Reconstructing Alliterative Verse

Alliterative poetry is first recorded in English from the late seventh century, which makes it the oldest poetry in this language. Surviving poems include Cædmon’s Hymn, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Piers Plowman, several of the most admired works of medieval literature. This is also a defunct poetry (it died out soon after the close of the period we call “medieval”) and it is a deeply mysterious poetry. It was christened “alliterative” in the eighteenth century, for the simple reason that it alliterates a lot. One wonders where this poetry came from, how it was organized, and why it died out. None of these questions has an easy answer.

This book is about the past and future of the verse form employed in Piers Plowman, and some of the formal features that set Langland’s verse apart from other contemporary poems in this meter. Reconstructing Alliterative Verse: The Pursuit of a Medieval Meter holds that the startling rhythmical variations of alliterative poetry come into sharper focus when viewed in diachronic perspective: the meter was always in transition; to understand it, we must reconstruct the stages of its development and recognize where it was headed at the moment it died out. Continue reading

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The earliest English poetry

[English 390, offered Spring 2018]

In English, as in other languages, poetry was at first an oral form: it was passed down in recitation, not writing. The Anglo-Saxons (that is, the English-speaking inhabitants of early medieval Britain) learned to write when they converted to Christianity; soon thereafter, they used their new skill to record some of their vernacular poetry in writing. The poems that survive from this earliest period include tales of heroes and monsters, songs of loss and exile, saints’ lives, biblical narratives, visions, and riddles. Ever since the rediscovery of this poetry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has been prized for emotional depth, luminous detail, and intricate language. We read several of the best poems – among them, Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, and Judith – in modern English translations, for the original language (termed “Old English”) is now comprehensible only after a prior course of language study. (This course assumes no prior knowledge of medieval English.) We then follow the poetic tradition forward, past the Norman Conquest, to forms of the English language somewhat closer to our own. We read an Arthurian romance (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, again mostly in modern English translation), a re-telling of the biblical story of Jonah (Patience), and Piers Plowman, a brilliantly surrealistic, restless sequence of dream visions, motivated by a single question: how should I live? (The poem was the life work of its author.) We read Patience and Piers Plowman in the original language, termed “Middle English.” Learning to read Middle English takes work, but the reward is an unusually fine-grained and intimate experience of literature.

Objectives: Continue reading

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Lawmen and Plowmen

From my review of Stephen M. Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014):

What did Old English literature contribute to the literary cultures of post-Conquest England? The question has attracted renewed attention in recent years. Manuscript scholars note that Old English prose continued to be read and copied long after the Conquest. Metrists discern lines of continuity between pre- and post-Conquest verse forms. Stephen M. Yeager’s new book, From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland (2014), is a timely addition to this research area. The focus here is neither book production per se, nor versification (both remain relevant). Instead, this study is situated at the level of the discursive formation: Yeager aims to trace an “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse” from the writings of Wulfstan forward to the “school of Langland.”

[The review will be published in Medium Aevum]

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dreams and visions

“I dreamt a marvelous dream. Let me tell you about it.” That is the opening move in many of the greatest works of medieval literature; such works are called “dream visions.” Rooted ultimately in the Bible and ancient philosophy, dream vision became one of the most successful literary genres in medieval Europe, only to recede again at the end of the Middle Ages. In this course, we study the scriptural and philosophical roots of the dream vision genre, and trace the development of the genre through The Dream of the Rood, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, Dante’s Inferno, Langland’s Piers Plowman, Pearl, Chaucer’s early poems, and the writings of Christine de Pizan. These are exceptionally creative and powerful works of literature. They are united in their visionary premise, but each turns the dream/vision to its own unique and challenging ends. Continue reading

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“Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature

Rebecca Davis’s new book “Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature appeared last year from Oxford University Press. I have reviewed the book for The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, and reproduce the opening paragraph of my review here.

Classroom discussion of Middle English literature may often be enriched by exploration of the word “kynde,” a word whose primary senses were mostly taken over by the French loan “nature” in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, leaving the modern word with such attenuated meanings as “type” and “nice.” In coming to see these modern senses of “kind” as semantic outcroppings of a submerged mother-lode, students obtain insight into the processes of language change, and obtain a linguistic entrée into thinking about material existence and moral responsibility. Readers of William Langland’s Piers Plowman encounter kynde in its full range of “natural” senses, plus one provocative sense apparently unique to this poem: early in the third vision, the character Wit states, in definitional mode, that “Kynde” is “creatour · of alle kynnes þinges / Fader and fourmour · of al þat euere was maked / And þe gret god · þat gynnynge had neuere / Lorde of lyf and of lyȝte · of lysse and of peyne” (I quote from The B-Version Archetype, edited by John Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre). Thus, kynde = God, at least for Langland’s Wit. Wit’s peculiar usage is duly recorded in the Middle English Dictionary (s.v., sense 8c), and in George Kane’s and A.V.C. Schmidt’s glossaries to Langland’s poem, and it underwrites Rebecca Davis’s new book, “Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature.

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Reframing Medieval Bodies

Loyola University Chicago will host the 2018 meeting of the Illinois Medieval Association. Our call for papers is out now:

REFRAMING MEDIEVAL BODIES

35th Annual Meeting of the Illinois Medieval Association

Loyola University Chicago, Watertower Campus, 16-17 Februrary, 2018

a call for proposals

Medievalists have long engaged in the study of the body, producing some of the most influential contributions to the “bodily turn” of the 1980s and 1990s. The multidisciplinary conference “Reframing Medieval Bodies” invites reflection on past scholarship in this area and elaboration of new approaches and methods. We invite papers from the full range of disciplines in medieval studies, exploring bodies in their physiological, symbolic, political, economic, and performative capacities. Papers that revisit “the body” in light of bioarchaeological research and the history of medicine are especially welcome, as are papers that engage recent research on disability, gender, and race.

We are delighted to announce our keynote speaker: Peggy McCracken, Domna C. Stanton Professor of French, Women’s Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.  Continue reading

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Aesthetics of Form

In preparing for this session, I found that I needed to remind myself of the meaning of the words brought together in our session title [“Aesthetics of Form,” 2017 Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Session 81]. Accordingly, I begin with some terminological notes. In a second step, after reminders about “aesthetics,” I will add the concept of “meter” to my inquiry, then “Middle English.” Then some poems.

The entry for the word “aesthetic, adj. and n.” in the Oxford English Dictionary has been updated to the third edition and contains an excellent and very full etymological essay, characteristic of the current round of revisions to the dictionary. From the OED’s essay, I am reminded that the word “aesthetic(s)” fits a familiar pattern: modern science fashions a new technical term for itself, from Greek root-stock; subsequently there is a debate about the relative priorities of etymology and usage in determining the proper meaning of the word. Continue reading

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Juliet Barker’s 1381

Juliet Barker’s 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt (Belknap Press, 2014) came to my attention too late to engage in my article “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt” (2015), but I have now reviewed the book for The Yearbook of Langland Studies. The review should appear in the 2017 issue of that journal. I reproduce the opening and closing paragraphs of my review here.

During the suppression of the English Rising of 1381, prosecuting authorities recovered broadsides containing, within a mash-up of pulpit verses, what appear to be phrases from Piers Plowman. It seems that Langland’s poem, in some remediated form, was a point of reference for the insurgents. The Rising, in turn, may have motivated a tranche of revisions in the C Version of Piers Plowman: these, by no means uniformly, resolve some earlier equivocations about the legitimacy of secular power. Allusions to Piers Plowman in insurgent broadsides, and Langland’s subsequent reaction to those events, are matters of conjecture, and they would in any case represent only the surface expressions of deeper thematic links between Piers Plowman and the Rising of 1381. This is an area searchingly explored by David Aers and Steven Justice. Although Juliet Barker doubts that the insurgents knew of Langland’s poem and is no reader of it herself, her new book 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt offers a fine synthesis of the historical scholarship on the Rising and will be of interest to literary scholars, especially those as yet unacquainted with Barker’s sources.

[…]

The best single-volume treatment of the Rising remains Eiden’s ‘In der Knechtschaft werdet ihr verharren—’: Ursachen und Verlauf des englischen Bauernaufstandes von 1381 (Trier, 1995), a book absent from Barker’s bibliography and from too many others. It would reward fuller attention.

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Chaucer, Spring 2017

Geoffrey Chaucer was perhaps the greatest English poet prior to Shakespeare and remains one of the great literary innovators in this language. Writing at a time when English commanded little respect as a language of literature, Chaucer crafted a unique and compelling poetic voice, an inclusive vision for literary fiction, and an array of richly imagined characters. In this class we read many of his most important poems. We begin with the early dream visions, in which Chaucer created surrealistic fictional worlds, montaged from his reading. Here we see Chaucer as a young poet getting oriented, and productively disoriented, within prior literature. Continue reading

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Boethius, Spring 2016

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Its Afterlife. Spring 2016. Course rationale. 

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most influential literary texts in medieval Europe. From the time of its rediscovery in the Carolingian period, the Consolation was valued as a compendium of poetry in classical meters, a first-person narrative of embattled virtue, an authoritative synthesis of ancient philosophy, an occasion for exegetical exposition, and a model of dialectical method applied to intractable problems in ethics, metaphysics, and theology. In this seminar, we examine the Consolation and its medieval and early modern reception, with a focus on the problems—and opportunities—that this text presented to successive generations of readers. What did readers seek from the Consolation, and what gave them trouble in it? How did this text enable new ways of thinking and writing, and how did these innovations change the meaning of the Consolation itself? As a mixed-genre work read widely over a long period, the Consolation and its tradition provide unique insight into the dynamic literary and religious cultures of premodern Europe. Continue reading

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