geste (n), gesten (vb.)

geste (n), gesten (vb.)

This noun and verb are derived from Latin gesta and French geste, referring both to heroic deeds and to the recounting of such deeds.  In Middle English, the noun has more expanded meanings too, referring to any kind of writing, whether narrative, prose, poetry or song.

The MED defines the verb gesten as ‘to recite metrical romances, recite alliterative verse’.  There are indeed usages which suggest that some particular verse technique is intended, often in contrast to other formal categories.  The Parson famously tells his fellow pilgrilms in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that ‘I am a Southren man; I kan nat geste “rom, ram, ruf” by lettre / Ne, god woot, rym holde I but litel bettre’ [I’m from the south of Britain: I can’t alliterate by letters, like rom, ram, ruf, and, God knows, I can’t keep rhyme going much better].  Harry Baily, when he puts a stop to Chaucer’s parody romance, Sir Thopas, tells Chaucer the pilgrim that ‘thou shalt no lenger ryme. / Lat se wher thou kanst tellen aught in geeste, / Or telle in prose somwhat’ [you must no longer rhyme – let’s see whether you can tell something in alliterative verse, or tell something in prose]. Continue reading

Death of the Middle English Virelai

Just a quick post to say that my article on a group of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century lyrics which in the past were misidentified as Middle English virelais has been published in Medium Ævum 85.1 (2016).  The poems in question are in fact English versions of various French complainte forms.  The article explains how they came to be misidentified, and discusses the imitation of French forms in English.  It argues that this form was recognisable and had distinctive connotations, meaning that it could be used parodically or ironically in some instances.  You can download a copy of the article here:

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Middle English Literary Theory

I’m off to the University of Sussex tomorrow to take part in a workshop on Middle English Literary Theory: Keywords and Methodologies, organised by Katie Walter and James Wade.  I’m giving a short talk on two words of Middle English literary theory, poesie and poetrie.  This talk builds on an earlier blog post on the same subject.

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Internal Rhyme II

My last post looked at Chaucer’s experiments with internal rhyme in Anelida’s Complaint.  Though we think of it as an unfinished minor work, Anelida and Arcite survives in plenty of manuscripts and was printed by Caxton in 1477.  Poets could thus easily borrow Chaucer’s technique of subdividing a pentameter into three units of 4, 4 and 2 syllables, with the first two units of four rhyming (i.e. ‘My swete foo, why do ye so, for shame?’).

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Dressed to the nines

Exploring the nine-line stanza in Middle English is a good lesson in what sort of identities stanza-forms can have.  If you search for nine-line stanzas in the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, you find 60 odd entries.  About a third of the poems in this form are written by Charles d’Orleans, some of the many lyrics which make up his Fortunes Stabilnes.  In French lyric verse, ballades are written in stanzas of various different lengths.  Charles’s nine-line stanza ballades are merely one variation amongst a number of different stanza-forms which he uses for his ballades.

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dit, dit(i)e and ditee

dit, dit(i)e and ditee (noun)

The various dictionary entries give a sense of the overlap between these terms, and also the range of general and specific meanings they can communicate.  The Oxford English Dictionary separates dite (meaning ‘something said or put in writing’ or ‘a poem or song’) from ditty (meaning ‘lyrics for singing’, ‘birdsong’ and ‘a poem’).  The Middle English Dictionary likewise has dit (‘a poem’) and dite (‘literary composition’, ‘poem, song’).  Both words are borrowed into English from French.  The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français has dit (meaning both ‘thing said/written’ and ‘a poem’) and dité or ditié (meaning both ‘a poem’ and also ‘the text of a song as opposed to its music’); the Anglo-Norman Dictionary likewise has both dit (‘saying’, ‘tale’) and dit(i)é (‘poem’, ‘story’, ‘writing’, ‘song’).  The trilingual Magnus Cato in the Vernon manuscript translates Latin carmen with dit in French and dite in English, showing their equivalence as terms for verse.

Chaucer doesn’t call his own works dites, though the Eagle in the House of Fame acknowledges that Chaucer has made ‘bookys, songes, dytees, / In ryme or elles in cadence in praise of Love and lovers.  The Eagle presents Chaucer as the stereotype of the young love poet, and Gower uses exactly these terms (‘ditees…songes glade’) when Venus describes Chaucer’s youthful service at the end of the Confessio.  I suspect that both Chaucer and Gower use ditee somewhat ironically and somewhat tautologically: generic terms to indicate the generic forms of juvenilia, from which Chaucer is moving on in the House of Fame. Continue reading

Baby Steps

It’s #WhanThatAprilleDay16 today,  a celebration of ‘oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges’ and languages which are Old, or Middle, or Ancient, or Dead.  To learn any of those languages takes baby steps, something I’ve seen a lot of in recent years watching our daughter, and all her little cousins, learning to walk.  Once they are up on their feet, they want to run, even when their legs are still wobbly.  So the imagery in the second and third stanzas of the poem below, written in the dying days of Middle English, leapt out at me, and I hope it will leap across 500 years to you too.  Scroll down for text and translation.

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