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 History

English 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).

Stanford visit

Eric Weiskott at Stanford

photo credit: Elaine Treharne

This past week, I visited Stanford University as a Text Technologies Fellow. While at Stanford I also spoke to the Workshop in Poetics, recorded a video interview for a developing digital resource for the study of prosody, and guest-lectured on early English alliterative meter in English 301B, Love and Loss in Early English, 900-1300. My gratitude to Elaine TreharneArmen DavoudianRoland GreeneNick Jenkins, and Mary Kim for these invitations and to Armen, Mary, and Daeyeong (Dan) Kim for making local arrangements. Here is a summary of my visit on Stanford’s website.

As a Text Technologies Fellow, I gave a lecture to the Stanford CMEMS Workshop entitled “The Old English Exeter Book and the Idea of a Poem.” This lecture represents new thinking at the nexus of poetic meter, manuscript form, and the history of ideas. My thanks to the attendees for helpful questions and criticisms. Here’s a modified version of the opening frame of the talk:

As a visitor to the Workshop in Poetics, I presented a work in progress entitled “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory.” This essay relates the conclusions of my first book to the emergent research paradigm known as ‘historical poetics.’ My thanks to the members of the Workshop for incisive questions and comments. Here’s an abstract:

Scholars of Victorian poetry 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. This essay takes a longer view onto the histories of English poetry from the perspective of Old English and Middle English verse. The primary purpose of the essay is to offer medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics, thereby bringing a different literary archive to bear on critical conversations about the theory and practice of English versification. The contribution of this essay to the field of historical poetics will be to indicate a constitutive gap between the practice and theory of verse. Through three case studies drawn from ongoing research on the alliterative tradition, I seek to demonstrate what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics. Recognition of the ways in which modern questions fail to illuminate medieval meters is the first step toward a more capacious historical poetics.

As a contributor to a developing digital resource for the study of prosody, I discussed alliteration as a poetic device and an ornament in alliterative meter; the alliterative tradition, Old to Middle English; and the state of the field of alliterative metrics.

As a guest lecturer in English 301B, I taught a class of undergraduates and graduate students about the history of the alliterative metrical system c. 900-1200, with examples drawn from the Battle of Brunanburh (c. 937), Durham (1104-1109), and Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200). We asked how this metrical system stood around 900, how it changed between then and 1200, and how modern scholars have conceptualized these metrical principles and transformations. It was exciting to be able to help the students connect meter with the primary concerns of the seminar: linguistic form, literary style, periodization, and manuscript context.

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.

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.

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.