Lawman in verse history

My essay, “Lawman, the Last Old English Poet and the First Middle English Poet,” appears in an edited volume devoted to this late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century poet, edited by Marie-Françoise Alamichel. The essay collection, published by L’Harmattan, grew out of a 2012 conference at the Sorbonne. My essay is a version of the third chapter of my first book. Here’s the opening frame of this chapter:

Alliterative poetry of the late eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries rarely refers to the Norman Conquest of England (1066). Every sour note has been wrung for maximum effect in modern criticism, but the implied contrast with pre-Conquest poetry is unconvincing. The Death of William the Conqueror (1087-1121) is alone in criticizing the Normans, which it does in a ham-fisted way that calls to mind a few spoiled monks, not the righteous indignation of the peasantry. The sense of a way of life coming to an end in Durham (1104-1109) and the First Worcester Fragment (late twelfth c.) has precedents in a variety of Old English poems. It is superfluous to add contemporary politics to the list of reasons why poets employed the topos. The pivotal event for post-1066 alliterative poetry was not the Conquest, but the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Brittaniae (c. 1138). To judge from the extant corpus, alliterative poets’ fascination with the Arthurian past began in a Worcestershire priest’s massive verse translation of the Historia material, extant in two copies and now known as The Brut (c. 1200).

Scholars have always had the impression that the Brut is metrically “loose” in comparison with earlier and later alliterative poetry. In what follows this impression will be rejected. Careful study of alliterative meter yields a clear developmental arc connecting Beowulf to the Brut and the Brut to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth c.). The new account of the evolution of alliterative verse advanced in this book challenges the view of Early Middle English poetry as the refuse of a more glorious tradition. When metrical change is seen as the predictable result of the passage of time rather than a symptom of decadence, alliterative meter can be appreciated as a dynamic institution rather than a gradually eroded edifice. This chapter clarifies recent scholarship on the meter of the Brut and extends it to other Early Middle English alliterative poetry. I show Lawman’s meter to be highly organized, directly related to Old English and to Middle English alliterative meter, and unrelated to Ælfric of Eynsham’s ‘rhythmical alliteration.’ Through consideration of particular words and passages, the second section demonstrates how Lawman’s conservative style resembles that of his Old English predecessors, how the two manuscript versions of the Brut represent two different visions for the future of alliterative verse, and how Lawman’s treatment of the Arthurian past anticipates Middle English romance. By implicating Lawman and other Early Middle English alliterative poetry in a long verse history, I seek to answer recent calls for a revaluation of the twelfth century in English literary history.

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