Phonology and literary history

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the Medieval Academy of America Annual Meeting in Boston. My paper, “Metrical Phonology and Literary History in the Age of Chaucer,” introduces three English metrical traditions–alliterative meter, tetrameter, pentameter–and points to some phonological evidence for cross-pollination between them in the fourteenth century. Here’s the opening frame:

At the end of Book V of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer apostrophizes the poem:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.


This passage has attracted significant attention as a testament to linguistic, metrical, and textual variation in medieval England. The apostrophe appears to substantiate conclusions that medievalists are ready to accept anyway: that Chaucer’s language, meter, and texts were in flux around him, and that Chaucer was exquisitely aware of this situation. In the standard interpretation, the speaker of the passage is a lot like a modern editor, worried about language change, metrical decay, and scribal error.

In this paper I’d like to suggest a different cultural context for Chaucer’s hand-wringing: the mediated interaction between language and meter in fourteenth-century English verse. ‘Metrical phonology’ is my term for the linguistic forms that meter encodes. Think, for example, of the variation between monosyllabic and disyllabic scansions of the word heaven in Elizabethan poetry. I will argue that metrical phonology should be understood in terms of the larger historical formation in which it is embedded: the poetic tradition. In the fourteenth century, there were three major metrical options for poets working in English: the alliterative meter, the tetrameter, and the pentameter. The alliterative meter had been in continuous use since at least the eighth century. The tetrameter entered the English literary field in the mid thirteenth century. Chaucer invented the pentameter on the basis of French and Italian models in the 1380s: Troilus and Criseyde is his first substantial work in this new verse form. The three major Middle English meters thus had different histories. Yet these histories also inflected one another. Study of metrical phonology calls for triangulation between historical and comparative analysis. That’s what I’ll try to provide.

By mapping Middle English metrical phonologies, it becomes possible to attain some critical distance from the Troilus and Criseyde passage. Through apostrophe, Chaucer hints at the complexity of fourteenth-century vernacular poetics. However, writing before English became an academic subject, Chaucer necessarily expresses his position in literary culture symptomatically rather than analytically. Attention to the historicity of metrical phonology helps us understand what Chaucer meant by the neologism ‘mismeter’ but also how meter could appear to Chaucer as a poetic problem in the first place.

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. […]

NCS 2016 cfp: Chaucer’s Langland

A call for papers for a roundtable at the 2016 New Chaucer Society conference in London (July 10-15). Co-organized by Stephanie Batkie and myself. Submit abstracts using this interface.

Chaucer’s Langland

Many scholars have discerned evidence of the influence of Piers Plowman on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What is the literary-historical significance of this “obligatory conjunction” between two major Middle English poems? This session seeks to enrich the current critical discussion about the cultural and literary resonance of Langland’s alliterative poem for Chaucer and his audience. Possible topics for short position papers include Chaucer’s perceptions of the alliterative meter; the nature of Chaucer’s access to manuscripts of Piers Plowman; Chaucer and Langland as London poets; Piers Plowman as a pre-Ricardian poem; and the overlapping literary genres of the two poetic projects, especially dialogue and estates satire.

NCS 2016 cfp: Meters and Stanza-Forms

A call for papers for a seminar at the 2016 New Chaucer Society conference in London (July 10-15). Co-organized by Jenni Nuttall and myself. Submit abstracts using this interface. As a seminar, this session will involve two or three precirculated critical essays, chosen by the organizers, and precirculated excerpts from primary texts, chosen by the participants.

Meters and Stanza-Forms: The Favorite and the Forgotten

The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed a proliferation of metrical forms and great experimentation with stanza-forms in English. Study of these holds out the promise of charting new lines of formal affiliation and alternate literary histories of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This seminar will investigate, through individual case studies, what it is to write and read metrically and stanzaically. As Mark Lambert writes: “the maker of stanzaic narrative is […] conspicuously committed […] to finding a certain shape of experience again and again.” This session will offer a space in which to compare the shapes of experience made by Middle English meters and stanza-forms both familiar and rare. Participants will be asked to focus on one meter and/or stanza-form and precirculate a short, representative passage.

MLA 2016 cfp: English Metrical Cultures

A call for papers for a Special Session at the 2016 MLA Convention in Austin (January 7-10). Send 250-word abstracts to by March 13, 2015.

English Metrical Cultures

How have English meters shaped and been shaped by larger cultural formations? How do meters form cultures, and how do cultures form meters? All historical specialties welcome.