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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Editing scribal texts

Jim Knowles and I are organizing a session on “Editing scribal texts” at the next meeting of the International Piers Plowman Society, to be held 4-7 April 2019 in Miami, FL. Details and instructions will be posted soon at the IPPS webpage. Here is the session description:

Writing in 2001 in a combined review of the last installment of the Athlone Piers Plowman and the first installment of the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, Anne Middleton ventured that the salient feature of scribal texts is neither copying error nor intelligent intervention, but the “reciprocity of idiom and knowledge between [an] author and a textual community.” Middleton concluded with what might still, two decades on, be taken as a challenge: “The editorial search for the original text,” she says, “is inseparable from the pursuit of the immediate verbal and institutional conditions that motivated and informed it, but thus far the latter has surprisingly few takers.”

Has this situation changed at all? Continue reading

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Boethius at the Newberry Library

Newberry Library, VAULT Case MS 10, an 11th-century copy of The Consolation of Philosophy

In winter quarter of 2019 I will teach a 10-week seminar on “Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Its Afterlife” at the Newberry Library in Chicago. This course is open to graduate students at any of the consortium institutions of the Center for Renaissance Studies. Applications are due November 1, 2018. Details and a course description are posted at the Newberry Library website.

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The B Version Archetype

My essay-length review of John Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, eds., The “Piers Plowman” Electronic Archive, Vol. 9: The B-Version Archetype will appear in the Yearbook of Langland Studies 32. Here is the abstract:

The B-Version Archetype, published on-line by the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (PPEA), deserves close study by all scholars of Langland’s poem. John Burrow, Thorlac Turville-Petre, and their PPEA collaborators have produced an ‘intermittently critical edition’, in approximately the sense called for by Robert Adams in 1992, at the beginning of the PPEA project. Following Adams’s demonstrations, Burrow and Turville-Petre take Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud misc. 581 (L) and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson Poetry 38 (R) to establish the readings of the archetype (Bx) where these two copies agree. Where L and R disagree or R is absent, the rest of the B tradition comes into play. George Kane’s criticisms of recension retain their cautionary value, but Burrow and Turville-Petre show what is possible within a stemmatic-recensionist method. This edition is also distinguished by the editors’ attention to paragraphing and metrical pointing: the editors demonstrate conclusively that these ‘accidentals’ constitute a relevant component of the textual record.

The B Version Archetype is unapologetically a text for scholars, yet it is considerably more approachable than the Athlone edition. The PPEA team have always aspired to transparency, and the edition of Bx succeeds admirably in this respect, in part through intelligent use of digital technology. The editors’ introduction is a magisterial distillation of complexity. Where they are obliged to look beyond the most faithful manuscripts, they record their assessment of the evidence in readily accessible annotations. A collation window (designed by Paul A. Broyles) displays the readings of the most important witnesses. On the difficult problem of ‘rolling revision’, Burrow and Turville-Petre adopt an unsatisfactory compromise; they probably also over-estimate the quality of the archetype as a record of Langland’s writing. Yet this edition is the best record now available of the received text of Piers Plowman B. Where it differs from previous critical editions, Burrow and Turville-Petre’s text serves as a valuable check on editorial judgement. To illustrate the quality of the edition, I collate passus 7 against the editions of Kane and Donaldson and of A.V.C. Schmidt. Kane and Donaldson’s edition departs from the edited archetype in 136 substantive readings in this passus, or about once per 1.5 lines; Schmidt departs from the archetype in 49 substantive readings, or about once per 4.5 lines. The new edition of Bx will challenge the romantic Schwärmerei of both Kane–Donaldson and Schmidt, but one result may be increased esteem for Schmidt’s comparative editorial restraint. An appendix to this review essay employs The B Version Archetype in a demonstration study of Langland’s metrical grammar. This study reveals previously unnoticed regularities in Langland’s verse technique and further idiosyncrasies in the heavily reworked text of Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 201 (F).

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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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