geste (n), gesten (vb.)
This noun and verb are derived from Latin gesta and French geste, referring both to heroic deeds and to the recounting of such deeds. In Middle English, the noun has more expanded meanings too, referring to any kind of writing, whether narrative, prose, poetry or song.
The MED defines the verb gesten as ‘to recite metrical romances, recite alliterative verse’. There are indeed usages which suggest that some particular verse technique is intended, often in contrast to other formal categories. The Parson famously tells his fellow pilgrilms in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that ‘I am a Southren man; I kan nat geste “rom, ram, ruf” by lettre / Ne, god woot, rym holde I but litel bettre’ [I’m from the south of Britain: I can’t alliterate by letters, like rom, ram, ruf, and, God knows, I can’t keep rhyme going much better]. Harry Baily, when he puts a stop to Chaucer’s parody romance, Sir Thopas, tells Chaucer the pilgrim that ‘thou shalt no lenger ryme. / Lat se wher thou kanst tellen aught in geeste, / Or telle in prose somwhat’ [you must no longer rhyme – let’s see whether you can tell something in alliterative verse, or tell something in prose].
Ralph Hanna has suggested that in both these instances Chaucer means something rather precisely by geste(n) . The Parson implies three alternatives: geste (alliterative verse), rym (couplets or rhymed stanzaic verse), prose (which he chooses for his tale). Harry Baily the Host likewise contrasts ryme (here the mongrel parody tail-rhyme of Thopas), geeste (alliterative verse), and prose.
At both these moments, Chaucer names the one well-established verse form, unrhymed alliterative long lines, that he won’t write in, as his audience would have known. I’m pretty convinced that alongside more general usages, geste was in use as a rather more precise technical term meaning ‘alliterative verse’. It’s hard to know how much semantic exactness is intended in some cases – these might just be near-synonyms used to fill out a line. But it’s notable that geste is contrasted not only with other narratives or genres but with other literary forms.
The Tale of Beryn, for example, describes written sources from which readers can learn the lessons of history: ‘in romaunces, in gestes and in ryme’. This could easily be near-synonymous padding, but romaunces might mean tail-rhyme or other kinds of stanzaic writing used in romance, gestes are alliterative verse, and rhyme might be couplets. A verse epitaph for Edward IV likewise names the texts in which Edward’s fame can be found: ‘In gestis, in romansis, in Cronicles’. This enumerates different sorts of narrative writing, but might also distinguish different forms: alliterative verse, rhyming, prose.
Some of the usages suggest two opposite categories, i.e. rhymed and unrhymed verse: ‘In ryme nor in geste’ (Lybeaus Desconus); ‘rymes and geistis’ (Hector Boece’s History and Chronicles of Scotland); ‘in mony jest and ryme’ (William Stewart’s Buik of the Croniclis of Scotland). Again, this might be largely formulaic, two different words for ‘poem/story’, but it is also possible that this opposition is between two possibilities of form.
The first sentence of Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love uses this opposition of geste and rhyme as he defends his decision to use prose for his work because he cannot manage ‘suche craft of endytyng’ [such skill in composition] and because prose communicates its message more directly without distracting its readers or hearers with poetic form.
‘Many men there ben that with eeres openly sprad so moche swalowen the delyciousnesse of jestes and of ryme by queynt knyttyng coloures that of the goodnesse or of the badnesse of the sentence take they lytel hede or els none’ [There are many men who, with ears spread wide, so fully consume the deliciousness of alliterative verse and rhyme through their curious and binding turns of phrase that they pay little or no attention to the morality or the wickedness of these poems' content]
The ‘queynt knyttyng coloures’ (meaning something like ‘curious binding turns of phrase’) describes very nicely how such sonic pleasure are created by repeating sounds in both alliteration and rhyming verse. It’s interesting that Usk, in the 1380s, puts the two forms on equal footing.
Significantly, the term was not used by writers of alliterative unrhymed verse themselves to name their own verse-form. Recognising this term doesn’t necessarily therefore solve the mystery of what alliterative writers called their art of locking and linking letters. Ralph Hanna, though, suggests that Langland is being potentially self-referential when he advises lords to listen to an idealised learned minstrel who can ‘fiþele […] wiþout flaterynge of Good Friday þe geste’ [recite…without flattery the geste of Good Friday]. As Hanna points out, Langland’s Piers Plowman, which re-narrates many gospel events over its course, is uniquely qualified amongst alliterative verse to be described in this way.
One late example of alliterative verse does refer to itself as a geste. The author of Scottish Field, a poem written to praise the Stanley family after the battles of Bosworth and Flodden Field, identifies his own social status and names his form in the same line: ‘He was a gentilman, by Jesu, that this Jest made’. As with many of the post-Chaucer uses of technical terms, it may be that Chaucer’s usage has popularised the term for later authors.
The term still has currency in the 1530s. Sir Thomas More uses the term as a word for alliteration in his polemics against William Tyndale and Robert Barnes. More mocks the alliterative lists of occupations in Barnes’s prose as being what ‘thys fonde frere fydeleth forth here by letters, after the rude rymelesse runnyng of a scottyshe ieste’ [this foolish friar recites forth here by letters, in the manner of the crude rhymeless flow of a Scottish geste]. More repeats the criticism: Barnes is imitating Tyndale who has ‘a lyke lewd ieste or twayne in hys bokes las[s]hed out by letter’ [a similar crude geste/jest or two in his books, brought forth by alliteration]; Barnes learned some of his doctrine from the Catholic Church itself ‘though they gaue it hym not in a scottyshe ieste by letter’ [though they didn’t teach it to him in a Scottish alliterative geste]. More may have in mind something like a Scottish flyting (such as The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy which makes use of alliteration as insults pile one on top of another).