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A Vibrant, Variegated, and Vivacious Revival


I begin the official portion of my exam reading with a seminal book by a man whose name is one of the most magnificent in all of medieval studies: Thorlac Turville-Petre. His 1977 volume titled The Alliterative Revival aims to introduce the alliterative poetic movement of the fourteenth century as well as make it clear to his readers that there is one thing that this alliterative revival lacks – homogeneity. According to Turville-Petre, many readers have assumed for one reason or another that the poems of this period (including Langland’s Piers Plowman, the works of the Gawain-Poet, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, and a number of other romances, histories, and moral poetry) are stylistically uniform. He goes as far to refer to an early twentieth century theory that many of these texts were written by the same man “one of the most absurd literary hypotheses of all time” (28), which fell out of vogue when “it was pointed out that none of the proofs adduced in favour of the hypothesis had any substance and that the poems, being written in a variety of styles, with different metrical patterns and different dialects, could hardly be the work of one man” (28). While Turville-Petre rejects this theory as utterly ridiculous, he is slightly more patient, but still in disagreement, with those that assume an unbroken oral connection between that alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxon poets and the alliterative revival several centuries later. Overall, his argument depicts the poems of the alliterative revival as a movement of great creativity and diversity whose works resist any attempt to be reduced to derivatives of Anglo-Saxon poetry or one another.

One of the more intricate parts of Turville-Petre’s argument is his assertion that there is no good reason to believe that there was an unbroken line of oral alliterative tradition between the Anglo-Saxons and the alliterative poets of the fourteenth century. While there are many similarities between the poetry of the alliterative revival and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a closer examination of the English poetry of the intervening centuries, which has oft been neglected in literary studies (See Elaine Treharne’s Living Through Conquest), suggests that this sense of continuity may be misleading. Turville-Petre reasons that if such an oral tradition was in existence all along with no written trace, it would be difficult to reconcile this with the distinct and “loose” (8) style of Early Middle English alliterative works like Laȝamon’s Brut. Instead, he offers an alternative explanation for the most striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and that of the fourteenth-century – the fact that the standard pattern of lines is based on the alliteration of all stressed syllables except for the last of the line. Turville-Petre argues that the reason that two different (albeit related) traditions might land upon this same practice is that the alliteration is a functional element designed to mark out the stressed syllables, and that “the last stressed syllable of the line is very seldom in an ambiguous position” (17). In addition, maintaining a difference between the last stress and other stresses allows it to “signal[…] the completion of a metrical unit” (17). While the author makes a convincing case both for the lack of evidence for an invisible oral tradition and the logical functionality of the alliterative style, the reader is still required to make a leap of faith to assume that two heterogeneous groups of poets separated by centuries might independently realize the efficiency of such a pattern. It seems more prudent to posit a more moderate view that the fourteenth century poets managed to revive some distantly version of alliterative verse, without necessarily requiring a robust oral tradition.

After establishing diachronic heterogeneity between Anglo-Saxon and fourteenth-century alliterative verse, Turville-Petre turns to celebrate the synchronic diversity of the later movement. His sentiments are echoed by Greg Delanty in the preface to the 2010 anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation titled The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, in which Delanty muses that “we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf” (Delanty xv). In reality, the poetry of both traditions is full of diversity and originality, as Turville-Petre notes in prose worth quoting in its entirety:

It is the flexibility of the alliterative line that makes it so valuable to a writer of a long and diverse narrative poem full of action, description, argument, reflection and any number of topics demanding variations of pace and emphasis. In Morte Arthure and The Wars of Alexander the form proves suitable for the excitement and turmoil of the careers of those two great heroes; in Piers Plowman and Wynnere and Wastoure it can accommodate the niceties of theological discussion and political debate; in Patience and Purity[1] it can re-vivify Old Testament history. Nothing is more mistaken than the belief that alliterative style is a homogenous one. (Turville-Petre 50)

Despite the richness of the tradition extolled by Turville-Petre and several others since, many poems of the alliterative revival have not reached the ‘mainstream’ of Middle English literary studies in the same way as the work named authors such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Turville-Petre ends his book by musing on the beauty and suitability of alliterative verse for a variety of topics, and ventures that “it may be time for a second alliterative revival” (128). Though it may be some time before contemporary poets take up the call to write in alliterative verse, it is certainly time for a revival of the study and teaching of this work.

[1] Purity is more commonly known today as Cleanness, the second poem in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript. None of the poems in this manuscript have original titles, but have been given the names Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by modern editors. It was once pointed out to me by Dr. David Coley that if one retains the title of Purity, the four titles make up an alliterative line, with the first three titles alliterating and the fourth differing.

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Business or Busyness?: The Life of St. Cecelia in Chaucer and Bokenham

In her discussion of Osbern Bokenham’s The Legend of Holy Women as part of the corpus of grossly undervalued fifteenth-century literature, Sheila Delany adds “study in fifteenth-century Chaucer reception” (4) to its list of theological, aesthetic, and historical values. As the “first all-female legendary in English” (Delany 4), the text owes a debt to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and in the case of his treatment of St. Cecelia, The Second Nun’s Tale. Though Bokenham is explicit about his use of Jacobus of Voragine’s The Golden Legend as a source, and indeed his finished product shares much with Voragine’s text, it is clear that Bokenham was “an attentive reader of Chaucer” (25). Such a famous English predecessor could not be ignored when writing another version of the same saint’s life. The major differences between the two versions are thus brought into sharp relief, as Bokenham and his audience would have been keenly aware of any deviations the later translator of Voragine rejected or retained. The most significant of these is the two texts’ treatment of economic practices, as found in Bokenham’s exchange economy and Chaucer’s “bisynesse” (SNT 5).

As with so many elements of The Golden Legend, certain features of the legend of St. Cecelia might cause theological discomfort for its readers. In particular, Cecelia’s lecture to the emperor’s men about the mercantile exchange of her worldly life for an eternal one might strike some as contrary to Christian doctrine of God’s unconditional generosity, as Delany points out. While Chaucer removes this portion entirely, Bokenham amplifies the scene, and gives it plenty of space and monetary language such as where “Voragine is considerably terser” (Delany 100). Bokenham’s Cecilia compares this life and the next to a “penny” and a “shilling” (Bokenham 152), which Delany admits may “have been theologically suspect, for the commercial metaphor is at odds with one of the most basic Christian doctrines, the definition of grace as an absolutely free and unmerited gift of God” (Delany 100). She offers as a possible explanation for Chaucer’s omission of the speech that “such attention to finances struck some readers as repulsively materialistic” (100), but his frank treatment of such matters elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales and his other works makes this squeamishness seem unlikely. Rather than an attempt to avoid repulsing his readers, especially from a writer who elsewhere in The Summoner’s Tale includes a discussion of the best way to divide a fart between 12 friars, Chaucer’s differing treatment of the mercantile theme of the legend of St. Cecelia simply takes a different form in his prologue.

Though the omission of economic language in this section of Chaucer’s text is balanced out, or exchanged, in his prologue by a lengthy discussion of “bisynesse” (SNT 5). Though Voragine briefly mentions that Cecelia is “busy” (Voragine) in his prologue, Bokenham omits busyness entirely, which seems deliberate considering the amount of space devoted to it by Chaucer. The narrator of Chaucer’s prologue, presumably the Second Nun, starts out by warning her listeners that they must do everything they can to mindfully engage in busyness, lest the Fiend exchange their industry for idleness (SNT 7). Chaucer retains the concept of having to exchange something for one’s entry into Heaven, but figures the tokens of exchange more literally as “good werkynge” (116) or even the narrator’s “translacioun” (25) of Cecelia’s legend. Chaucer’s text’s treatment of industry and exchange ensure that this element is included in his text, but in a more exegetical manner that illuminates what Cecelia means when she uses these terms

Since Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale was a well known text in Bokenham’s era, he must have had a deliberate reason for rejecting the changes Chaucer made to the tale and indeed accentuating the parts of Voragine’s text that Chaucer rejected. Delany posits that this move is in support of the Augustinian doctrine that he was committed to by holy orders, as Augustine writes of salvation that “this marvelous exchange was made, these divine transactions accomplished” (qtd. in Delany 102). In addition to these reasons, however, I argue that Bokenham had further motivation for allowing St. Cecelia to make this speech instead of pushing it to a more straightforward prologue. Bokenham was politically controversial in his time because in an era when any preaching was expressly forbidden to women, he “gave voice to his female saints” (Bokenham 90) in a variety of contexts, preacherly and otherwise. This iteration of the legend gives the most verbal agency to Cecelia, allowing her to expound on a controversial doctrinal point in a controversial manner, and move beyond the safe and easy recitation of received wisdom. Though Voragine, Chaucer, and Bokenham all deal with the theme of spiritual economy in their retellings of the legend of St. Cecelia, Bokenham uses the occasion of his translation to be politically subversive and take a doctrinal stand on women’s preaching.

Bokenham, Osbern. A Legend of Holy Women. Trans. Sheila Delany. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1992. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987. 262-9.

Delany, Sheila. Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend: Selections. Trans. Christopher Stace. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

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Filed under Hagiography, St. Cecelia, Women