become the Middle English Dialect Project, it had access to a data preparation unit and to the computational resources developed for the Project by Hamish Dewar, formerly of the Computer Science Department at Edinburgh. A corpus of linguistic profiles, once keyed to disc, could be scanned by his programs for formal errors, edited cumulatively, and then printed inexpensively; further, and critically, his programs enabled the linguistic profiles to be fully indexed, a task which previously had been error-prone of itself and laborious beyond reason. Such procedures are now taken for granted, mere trivia it may seem, but in those days limits to computer memory – the Project’s normal ration on the University’s mainframe was five megabytes – called for some ingenious programming. The Lincolnshire corpus was the first of the Atlas-material to be so treated, and the pattern of its presentation has endured. Enduring likewise was Hamish Dewar’s effect on our thinking: originally a Classicist, he had moved via philosophy to logic to computer science, and in the 1960s had designed and written the Edinburgh Compatible Context Editor (ECCE), still in use. Other skills, in codicology and texts and organisation, came to the Project with C. A. (“Tony”) Martin, formerly of the U. S. Army but then completing his doctoral edition of late Middle English devotional treatises in Edinburgh University Library MS 93. He returned to Tennessee and a civilian career in 1980, but the family friendship remains; he was at St Giles for the Memorial Service.

“Studies in the Dialect Material of Mediaeval Lincolnshire” offered, as was hoped, a thorough revision and consolidation of the dialectal configuration for that county, but it also offered, in evaluating the sources, some detailed studies of how the dialectal character of a text might reflect a copying history and its relationships to other copies. This became the subject of Meg’s first published article, “Translations and Mischsprachen in Middle English manuscripts” (1981), our joint contribution to a Festchrift for Angus McIntosh, and it was never far from mind in her subsequent research: whereas so many historical linguists accept written sources at face value, and rarely if ever ask how they had come into being, for her the question was inescapable – “Whose language is it, and how did it come into being?”

Meg’s first appointment to the university staff, as a Research Associate, had been confirmed the year before she completed her doctorate. She continued to work on the Atlas for another seven years, variously (she was raising a family) full-time and half-time, with proof reading of linguistic profiles and on-line editing, with preparing summary descriptions of sources, and with linguistic analysis of new material. In proof reading and (especially) the formatting and preparation of final copy, she was supported by Keith Williamson, on whom eventually fell the whole burden of creating files for generating camera-ready copy, and transmitting them, instalment by instalment, from Edinburgh to the Lasercomp at the University of Oxford. This was the beginning of a collaboration which lasted for the rest of Meg’s academic career. She was already taking the first steps towards the making of a linguistic atlas for early Middle English before her departure in 1985 to Boston, Massachusetts – another medical migration – and Williamson was contemplating a similar atlas for Older Scots. What remained of the Middle English Dialect Project had by then become the Institute for Medieval and Scottish Dialectology, where the Germanic philologist Patrick Stiles joined them for two years as a Research Fellow, and contributed much to the early planning; here, too, a colleague became a lifelong family friend.

During the two years in Boston, Meg continued her engagement with the Atlas, and extended her academic horizons; there was  an informal connexion with Harvard, as assistant to Morton Bloomfield, and she was a member of the English Faculty’s medievalists’ seminar. Works completed or largely prepared then, but not published until after her return to Edinburgh, include a volume of collected papers by Angus McIntosh and M. L. Samuels, with two weighty contributions of her own, Middle English Dialectology: Essays on Some Principles and Problems (Aberdeen University Press, 1989); American encouragement, from Margaret Amassian, sometime of Fordham University (New York), appears in Meg’s study of Richard Misyn’s translations of Richard Rolle, a demonstration piece in her “Linguistic profiles and textual criticism”.

On return to Edinburgh, the abiding theme for the next twenty years was A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (LAEME), first published on-line in 2007. Its webscripts were the work of Keith Williamson and Vasilis Karaiskos at Edinburgh, and of Sherrylyn Branchaw at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the introduction was written jointly with Roger Lass, but the content of LAEME is entirely Meg’s own. It is an extraordinary monument to the persistence and faith of one person, and would by itself have been enough to establish Meg in the front rank of English philologists.

Regardless of any computational aspects, the making of an historical linguistic atlas is inevitably complex. The sources are not living informants who can be interrogated, but such writings as happen to survive for the language and period in question. Written language cannot be treated as if it were a simple encoding of speech. It has its own dynamic, and must be analysed in its own terms; printed editions are here no substitute for the original manuscripts, and the boundary between palaeography and linguistics as conventionally understood is not easily drawn. Articles and conference proceedings had given some idea of what was in progress, but the scale of the enterprise first appeared in the Catalogue of Sources for a Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993). This contains detailed descriptions, with extensive bibliography, of the contents of some four hundred manuscripts then known to contain English from ca. 1100 to ca. 1300, and so of itself affords an invaluable conspectus and reference work for literary scholarship. Moreover, even from a linguistic standpoint, it is not just a preliminary to LAEME: during the century after the Norman Conquest, English as a written language was very largely displaced by Latin and French, whence the Catalogue is implicitly a cultural record of survival and re-establishment.

Although the atlas for early Middle English grew out of the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (LALME), and was largely informed by LALME’s methods of analysis, it was not constructed in the same fashion. Whereas LALME had been in progress for more than twenty years before access to computational procedures could play any useful part in its making, for LAEME they were a matter of routine from the start. Their application side-stepped a practical problem that was almost disabling, and it also created a different kind of atlas. First, the problem. LALME was based on a survey questionnaire, limited and of fixed format, and relatively few problems had arisen; the data-base was created with pen and ink, and the computer was primarily a means to publication, that is, to indexing and cartography. Early Middle English, however, preserved enough inflexional variation to make a survey  questionnaire on paper impractical: elicitations for an item would again and again overflow the space allotted to it. The problem was solved by keying the data directly onto disc, and that was most easily done by keying the sample text as opposed to a linguistic profile – a selective index – of the text. Each word in the text would be identified by a lexical tag (a “lexel”) and a grammatical one (a “grammel”), and from the text thus tagged a computer program would generate the linguistic profiles. This changed the outcome, and in important ways: the data-base for LAEME was a linguistically-tagged textual corpus from the outset, which could yield information far beyond establishing which variants and in which sources correspond to the categories of some pre-determined check-list. Both LALME and LAEME represent English at a time when there was no one form of it that could, however delusively, be regarded as the English language; English was inescapably a continuum of local and regional dialects. LALME portrays this continuum in respect of discrete and pre-selected categories, samples (albeit substantial) that can be extended or modified only by re-analysis of its sources; LAEME, by contrast, like the atlas for Older Scots created in tandem by Keith Williamson, makes the whole content of its sources open to linguistic analysis of whatever kind. One such, though hardly envisaged when Meg returned from Boston, was CoNE, the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies, a joint venture with Roger Lass which would dominate the last years of her scholarly life; in 1987, even their first collaboration was still fifteen years ahead.

Abandoning the questionnaire method in favour of the tagged text was an immediate improvement to the quality of the data-base for LAEME, in so far as a text transcribed could be checked word by word against its manuscript source; a completed questionnaire, on the other hand, can hardly be checked other than by repeating the analysis and hunting down the discrepancies, which lets agreements in error pass unnoticed. Transcription and then collation with the source inevitably puts greater demands on accuracy than does the noting of discrete forms in passing and logging them as they recur. Both analysis and transcription require that the text be understood, but intelligent transcription engages with context and recreates it in a way that the analysis underlying a linguistic profile does not. With LAEME, this engagement was reinforced by the subsequent lexical and grammatical tagging. Textual coherence was hence constantly in mind, and passages in some well-known literary works were found to have been misread or misunderstood. Methodological papers on the making of LAEME accordingly kept company with expository articles on “The Owl and the Nightingale” and “Dame Sirith”, beside studies of a sermon on the number seven, and of “The Names of the Hare”. Language was the focus, but content was never far from Meg’s view. Years later, when revising LALME, her long hours with an old and wretchedly inadequate microfilm were vindicated by a long and engaging study of “John Wittokesmede as Parliamentarian and Horse Owner”, which explained many an obscure term of art in fifteenth-century farriery. (One would not choose to have been a horse in his time.)

Perverse as it may seem, Meg’s collaboration with Roger Lass began long after he had moved from Edinburgh to Capetown: during his years in Edinburgh’s Department of Linguistics, chan

ce and departmental boundaries had brought their personal acquaintance to little beyond mutual recognition. (Those who think Chaucer and Langland must have known each other because they lived in London at the same time, had better think again.) Their first conversations, other than the fleeting and casual, took place during Lass’s brief return to Edinburgh for a conference which Meg also attended, and those conversations were productive: a phonological theorist who was also a language historian realised the value of the atlas corpora, and found expert guidance for understanding and using them; Lass joined the LAEME project as a full-time Collaborating Scholar in 2002. The ensuing series of eleven papers that he and Meg wrote together (2003–13), some first presented as joint conference performances, among other things confirmed the justice of Angus McIntosh’s perennial complaint that Middle English phonological history largely depended on the same few well-worn examples, “and heaven forbid that anyone should ever look at a manuscript”; a linguistic atlas, he had insisted from the start, is a research tool, and wherever possible its makers should avoid building into it assumptions that it ought to be the means of testing. Resting on foundations that he and M. L. Samuels had laid, the Laing/Lass papers show something of what now can be done, and needs to be done, in rewriting (but sometimes consolidating) the history of early English. The same appears in the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies, which, in the authors’ words, often extends to critiques of the handbooks’ descriptions and explanations, finding (for example) some supposedly well-established datings and timespans incompatible with the enlarged evidence now available.

More detailed review of Meg’s work on the atlases is obviously out of place here, but there is an overriding element that even a bibliographer would miss. The idea of what became the first of these atlases (LALME, 1986), was controversial from the start. The  underlying principles, particularly the technique for localising and exploiting the language of texts copied by scribes unknown, had been regarded with suspicion from their announcement in 1963, a suspicion that in some influential quarters rested on nothing more substantial than “not invented here”; reasoned objection was very far to seek. At the same time, mediaeval English philology was becoming polarised between literary scholarship and linguistics, and an enterprise so empirical and inconvenient as the making of a linguistic atlas was of no account whatsoever to those children of light for whom tragedy was a theory killed by a fact. But between the mid-1980s and the beginning of this century, attitudes changed, and LALME and LAEME, with all their limitations and all their strengths, are now accepted as basic reference apparatus. This owes a great deal to Meg’s unflagging efforts to explain and to show how they can be used, advocacy not confined to print but perhaps at its most effective in her many conference lectures and seminars – always thoroughly prepared, and her personality always engaging.

Throughout her career, Meg depended on short-term funding; that she never had a permanent appointment was to many outsiders incomprehensible, and an account of her scholarly career, however brief, would be failing were it to pass over this. Every three years or so the uncertainty of continuation would become acute for a project that must take decades, and applying for the next grant would absorb much of the energy that could have gone into research. The distraction is inescapable. A grant-giving body has to demand a detailed account of what is intended, what has been done, the likely problems, who shall be responsible for what, and estimates of the cost – but supplying such information within the prescribed categories, predicting the project’s progress and a realistic budget, and making the value of the intended work immediately clear to non-specialist adjudicators, can be more demanding and exhausting than any of the research that the grant would enable. And note “would”, not “will”: there is no guarantee that the application will be successful, that all the labour was not in vain. Users of LAEME can hardly avoid some sense of the scholarly commitment that it represents, but of administrative demands and personal hazard it remains silent.

The commitment and scholarship, however, were recognised, both at home and abroad, and most notably by her election in 2007 to Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi, The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. This brought her to Oslo for the first time. At the Academy’s annual general meeting, she was formally admitted and presented with her diploma by the King of Norway; it was a splendid and most gratifying occasion. A personal memoir, however, may perhaps be allowed to end on a less formal aspect of the visit. We took the opportunity for an archaeological tour and some bird-watching, over the border (but only since 1658) in Bohuslän, which, alas, failed to produce for Meg the much-desired elk. Keith Williamson’s successful visit two or three years later rubbed in the salt (a bull and two cows within a few yards of the car). But in June 2011, Meg had a second chance, coming back to Oslo as first plenary speaker at the 32nd conference of the International Computer Archive of Medieval and Modern English. The day before her “Continuity and discontinuity between early and late Middle English – comparing the maps in LAEME and e-LALME”, was accordingly a return to Bohuslän’s archaeology and birdlife, with some gleeful scrambling on inland cliffs – “But is this quite the way one should prepare for a conference performance?” And then, late in the evening, in Håvedalen on the long way home, an elk, first seen from afar on the edge of field and forest. Truly, a day to remember.

For bibliographical references, here only indicative, see the homepage for Margaret Laing at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Linguistics and English Language.