The alliterative tradition in slow motion

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the New England Medieval Conference in Boston. I’ve also been elected to a three-year term on the steering committee of this traveling medieval studies conference. The theme of this year’s conference was Slow Catastrophe. My paper, “The English Alliterative Tradition: A Cultural Formation in Slow Motion,” summarized two key moments from the metrical history narrated in my first book. Here’s the opening and closing of my talk:

In the early eighth century, English poetry first found its way onto the manuscript page. When it did, it appeared in an early form of alliterative meter, now known as Old English meter. In the middle of the sixteenth century, alliterative poetry disappeared from the active repertoire of verse forms. By then, Chaucer’s pentameter had become the default English meter. These are the outer chronological limits of my subject. In the 800 years in between, the alliterative tradition functioned as a gigantic and slow-moving cultural institution.

The alliterative tradition was gigantic: over 300 poems survive, many of them thousands of lines long. The alliterative tradition was slow-moving: the major changes in the metrical system took centuries to crystallize. And the alliterative tradition was an institution: for 800 years it stood as a set of cultural practices, or habitūs, from which poets drew or against which they staked their literary projects.

This paper engages a long view on the alliterative tradition, surveying its development over nine centuries. This poetic corpus is usually divided in two: Old English verse over here and Middle English alliterative verse over there. Capitalizing on recent progress in alliterative metrics, I will discuss alliterative verse as a single, continuous tradition.

The alliterative tradition predated the first treatises on English prosody, which appeared only in the late sixteenth century. Medieval English poets and their audiences had no explicit theory of alliterative meter and no way to reconstruct metrical history. Like a long-term geological event, the development of the alliterative meter took place gradually and imperceptibly. This paper therefore emphasizes distance over closeness, the longue durée over the “Eureka!” moment.

Most of alliterative verse history comprised a series of non-events. This poetic tradition was characterized by long-term stability in metrical form, poetic vocabulary, and cultural prestige. In order to throw this stability into relief, I focus on two significant events. The first is the demotion of alliterative meter in favor of syllabic English meters in the thirteenth century. The second is the desuetude of alliterative meter in the sixteenth century. From the perspective of the alliterative tradition, both of these events could be described as catastrophes. I propose that these events gain their fullest cultural meaning in the literary-historical longue durée.


These two events in the history of alliterative verse should also be viewed as major turning points in English literary history generally. The schism between alliterative verse and English poetry in the thirteenth century laid the groundwork for the developments of the fourteenth. The deselection of alliterative meter in the sixteenth century signaled the completion of processes of centralization in literary culture, anticipating what would come to be recognized as modern English literature.

At this point, some of you may be wondering how the fourteenth century fits into all of this. As a period of expanded production of English texts, the late fourteenth century has rightly claimed pride of place in Middle English studies. However, part of my polemical purpose has been to suggest that the fourteenth century in English poetry must be read against the twelfth, thirteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were indeed The Grounds of English Literature, as Chris Cannon argued in 2004, though I have tried to add a metrical dimension to his literary argument. Further, study of Middle English literature is bound to produce incomplete historical understandings so long as it walls itself off from the Old English centuries. Properly to contextualize Lawman’s Brut or even Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we need to be conversant with the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries in English poetry. For it was then that alliterative verse was consolidated as a written poetic tradition, long before the introduction of syllabic English meters. These centuries were also The Grounds of English Literature, as Cannon fails to acknowledge. Indeed, longitudinal study of alliterative verse challenges the very division of medieval English literary history into ‘Old’ and ‘Middle’ subperiods.

The status of the alliterative tradition as an independent historical series is perhaps most evident in its points of contact with other kinds of history. I have touched on three in this essay. First, the history of the book. We saw that the demotion of alliterative verse in the thirteenth century was expressed through changes in textualization. After 1450, the advent of print technology recalibrated the English literary field once again. Second, textual history. In the thirteenth century, the textual history of Lawman’s Brut replayed larger trends in alliterative verse history. In the sixteenth century, the excerpting and revision of earlier alliterative poems constituted literary activity in its own right. Third, the history of literary genres. In the thirteenth century, the emergence of a French-inspired English genre called ‘romance’ reinforced the promotion of new, French-inspired English meters. Lawman’s Brut, as a proto-alliterative romance, holds an important position in alliterative verse history and English literary history as well. In the sixteenth century, a monomania for political prophecy was one symptom of the advanced marginalization of alliterative verse.

In conclusion, a word on critical method. Traditionally, the writing of literary history has focused on choices (Gower chooses to compose in English) and events (the Alliterative Revival). This configuration of a research field recalls the methods of a certain kind of political history. Even literary scholars who would disavow an easy equation between political and literary history, however, tend to perpetuate its effects, the focus on choice and events as the parameters within which literary history becomes intelligible. Yet composition in the alliterative meter was not a choice in any sense before the invention of non-alliterative meters in the twelfth century: if one composed poetry in English at all before c. 1150, one inevitably composed alliterative poetry. Certainly later English poets recognized the metrical choices that lay before them in the vernacular, but they do not appear to have constructed a metadiscourse about those choices. I structured this paper around two events in the history of a poetic tradition. In doing so, however, I suggested that most of alliterative verse history comprised a series of non-events. The alliterative meter underwent profound evolutionary change between the eighth century and the sixteenth, but the changes were so gradual as to be imperceptible to individual practitioners. None of them was an event in any journalistic sense.

Has the time come for an Annales School of literary history? In this paper, I’ve highlighted what such longitudinal analysis might offer to study of alliterative verse.


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