Piers Plowman and the alliterative tradition

My article, “Piers Plowman and the Durable Alliterative Tradition,” appears in the Yearbook of Langland Studies. It’s scheduled to appear in early 2017 for 2016. This essay applies the methodology of my first book to the most widely copied and persistently idiosyncratic Middle English alliterative poem. Here’s the opening frame of the essay:

In recent years, the principles governing the alliterative meter in the fourteenth century have been discovered and elaborated by a series of distinguished scholars: Hoyt Duggan and Thomas Cable in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by Judith Jefferson, Ad Putter, Myra Stokes, and Nicolay Yakovlev in the 2000s. The new metrical scholarship refocuses questions of literary history, poetics, and the cultural meaning of meter. Yakovlev’s 2008 Oxford dissertation, in particular, powerfully demonstrates continuity between Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English alliterative meter. Indeed, this new research paradigm has begun to suggest the incoherence of the received period terms ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ as such. Yet each of these metrical experts has bracketed Piers Plowman as formally aberrant. Duggan concludes that ‘Langland clearly did not always care to make his alliterative long line fit the conventions that governed other alliterative poets’; Cable confides, ‘I suspect that Langland knew the rules […] but felt free to break them’; Putter, Jefferson, and Stokes find Piers Plowman ‘metrically idiosyncratic’; and Yakovlev labels the poem ‘metrically deviant’. Because Piers Plowman is among the longest and most studied alliterative poems and by far the best attested in manuscript, its relation to the wider alliterative tradition emerges as a major question for metrists and literary historians.

This essay reconsiders the extent to which the meter of Piers Plowman conforms to that of the surrounding alliterative tradition. The first section summarizes progress in Middle English alliterative metrics, with emphasis on the observable metrical development that justifies reference to a durable alliterative tradition spanning the seventh through the sixteenth centuries. The second section compares the meter of Piers Plowman with the emergent metrical model, identifying major similarities and minor differences between Piers Plowman and other fourteenth-century alliterative poems. The third section explores the cultural implications of the similarities and differences, thereby situating Langland’s formal choices in the metrical landscape of late fourteenth-century London. I argue that Langland stands apart from other alliterative poets not because he flouts metrical rules but because of the peculiar way in which he fulfills them; I then argue that the meter of Piers Plowman reflects the interaction of a major diachronic and a major synchronic force, the durable alliterative tradition and Langland’s metrical landscape. A central aim of this essay is to bring progress in metrical study to the wider attention of Middle English specialists. To that end, I append a glossary of technical terms.

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