Researching a history of Middle English poetic style necessarily involves also finding out about style in some of the other languages of medieval Britain. When translating from Latin or French, Middle English poets can choose either to simplify or omit stylistic elements of their source, or to reproduce these poetic effects in the vernacular, or to find an equivalent or analogous vernacular stylistic embellishment. One of the sources for the Middle English poet Laȝamon’s Brut, a history of Britain written circa 1200, is Wace’s Anglo-Norman poem Roman de Brut (circa 1155). Wace’s poem was, I think, a major influence on the style and techniques of narration of early Middle English poetry. Reading the two side by side (in Judith Weiss’s edition of Wace’s Roman de Brut and the Barron and Weinberg edition of Laȝamon) is a useful exercise in understanding Laȝamon’s poetic choices in action. Laȝamon combines reproduction of some parts of Wace’s style with analogous wordplay of his own. Here’s two passages (starting at RB 13,253 and B14,244 respectively) to compare:
Juste Camble fud la bataille
En la terre de Cornuaille.
Par grant ire fud asemblee
E par grant ire fud justee;
Par grant ire fud l’ovre enprise,
Grant ful la gent, grant fu l’ocise;
Ne sai dire ki mielz le fist
Ne qui perdi ne qui cunquist
Ne qui chaï ne qui estut
Ne qui ocist ne qui murtut.
Grant fud de ambes parz la perte,
La plaine fud des morz cuverte
E del sanc des muranz sanglente.
Uppe þere Tambre heo tuhte tosomne,
heuen here-marken, halden togadere,
luken sweord longe, leiden o þe helmen:
fur ut sprengen; speren brastlien,
sceldes gonnen scanen, scaftes tobreken.
Þer faht al tosomne folc vnimete;
Tambre wes on flode mid vnimete blode!
Mon i þan fighte non þer ne mihte ikenne nenne kempe,
no wha dude wurse no wha bet, swa þat wiðe wes imenged,
for ælc sloh adunriht, weore he swein weore he cniht.
The battle was beside Camble
in the land of Cornwall.
In great anger they gathered together
and in great anger they joined battle;
In great anger they began the work,
Great were the numbers of men, great was the slaughter;
I cannot say who did best
Nor who lost nor who won
Nor who fell nor who stood firm
Nor who died nor who lived.
Great were the losses on each side,
The field was strewn with the dead
and bloody with the blood of the dying.
Upon the Tamar they met together,
raised army-banners, charged together,
drew long swords, struck on the helmets:
sparks sprang out; spears clashed,
shields shattered, lances splintered.
There fought all together an unimaginable amount of people;
The Tamar was in flood with blood beyond measure!
In the battle no one could distinguish any warrior,
nor see who did well nor who did ill, so confused was the fight,
for each fought fiercely, whether he was squire or knight.
In the description of King Arthur’s final battle, Wace structures his description of the battle around parallel syntax and repetition. Wace repeats the phrase par grant ire (‘in great anger’), then repeats the word grant on its own, then structures four lines by repetition of ne and ne qui (‘I cannot…nor who…nor who…’), before returning to the word grant. He parallels the enormity of the enmity, the numbers, the slaughter and the losses, and gives a sense of how the confusion and scale of the battle subsumes individual identities within these larger patterns of antithesis (best/worst; fell/stood; died/lived).
The equivalent passage in the Brut is often cited as an example of Laȝamon’s Old English derived style. And it’s easy to see why: the densely alliterative, asyndetic descriptions of weapons are very reminiscent of passages from The Battle of Maldon, for example. Underscoring the debt to tradition here, we have a compound (here-marken) modelled on the various here + noun compounds frequently found in Old English. A series of verbs denotes the actions of the armies (raised…charged…drew…struck…), again familiar from Old English verse. The violence of the fighting is described without reference to human agency just as it is in Old English battle descriptions.
But, as you can see from the italicised repetitions, Laȝamon is not only inspired by Wace’s parallelisms to deploy his own Old-English-derived style, but he also matches Wace’s repetitions and parallels with his own (vnimete, no wha). He carries over a version of the Wace narrator’s comment that he cannot say for certain what occurred, transforming the first-person ‘I’ into an indefinite pronoun: ‘no one could distinguish’ what occurred. Laȝamon chooses to replace some parts of Wace’s description (here replacing the repeated generalised references to enormity with the familiar Old English battle poetry descriptions of actions and weapons), but he nevertheless borrows and imitates other elements of Wace’s style. The final half line takes Wace’s antithetical model and uses it for a supplementary comment: everyone fought fiercely, whether he were a knight or a servant. So even in the most markedly ‘Old English’ sections, the stylistic debt to Wace is still significant. To write the stylistic history of Middle English poetry will necessarily be a multilingual business.