Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen

My review of Stephen Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), appears in Studies in the Age of Chaucer. Here’s the opening of the review:

This book constructs a new genealogy for the Piers Plowman tradition of Middle English alliterative verse. Through a combination of discourse analysis and close reading, Stephen Yeager situates the Piers Plowman tradition in a literary and documentary longue durée extending back through twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative verse to the tenth/eleventh-century homilist Wulfstan.

In the introduction, Yeager forswears belief in the continuity of alliterative meter and nominates “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse” (p. 4) as a pre-Norman-Conquest ancestor for “the school of Langland.” Chapter 1 defines this discourse as a symptom of transitional literacy, expressed in a cluster of self-authorizing rhetorical strategies, such as proverbs and alliterating lists. Chapter 2 reads the rhetorical, generic, codicological, and cultural contexts of Wulfstan’s writings as exemplary of this discourse. Chapters 3 and 4 take the recopying of Old English texts at Worcester as the occasion to explore the ideological functions of Anglo-Saxon discursive forms in three twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative poems: the First Worcester Fragment, the Proverbs of Alfred, and Lawman’s Brut. Chapters 5 and 6 read similar discursive forms (now fraught with new ideological functions) in two post-Langlandian alliterative poems: Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger. In the conclusion, Yeager indicates how his arguments recontextualize other canonical Middle English poetry.

This account of the evolution of a group of formal strategies from Old to Middle English succeeds on a number of fronts. […]

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