Somerset and Watson, Truth and Tales

My review of Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, ed. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), appears in Arthuriana. Here’s the opening of the review:

This collection, dedicated to Richard Firth Green, grew out of the fourth annual meeting of the Canada Chaucer Seminar (Toronto, April 2012). The volume’s fourteen essays move across and between the large topics of popular culture, orality and literacy, and media studies, with a primary focus on medieval English literature and culture.

The contributions are organized into three central sections: ‘Repetition and Continuity: The Claims of History’ (Thomas Hahn, Stephen Yeager, M. J. Toswell, and Fiona Somerset), ‘Cultural Divides and Their Common Ground’ (Alastair Minnis, Michael Johnston, Lisa J. Kiser, and Barbara A. Hanawalt), and ‘New Media and the Literate Laity’ (Nicholas Watson, Robyn Malo, Kathleen E. Kennedy, and Michael Van Dussen). These are bookended by two single-essay sections entitled ‘The Truth of Tales 1’ (Green) and ‘The Truth of Tales 2’ (Andrew Taylor). Intersecting the editors’ chronological/methodological groupings, one can discover various subconversations about, e.g., vernacular theology (Toswell, Minnis, Watson, and Malo), merchants and their books (Johnston, Malo, and Kennedy), the way in which literature encodes human-animal relations (Somerset and Kiser), and London law (Hanawalt and Kennedy).


Of especial interest to readers of Arthuriana is Somerset’s essay on Lawman’s Brut. […]

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.

English prosody and poetics

My individual graduate tutorial, English Prosody and Poetics, 1300-1600 (syllabus), will run this spring. This tutorial is a practical and theoretical introduction to issues in late medieval and sixteenth-century poetics. Here are the learning objectives for each unit:

1. Introduction to Verse History and Historical Poetics

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history of metrical study and the key concepts ‘rhythm’ and ‘meter’; comparison of intrinsic (formal/practical) and extrinsic (historical/cultural) approaches to metrical form; practical understanding of modern syllabic meters.

2. The Alliterative Tradition in its Eighth Century

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of the alliterative meter in the late medieval period; comparison of competing explanations for the existence of fourteenth-century alliterative poetry; comparison of the use of the alliterative meter in two compositions, Piers Plowman and St. Erkenwald; practical understanding of alliterative b-verse meter.

3. Chaucer’s Tetrameter

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of the tetrameter or octosyllable in the fourteenth century; comparison of more and less strictly syllabic accentual English meters; practical understanding of template meter or dolnik.

4 & 5. Chaucer’s Pentameter, Tail Rhyme, and Prose

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter in the fourteenth century; comparison of Chaucer’s several meters and two staged discussions of form (after Sir Thopas and in the Parson’s Prologue); understanding of the relationships between metrical form and manuscript form in Sir Thopas; comparison of Chaucer’s metrical choices in the larger context of his ‘metrical landscape’; practical understanding of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter.

6. Chaucer’s Pentameter in the Fifteenth Century

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter in the fifty years following Chaucer’s death; comparison of Chaucer’s metrical habits to those of his literary heirs, Hoccleve and Lydgate; understanding of the critical uses of, and historical problems with, the concept of a ‘Chaucerian tradition’ extending into the fifteenth century; practical understanding of Lydgate’s decasyllable/pentameter.

7. (Chaucer’s) Pentameter in the Sixteenth Century

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of the decasyllable/pentameter in the sixteenth century; comparison of Chaucer’s metrical habits to those of Wyatt, Surrey, and Shakespeare; understanding of Martin Duffell’s concept of ‘the Italian line in English,’ with reference both to Chaucer and later versifiers; critical scrutiny of sixteenth-century perceptions of earlier and contemporary meter as expressed by Gascoigne and Puttenham; practical understanding of Wyatt’s decasyllable/pentameter.

Chaucer the forester

My article, “Chaucer the Forester: The Friar’s Tale, Forest History, and Officialdom,” appears in the Chaucer Review. This article argues that the Anglo-Norman forest bureaucracy provides a point of contact between Chaucer’s life and the social satire of the Friar’s Tale. Here are the opening and concluding paragraphs:

Some time between 1390 and his death in 1400, Chaucer served as a substitute forester in North Petherton, Somerset. Although it probably required little more than occasional desk work, and although it was the last and worst-documented of Chaucer’s many dalliances with the administrative machinery of late-fourteenth-century England, the position affirms the persistence into the reign of Richard II of the decadent Norman royal forest system. While it is uncertain whether art imitated life or vice versa in each case, a number of Chaucer’s literary works mention forestry and make use of its specialized vocabulary. In the Book of the Duchess, for example, the poet employs a slew of technical terms over the course of Octavian’s hunt (344–86). The Knight’s Yeoman and (as will be shown) the Friar’s Tale’s devil-yeoman are especially important in the present connection because they are foresters, albeit of a more practical variety than the historical Chaucer. In what follows, it is argued that the Friar’s Tale, by a series of dramatic ironies, critiques the royal forest system in which Chaucer was (or was to become) a minor official. The first section outlines fourteenth-century English forest history and its reception in poetry of the period; the second presents a reading of the Friar’s Tale, with special attention to the figure of the devil-yeoman and the tale’s satire on the royal forest and other administrative systems.


Read in the context of forest history and the rise of bureaucracy in England, the Friar’s Tale’s summoner’s morbid curiosity about demondom recapitulates a growing contemporary fascination with officialdom, making the Friar’s Tale a kind of brief speculum officiale. Within the predictable logic of the devil-and-advocate fable, the summoner’s inquisitiveness leads to his damnation, while on a metatextual view, it signals a departure from the world of good and evil. As in the tale’s sources and analogues, Chaucer’s devil does not lower or cackle; his respect for “entente” marks him as an exemplary officer. By casting the devil as a forest official, Chaucer goes one step further than his sources in suggesting an administrative rather than a theological moral for the tale. The devil’s double instantiation as demon and yeoman invites a comparison between divine and secular administrations, and if Chaucer seems to suggest, or to have his Friar suggest, that clerical administration by its nature encourages corruption, the obvious irony of selecting the despised royal forest as its well-ordered opposite reveals the outlines of a much more nuanced critique of officialdom. When the devil-yeoman forcibly invites the summoner to “knowen of oure privetee” (III 1637), Chaucer not only makes perfectly clear the Friar’s heavy-handed point that it is in the depths of the abyss that “somonours han hir heritage” (III 1641); he also raises for his audience the narrative possibility of embarking on the Dantean journey to hell and back, for a working knowledge of the divine and infernal “privetee” that takes the form of an administration, and in whose image human organization is bound to discover its form.

displaying a ‘genius’ for the digital humanities

The Boston College Chronicle recently published an article about my use of Poetry Genius as a learning tool in an undergraduate Chaucer seminar. Here are the opening sentences:

The works of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, got a 21st-century spin by students recently in a class on the Father of English literature taught by Assistant Professor of English Eric Weiskott.

Using the “Lit” category on the “” website — which Weiskott describes as “a large digital collection of lyrics and texts that can be annotated with text, images, and video in real time” — his students were assigned to each contribute 10 annotations to the site’s texts of Chaucer’s masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, the central work in his Chaucer course.

Weiskott brought the students’ work to the attention of’s director of education, who was so impressed that he “generously offered to send us T-shirts,” Weiskott said, which were distributed in a recent class.

My students ran with this assignment, combining their newfound expertise in Chaucer with their digital literacy. As the fall term draws to a close, I am finding that each student’s ten Genius annotations make an ideal starting point for final paper brainstorming.