At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I participated in a panel discussion entitled “Alliterative Traditions,” held in memory of Larry D. Benson. Thanks to Susanna Fein, Daniel Donoghue, and Nicholas Watson for including me. Here I reproduce the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my contribution, “The Authorship of St. Erkenwald: Why Are We Having This Conversation?”:
St. Erkenwald is a romance in English alliterative verse, found uniquely in a late fifteenth-century manuscript anthology of hagiography. The plot of the poem is as follows: in the seventh century, Erkenwald, bishop of London, discovers a tomb beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral covered in indecipherable carvings and containing the undecayed body of a pagan judge, who begins to speak to the astounded onlookers; after interviewing him about his life and death, Erkenwald unintentionally baptizes the judge by reciting the baptismal formula while shedding a tear.
From its first printing in 1881, St. Erkenwald has often been ascribed to the anonymous poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other Middle English poems in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x. The case for the Gawain poet’s authorship rests on internal evidence. Before 1965, co-authorship of St. Erkenwald and the Gawain poems was orthodoxy; after 1965, proponents of co-authorship came to occupy a marginal position in scholarship on both poems. The difference was a carefully argued essay by Larry Benson (“The Authorship of St. Erkenwald“). In my contribution to this panel discussion in Benson’s memory, I ask what is at stake in this particular philological debate.
The authorship of St. Erkenwald is a small problem with big implications for literary history. It radiates outward from the study of one alliterative poem to related issues: most immediately, the oeuvre of the Gawain poet, but also the literary culture of the Northwest Midlands in the fourteenth century, the value of style as historical evidence, the status of authorship in metrical tradition, and the increasingly suspicious literary-historical concept of an Alliterative Revival.
The irony of the co-authorship debate is that it has been unkind to St. Erkenwald, which figures in anthologies and criticism, if at all, as an optional addendum to an important foursome of poems. Like Beowulf, St. Erkenwald may have been stupendously unimportant, unread, unimitated, and quickly forgotten by contemporaries. Of course, modern scholars are under no obligation to take a medieval view of the poem’s literary merits (I certainly do not); but, equally, the poem is under no obligation to yield intelligible answers to modern questions. St. Erkenwald deserves separate treatment in any case, not because it is a work of genius that transcends its tradition, but because it epitomizes its tradition. I think Larry Benson understood this; he framed his 1965 essay as a rescue mission. “[T]he most unfortunate effect of the attribution,” he wrote, “is that it has obscured the real literary value of [St. Erkenwald]” (394-95).
My forthcoming monograph on English alliterative verse represents an extended attempt to demonstrate and contextualize the “real literary value” of St. Erkenwald, together with two earlier alliterative poems of exceptional historical significance: Beowulf and Lawman’s Brut. The only concerted close reading in a book otherwise concerned with metrical and cultural history comes in the fifth chapter, and it is devoted to St. Erkenwald. The central question of St. Erkenwald, I argue there, is the central question of the alliterative tradition: how to uncover and understand the distant past. Consequently the narrative proceeds in two discrete stages, excavation and interview. The hinge comes after line 176, precisely halfway through this 352-line poem.
The literary arguments of this chapter rely directly on Larry Benson’s withering critique of the case for co-authorship. In 2016, St. Erkenwald can stand on its own as an important and worthwhile alliterative poem. For it is in one way, at least, a more perfect poem than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: it crystallizes the problem of history with none of the distractions of chivalric romance. In 1965, Benson dramatically redirected a critical conversation that, ironically because of his contributions to it, we are now ready to stop having.