Words from the ’80s (the 1580s)

Two of my scholarly notes have been accepted for publication in Notes & Queries: “Antedatings of ‘the Dark Ages’” and “The First Recorded References to ‘Blank Verse’.”

Milton Of Reformation

John Milton, Of Reformation (1641)

These notes discuss the earliest instances of these phrases known to me, in both cases from the 1580s and in both cases predating the earliest quotation given in the corresponding Oxford English Dictionary entry. The notes go on to discuss the historical significance of the terms.

These lexicographical studies grew out of research for my second book project, tentatively titled Meter and Modernity in English Verse, 1350-1650. I became interested in the history of technical terms for historical periods and metrical forms, especially when the emergence of the terms is belated in comparison with what they describe.

More Prophetic Piers Plowman

My note, “More Prophetic Piers Plowman,” appears in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. In a previous essay, I announced the discovery of two previously unrecognized prophetic excerpts from Piers Plowman in a sixteenth-century manuscript. This note identifies five more excerpts from Piers Plowman in five other late manuscripts. Here is the opening paragraph:

A key conclusion of recent bibliographical scholarship is that William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1370–90) circulated as political prophecy in manuscript and print in the sixteenth century. Evidence for prophetic Piers Plowman includes an early sixteenth-century manuscript presenting the poem as “The Prophecies of Piers Plowman,” complete with glosses and table of contents; excerpts of two prophetic Piers Plowman passages (B.6.321–31 and 10.322–35) in sixteenth-century manuscripts; sixteenth-century annotations of these and other prophetic passages in earlier Piers Plowman manuscripts; sixteenth-century verse prophecies alluding to the same two Piers Plowman passages; and Robert Crowley’s anxiety about a prophetic interpretation of Piers Plowman in the preface to his 1550 printed edition of the poem. This essay registers five new entries in the sixteenth-century archive of Langlandiana, representing two textually distinct excerpts. I present transcriptions of the five texts and discuss their textual relationship to one another and to other texts of Piers Plowman.

Fake news and medieval prophecy

My essay on medieval British prophecy as a precursor to fake news appears in The Atlantic. I argue that medieval and early modern Britain experienced post-truth politics, that prophecy entangled the most and least powerful members of society, and that comparing the past and the present equips us to be more critical consumers of mass media.

Believe it or not, this essay began as a tweetstorm. Special thanks to David M. Perry for encouraging me to work it up into something more.

The Marvels of Merlin

My article, “A New Text of the Marvels of Merlin,” appears in the Journal of the Early Book Society. This article introduces a previously unrecognized text of a fifteenth-century alliterating stanzaic political prophecy and sets the text in codicological and textual-historical context. Here’s the opening:

The Marvels of Merlin is a cross-rhymed, alliterating Middle English political prophecy in twelve quatrains, beginning “Of al þe merveilis of Merlyn how he makes his mone.” Sharon Jansen made the poem the subject of an extended study in 1985, identifying seven long texts and three excerpts in five fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. In a 1991 monograph dedicated to English political prophecy in the sixteenth century, Jansen noted an eighth long text of the Marvels and a fourth excerpt in a sixth late manuscript. The purpose of this essay is to bring to light a ninth long text of the Marvels in a manuscript of the late sixteenth century: London, British Library, MS Additional 24663.

The Marvels of Merlin has never appeared in a critical edition, and the extent of its manuscript circulation is not fully recoverable from available bibliographical reference works. Presentation of a new text of the poem therefore involves some negotiation of textual as well as bibliographical history. This essay seeks to augment the handlist of Marvels texts compiled by Jansen and to confirm that these various texts witness a single Middle English poem. Before turning to the new text of the Marvels in MS Additional 24663, I provide an overview of the textual history of the poem and of the itemization of its extant manuscript witnesses by modern bibliographers.