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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cadence (noun)

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). Continue reading

A Queenly Prologue & Epilogue

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.

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A Grumpy Valentine

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.

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Fit for a Queen

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


Before Christmas, I read an article by Michael Rosen on Why we love limericks which celebrated the popularity of a new book of limericks by Ranjit Bolt, A Lion Was Learning to Ski.  Given that I’m writing a guidebook to Middle English poetic form, I was surprised to read that ‘the history of the limerick form itself […] stretches back to at least the 11th century’.  Had I missed something?  Medieval limericks, it seemed, were a thing.

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two, four, six, eight, a stanza to appreciate…

The popularity of seven-line rhyme royal stanzas in late medieval and early Tudor verse means that it’s easy to overlook eight-line stanzas, especially those rhyming ababbcbc.  This verse form doesn’t really have a name in Middle English, though eight-line stanzas are sometimes called ballades (meaning a discrete stanza unit such as that used in the French fixed-form lyric, in contrast to verse in couplets or long lines), a word that is also used for stanzas of seven or nine lines.  Fifteenth-century French arts of poetry call this rhyme-scheme ‘double croisée’, meaning that the rhymes cross over each other twice.

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staff noun, staves (plural)

In Old English stæf means both ‘staff’ or ‘stick’ and also an individual alphabetic character.  By extension, it also refers to letters or to writing.  These meanings continue into early Middle English, with Orm calling individual letters ‘an staff’ and Layamon calling engraved writing ‘boc-stauen’ and ‘run-stauen’.  By the mid-fifteenth century, the word emerges as a term for either a line of verse or a whole stanza.  This re-emergence may be a semantic calque on the term bastoun (meaning both ‘stick, staff’ and ‘bundle’, and also ‘line’ and ‘stanza’), used in earlier Middle English and in later continental French for both ‘line’ and ‘stanza’.  The word staf in Middle English means ‘stick’, ‘staff’, ‘club’ and ‘rung of a ladder’, as well as being used for a line of verse or a bundle of lines in a stanza.

The author of a mid-fifteenth-century English collection of proverbs based on Nicole de Bozon’s Proverbes de bon enseignment, the Summum sapientie or Liber proverbium, uses the term to talk about the number of lines in a stanza.  In an epilogue addressed to his unnamed patron, the author says that he has translated from the French as carefully as he can ‘All be it the frenssh in foure staves be, / The ynglissh sevyn kepith in degree’ [albeit that the French text is in four-line groups, whilst the English adheres to seven in its order].  He acknowledges the amplification of his source’s French quatrains required by his preferred rhyme royal. Continue reading

poesie and poetrie

poesie and poetrie, both nouns

Glending Olson, in his 1979 essay ‘Making and Poetry in the Age of Chaucer’, showed that poetry in the later Middle Ages predominantly meant writing about ‘classical lore’ (p. 278), often writing metaphorically and allegorically, an activity with moral and philosophical purpose.  This definition of poetrie is confirmed in Sarah Kay and Adrian Armstrong’s 2011 discussion of verse and poetrie in Knowing Poetry: Verse in Medieval France from the ‘Rose’ to the ‘Rhétoriqueurs’ (pp. 9–13).  Kay and Amstrong define poetry as ‘a style of writing that relies on figural complexity, and is potentially expressive of philosophical meaning […] The features that typify poetrie are the use of classical myths, sustained personification, or forms of extended metaphor: devices constitutive of what we might call allegory’ (p. 9).  Poetry doesn’t thus refer to verse form (Christine de Pisan can write poetry in prose, for example) but to a particular type of content and mode. Continue reading