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Alliterative Revivals

By Christine Chism

Publication Year: 2011

Alliterative Revivals is the first full-length study of the sophisticated historical consciousness of late medieval alliterative romance. Drawing from historicism, feminism, performance studies, and postcolonial theory, Christine Chism argues that these poems animate British history by reviving and acknowledging potentially threatening figures from the medieval past—pagan judges, primeval giants, Greek knights, Jewish forefathers, Egyptian sorcerers, and dead ancestors. In addressing the ways alliterative poems centralize history—the dangerous but profitable commerce of the present with the past—Chism's book shifts the emphasis from the philological questions that have preoccupied studies of alliterative romance and offers a new argument about the uses of alliterative poetry, how it appealed to its original producers and audiences, and why it deserves attention now.

Alliterative Revivals examines eight poems: St. Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Wars of Alexander, The Siege of Jerusalem, the alliterative Morte Arthure, De Tribus Regibus Mortuis, The Awntyrs off Arthure, and Somer Sunday. Chism both historicizes these texts and argues that they are themselves obsessed with history, dramatizing encounters between the ancient past and the medieval present as a way for fourteenth-century contemporaries to examine and rethink a range of ideologies.

These poems project contemporary conflicts into vivid, vast, and spectacular historical theaters in order to reimagine the complex relations between monarchy and nobility, ecclesiastical authority and lay piety, courtly and provincial culture, western Christendom and its easterly others, and the living and their dead progenitors. In this, alliterative romance joins hands with other late fourteenth-century literary texts that make trouble at the borders of aristocratic culture.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-13

THE EPIGRAPH DESCRIBES THE ORGANIZING metaphor of this book: a drama of historical revival. It proposes that death grants ghosts an interrogative force, imbuing the impossible, unceasing communication between the dead and the living, the past and the present with fearful intimacy. For ghosts never return alone. They...

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1 Alliterative Romance: Improvising Tradition

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pp. 14-40

This passage shows the fascination of ancient inscription especially when it can no longer be read. The excellence, smoothness, and exquisite artifice of the tomb are brilliantly apparent, but their import is lost with the writing that adorns but cannot elucidate them-some antique worthiness has been ritually cherished but...

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2 St. Erkenwald and the Body in Question

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pp. 41-65

A ROMANCE OF BRITISH CHRISTIAN foundation, St. Erkenwald is startlingly willing to capitalize on that foundation's belatedness, its innovative status as ''New Werke" (38) in a land far older than itself1 And that ''werke" is energized by its specific location: St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The poem tells the story of the original construction of the cathedral that will become not only a conduit...

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3 Heady Diversions: Court and Province in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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pp. 66-110

THE PAST WE ENCOUNTER IN St. Erkenwald is, however inconclusively, already colonized. The ancient foundations have been breached, the pagan temples converted, and the old gods thrown out.1 But what would hap pen if it were one of these gods that the bishop unearthed in St. Paul's churchyard? Imagine a British aborigine, divorced from the classical tradi ...

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4 Geography and Genealogy in The Wars of Alexander

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pp. 111-154

BOTH St. Erkenwald AND Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stage confront ations with mysterious figures interpolated into insular history.1 The poems revive them to work toward historic transitions: the conversion of Britain into a Christian polity united under the bishop's merciful order or the possible coming of age of Arthur's youthful court, its transformation from a ...

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5 Profiting from Precursors in The Siege of Jerusalem

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pp. 155-188

IN THE LAST QUARTER OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY a poem was written in a modest monastic establishment, Bolton Priory, in a remote and infertile area of the West Riding of Yorkshire.1 The scope of the poem, however, is neither modest nor provincial; it essays nothing less than a foundation for Christian imperialism...

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6 King Takes Knight: Signifying War in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

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pp. 189-236

WAR, SHUNTED ASIDE IN Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and suffused with imperial longings in both The Wars of Alexander and The Siege of Jerusalem, is pushed to further extremes in the alliterative Morte Arthure.1 In the poem's battles, war becomes a chivalric sacrament where surpassing violence intersects with the structured materials of knightly display: insig ...

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7 Grave Misgivings in De Tribus Regibus Mortuis, The Awntyrs off Arthure, and Somer Sunday

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pp. 237-264

WHILE ALL OF THE ALLITERATIVE ROMANCES treated in this book explore and exploit the disjunctions between past and present, few alliterative poems face the dark backward and abysm of time with the directness of De Tribus Regibus Mortuis and The Awntyrs off Arthure. These didactic alliterative poems isolate, crystallize, and drive to extremes defining features ...

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8 Conclusion: The Body in Question–Again

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pp. 265-268

Robert Braybroke was the bishop of St. Paul's Cathedral at the time of St. Erkenwald's probable composition; he legislated and politicked for the respect due the London saint, promoted the commemoration of St. Erkenwald's feast day along with that of St. Paul himself, and refurbished St. Erkenwald's shrine so that the holy relics would once again be a nexus of spiritual transformation...


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pp. 269-298


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pp. 299-316


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pp. 317-328

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pp. 329-336

It is a pleasure to thank my teachers, colleagues, and friends for their strin gent criticisms and enormous generosities during the bliss and blunder of this book. Lee Patterson has broadened the terrains of medieval literature and culture more ways than I can tell; with care, kindness, and staunch criticism he helped immeasurably in giving the argument whatever coher ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201581
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812236552

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2011