The Ireland Prophecy

My article, “The Ireland Prophecy: Text and Metrical Context,” appears in Studies in Philology. The article provides a first critical edition and verse-historical contextualization of a little-known late fifteenth-century alliterative verse prophecy found in seven fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. Here I reproduce brief selections from the edition and commentary:

New Index of Middle English Verse (NIMEV) 366.5/2834.3/3557.55 is an alliterative verse prophecy extant in six fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscript copies. The Ireland Prophecy, as I title it, has received scant critical attention and has never been edited. The poem combines the tradition of vatic, anti-Saxon prophecy inherited from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Brittaniae (ca. 1138) with oblique references to mid-fifteenth-century politics. The work offers at least one first-rate literary effect, the compound adjective bryght-breneyd ‘clad in bright chain-mail coats’ (62a). Another remarkable feature of the poem is an acrostic spelling out I-R-L-A-N-D ‘Ireland,’ over the space of two lines (ll. 83–4). In one manuscript the acrostic is ciphered in early Arabic numerals, where A=1, B=2, and so on. The Ireland Prophecy furnishes important evidence of the circulation of alliterative verse and the development of alliterative meter in the sparsely documented period after 1450. The meter of the Ireland Prophecy also testifies to the continuity of the alliterative tradition across the Old English/Middle English divide, as I will argue. In what follows I introduce the manuscript texts of The Ireland Prophecy and present a critical edition of the poem with textual notes. The second section contextualizes the metrical form of the poem in terms of the durable poetic tradition to which it belongs. The third section draws out the literary-historical implications of this metrical contextualization.


S m[u]sid in [m]i[n]des     [a]n[d] merk[e] [ther] a P
The tothe correctid   [ther] tides mikel tene
S sett by hymself    in set an I.          throne sæte
With [t]rayn they be tynt    trowe [þ]ow non oþer
Þese liouns bees lusked    and lased on sondir          struck; bound
And thair landes [l]ost    for longe tyme
Thair men shal be mangled    and mordred with moode
Without any mercy    robbed on rowe
Thair wodys shal be wasted    wit thow it wele
The donne dere in thaire denne    be dryven to þe dethe
Þair fforestes be foreyd    þair flockes awey ffett
Þair stedys shal be stroyed   and stoln fro þayr steddes
Þair castells shal be cnocked    thair knyghtes cast in care
Þair tresore shal be trussed    and trilled with trayne          loaded up; wheeled off <ON
With brybory and with bragge    bost shal men blow
And mykyl tor[vell]e and tene    shal tyde in þat tyme          trouble <ON torveldi
But þis bale and þis boste    blowyn til an ende.

Having suggested a post-1450 date for The Ireland Prophecy on historical grounds, I turn now to consider its metrical form. The Ireland Prophecy is in the variety of alliterative meter characteristic of the last phase of the alliterative tradition, before its disappearance from the active repertoire of verse forms around 1550. Recent developments in the study of alliterative meter can serve to contextualize the poetic form of The Ireland Prophecy; the meter of the poem, in turn, can clarify and consolidate progress in Middle English alliterative metrics. In what follows, I summarize the consensus view of Middle English alliterative meter, compare it to the meter of The Ireland Prophecy, and point to one avenue for future research.

Recent studies have gone some way toward solving the riddle of Middle English alliterative meter while at the same time uncovering evidence of continuity between Old English meter, Early Middle English alliterative meter, and Middle English alliterative meter. The new metrical scholarship refocuses questions of literary history, poetics, and the cultural meaning of meter. In particular, the alliterative tradition appears to have been both more durable and more dynamic than proponents of a so-called Alliterative Revival supposed. These recent studies have focused on the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the period to which most of the extant Middle English alliterative poems can be referred. Alliterative meter after 1450 remains less well understood. Yet if the conclusions of this recent scholarship hold, late alliterative poems like the Ireland Prophecy belong to the same centuries-long trajectory of formal development that links Beowulf (?eighth/tenth c.) to Lawman’s Brut (ca. 1200) and the Brut to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Here is a companion site for this essay, part of a larger digital project.

Here are images of the Ireland Prophecy in manuscript context (not included in my publication):

London, Society of Antiquries, MS 101 (late fifteenth c.)

Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS 441C (olim Williams 219) (sixteenth c.)

Cole and Galloway, Companion to “Piers Plowman”

My review of The Cambridge Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), appears in Speculum. Here’s the opening of the review:

This volume is the second of its kind. A Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley, 1988), marked a high point of sophistication and diversification in the study of this challenging Middle English poem. Following in the tradition of Alford’s volume and capitalizing on research progress since 1988, Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway’s Companion offers a panoptic view of major issues in the historical and literary interpretation of Piers Plowman.

The contributions are organized into three parts: “The poem and its traditions” (Helen Barr, Ralph Hanna, Steven Justice, and Jill Mann), “Historical and intellectual contexts” (Robert Adams, James Simpson, Matthew Giancarlo, Cole and Galloway, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari), and “Readers and responses” (Simon Horobin, Lawrence Warner, and Nicolette Zeeman). The volume’s tripartite arrangement (for a medieval poem obsessed with trios and trinities) invites linear reading, leading, in a familiar critical arc, from the poem qua literature, to its wider historical contexts, and finally to its importance for subsequent histories. At the same time, each essay is designed as a self-contained introduction to the poem.

a companion website

Through a generous grant from Boston College’s Academic Technology Advisory Board, I have received funding to use the MediaKron digital toolkit to build a companion website for my undergraduate course, Middle English Alliterative Poetry. An in-progress version of the site is publicly available here. The site currently features a short guide to Middle English pronunciation, with sound clips; a short guide to Middle English alliterative meter, with bibliography; a short guide to medieval English codicology and paleography, with annotated manuscript images and bibliography; and a timeline of poems and significant historical events, with short descriptions and bibliographies. Through collaboration with my students, the site will eventually feature an introduction to each course text, with annotated manuscript images and bibliographies. Here’s the course description, which also appears on the landing page of the website:

In the fourteenth century, there were two ways of writing poetry in English. Chaucer’s rhyming, syllable-counting iambic pentameter exemplifies one tradition. This course makes a survey of the other tradition, known today as alliterative poetry. Among the poems we will read are tales of King Arthur’s court, the story of a resurrected corpse discovered in London, and a wild allegorical dream-vision starring such characters as Bribery and Truth. We ask how this poetry is formally organized, where this form of writing comes from, and why medieval English writers chose to use it. No prior knowledge of Middle English required.

metrical cultures before 1800

I’ve organized a panel for MLA 2016 (Austin), entitled “English Metrical Cultures before 1800.” The panel has now been selected for inclusion in the conference. The panel will feature papers from Ian Cornelius, Megan Cook, and Joshua Swidzinski. Here I reproduce the opening and closing of the rationale for the session:

Yopie Prins, Meredith Martin, and other scholars have called for a ‘historical poetics’ that would reevaluate the received narrative of English literary history by recovering alternate ways of theorizing and experiencing poetic form. In her award-winning Rise and Fall of Meter, Martin argues that meter mattered in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English culture, and in ways that were strategically obscured by later polemicists and practitioners. The emergent field of historical poetics, conceptualized as the study of the reciprocal relationship between meters and cultures, represents an exciting new way of synthesizing formalism and historicism in the study of English literature.

Thus far, historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century British poetry. This panel proposes to take a longer view onto the histories of English poetry, in order to explore continuities and change in English metrical cultures over time. The panel features one paper from each of the periods of English literary history before 1800: medieval, early modern, and the eighteenth century. While the panel has a wide chronological range (c. 1000-1800), the three papers cohere in their close focus on specific feedback loops between English meters and English cultures. Even more specifically, each of the essays situates ‘English’ ‘metrical’ cultures in a reciprocal relationship with non-English and/or non-metrical cultural forms. Each of the papers articulates a historically specific answer to the chiastic question: How do meters form cultures, and how do cultures form meters? Through its large chronological sweep and narrow thematic focus, this panel promises to bring together attendees addressing similar research questions in disparate periods of literary history.


Together, these three papers will expand the chronological frame of historical poetics and demonstrate the dynamism of meter as a culturally significant practice in English literary history. In particular, they will present three historical case studies of the way in which English metrical cultures emerge from cultural formations not traditionally associated with English meter as such. Austin, Texas, would be a particularly appropriate venue for this panel, since the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin currently employs or has employed several distinguished specialists in pre-1800 English prosody and poetics (Mary Blockley, Thomas Cable, Winfred Lehmann, and Lisa Moore).

meter across discipline

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I presented on a roundtable entitled “Form across Discipline.” Thanks to Shannon Gayk and Former: The Working Group on Form and Poetics for including me. My contribution, “Alliterative Meter across Discipline,” was as follows:

In my published writings I introduce the methodological concept of ‘verse history,’ or literary history articulated through the history of poetic form. Conceived as a medievalist contribution to the emergent field of ‘historical poetics,’ this research aims to coordinate formalism and historicism in the study of medieval English poetry. Verse history represents a method for historicizing meters and poetic style while measuring received conceptions of literary history against the development of literary forms. The specific focus of my work is alliterative poetry, from Old to Middle English. In this report from the field, I survey the transdisciplinary evidence from which I have sought to build a new history of alliterative verse.

Verse history is the history of a tradition of composing poems in a certain meter. As such, my research into the alliterative tradition is grounded in the field of metrics. It is an exciting time to be studying the alliterative meter. In the coming years, as specialist scholarship in this area reaches a wider audience, literary historians’ understanding of the norms governing this meter will radically change. For Old English, Thomas Cable argues convincingly that the principle of four metrical ‘positions,’ i.e., syllables or syllable-equivalents, is more fundamentally important than a count of strong stresses. The textbook definition of Old English meter needs to be revised. For Middle English, metrical specialists have now defined a restrictive set of accentual patterns for the ‘b-verse’ or second half of the alliterative long line. Middle English alliterative meter is not nearly as unregulated as 150 years of scholarship made it out to be. Finally, in a fundamentally important but still unpublished doctoral thesis, Nicolay Yakovlev synthesizes the study of Old English meter and the study of Middle English alliterative meter in a single theoretical framework. With a rare combination of conceptual clarity and philological precision, Yakovlev traces a continuous history of composition in the English alliterative meter, stretching from Beowulf through Lawman’s Brut through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on into the sixteenth century. Though Yakovlev does not develop the literary-historical implications of his metrical history, his study invokes a much more historically durable object of inquiry than scholars have meant of late by the term ‘alliterative tradition.’

A second source of evidence about metrical traditions comes from medieval writers themselves, in the form of testimonia. Surviving medieval comments on vernacular verse forms must, however, be treated with extreme caution. For its entire 900-year history, the alliterative meter constituted an untheorized cultural practice. This meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms in the middle of the sixteenth century, but the professional study of alliterative verse did not commence until the eighteenth century. When medieval writers seem to be mentioning or noticing the alliterative meter, it is almost always because they are mentioning or noticing something else. To take the most famous example, Chaucer’s Parson’s allusion to “rum, ram, ruf by lettre” is not primarily intended to denigrate alliterative verse but to characterize the Parson as one totally lacking in poetic skill. The difficulty of mapping medieval testimonia about poetic form onto modern analytical categories illustrates the extent to which such testimonia emerge under pressure from other kinds of historical discourse.

Textual criticism, by reconstructing historical forms of a poetic text, furnishes a third kind of evidence about metrical traditions. It often happens that the most historically significant aspects of a poetic text are also the most susceptible to scribal variation. This is true, for example, of Lawman’s Brut, whose conservative poetic lexicon gets a thoroughgoing makeover in one of its two surviving manuscript witnesses. There is still fundamental textual work to be done for alliterative verse. For the past two years I have been engaged in producing the first critical editions of two late fifteenth-century alliterative verse prophecies. Here is a teaser: one of the prophecies ends with a cryptogram spelling out ‘IRLAND’; the other is structured as an interview between one Sir William Banastre and God.

Scholars interested in the cultural history of meters might also examine the scribal texts of multiply-attested poems. Metrics and textual criticism have a long history of interdependence in English studies, in which one is most often subordinated to the other. Yet to reduce meter to its expression in a scribal text on the one hand or a reconstructed archetypal text on the other is to ignore a potentially significant layer of historical mediation. Nevertheless, it is possible to supplement verse history with documentary evidence precisely by recognizing the metrical competence implicit in scribal variants. In my first book, for example, I discuss the two extant manuscripts of Lawman’s Brut as evidence of metrical sensibilities, not in Lawman’s late twelfth-century Worcestershire but in the scribes’ own late thirteenth-century milieu.

A different kind of evidence comes from the field of codicology. Compilation and mise-en-page can indirectly reveal medieval preconceptions about literary form. For example, rhyming alliterating meters as in the Awntyrs off Arthure have usually been considered identical with the unrhymed alliterative meter. However, codicological evidence suggests that medieval compilers recognized a formal difference between (unrhymed) alliterative poems and alliterating stanzaic poems and acted on that recognition in the process of compilatio. For example: among the 392 poems in the massive Vernon MS, the two alliterative poems, Piers Plowman and Joseph of Arimathie, appear consecutively, while two poems in the rhyming thirteen-line stanza, the Disputation between Mary and the Cross (non-alliterating) and the Pistill of Swete Susan (alliterating), appear in sequence elsewhere in the manuscript.

Alliterative poems very often survive as fragments, so that they have been preserved in spite of, not because of, their literary form. This is the case with the Conflict of Wit and Will (late thirteenth/mid fourteenth c.), fragments of which were used to repair some margins in a 1507 printing of the York Missal. Why was this poem available as repair material in sixteenth-century Yorkshire? What, if anything, did the mender think about the poem? Little has been written on such book-historical questions, but they are crucially important if we are to catch these hints at the breadth and depth of the alliterative tradition as it existed for medieval practitioners.

And now for something completely different. My research into English alliterative meter has convinced me that the English language has no monopoly on this verse form. I believe I have identified a Middle English alliterative poem in Latin. The poem in question is Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century translation of the Old English Battle of Brunanburh. To understand how Henry translated metrical principles from English to Latin, one needs not only a practical understanding of Early Middle English alliterative meter but also an ear for the nuances of the Latin language. For example, I posit that Henry makes use of both English-style metrical resolution, in which a quantitatively short stressed syllable plus the following syllable equals a long stressed syllable, and Latin-style synaeresis, in which adjacent vowels within a word coalesce into a single metrical position. Henry’s translation has usually been dismissed as a literary failure, but it can now be appreciated (I argue) as a specimen of twelfth-century English alliterative metrical practice.

In this paper I hope to have indicated the breadth of evidence and the diversity of theoretical approaches available to literary scholars interested in poetic traditions. I would like to close by observing that the methodology of verse history allows poetic traditions to emerge as important historical and cultural processes in their own right. The supposedly antagonistic relationship between form and history in English studies has always been more of a product of conflicting ideological commitments than an adequate description of critical practice. By synthesizing several forms of evidence across discipline, verse history reveals the value of taking a historical perspective onto literary form and a formal perspective onto literary history.