ENGL 203 / ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Alliterative Revival
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

Read carefully the background information NA 10-13, 160-162 (headnote to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), and 331-3 (headnote to Langland only; this headnote provides relevant contextual information on the alliterative revival, although ENGL 330 and ENGL 512 students read noexcerpts from Langland's allegorical dream vision Piers Plowman). Note that the "Gawain Poet" is also thought to be the author of the dream vision The Pearl (not read in ENGL 203),  and hence he is more commonly referred to as the "Pearl Poet."  Also review the discussion of the Old and Middle English alliterative lines, NA 19-20; be able to describe the Middle English alliterative line and to explain how Middle English alliterative verse both resembled and differed from its Old English model. 

The "Alliterative Revival" refers to the sudden appearance of a large number of written works in English alliterative verse during the last third of the fourteenth century, when Langland and the Gawain/Pearl Poet (among others) breathed new life into the traditional, native English form inherited from the Anglo-Saxons (for whom however it was a strictly oral tradition). Old English Alliterative verse would not have been created or performed at court in England after the Norman Conquest, since the language of the court was FRENCH and since Anglo-Norman poetry was typically written in rhyming couplets, after the French fashion. But by the late fourteenth-century, the language of court had shifted from Anglo-Norman French to Middle English (see NA 10-13) -- although courtiers would typically still know French, and French-language poetry was still written by and for court audiences (see relevant comments in the headnote to Chaucer, NA 214-5). 

Developing out of the tradition of courtly literature inherited from the Anglo-Normans, the English-language poetry written at court in the late fourteenth century was typically in rhyme rather than alliterative verse, which must have seemed archaic and strange to an audience accustomed to French (or French-inspired) literary forms.  The resurgence of alliterative verse during the so-called "Alliterative Revival" suggests however that alliterative poetry in English had been composed more or less continuously as part of an on-going oral tradition outside the court milieu (see relevant comments in the headnote to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, NA 160). Since Langland and the Pearl Poet, the two greatest alliterative poets of the fourteenth century, were from provincial centers North and West of London, the resurgence of alliterative verse in those regions may also suggest that alliterative poetry appealed to the desire of provincial poets to distance themselves from the sort of poetry associated with the central court in London, just as the local lords were interested in asserting their growing independence from the Crown. During the fourteenth century, the power of the Crown was increasingly challenged, not only by aristocrats who desired more independence, but also by the rising power of the urban middle class and by social upheaval such as the Peasant's Rebellion of 1381 (see NA 10-12, 214-16, 331-3).  Note that while the time period of the "Alliterative Revival" is approximately the last third of the fourteenth century, not all poetry at that time was in alliterative verse: Chaucer wrote primarily in rhyming couplets adapted from French literary models, and the Gawain- or Pearl-Poet himself used not only alliterative verse but rhyme (e.g. in the bob and wheel sections of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and throughout The Pearl).

A Note on Form:  as you read any medieval vernacular text, it is important to make note of the form in which it was written (or composed): prose, alliterative verse, or rhyme (whether couplets, rhyme royal stanzas, "bob and wheel," "fourteeners," or some other verse form).  Recall that alliterative verse was used in the oral-formulaic poetry of the Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) era, and that rhymed verse was introduced into English literary tradition in the twelfth century through the French language poetry enjoyed by French-speaking aristocrats at the courts of Anglo-Norman EnglandRhymed verse is also the form most commonly used for poetry composed in English by court poets (e.g. Chaucer and Gower) starting in approximately the last third of the fourteenth century. By contrast, prose was used primarily for vernacular works with explicit religious content, such as the thirteenth-century English Hali Meidhad, Seinte Margarete and Ancrene Wisse, or the roughly contemporaneous French prose romances of the Vulgate Cycle, created in the early thirteenth century by Cistercian monks intent on "redeeming" Arthurian romance. 

The  prose romances of the Vulgate Cycle shift the focus of Arthurian adventure from sinful earthly love (e.g. the adulterous love affair of.Lancelot and Guinevere) to the love of a pure knight for God.  The Cistercian romancers do so by inventing a new hero:  the virgin Galahad, best Celestial Knight, who is able to achieve the Quest of the Holy Grail; he thereby displaces his sinful father Lancelot, the best earthly knight, who is a failure at that quest.  Note that these prose works are represented for our purposes by our selections from Malory's Morte Darthure, of which they are the primary source. 

As the above examples illustrate, prose was apparently considered more suitable to disseminating religious truths than was rhyme, both because verse was regarded as inherently more mendacious than prose (since a poet looking for a rhyme word might be tempted to sacrifice veracity for the sake of poetic expression) and because rhyme was associated with the frivolous court literature enjoyed by artistocrats (the equivalent of what Bede disparagingly referred to as "vain and idle songs").  Keep in mind that when English poetry began to be composed in rhyme, towards the middle of the fourteenth century, this innovation was essentially a French import into English literary tradition, displacing the "home grown" English poetry in alliterative verse that was still composed and transmitted orally (as the late-fourteenth-century works of the "alliterative revival" attest).  The typical form of French-language courtly literature both in Anglo-Norman England and on the continent was octosyllabic rhyming couplets; it is from these French models that Chaucer and Gower took their poetic inspiration.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2008

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Click here for The Pearl Study Questions

Click here for Piers Plowman Study Questions

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