In medieval Latin prose cursus composition, cadences are the patterns of long and short vowels in words and phrases at the ends of clauses. The Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice (by ?Peter of Blois, 1182/3) records that the notaries of the Roman Curia call their cursus clause endings ‘cadencias’, i.e. cadences. An Oxford treatise on the art of letter-writing says that ‘cadencia could not be anything other than the final closure of clauses or phrases, and especially of words’ [cadencia nichil aliud esse poterit nisi distinccionis vel scissure et precipue diccionum finalis clausura] (Summa dictandi, trans. Cornelius).
As Martin Camargo and Ian Cornelius have described, these cursus cadences played a key part in the teaching of Latin prose composition at Oxford in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Camargo has analysed a group of manuscripts containing Thomas Merke’s Formula moderni et usitati dictaminis in combination with various arts of letter-writing and arts of poetry and prose, and also with one or more of a set of model texts (Alain of Lille’s De planctu naturae; Jean of Limoges’s Morale somnium Pharaonis; Guido de Columnis’s Historia destructionis Troiae; and Richard of Bury’s Philobiblon). These ‘Oxford Readers’ were likely used by students and teachers of the Master of Arts course, and by Benedictine monks teaching arts to junior monks before they went on to study theology or canon law. Such readers were also kept as a kind of ‘style sheet’ or reference manual by ‘aspiring arts masters, lawyers, medical doctors, and theologians’ (Camargo, p. 185).
The term was therefore used in later Middle English to refer to the study and practice of writing Latin prose with cursus clause endings. Gower writes in his list of human inventions in Book IV of the Confessio that Herodotus invented not only metre and rhyme but also ‘cadence’, a list which probably signifies quantitive verse, rhymed verse and the skill of adding recognisable rhythms to prose respectively. In the N-town Play of Christ and the Doctors, the Doctors begin the play by showing off their academic credentials: ‘Amongys all clerkys we bere the prysse / Of gramer, cadens, and of prosodye!’ (7–8). In these lines, they brag about their learning, not only in Latin grammar, but also in the adding of cadences to prose and in the skills of prosody (that is the correct pronunciation of stress, vowel length, syntactical phrasing when reading Latin aloud).
Lydgate thus uses the term very precisely in the Prologue of his Troy Book when he praises the prose style of his main source, Guido de Columnis’s Historia destructionis Troiae: ‘For he enlumyneth by crafte and cadence / This noble story with many fresche colour / Of rethorik, and many riche flour / Of eloquence to make it sownde bet / He in the story hathe ymped in and set,’ (362–66). This is a careful description of Guido’s skill as a prose writer rather than a generalised celebration of his style. Guido’s Historia was one of the four texts which were copied in Camargo’s Oxford Readers as a model. Merke, a fellow Benedictine monk, cites examples from Guido’s Historia in his Formula. As Camargo explains, Guido’s Historia is relatively free of stylistic ornament, but offers a model of the use of cursus patterns and of larger rhetorical schemes. Lydgate, who himself was likely one of the junior monks who were taught with these readers at the Gloucester College in Oxford, would have known exactly how cursus cadences were exemplified in the Historia.
From this Oxford training, Lydgate would have associated cadences with the rhetorical schemes and tropes that the arts of letter-writing, prose and poetry catalogued and exemplified alongside the cursus patterns. In one of his refrain poems, he writes that rhetorical ornament in prose requires rhythm and balance: ‘In rethorik stant no parfite coloure, / But if it be conveyed by cadence, / If mesure lak, what vailith eloquence?’ Thus the phrase ‘colours of cadence’ (which Lydgate uses in the Fall of Princes and the Life of St Edmund, both in rhyme position) is not as empty of meaning as it might seem, with colours here meaning ‘stylistic embellishment’ and cadence referring to the skills taught in Oxford, the decorating of prose and poetry with patterns of rhyme, stress or quantity.
In MS Ashmole 59, the scribe John Shirley introduces a Latin prophetic text, ‘The Holy Oil of St Thomas’, which presents itself as a letter written by Thomas à Becket, as being ‘prosed in feyre cadence’. Again, this seems a fairly precise use of the term cadence, as an ecclesiastical letter would be entirely expected to feature cursus patterns.
If you could write cadenced prose in Latin, could you write cadenced prose in English? The author of the Middle English prose treatise, A Talkyng of the Loue of God, tells his readers that his prose is ‘in Cadence […] & Rymed in sum stude’, i.e. that it has rhythm and that it is rhymed in places, if the scribe has correctly preserved the punctuation (which separates the rhythmical units). Cadence here doesn’t mean the exact imitation of cursus patterns, but is here used by extension to describe artificial patterns in prose which emphasise meaning (see Margery M. Morgan’s article for more details on this).
Eleanor Johnson’s recent book, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages, shows that Chaucer made use of cadence in his Boece and the Tale of Melibee. Cadencing provided Chaucer with ‘one solution to the problem of creating aesthetic ornamentation in conceptually accurate English prose’ (p. 72). As she demonstrates, Chaucer sporadically uses cursus patterns to highlight syntax and meaning, to make the precise import of a sentence perceptible to a reader.
Though Chaucer used cursus patterns in English prose, elsewhere he has a little fun with the term cadence. In the House of Fame, the Eagle describes how the narrator Geffrey spent his time composing texts in honour of the God of Love and his servants. He has set his mind ‘To make bookys, songes, dytees, / In ryme or elles in cadence,’ (622–3). There is an odd combination of terms here, perhaps reflecting the Eagle’s pomposity and tendency to show off his knowledge. The Eagle is basically right (Chaucer writes in verse or in prose), but how would he write a song in cadence, in patterned prose? Chaucer never uses the term ‘ditee’ elsewhere, either of his own writing or that of others (with the exception of the Boece were it is used to translated carmen, i.e. song). All this suggests that this account of Chaucer’s practice is not to be taken entirely at face value.
Having started life as a term for prose ornamentation, in Middle English and Middle Scots the meaning of cadence was extended to encompass poetry too, particularly rhythm and stress-patterns in vernacular poetry. The Scottish chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun (writing circa 1420) defends one of his sources, Huchown of the Aula Regis, from readers’ accusations of historical inaccuracy in his account of Arthur and Lucius. Some readers may object that Huchown identified Lucius Hiberius as an ‘emperoure’, and Andrew concedes that if he looks at his other sources, they agree in calling Lucius ‘procuratoure’. Andrew explains his reasoning: ‘Hade he callyt Lucyus procuratoure / Qwhar þat he callit hym emperoure / He had ma grewit þe cadence / Þan had relewit þe sentence.’ [If he had called Lucius procurator in the place where he called him emperor, he would have more injured the cadence than made the meaning clear].
Andrew tells us that Huchown was noted for poetic skill (‘curyousse in his stille’) and that he was the author of a ‘Gest of Arthure’, the ‘Awyntyr of Gawane’ and ‘þe pistil…of Suet Susane’. There is a great deal of argument about the precise identity of these works and whether Huchown wrote them, but it seems likely that Andrew thought Huchown was an author of alliterative verse. Cadence here might therefore mean something like ‘metrical patterns in alliterative verse’. Andrew argues that emperour fits more neatly into alliterative metrical patterns than procuratour would.
The author of Knyghthode and Bataile, a mid-fifteenth century verse translation of Vegetius’s De re militari, ends his poem by praying that any scribe who copies the poem will ‘taken hede / Of thi cadence and kepe Ortographie, / That neither he take of ner multiplye.’ (3026-8). Very like Chaucer’s fear that Troilus might be mismetred by inaccurate copying, the Knyghthode translator likewise cautions that a good scribe will need to keep track both of spelling and rhythm to correct convey the poem’s metre.
Two uses of the word cadence by Gavin Douglas show that by the end of the fifteenth century cadence could refer to metrical regularity in vernacular verse. In the Palis of Honoure, a court of poets, male and female, arrives to defend Douglas in Venus’s court after he has offended the court with a lyric on the inconstancy of love. The procession sing all manner of verses, Latin and Greek histories, Sapphic and elegaic metre to a lyre. The ladies sing Ovid’s Heroides and their diverse singing is described by the narrator as superlative poetry in all ways: ‘So poete-lyk in subtyle fair manere / And elaquent fyrme cadens regulere.’ By ‘fyrme cadens regulere’, Douglas describes something more like his own poetry than the fantastical and impossibly beautiful singing of the court of poets. Likewise, in the Prologue to his translation of the Aeneid, Douglas fears he will sully Virgil’s poem with his ‘corruptit cadence imperfite’. Again the reference here is to Douglas’s own version of iambic pentameter.
Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589) uses cadence to explain a key property of rhyme in English. He defines cadence as the ‘tunable accent in the end of the verse’ and describes rhyme as ‘a certain tunable sound, which anon after with another verse reasonably distant we accord together in the last fall or cadence’ (i.e. that rhyme links one line with another and that this occurs in the concluding metrical pattern at the end of a line). As he explains in Book 2, Chapter 8, it is not enough that rhyming words have the same sound, but rather they need to have the same stress-pattern and rhyme in two or three syllables (in the case of double or triple rhyme: ‘the accented syllable with all the rest under him make the cadence’). If we take one of the examples he uses, subjection/direction, you see that the rhyme is made up of the stressed syllable and the following unstressed syllable.