alliterative meter after 1450

My essay, “Alliterative Meter after 1450: The Vision of William Banastre,” appears in an edited volume devoted to early English poetics, edited by Lindy Brady and M. J. Toswell and published by Medieval Institute Publications. My essay provides a first critical edition and verse-historical contextualization of a previously unremarked late fifteenth-century alliterative verse prophecy found in two fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. Here I reproduce brief selections from the edition and commentary:

New Index of Middle English Verse (NIMEV) 1967.8 is a verse prophecy extant in two fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. The Vision of William Banastre, as I title it, has received no critical attention and has never been edited. The poem combines the tradition of vatic, anti-Saxon prophecy inherited from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Brittaniae (ca. 1138) with oblique references to early fourteenth- and mid fifteenth-century politics. The work offers at least one first-rate literary effect, an extended simile comparing a hopeless siege to sailing upwind with no rudder (ll. 7–9). The organization of prophetic language into an interview with God, conducted by Sir William Banastre, has its own pleasures. The Vision furnishes important evidence of the circulation of alliterative verse and the development of alliterative meter in the sparsely documented period after 1450. The meter of the Vision also testifies to the continuity of the alliterative tradition across the Old English/Middle English divide. In what follows I introduce the manuscript texts of the Vision, present a critical edition of the poem with textual notes, and contextualize the metrical form of the poem in terms of the durable poetic tradition to which it belongs.


Part of þe visioun of Sire William Banastre knyght

“Lord, sey me for þe mayden love     that thou þi modir calles
What shall worthe of our kyng     lord, yf it be þi wyll?”
“I shall [þe tel], William     and haue sone done:
Ther shall a kyng prik westward     propirly with pride
And gedir hym an herd     fast al out of towne                                     army <OE hired
And set hym in a seege     til a full sory walle
But þat shall be as nedelese     þat þey seile þedir
Als he þat buskes to a bote     þat broken were þe rother
And þe wynd of þe west     were went hym agayne.

Having suggested a post-1450 date for the Vision on historical and textual grounds, I turn now to consider its metrical form. The Vision is in the variety of alliterative meter characteristic of the last phase of the alliterative tradition, before its disappearance from the active repertoire of verse forms around 1550. Recent developments in the study of alliterative meter can serve to contextualize the poetic form of the Vision; the meter of the Vision, in turn, can clarify and consolidate progress in Middle English alliterative metrics. In what follows, I summarize the consensus view of Middle English alliterative meter, compare it to the meter of the Vision, and point to one avenue for future research. I conclude by addressing the position of alliterative verse in late medieval literary culture more broadly.

Recent studies have gone some way toward solving the riddle of Middle English alliterative meter, while at the same time uncovering evidence of continuity between Old English meter, Early Middle English alliterative meter, and Middle English alliterative meter. The new metrical scholarship refocuses questions of literary history, poetics, and the cultural meaning of meter. In particular, the alliterative tradition appears to have been both more durable and more dynamic than proponents of a so-called Alliterative Revival supposed. These recent studies have focused on the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the period to which most of the extant Middle English alliterative poems can be referred. Alliterative meter after 1450 remains less well understood. Yet if the conclusions of this recent scholarship hold, late alliterative poems like the Vision belong to the same centuries-long trajectory of formal development that links Beowulf (?eighth/tenth c.) to Lawman’s Brut (ca. 1200) and the Brut to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth c.).

Here is a companion site for this essay, part of a larger digital project.

Here are images of the Vision in manuscript context (not included in my publication):

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 56 (late fifteenth c.). Photo credit: Jessica Brantley.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson C.813 (mid sixteenth c.)

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