This post is written in honour of the Third Annual Hoccleve Recovery Day. As the International Hoccleve Society’s website explains, this day celebrates all sorts of academic and personal recoveries and returns (just as Thomas Hoccleve’s wits returned to him on November 1st). The book I am writing aims to recover ‘lost’ technical terms and reconstruct ideas about poetics that were current in Britain in the later Middle Ages. Potential loss and possible recovery play an important part in the way fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poets think about metre. As a sixteenth-century printer put it, if you print a poem in the author’s original spelling you recover ‘the native grace and first mynd of the wryter’. This is because the author’s spelling encodes the rhythms and metrical patterns as first intended, which later transmission can unwittingly remove.
Three terms for the price of one in this blog post. An abece (or an abc) is a poem where each line or each stanza (or even each word in a stanza, in one particularly jazzy Latin example) begins with each letter of the alphabet in turn. Chaucer’s translation of Deguileville’s prayer to the Virgin Mary is usually called his ABC because each stanza of the poem begins with each letter in turn. Another Middle English poem, often called ‘The ABC of Devotion’, models itself on a child’s alphabet, beginning with a cross and ending with puns on the ‘tittle’ and ‘point’, the punctuation marks that sometimes followed the alphabet in a primer text.
This technical term provides a good example of the mis-named, the loosely-defined, the nameless and the only-belatedly-named in Middle English poetics. It’s a word sometimes flung about by my students when close-reading: any syntactical break (i.e. anywhere a line of poetry has a division between grammatical phrases or clauses, and especially if it’s near the middle of the line) gets called a caesura without too much thought. It’s one of those technical terms that gives you faux expertise: you can spot something easy (i.e. a syntactic break) and label it with a word which makes it seem as if you are analysing the metre. Joseph A Dane is usefully strict about how relevant the word is for Chaucer’s metre in this article (the answer is not very!).
A sneak preview of part of a work in progress, though I promise you that other blog posts will be very soon on their way (including all you might ever want to know about the caesura in Middle English poetry). I’ve been enjoying the school holidays with my daughter and this blog has therefore been a little neglected. I have, though, been working on a side project: a translation into Modern English prose of The Kingis Quair, an early fifteenth-century dream vision written by James I of Scotland.
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:
Here’s the text of the short talk I’m giving as part of a Roundtable discussion (Session 5D) on ‘After Chaucer’ at the New Chaucer Society Congress on Tuesday afternoon.
As I explained in a previous post, over New Year’s I stumbled upon a little-noticed prologue, uniquely preserved in London, British Library MS Harley 7578. It prefaces the Liber Proverbiorum, a mid-fifteenth-century verse translation of an early fourteenth-century collection of proverbs and wise sayings by the friar and preacher Nicole Bozon. The text as a whole had been edited in two American PhD dissertations, but neither had been published, and so the poem had faded into obscurity.
On Valentine’s Day, of course, a fifteenth-century Valentine’s ballade. By coincidence, I found this one in the manuscript which preserves the proverbial text translated for Margaret of Anjou which I’ve been working on for the last few weeks. It was printed once in Skeat’s multi-volume Works of Chaucer, but not much looked at since, I think. I like the tone of voice in this lyric: the histrionic lover, completely and utterly devoted, but also full of a sense of his own absurdity and the unfairness of love.
This post is really just the story of how one thing leads to another in research. It’s also to tell you about what I’ve been working on in the last three weeks, a sudden and unexpected digression from my poetics book. It’s also to highlight the role of noblewomen in the commissioning of English verse in the middle of the fifteenth century.
Over New Year’s, I went to the British Library to look at a fifteenth-century manuscript with a little-known prologue to a little-known text. The text, the Liber Proverbiorum, is a verse translation of an early fourteenth-century collection of proverbs and wise sayings by the friar and preacher Nicole Bozon. The text as a whole had been edited in two American PhD dissertations, but these were hard to get hold of, so I went to look at it myself. Continue reading
In this guest post, Sheri Smith, postgraduate researcher at Cardiff University, explains the surprising references to Chaucer’s Griselda and Custance in a late fifteenth-century poem.
Reading Jenni’s post on the fifteenth-century poem ‘Alas quid eligam ignoro’, I was struck by the poet’s invocation of Susannah, Griselda and Custance in a prayer asking for guidance. This seemed an unusual combination of biblical and literary figures which just so happened to bring together two strands of my own research into thirteenth- and fourteenth-century petitionary prayers and Chaucer’s use of prayer in his poetry.
In the poem, the narrator and his friend find themselves at a loss after dismissing the various career options open to them. The poet calls to mind the example of Susannah, who, when forced to choose between consenting to sin and being put to death, was rescued from death by God. With Susannah’s difficult choice to inspire him, the poet then beseeches God for guidance in his own decision-making, invoking his intervention in the lives of St Paul, Griselda and Custance.