Paradigms of literary history

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I presented a paper in the panel entitled “Old English Language and Literature,” held in honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey. Thanks to Maren Clegg-Hyer, Haruko Momma, and Samantha Zacher for including me. Here I reproduce the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my contribution, “Paradigms of Literary History in Old English Metrics”:

In 2008 Nicolay Yakovlev submitted a doctoral thesis at Oxford entitled “The Development of Alliterative Metre from Old to Middle English.” Little known outside the field of metrics, and still unpublished, this thesis has already been felt to mark a significant juncture in the history of the study of alliterative meter (Cable, “Progress in Middle English Alliterative Metrics”; Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics”). With a rare combination of conceptual clarity and philological precision, Yakovlev traces a continuous history of composition in the English alliterative meter, stretching from Beowulf through Lawman’s Brut through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on into the sixteenth century.

In excavating this metrical longue durée, Yakovlev synthesizes prior work in alliterative metrics but also challenges it in two major ways. First, he articulates a new theoretical paradigm for Old English meter. Where most previous commentators described Old English meter as accentual, Yakovlev describes it as morphological. The second salient innovation in Yakovlev’s thesis is his threefold focus on Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English verse. By applying a consistent terminology to all three phases of the alliterative tradition, Yakovlev is able to sketch a series of transformations directly connecting these three phases in one centuries-long catena of metrical practice. The result is a more dynamic model of the alliterative tradition as a whole, and a more contextualized view of individual developmental moments within that tradition.

While Yakovlev’s principal subject is metrical evolution, his work should also be understood as an important contribution to the study of English literary history. Although in theory Yakovlev accepts the traditional periodized terms ‘Old English,’ ‘Early Middle English,’ and ‘Middle English,’ in practice his thesis blurs the boundaries between these three segments of continuous metrical and linguistic history. Yakovlev’s contribution to the study of medieval English literary history is most evident in his third chapter, where he rehabilitates Lawman as a card-carrying member of the alliterative tradition. Considered irregular or defective by nearly all prior researchers, the meter of Lawman’s Brut serves Yakovlev as the fulcrum of a lengthy metrical history. Yakovlev’s thesis takes its place among other recent studies in metrics and literary history that have begun to conceptualize forms of continuity across the Old English/Middle English divide (Minkova, “Diagnostics of Metricality in Middle English Alliterative Verse” and “On the Meter of Middle English Alliterative Verse”; Russom, “The Evolution of Middle English Alliterative Meter”; Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England; Treharne, Living Through Conquest; Weiskott, “Lawman, the Last Old English Poet and the First Middle English Poet” and “Phantom Syllables in the English Alliterative Tradition“; Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen).

Renewed interest in the metrical and literary longue durée suggests the value of retracing the historical affiliations of two fields of inquiry often pursued in isolation from one another. In this essay in the history of ideas, I show how models of metrical history have had correlates in the realm of literary history and vice versa. The conjunction of literary history and metrical history remains implicit in much scholarship on alliterative verse from the eighteenth century onward, but I will argue that the two fields have often been regarded as congruent. In offering this disciplinary history in parvo, I mean to contextualize Yakovlev’s accomplishment by revisiting the sequence of earlier research activity that his thesis simultaneously crystallizes and exceeds. More generally, I seek to explore the way that metaphors and periodization structure critical inquiry.


By the end of the nineteenth century, then, the consensus view of metrical history had been thoroughly integrated into the study of literary history. Scholars of this period further developed organicist and naturalistic metaphors for literary and metrical history. In 1895 Jean Jules Jusserand connected the difficulties of dating Old English poems to an anecdote from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars: “Anglo-Saxon poetry is like the river Saone; one doubts which way it flows.” For William John Courthope, writing in the same year, Old English meter was a species that went “extinct” after the Conquest, “instinctively” giving way in the face of isosyllabic and rhyming verse forms. In 1898 George Saintsbury referred to the apparent reemergence of the alliterative meter in the fourteenth century as a “resurrection” and a “revolt”: meter as revenant and meter as armed resistance. Particularly noteworthy is Gummere’s description of the Piers Plowman meter as “a sort of Indian Summer for the old Germanic metre.” Gummere’s metaphor implies a decisive break in continuity followed by a rare and inevitably short-lived return to prior conditions. In the following century, metaphors of revival and reflorescence would become the most prominent way in which alliterative meter and literary history intersected in critical discourse.

This paper has traced the emergence and consolidation of teleological models of Old English metrical and literary history. My largest aim in narrating this disciplinary history was to show why literary history should continue to be a central focus of literary studies. In the late twentieth century, discourses of organicism became unsavory to literary scholars and provided the impetus to divorce the study of literary history from metrics in particular and philology in general. Yakovlev’s thesis, however, holds out the possibility of rapprochement. After Yakovlev, it should be possible to write a literary history for alliterative verse without decay, without progress, with no resurrections and no Indian summers—indeed, a literary history without events.


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