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.
The fashionability and authority of rhyme royal make it worth his while to adopt this form, even though it exposes him to the potential criticism that he is padding out his source with his own material. He accepts the necessity of ‘augmentacioun’ and ‘addiciouns’ because he cannot alter the fixed form of rhyme royal: ‘For this metre wil non other applie / But in staves seven ben set redilye’ [For this metre cannot be assembled unless seven are set properly in lines]. Set verse-form now takes precedence over matters of accuracy of translation, word order, language difference and the size and shape of his source.
Likewise, the mid-fifteenth-century English translator of La Couldrette’s Mélusine (also called Le roman de Parthenay) outlines his processes of translation in his epilogue. As he tells us, he has aimed to translate ‘[n]erehande stafe by stafe’, that is closely line by line, as far as the demands of rhyme and metre allow. Later in the epilogue he uses ‘staffes’ and ‘lines’ interchangeably as he discusses the difference between his source’s octosyllabic lines and his own broadly decasyllabic lines. He acknowledges that his chosen verse-form (rhyme royal decasyllabics rather than octosyllabic couplets) will make his poem a different length from that of its source.
The term is used in later fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English, mostly to refer to a line of verse. The London chronicler Robert Fabyan quotes a stanza from John Lydgate’s Guy of Warwick during his own account of Guy of Warwick, noting that the stanza quoted is ‘in meter of viii. Stauys’. Fabyan mentions this perhaps to distinguish this narrative from other versions of the Guy of Warwick story, and also to show off his own literary expertise (he seems very conscious of poetic form at various points in his chronicle).
The priest and tutor John Palsgrave uses stave to refer to individual lines of Latin verse in a commentary on the metres used in part of his translation of a Latin play by Wilhelm Gnapheus, the Comedy of Acolastus (printed 1540). It is also used in the sixteenth century to refer to a stanza, i.e. a group of lines, before the Italian loanword stanza takes its place. It appears in a stage direction in John Heywood’s Play of the Weather (1532). Daniel Wakelin notes that a sixteenth-century reader of a copy of Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes (British Library MS Harley 116) annotates the place at which ‘A nue Staff’ should begin after recognising scribal confusion about the layout of Hoccleve’s stanzas (p. 242).