One of the most common words in Middle English poetry and prose is hende, an adjective (or, occasionally, an adverb) usually glossed as “gentle,” “courteous,” or “gracious.” Etymologically, the word hende derives from the Old English word gehende, which meant “nearby” or “convenient” - literally, "at hand", but by the Middle English period, the word had come to be associated with the nobility and the court, and the vast majority of occurrences of the word denoted the first definition given for "hende" by the Middle English Dictionary:

a) Having the approved courtly or knightly qualities, noble, courtly, well-bred, refined, sportsmanlike(b) as noun: a noble person; in direct address: good sir, gracious lady, pl. ladies and gentlemen; as (the) ~, like a gentleman (lady), politely; (c) of a ruler, kingdom: powerful, noble, royal; (d) beautiful, handsome; (e) valiant; (f) fine, pleasant, well-made, valuable, rich; as noun: a pleasant thing; (g) polite, smooth, complaisant, over-refined.
As definition (g) hints at, however, by the end of the Middle English period a negative connotation had developed for the word "hende," implying affected courtliness and excessive courteousness. Moreover, in rarer instances the word "hende" retained an earlier definition associated with proficient use of the hands, denoting “skillful,” “dextrous,” “handy,” “crafty,” and “clever,” and in a few cases even retained the original meaning of “nearby”.

Like the proverbial star that shines twice as brightly, "hende" exploded onto the scene during the Middle English period only to all but vanish by 1550. It is difficult to trace the early transition of the Old English gehende to the Middle English hende, but the latter usage was widespread at least as early as 1200, when Layamon used it 96 times in his Brut, including several highly developed derivative forms such as “hendest,” “unhende,” and “hendeliche.” The mid-14th century poems of the Pearl manuscript and William Langland’s version of Piers Plowman (ca. 1370) similarly deployed "hende" in varied forms and derivations as a versatile and highly functional word - in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example it appears no less than 20 times.

But by the late 14th century the word seems to have been in decline. In the whole surviving corpus of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works, the word "hende" appears on a scant fifteen occasions, and Chaucer's formulaic and even sarcastic usage suggests he viewed "hende" as a hackneyed term that was no longer particularly poetic or expressive. "Hende" still appears ten times in Sir Launfal – one of the Breton Lays thought to be roughly contemporaneous with The Canterbury Tales – but most of the occurrences of the word are now as part of idiomatic stock phrases, in other words, clichés: “knightes hende” (151); “gentil and hende” (313); “Courteys, fre, or hende” (525); “Gawein the hende” (662); “hende and fre” (843). John Gower’s Confessio amantis has no instances of the word "hende" at all, despite its length.

One of the last appearances of the word "hende" in the sense of “gentle” or “courteous” occurs in A Gest of Robyn Hode, a Robin Hood ballad printed in 1510, in an strongly idiomatic formulation that appears to be a holdover from an earlier period: “Welcom be thou to grene wode, / Hende knight and fre.” Indeed by 1616, the lexicographer John Bullokar was listing "hende" in his dictionary of archaic terms (An English Expositor: teaching the interpretation of the hardest words in our language), and glossing it as “obsolete”.


Sources:
Middle English Dictionary. http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/m/med/
TEAMS Middle English Texts. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/tmsmenu.htm
Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse. http://www.hti.umich.edu/c/cme/index.html

Hende (?), a. [OE., near, handy, kind, fr. AS. gehende near, fr. hand hand. See Handy.]

1.

Skillful; dexterous; clever.

[Obs.]

Chaucer.

2.

Friendly; civil; gentle; kind.

[Obs.]

Chaucer.

 

© Webster 1913.

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