Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century

Last weekend at the Sixth International Piers Plowman Society conference in Seattle, I presented a paper entitled “The Meter of Piers Plowman in the Sixteenth Century.” Thanks to Emily Steiner for including my paper in a panel on metrical form and chairing the session. I reproduce the opening and closing paragraphs of the essay:

My title refers to two distinct historical developments. First, this is a paper about the English alliterative tradition after 1450. I ask what it meant to compose and read alliterative verse in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Second, this is a paper about the fate of Langland’s alliterative poem in the sixteenth century. As we will see, these two historical developments were closely related. I take them up in turn.

Contrary to prior critical consensus, recent work on English alliterative meter points to a continuous tradition of verse craft connecting Beowulf to Lawman’s Brut to Piers Plowman. The trajectory of this durable tradition after 1450, however, remains poorly understood. In contrast to the relative abundance of alliterative poetry dating from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, there are extant only eight alliterative poems datable to after 1450: two political prophecies containing coded references to the Wars of the Roses, four political prophecies in the printed Whole Prophesie of Scotland (1603), William Dunbar’s Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (c. 1500), and Scottish Field (1515-47). Around the middle of the sixteenth century, the alliterative meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms.

The choice to employ the alliterative meter in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was far from a nationalistic gesture. […]

In conclusion, it is worth noticing the extent to which the last chapter of alliterative verse history fails to intersect the first chapter of the study of medieval English poetry. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Robert Crowley, John Bale, George Puttenham, Edmund Spenser, and the author of the Petition directed to her Most Excellent Maiestie were situated in an interregnum between medieval practice and modern theory. The sixteenth century witnessed the inauguration of medieval studies as a field of historical inquiry. However, the focus of the earliest publications was on Old English prose. Crowley’s edition of Piers Plowman is an aberration in many ways, and the experiment was not repeated until 1813. Crowley’s and Puttenham’s brief comments on Langland’s meter bear little resemblance to the increasingly sophisticated field of alliterative metrics in the eighteenth century and later, when this meter was recognized first as quantitative, then as an arrangement of identical initial sounds (‘alliterative,’ a postmedieval coinage), and finally and most enduringly as accentual. Within the interregnum between practice and theory, the experience of alliterative meter was to a large extent an experience of Piers Plowman. Accordingly, the more we learn about the uses and perception of Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century, the more we will learn about the final phase of the alliterative tradition and the literary-cultural atmosphere of the sixteenth century more generally.

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