A little while ago (before my blogging got derailed by the marking of a great number of Finals scripts), I read this talk by Laura Saetveit Miles, and before that this article by Diane Watt. Reading them, I was ruefully aware that my current research on poetic experimentation in Middle English would fail an academic ‘Bechdel test’. It’s not that women didn’t write in Britain in the Middle Ages: see Alexandra Barratt’s anthology of Women’s Writing in Middle English and the collection of essays edited by Carol Meale as just a starting point. But it does seem to be the case that only a very few women are named as composers of Middle English verse.
When is a poem not a poem? This week sees the final of a national poetry recitation competition, Poetry By Heart, for 14 to 18 year olds. Encouragingly, given that medieval literature is these days not so often taught in schools, Middle English poetry is featured on the competition’s timeline of pieces from which to choose. Indeed, last year’s winner, Kaiti Soultana, chose the extract from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the original Middle English, as one of her recitations. Here‘s her winning performance.
This week’s poem (scroll down for text and translation) is a medieval version of constraint writing, in which a writer constrains themselves to comply with an arbitrary rule or pattern. In this tiny poem, almost every word begins with the letter f. It seems likely that the poet was inspired by similar experiments in medieval Latin poetry. For example, eighteen lines on Saint Peter the Martyr (d. 1252) with each word beginning, fittingly, with p, or Hucbald of St Amand’s tenth-century Ecloga de clavis, a poem in praise of bald men, dedicated to the emperor Charles the Bald, 146 lines in which all words begin with c, a letter choice which, perhaps, represents the ring of hair remaining around a bald pate.
After the sounds of old age come the sounds and signs of death. These derive from medical lists of symptoms given in Hippocrates and Galen (see Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (1968), pp. 79–82). Some medieval poets, whether for mnemonic, rhetorical or other purposes, transformed them into verse. In the early fourteenth-century Fascisculus Morum (a handbook for preachers written by a Franciscan friar), three Latin couplets listing the signs of death attributed (apocryphally) to St Jerome are cited, as well as a Middle English poem beginning ‘When the hede quakyth / And the lyppis blakyth’ which gives eight different signs of death before a brief conclusion. Other versions, medical and moral, are recorded by R H Robbins, ‘Signs of Death in Middle English’, Mediaeval Studies, 32 (1970), 282–98.
One of the delights of starting work on this book has been the search for particularly distinctive examples of Middle English poetics in practice. In particular, I have been skim-reading lots of editions in a rough chronological survey looking for conscious poetic experiments. London, British Library MS Harley 913 has provided a rich source of pre-Chaucerian stylistic innovation. MS Harley 913 is a trilingual anthology of poetry and prose, copied by a Franciscan friar living in Waterford in the south of Ireland. Parts of the manuscript can be dated 1338 to 1342 (See Alan J. Fletcher, ‘The Date Of London, British Library, Harley MS 913 (The “Kildare Poems”)’, Medium Ævum, 79:2 (2010), 306–10), though the volume as a whole may have been copied over a longer period. Many of the pieces in the manuscript seem to have been chosen by a compiler interested in parody and wordplay. (See Neil Cartlidge, ‘Festivity, Order, and Community in Fourteenth-Century Ireland: The Composition and Contexts of BL MS Harley 913’, Yearbook of English Studies, 33 (2003), 33–52).