The Ireland Prophecy

My article, “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context,” appears in Studies in Philology. The article provides a first critical edition and verse-historical contextualization of a little-known late fifteenth-century alliterative verse prophecy found in seven fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. Here I reproduce brief selections from the edition and commentary:

New Index of Middle English Verse (NIMEV) 366.5/2834.3/3557.55 is an alliterative verse prophecy extant in six fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscript copies. The Ireland Prophecy, as I title it, has received scant 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 mid-fifteenth-century politics. The work offers at least one first-rate literary effect, the compound adjective bryght-breneyd ‘clad in bright chain-mail coats’ (62a). Another remarkable feature of the poem is an acrostic spelling out I-R-L-A-N-D ‘Ireland,’ over the space of two lines (ll. 83–4). In one manuscript the acrostic is ciphered in early Arabic numerals, where A=1, B=2, and so on. The Ireland Prophecy 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 Ireland Prophecy also testifies to the continuity of the alliterative tradition across the Old English/Middle English divide, as I will argue. In what follows I introduce the manuscript texts of The Ireland Prophecy and present a critical edition of the poem with textual notes. The second section contextualizes the metrical form of the poem in terms of the durable poetic tradition to which it belongs. The third section draws out the literary-historical implications of this metrical contextualization.


S m[u]sid in [m]i[n]des     [a]n[d] merk[e] [ther] a P
The tothe correctid   [ther] tides mikel tene
S sett by hymself    in set an I.          throne sæte
With [t]rayn they be tynt    trowe [þ]ow non oþer
Þese liouns bees lusked    and lased on sondir          struck; bound
And thair landes [l]ost    for longe tyme
Thair men shal be mangled    and mordred with moode
Without any mercy    robbed on rowe
Thair wodys shal be wasted    wit thow it wele
The donne dere in thaire denne    be dryven to þe dethe
Þair fforestes be foreyd    þair flockes awey ffett
Þair stedys shal be stroyed   and stoln fro þayr steddes
Þair castells shal be cnocked    thair knyghtes cast in care
Þair tresore shal be trussed    and trilled with trayne          loaded up; wheeled off <ON
With brybory and with bragge    bost shal men blow
And mykyl tor[vell]e and tene    shal tyde in þat tyme          trouble <ON torveldi
But þis bale and þis boste    blowyn til an ende.

Having suggested a post-1450 date for The Ireland Prophecy on historical grounds, I turn now to consider its metrical form. The Ireland Prophecy 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 Ireland Prophecy; the meter of the poem, 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 Ireland Prophecy, and point to one avenue for future research.

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 Ireland Prophecy 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.

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

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

London, Society of Antiquries, MS 101 (late fifteenth c.)

Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS 441C (olim Williams 219) (sixteenth c.)

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