Banned books and medieval lit

I have a new essay on David Perry’s blog, How Did We Get into This Mess?, called “What Is Education For? – To Kill a Mockingbird and Medieval Literature.” It’s about Biloxi School District’s decision last month to ban (then partially unban) To Kill a Mockingbird.

The problem of modernity

My essay, “English Political Prophecy and the Problem of Modernity,” has been accepted, pending peer review, for “Prophetic Futures,” edited by Katherine Walker and Joseph Bowling: a special issue of postmedieval. I thank them for including it. The essay is a version of the first chapter of my current book project. Here is the opening:

A nineteenth-century note in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1835 (late sixteenth/early seventeenth c.), f. vr, offers a hypothesis and a censure:

It is probable that a great part of the subjects of this volume are in the hand writing of Ashmole himself copied from printed tracts – – at least, for the greater part – He was exceedingly superstitious, and beleived in phrophecies, visions, and various absurdities. Yet this man was the founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford –

The hypothesis is correct. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), astrologer and antiquarian, copied some of the later items in this collection of English political prophecy (Clapinson and Rogers, 1991, 32). Ashmole’s belief in ‘absurdities’ appears here as supplementary paleographical evidence: this was the sort of material he would copy. Moving beyond the logic of scribal attribution, the conjunction Yet registers a discrepancy between political prophecy and modernity. The two cohabited in the mind of Ashmole, a collector of medieval arcana and the founder of the University of Oxford’s premier scientific institution. Many of Ashmole’s surviving manuscripts contain political prophecies. Four are organized around the genre: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole Rolls 26 (olim Ashmole 27) (late fifteenth c.) and MSS Ashmole 337, pt. V (late sixteenth/early seventeenth c.); 1386, pt. III (late sixteenth/early seventeenth c.); and 1835.

With the clarity of an obiter dictum, the note in Ashmole 1835 expresses the historical stakes of English political prophecy. The author of the note distances nineteenth-century modernity from an alchemical seventeenth century, just as Ashmole’s antiquarian activities ostensibly distance his modern present from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Yet, in consigning political prophecy to the past, the note joins a long line of anxious literary activity surrounding the genre, extending back beyond Ashmole’s life to the centuries that the nineteenth-century notator would recognize as ‘medieval.’ From 1150 to 1650, political prophecy was always dangerous, and it always belonged to the past. Ironically, for a twenty-first-century reader, the invocation of a defunct literary genre, like the spellings beleived and phrophecies, marks the Ashmole note itself as the product of an earlier era. Political prophecy has disappeared from the literary landscape, even as a target of derision.

Tradition and literary history

My first book, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History, is published by Cambridge University Press (2016).

Eric Weiskott, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary HistoryEnglish Alliterative Verse tells the story of the medieval poetic tradition that includes Beowulf, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stretching from the eighth century, when English poetry first appeared in manuscripts, to the sixteenth century, when alliterative poetry ceased to be composed. The book draws on the study of meter to challenge the traditional division of medieval English literary history into ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ periods. The two halves of the alliterative tradition, divided by the Norman Conquest of 1066, have been studied separately since the nineteenth century; this book uses the history of metrical form and its cultural meanings to bring the two halves back together. In combining literary history and metrical description into a new kind of history called ‘verse history,’ English Alliterative Verse reimagines the historical study of poetics.

Individual chapters consider (1) Beowulf; (2) prologues to Old English poetry; (3) Lawman’s Brut, an alliterative verse chronicle of the twelfth century; (4) prologues to Middle English poetry; (5) St. Erkenwald, an alliterative romance of the fourteenth or fifteenth century; and (6) the alliterative tradition in the sixteenth century.

A version of Chapter 3 appears in an edited volume devoted to Lawman’s Brut. I have also edited two late fifteenth-century alliterative poems, The Ireland Prophecy (Studies in Philology) and The Vision of William Banastre (in an edited volume devoted to early English poetics), and I have brought to light two sixteenth-century excerpts from Piers Plowman (Review of English Studies). These new texts inform the arguments of Chapter 6. Four articles bring the arguments and methods of the book to related topics: the relationship between metrical history and language history (Modern Philology); the meter of Piers Plowman (Yearbook of Langland Studies); the history of modern scholarship on medieval verse (ELH); and the historical study of poetics (Modern Language Quarterly).

 

Before prosody

My article, “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory,” appears in Modern Language Quarterly. This article draws on the methods and arguments of my first book to reconsider the historical study of poetics in general. Specifically, the essay makes a medievalist contribution to the emerging subfield known as ‘historical poetics.’ I workshopped an earlier version of this essay while visiting Stanford University. Here’s the abstract:

Since the sixteenth century, the history of English poetics has had two sides: a history of theory and a history of practice. Contemporary literary scholars are mapping new connections between the history of theory and the history of practice, under the rubric of “historical poetics.” Thus far historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century poetry. This essay takes a longer view onto the histories of English poetry from the perspective of early English verse. Medieval English poets practiced literary form at a time when vernacular poetics had not yet become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse. This essay offers medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics, thereby bringing a different literary archive to bear on methodological debates about the historical study of poetics. Three case studies, centered on alliterative verse, explore what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics.

Alliterative meter and literary history

My article, “Alliterative Meter and English Literary History, 1700-2000,” appears in ELH. This article historicizes the methodology of my first book by asking how eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century students of alliterative poetry conceptualized the relationship between metrical history and literary history. I contend that the divergence of metrics and literary history in the late twentieth century was a direct response to 250 years of sustained interaction between the two fields. I argue that post-2000 research on alliterative meter holds out the possibility of rapprochement between literary history and philology. This article grew out of a conference presentation earlier this year. Here’s an abstract for the article:

Nicolay Yakovlev’s 2008 Oxford thesis has already been felt to mark a significant juncture in the history of the study of English alliterative meter. This essay describes Yakovlev’s conceptualization of metrical history as a paradigm shift in study of medieval English literary history. The central section of the essay charts the scholarly study of alliterative verse, 1700-2000, focusing on the braiding of political, literary, linguistic, and metrical histories. The essay concludes by considering the intellectual significance of a non-teleological English literary history and pointing out some of the shapes it might take, focusing, as throughout, on the alliterative tradition.