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.

prophetic Piers Plowman

My article, “Prophetic Piers Plowman: New Sixteenth-Century Excerpts,” appears in Review of English Studies. This article grew out of archival work on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts of English political prophecy. I discovered two previously unrecognized excerpts from Piers Plowman while searching for something else entirely (an alliterative prophecy, which I did find).

The article has been named a Review of English Studies Editors’ Choice selection for 2017 and is available to download for free all year. Here’s the abstract:

In recent decades, a slew of textual discoveries has prompted a reconsideration of the sixteenth-century transmission and reception of Piers Plowman. Research on this topic began in 1989 with Sharon Jansen’s discovery of Piers Plowman excerpts in London, British Library, Sloane 2578 (mid sixteenth century) and has accelerated in recent years, refocusing questions of literary history, textual tradition, and the genres of Piers Plowman. A key conclusion of this new scholarship is that Langland’s poem circulated as political prophecy in manuscript and print in the sixteenth century. This article registers a new entry in the sixteenth-century archive of Langlandiana: two freestanding excerpts, each combining the same two passages from Piers Plowman B, in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson C.813 (mid sixteenth century). The Rawlinson Piers Plowman excerpts, I argue, add incrementally to the case for a prophetic Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century and also indicate a richer codicological, generic, and metrical context for this period in the poem’s reception history. I begin by providing diplomatic texts of the excerpts and placing them in the context of Rawlinson C.813, the genre of political prophecy, and the alliterative tradition. I then argue through comparison and close reading that the prophetic Piers Plowman of the sixteenth century points up an underappreciated aspect of Langland’s poetic practice.

verse by verse

My article, “Old English Poetry, Verse by Verse,” appears in Anglo-Saxon England. Here’s the abstract:

Certain syntactical ambiguities in Old English poetry have been the focus of debate among students of metre and syntax. Proponents of intentional ambiguity must demonstrate that the passages in question exhibit, not an absence of syntactical clarity, but a presence of syntactical ambiguity. This article attempts such a demonstration. It does so by shifting the terms of the debate, from clauses to verses and from a spatial to a temporal understanding of syntax. The article proposes a new interpretation of many problematic passages that opens onto a new way of parsing and punctuating Old English poetry.

In this essay in the history of poetic style, I demonstrate that the sequence in time of Old English half-lines sometimes necessitates retrospective syntactical reanalysis, a state of affairs which modern punctuation is ill-equipped to capture, but in which Anglo-Saxon readers and listeners would have recognized specific literary effects. In the second section, I extrapolate two larger syntactical units, the half-line sequence and the verse paragraph, which differ in important ways from the clauses and sentences that modern editors impose on Old English poetic texts. Along the way, I improve the descriptive accuracy of Kuhn’s Laws by reinterpreting them as governing half-line sequences rather than clauses. I conclude with a call for unpunctuated or minimally punctuated critical editions of Old English verse texts.

alliterative verse: a bibliography

My bibliography “Alliterative Verse” appears in the digital Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature, edited by Andrew Hadfield. These bibliographies consist of citations of key scholarly works, accompanied by annotations and related to one another by commentary paragraphs. Here’s the introductory paragraph of my bibliography:

Alliterative verse refers to a corpus of approximately three hundred unrhymed English poems, spanning the period c. 650–1550 CE. Before the 12th century, there was only one way to write poetry in English. This verse form, known to modern scholars as alliterative Meter, stood in contrast to English prose, on the one hand, and syllabic Latin meters, on the other. From the late 12th century onward, French- and Latin-inspired syllabic English meters were introduced, throwing alliterative meter into relief in a new way. From the 14th century onward, poets also wrote poems combining alliterative metrical structures with stanzaic rhyme patterning, and these poems are traditionally grouped together with the unrhymed corpus. Sometime in the middle of the 16th Century, alliterative verse ceased to function as a metrical option in English literary culture. Whether found in large poetic anthologies or scattered among other kinds of writing, most alliterative poems exist in only one or two Manuscripts. The alliterative corpus comprehends an array of Genres, from brief monologues and riddles to lengthy narratives. Four long poems—BeowulfLawman’s BrutPiers Plowman (see also the Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature entry titled “Piers Plowman”), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [see also the Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature entry titled “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”)—have attracted the most critical attention since the rediscovery of alliterative verse in the 17th Century and the 18th Century. Since the 19th Century, study of this poetic tradition has been subdivided along political-historical lines, with the surviving corpus segmented into Old English poetry and Middle English alliterative poetry to reflect the importance of the Norman Conquest of England (1066). Yet, scholars on both sides of the Old/Middle divide have pursued similar research questions in areas such as metrics and poetics, manuscript studies, and genre studies. Modern poets, especially in the 20th Century, have turned to alliterative verse for formal and thematic inspiration.

Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century

Last weekend at the Sixth International Piers Plowman Society conference in Seattle, I presented a paper entitled “The Meter of Piers Plowman in the Sixteenth Century.” Thanks to Emily Steiner for including my paper in a panel on metrical form and chairing the session. I reproduce the opening and closing paragraphs of the essay:

My title refers to two distinct historical developments. First, this is a paper about the English alliterative tradition after 1450. I ask what it meant to compose and read alliterative verse in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Second, this is a paper about the fate of Langland’s alliterative poem in the sixteenth century. As we will see, these two historical developments were closely related. I take them up in turn.

Contrary to prior critical consensus, recent work on English alliterative meter points to a continuous tradition of verse craft connecting Beowulf to Lawman’s Brut to Piers Plowman. The trajectory of this durable tradition after 1450, however, remains poorly understood. In contrast to the relative abundance of alliterative poetry dating from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, there are extant only eight alliterative poems datable to after 1450: two political prophecies containing coded references to the Wars of the Roses, four political prophecies in the printed Whole Prophesie of Scotland (1603), William Dunbar’s Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo (c. 1500), and Scottish Field (1515-47). Around the middle of the sixteenth century, the alliterative meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms.

The choice to employ the alliterative meter in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was far from a nationalistic gesture. […]

In conclusion, it is worth noticing the extent to which the last chapter of alliterative verse history fails to intersect the first chapter of the study of medieval English poetry. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Robert Crowley, John Bale, George Puttenham, Edmund Spenser, and the author of the Petition directed to her Most Excellent Maiestie were situated in an interregnum between medieval practice and modern theory. The sixteenth century witnessed the inauguration of medieval studies as a field of historical inquiry. However, the focus of the earliest publications was on Old English prose. Crowley’s edition of Piers Plowman is an aberration in many ways, and the experiment was not repeated until 1813. Crowley’s and Puttenham’s brief comments on Langland’s meter bear little resemblance to the increasingly sophisticated field of alliterative metrics in the eighteenth century and later, when this meter was recognized first as quantitative, then as an arrangement of identical initial sounds (‘alliterative,’ a postmedieval coinage), and finally and most enduringly as accentual. Within the interregnum between practice and theory, the experience of alliterative meter was to a large extent an experience of Piers Plowman. Accordingly, the more we learn about the uses and perception of Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century, the more we will learn about the final phase of the alliterative tradition and the literary-cultural atmosphere of the sixteenth century more generally.