More Prophetic Piers Plowman

My note, “More Prophetic Piers Plowman,” appears in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. In a previous essay, I announced the discovery of two previously unrecognized prophetic excerpts from Piers Plowman in a sixteenth-century manuscript. This note identifies five more excerpts from Piers Plowman in five other late manuscripts. Here is the opening paragraph:

A key conclusion of recent bibliographical scholarship is that William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1370–90) circulated as political prophecy in manuscript and print in the sixteenth century. Evidence for prophetic Piers Plowman includes an early sixteenth-century manuscript presenting the poem as “The Prophecies of Piers Plowman,” complete with glosses and table of contents; excerpts of two prophetic Piers Plowman passages (B.6.321–31 and 10.322–35) in sixteenth-century manuscripts; sixteenth-century annotations of these and other prophetic passages in earlier Piers Plowman manuscripts; sixteenth-century verse prophecies alluding to the same two Piers Plowman passages; and Robert Crowley’s anxiety about a prophetic interpretation of Piers Plowman in the preface to his 1550 printed edition of the poem. This essay registers five new entries in the sixteenth-century archive of Langlandiana, representing two textually distinct excerpts. I present transcriptions of the five texts and discuss their textual relationship to one another and to other texts of Piers Plowman.

The Marvels of Merlin

My article, “A New Text of the Marvels of Merlin,” appears in the Journal of the Early Book Society. This article introduces a previously unrecognized text of a fifteenth-century alliterating stanzaic political prophecy and sets the text in codicological and textual-historical context. Here’s the opening:

The Marvels of Merlin is a cross-rhymed, alliterating Middle English political prophecy in twelve quatrains, beginning “Of al þe merveilis of Merlyn how he makes his mone.” Sharon Jansen made the poem the subject of an extended study in 1985, identifying seven long texts and three excerpts in five fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts. In a 1991 monograph dedicated to English political prophecy in the sixteenth century, Jansen noted an eighth long text of the Marvels and a fourth excerpt in a sixth late manuscript. The purpose of this essay is to bring to light a ninth long text of the Marvels in a manuscript of the late sixteenth century: London, British Library, MS Additional 24663.

The Marvels of Merlin has never appeared in a critical edition, and the extent of its manuscript circulation is not fully recoverable from available bibliographical reference works. Presentation of a new text of the poem therefore involves some negotiation of textual as well as bibliographical history. This essay seeks to augment the handlist of Marvels texts compiled by Jansen and to confirm that these various texts witness a single Middle English poem. Before turning to the new text of the Marvels in MS Additional 24663, I provide an overview of the textual history of the poem and of the itemization of its extant manuscript witnesses by modern bibliographers.

An oxymoron in Beowulf

My note, “An Oxymoron in Beowulf,” appears in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. This note identifies an oxymoron in the description of Beowulf’s final showdown with the dragon. Here’s the text of the passage in question and the opening frame of the note:

ðær he þy fyrste     forman dogore
wealdan moste     swa him wyrd ne gescraf
hreð æt hilde

                        (Beowulf 2573-75a)

In commentary on this difficult passage, scholars have focused on the syntactical function of the two ambiguous adverb/conjunctions ðær “there; where” and swa “thus; as” and the two adverbial phrases þy fyrste “on that occasion” and forman dogore “for/on the first day/time.” In order to make sense of the passage, many critics give ðær the uncommon meaning “if,” and some construe swa as introducing a relative clause, a difficult interpretation that lacks clear support elsewhere in the corpus. Some scholars also take forman dogore instrumentally with wealdan, thereby spoiling the evident syntactical parallelism between þy fyrste and forman dogore.

Yet the primary difficulty is surely that wealdan means just the opposite of what narrative context seems to require here: “rule,” not “succumb.” […]

A missing term in metrics

My article, “Systematicity, a Missing Term in Historical Metrics,” appears in Language and Literature. This article introduces a new technical term in historical metrics in order to address and connect two of the most persistent problems encountered by modern metrical specialists. The title of the article pays homage to a seminal essay in evolutionary biology, Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba’s “Exaptation—A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Here’s the abstract:

This essay identifies two persistent problems in the historical study of meter—nonconformant metrical patterns and metrical change—and offers a new term as a conceptual tool for understanding their interdependence. The term ‘systematic’ denotes metrical patterns that conform to synchronically operant metrical principles. The corresponding term ‘asystematic’ denotes the minority of actually occurring metrical patterns that fall outside the metrical system as such for historical reasons. All systematic patterns are necessarily metrical, but not all metrical patterns are systematic. It is argued that the systematicity/metricality distinction in historical metrics is analogous to the regularity/grammaticality distinction in historical linguistics and similarly fundamental to historical analysis. By introducing a new technical term, this essay seeks to shift the metrist’s object of study from the metrical system qua system to meter as a complex historical experience. The value of the concept of systematicity is illustrated through three case studies in asystematic metrical patterns from early English poetic traditions: verses with three metrical positions in Beowulf, lines with masculine ending in Middle English alliterative verse, and the infamous ‘broken-backed lines’ in the pentameter of John Lydgate. In each case, it is argued that the contrast between systematic and asystematic metrical patterns illuminates the diverse historical and perceptual negotiations that inevitably lie behind metered texts.