There is little agreement about the so-called alliterative revival. What it is, why it happened, and, indeed, whether it happened at all are all up for debate. Nevertheless, in the last half of the 14th century a number of nonrhyming, alliterative poems were written, most of them originating from north and northwest England. Although these poems vary greatly in terms of meter, rhyme, and generic form, they have in common their use of alliteration, a poetic device in which two or more words begin with the same sound. The opening line of Piers Plowman serves as a good example: "In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne" (l. 1). This group of poems is often referred to as a revival because alliteration is a basic form in Old English poetry.
Traditionally, scholars have differentiated between so-called formal (or classical) alliterative poems and informal alliterative poems. Formal poems have an alliterative pattern of aa, ax, meaning that each line of verse contains four stresses, the first three of which are alliterated, as in this opening line from The Wars of Alexander, where the initial "b" sound is repeated "this barne quen he borne was, as me the boke tellis" (l. 1). Formal alliterative poetry tends to have a more elevated style, as seen in alliterative romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Morte Arthure. Poems in this group also include the alliterative St. Erkenwald, Cleanness, Patience, The Destruction of Troy, The Siege of Jerusaleum, Winner and Waster, The Parliament of the Three Ages, and William of Palerne. Informal alliterative poetry has a much less regularized rhyme and meter scheme and more variation it its alliteration. Many of these texts were written in the south midlands of England and examine contemporary religious and social life. Poems in this group include Piers Plowman and texts inspired by Piers Plowman, such as Mum and the Sothsegger and Pierce the Ploughman's Crede.
Little is known about how these texts were produced and who produced them. Most are preserved in only one copy, with the exception of The Siege of Jerusalem and Piers Plowman. In addition, the majority of these manuscripts date not from the time of their composition in the 14th century, but rather from the 15th and in some cases the 16th and 17 th centuries. Even less is known about the audience of these poems, although most scholars today believe the lesser clergy and nobility were the intended audiences.
Given these difficulties, why speak of an "alliterative revival" at all? The term developed in part in an effort to explain a mystery. The Brut, which was composed at the end of the 12th century, is the last alliterative, non-rhyming poem written before the alliterative revival began in the mid-14th century. Thus, there seems to have been a 100-year period, from approximately 1250 to 1350, when no alliterative poetry was written, followed by a flurry of activity for about 50 years, at which time the form again waned (although it remained popular in Scotland for much of the 15th century).
As noted above, the term revival suggests that Middle English alliterative poetry hearkens to Anglo-Saxon verse forms. Not only is alliteration characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, but the poems of the alliterative revival often use Old English or Old Norse words, which rarely appear in nonalliterative Middle English poetry. Therefore, at first glance these poems seem to be quite self-consciously modeling themselves on their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Although there is comparatively little written Anglo-Saxon poetry extant, some scholars have argued that these older forms were preserved through oral tradition, citing as evidence the scenes of public storytelling in noble households that sometimes appear in these poems. One explanation offered for the revival of alliterative verse is that in the mid-14th century the influence of Anglo-Norman was waning and poets were looking for a literary language to replace it. Others have suggested that the poets of this period turned to alliterative verse in an effort to develop a poetic style that was distinctly English in order to break away from French, which had shaped literature and culture since the Norman Conquest in 1066.
However, there are a number of difficulties with this thesis. While late medieval, alliterative poetry shares similarities with its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, it has a different meter and style. In addition, while Old English, Old Norse, and even Scandinavian words appear in 14th-century alliterative poetry, there are also a number of new, contemporary words used in the poems, many of which relate to clothing, hunting, siege warfare, and armor. Nor do we have evidence that Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse was preserved in oral culture. Even if it was, there are two aspects of Middle English alliterative poetry that make it unlikely that it was inspired by an oral tradition. First, the poems tend to be very bookish, often citing textual sources for their stories. This device could certainly be a convention (just as a scene of public recitation could be a convention, rather than reflective of actual practice), but many of these texts are translations of French or Latin sources. Second, some of the poems are very long. Ten alliterative poems are 1,000-7,000 lines, and The Destruction of Troy a daunting 14,000 lines. These lengths do not invite memorization and oral recitation. Others have suggested that alliterative verse was passed down to 14th-century writers not through oral tradition but, rather, through texts that are now lost to us. According to this theory, there is continuity in the composition of alliterative verse, rather than disrup-
tion in the form of a 100-year gap. It has been proposed that missing manuscripts could have been preserved in monastic libraries in Southwest England. Indeed, a manuscript of the The Siege of Jerusalem has been linked to the priory at Bolton, Yorkshire. The manuscripts' delicate nature suggests there are missing manuscripts that, if found, would provide important clues about the development of Middle English alliterative poetry. However, given the limited number of extant and available manuscripts, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about the composition and preservation of these poems.
Some scholars have suggested abandoning the term alliterative revival altogether, since there is a great deal of alliterative prose and poetry that encompasses the period 1250-1350. Little of it is of the formal style (nonrhyming, with the aa, ax alliteration pattern) and therefore it has been dismissed as unrelated to its mid-14th-century predecessor (although, paradoxically, some who dismiss these precursors also, in turn, argue that they are a source for the mid-14th-century form). Others are disturbed by the nationalistic assumptions behind the idea of a "revival" that challenges French language and culture, and see this theory as more a reflection of modern politics than of 14th-century literary practice. Recently, one scholar has suggested that this diverse group of poems is connected by broader thematic interests, including an examination of the complicated relationship between the past and the present, an engagement with pressing social and cultural issues, a suspicion of romantic love, a reliance on Latinate sources, and an authoritative and confident narrative voice.
See also Gawain-poet.
Chism, Christine. Alliterative Revivals. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Turville-Petre, Thorlac. Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages: An Anthology. Washington: Catholic University Press; Padstow, Cornwall: TJ Press, 1989. Zimmerman, Harold C. "Continuity and Innovation: Scholarship on the Middle English Alliterative Revival." Jahrbuch für Internationale Germanistik 35, no. 1 (2003): 107-123.
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