the authorship of St. Erkenwald

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I participated in a panel discussion entitled “Alliterative Traditions,” held in memory of Larry D. Benson. Thanks to Susanna Fein, Daniel Donoghue, and Nicholas Watson for including me. Here I reproduce the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my contribution, “The Authorship of St. Erkenwald: Why Are We Having This Conversation?”:

St. Erkenwald is a romance in English alliterative verse, found uniquely in a late fifteenth-century manuscript anthology of hagiography. The plot of the poem is as follows: in the seventh century, Erkenwald, bishop of London, discovers a tomb beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral covered in indecipherable carvings and containing the undecayed body of a pagan judge, who begins to speak to the astounded onlookers; after interviewing him about his life and death, Erkenwald unintentionally baptizes the judge by reciting the baptismal formula while shedding a tear.

From its first printing in 1881, St. Erkenwald has often been ascribed to the anonymous poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other Middle English poems in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x. The case for the Gawain poet’s authorship rests on internal evidence. Before 1965, co-authorship of St. Erkenwald and the Gawain poems was orthodoxy; after 1965, proponents of co-authorship came to occupy a marginal position in scholarship on both poems. The difference was a carefully argued essay by Larry Benson (“The Authorship of St. Erkenwald“). In my contribution to this panel discussion in Benson’s memory, I ask what is at stake in this particular philological debate.

The authorship of St. Erkenwald is a small problem with big implications for literary history. It radiates outward from the study of one alliterative poem to related issues: most immediately, the oeuvre of the Gawain poet, but also the literary culture of the Northwest Midlands in the fourteenth century, the value of style as historical evidence, the status of authorship in metrical tradition, and the increasingly suspicious literary-historical concept of an Alliterative Revival.


The irony of the co-authorship debate is that it has been unkind to St. Erkenwald, which figures in anthologies and criticism, if at all, as an optional addendum to an important foursome of poems. Like Beowulf, St. Erkenwald may have been stupendously unimportant, unread, unimitated, and quickly forgotten by contemporaries. Of course, modern scholars are under no obligation to take a medieval view of the poem’s literary merits (I certainly do not); but, equally, the poem is under no obligation to yield intelligible answers to modern questions. St. Erkenwald deserves separate treatment in any case, not because it is a work of genius that transcends its tradition, but because it epitomizes its tradition. I think Larry Benson understood this; he framed his 1965 essay as a rescue mission. “[T]he most unfortunate effect of the attribution,” he wrote, “is that it has obscured the real literary value of [St. Erkenwald]” (394-95).

My forthcoming monograph on English alliterative verse represents an extended attempt to demonstrate and contextualize the “real literary value” of St. Erkenwald, together with two earlier alliterative poems of exceptional historical significance: Beowulf and Lawman’s Brut. The only concerted close reading in a book otherwise concerned with metrical and cultural history comes in the fifth chapter, and it is devoted to St. Erkenwald. The central question of St. Erkenwald, I argue there, is the central question of the alliterative tradition: how to uncover and understand the distant past. Consequently the narrative proceeds in two discrete stages, excavation and interview. The hinge comes after line 176, precisely halfway through this 352-line poem.

The literary arguments of this chapter rely directly on Larry Benson’s withering critique of the case for co-authorship. In 2016, St. Erkenwald can stand on its own as an important and worthwhile alliterative poem. For it is in one way, at least, a more perfect poem than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: it crystallizes the problem of history with none of the distractions of chivalric romance. In 1965, Benson dramatically redirected a critical conversation that, ironically because of his contributions to it, we are now ready to stop having.

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 HistoryEnglish 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).


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.

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.