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Alliterative Horses

Fifty years ago Marie Borroff’s seminal work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study, was published. In the first part of the book, Borroff looked at earlier studies of the style of alliterative poetry and brought to more general attention the important work of August Brink, Stab und Wort im Gawain, published in 1920.1 In his analysis of the nouns and adjectives used by the poets, Brink identified those words that generally occupied alliterating positions, starkstabende Wörter, and those which commonly did not alliterate, schwachstabende Wörter. “Brink concluded,” wrote Borroff, “that the words of high ‘alliterative rank’ (Rang im Stabe) were of archaic and elevated stylistic quality, and that they were used in common by the alliterative poets for the purpose of idealizing the persons and subject matter of their narratives.”2 Taking this material as a basis, Borroff discussed, in particular, the stylistic implications of the traditional synonyms for “man”: burne, freke, gome, haþel, lede, renk, schalk, segge, tulk, and wyʒe. Unlike kniʒt, lord, and mon, these ten are all of restricted currency, recorded in the late Middle Ages mainly, and sometimes exclusively, in alliterative verse, predominantly in alliterative position. All are from Old English, except tulk (Old Norse). Borroff investigated their range in both alliterative and nonalliterative works, noting that those that are starkstabende occur rarely outside the alliterative tradition. She concluded that “reference to persons by a variety of synonymous or nearly synonymous words imputing class-status was a traditional feature,” and that “this device has in itself an elevating effect upon style, since it constitutes a departure from the practice of colloquial speech.”3 She followed this, and a similar analysis of some idealizing and typifying adjectives, with close reading of passages in SGGK where this vocabulary appears. The second part of her book looked in impressive detail at metre, with a ground-breaking study of the alliterative line.

In the years since Borroff’s book, considerable progress has been made in the understanding of alliterative metre, most notably by Hoyt N. Duggan in a series of articles beginning in 1986, and most recently in a book by Ad [End Page 154] Putter, Judith Jefferson, and Myra Stokes (2007).4 It is remarkable, though, that there has been no major study of the vocabulary of alliterative verse since Borroff’s, even though the resources for such a study have improved dramatically since her time. It is worth remembering that in 1962 the Middle English Dictionary (completed in 2001) had not yet reached the letter G. Fundamental editorial work was still to be done, and the past fifty years have seen new editions with comprehensive glossaries of most of the important texts of the Alliterative Revival (detailed in the appendix). The advent of electronic editions with searchable texts now permits accurate statistical analysis for a few poems: The Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts has published editions of William of Palerne and The Destruction of Troy and B-texts of Piers Plowman. Concordances such as those to Piers Plowman and The Destruction of Troy are particularly useful, with online concordances to other fourteenth-century authors, such as the eChaucer at and searchable texts of some older editions in the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse at The one huge gap is a comprehensive glossary to Laʒamon’s Brut, for which we are still dependent on Madden’s edition of 1847.5

So it is high time for a reappraisal of the vocabulary of alliterative verse and a new assessment of the style of alliterative poems. This essay is not that, but by lifting one small corner of the subject, the vocabulary used for “horse,” I hope to suggest ways in which such a study might proceed, and in what ways it could be revealing. Most alliterative poems, even the decidedly nonequestrian St. Erkenwald, involve a horse or two, and those that deal with heroic or romance themes inevitably refer to them a great deal. So the topic seems to...