Aesthetics of Form

In preparing for this session, I found that I needed to remind myself of the meaning of the words brought together in our session title [“Aesthetics of Form,” 2017 Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Session 81]. Accordingly, I begin with some terminological notes. In a second step, after reminders about “aesthetics,” I will add the concept of “meter” to my inquiry, then “Middle English.” Then some poems.

The entry for the word “aesthetic, adj. and n.” in the Oxford English Dictionary has been updated to the third edition and contains an excellent and very full etymological essay, characteristic of the current round of revisions to the dictionary. From the OED’s essay, I am reminded that the word “aesthetic(s)” fits a familiar pattern: modern science fashions a new technical term for itself, from Greek root-stock; subsequently there is a debate about the relative priorities of etymology and usage in determining the proper meaning of the word. Continue reading

Posted in Conference | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Aesthetics of Form

Juliet Barker’s 1381

Juliet Barker’s 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt (Belknap Press, 2014) came to my attention too late to engage in my article “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt” (2015), but I have now reviewed the book. I reproduce the opening and closing paragraphs:

During the suppression of the English Rising of 1381, prosecuting authorities recovered broadsides containing, within a mash-up of pulpit verses, what appear to be phrases from Piers Plowman. It seems that Langland’s poem, in some remediated form, was a point of reference for the insurgents. The Rising, in turn, may have motivated a tranche of revisions in the C Version of Piers Plowman: these, by no means uniformly, resolve some earlier equivocations about the legitimacy of secular power. Allusions to Piers Plowman in insurgent broadsides, and Langland’s subsequent reaction to those events, are matters of conjecture, and they would in any case represent only the surface expressions of deeper thematic links between Piers Plowman and the Rising of 1381. This is an area searchingly explored by David Aers and Steven Justice. Although Juliet Barker doubts that the insurgents knew of Langland’s poem and is no reader of it herself, her new book 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt offers a fine synthesis of the historical scholarship on the Rising and will be of interest to literary scholars, especially those as yet unacquainted with Barker’s sources.


The best single-volume treatment of the Rising remains Eiden’s ‘In der Knechtschaft werdet ihr verharren—’: Ursachen und Verlauf des englischen Bauernaufstandes von 1381 (Trier, 1995), a book absent from Barker’s bibliography and from too many others. It would reward fuller attention.

This review appeared in The Yearbook of Langland Studies 31 (2017).

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Juliet Barker’s 1381

Chaucer, Spring 2017

Geoffrey Chaucer was perhaps the greatest English poet prior to Shakespeare and remains one of the great literary innovators in this language. Writing at a time when English commanded little respect as a language of literature, Chaucer crafted a unique and compelling poetic voice, an inclusive vision for literary fiction, and an array of richly imagined characters. In this class we read many of his most important poems. We begin with the early dream visions, in which Chaucer created surrealistic fictional worlds, montaged from his reading. Here we see Chaucer as a young poet getting oriented, and productively disoriented, within prior literature. Continue reading

Posted in Course description | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Chaucer, Spring 2017

Boethius, Spring 2016

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Its Afterlife. Spring 2016. Course rationale. 

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most influential literary texts in medieval Europe. From the time of its rediscovery in the Carolingian period, the Consolation was valued as a compendium of poetry in classical meters, a first-person narrative of embattled virtue, an authoritative synthesis of ancient philosophy, an occasion for exegetical exposition, and a model of dialectical method applied to intractable problems in ethics, metaphysics, and theology. In this seminar, we examine the Consolation and its medieval and early modern reception, with a focus on the problems—and opportunities—that this text presented to successive generations of readers. What did readers seek from the Consolation, and what gave them trouble in it? How did this text enable new ways of thinking and writing, and how did these innovations change the meaning of the Consolation itself? As a mixed-genre work read widely over a long period, the Consolation and its tradition provide unique insight into the dynamic literary and religious cultures of premodern Europe. Continue reading

Posted in Course description | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Boethius, Spring 2016

English Quantity

[8 January 2016 in Austin, TX, at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, session number 218, “Quantity in English Verse: Linguistic and Neuroscience-Based Challenges to the Accentual Paradigm.” This short historiographical paper was the half-time show in our round-table—a brief interlude between the session’s more substantive linguistic contributions. It draws from my article “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics,” which appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Journal of English and Germanic Philology.]

The operations of quantity in early English meters are modern discoveries, brought to light by modern sciences of philology and linguistics. Medieval poets clearly had an intuitive sense of these phenomena, but their epistemological framing was different: they lacked the specific concepts, modes of reasoning and forms of attention that underwrite the descriptive statements of the two previous papers. This observation has the appearance of an uninformative verity, but it conceals an important historical paradox: the epistemological frame that has enabled description of English meters has also made it difficult to perceive and conceptualize the operation of quantity in English meters.

This paradox may be traced to a particular historical moment and a particular scene of inquiry: the study of Old English meter in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. . . .

Continue reading at MLA CORE or

Posted in Conference | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on English Quantity

Grammars and Rhetorics

To appear in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain, ed. by Siân Echard and Richard Rouse (forthcoming, August 2017)

opening paragraph: What is called western civilization is, perhaps, a fusion of the Roman imperial state and an Abrahamic religion of salvation. Both components of this geminate cultural form depend profoundly on the written word; western societies have therefore required, at minimum, a continuous supply of literate servants, and this need was met during the Middle Ages by the teaching of Latin. Latin was the language of the western Church; it was also the language in which secular authorities across most of medieval western Europe conducted their core literate activities. The treatises developed for and employed in the teaching of elementary and advanced Latin literacy are here termed grammars and rhetorics. By their shifting shapes and contents, they track deep changes in the social conditioning of literacy and social demands upon it. They had an intimate and formative relation with specifically literary practices of reading and writing.

abstract: Grammar and rhetoric were the disciplines charged with teaching correct and effective use of language in antiquity. In the Middle Ages, these disciplines served to maintain Latin as a language of culture, religion, and administration over much of Europe. Grammatical studies flourished in medieval England following the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Subsequent developments in grammatical and rhetorical studies in Britain in the Middle Ages track deep changes in the social conditioning of literacy and social demands upon literacy. Among the medieval English innovations in these disciplines were the teaching of Latin as a foreign language, the cultural accommodation of grammar and rhetoric to Christianity, the creation of new genres of rhetorical textbooks, and the development of bilingual pedagogies that paired Latin with vernacular languages.

section outline: 1. Inheritance and innovation: an overview — 2. After empire (beginnings to 600) — 3. Missionary grammar (600-800) — 4. Losses and recoveries (800-1150) — 5. An expanded field (1150-1450) — 6. Plague, print, and humanism (1350-1542)

I have also created a zotero bibliography on this topic.

Posted in Publications | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Grammars and Rhetorics

“You must change your life”

[In this latest iteration of my composition seminar, I adopted an innovative capstone writing exercise from Daniel Jump: students each wrote an academic review of a classmate’s research essay, and had their own essay reviewed in turn. I bundled the essays and reviews into a single PDF — an e-book of essays and responses — for which I contributed a short preface, reproduced here.]


The essays collected here were composed in spring 2015 for a Yale College writing seminar. The seminar’s title – “You Must Change Your Life” – derives from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (d. 1926), where these words figure as an enigmatic command emanating from the fragmentary torso of an ancient Greek statue. Our seminar took Rilke’s words as emblematic of human efforts to shape, govern, cultivate, and train human life. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk terms such efforts “anthropotechnics”; we confronted them with a series of questions:

Continue reading

Posted in Course description | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on “You must change your life”

Vox clamantis

My article “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt” has been published in the journal Representations, summer 2015 issue. Here is the abstract and article opening.

abstract    The Rising of 1381, or Peasants’ Revolt, was the largest popular insurrection in premodern England. Soon afterwards, the London poet John Gower commemorated these events in a Latin poem, in which the rebellion is neutralized by an act of penitential prayer. This article examines the moral and political claims implied in that denouement, situating it within three contrastive fields: the poet’s moral project, his Virgilian intertext, and the practices of moral community employed by the rebels of 1381.

Continue reading

Posted in Publications | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Vox clamantis

ENGL 534: Piers Plowman (F2014)

A study of Piers Plowman, a poem probably authored by William Langland in three versions between the 1360s and about 1390. We read the earliest and latest of these versions. Simultaneously, we make studies of the poem’s form and languages; place in literary history; genetic development; manuscript and early print circulation; discursive modes; and its thought on such topics as law, gender, political economy, theology, education, and the church.

The course schedule:

Week 1 [introductions]

Robert Crowley’s prefatory epistle to the 1550 editio princeps Continue reading

Posted in Course description | Tagged , | Comments Off on ENGL 534: Piers Plowman (F2014)

Middle English Alliterative Poetry: ENGL 402

[a course description, updated for the F14 iteration. In the previous iteration we read part of Cleanness and The Siege of Jerusalem (combined with Patience to form a unit on the destruction of cities) in place of Pearl. The F14 course website is now live, here.]

At the end of the Middle Ages there were two basic ways of writing English verse. One tradition employed end-rhyme and regularly alternating rhythms. Chaucer was its greatest medieval practitioner; Major English Poets (ENGL 125/26) traces its illustrious later history. However, in Chaucer’s day and for some time afterwards, there was another, older way of writing poetry in English. Rather than employing end-rhyme and alternating rhythm, this other practice of versification employed alliteration in combination with accentual rhythms at once irregular and intricately patterned. Descendant from the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, Middle English alliterative poetry includes several literary masterpieces, among them the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the surrealistic allegorical dream-vision Piers Plowman. We read both in this course. Continue reading

Posted in Course description | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Middle English Alliterative Poetry: ENGL 402