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Medieval Alliterative Poetry: Essays in Honour of Thorlac Turville-Petre (review)

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 371-374 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0021

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This festschrift offers a good snapshot of the state of thinking on the works conventionally classified as belonging to the Middle English alliterative corpus, the subject of Turville-Petre’s major study, The Alliterative Revival (1977). No one here reconsiders that book’s larger arguments, and indeed some might come away from this collection wondering whether the concept of an alliterative corpus, not to mention revival, is still a going concern. The editors, rather than foreground this or any other characteristic of the collection, offer only a 150-word preface and present the essays in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Still, a reading of the volume produces some interesting threads of interest across the contributions while also signaling some of the limitations of “alliterative poetry” as a governing principle.

John Scattergood’s “On the Road: Langland and Some Medieval Outlaw Stories” is the only poor fit, Piers Plowman here just exemplifying the standard literary approach to outlaws. The most interesting source of pressure on the concept of an alliterative corpus comes in the form of the contribution that most fully engages with Turville-Petre’s approach, Michael Calabrese’s enjoyable “Alliterative Wombs.” Calabrese adds “images of the womb and analogous spaces of nurturing, safety, and re-birth” to the topics the honorand identified as those at which alliterative poets excelled (54). Calabrese marshals ample evidence from Cleanness, The Wars of Alexander, Piers Plowman, and The Siege of Jerusalem, but I kept hearing a voice as I read: “Leeve mooder, leet me in!” If the phenomenon is best exemplified in The Pardoner’s Tale, how helpful is the descriptor “alliterative” at all?

This question of how individual alliterative poems relate to external sources or milieux keeps coming up as one works through the volume. Robert Adams catalogues the similarities between Langland and the Dutch religious figure Geert Grote, including, he says, their eschatological outlook and devotion to “traditional Catholic dogma” (35; emphasis his). The essay seems intended to shore up support for his beliefs about Langland, which have proved contentious, but it is unclear how Grote’s embodiment of them helps the cause. Richard F. Green argues that the English translator of Guillaume de Palerne responded to particular interests (physiology, pacifism, the poor) of his patron, Humphrey de Bohun, but any long narrative poem might provide such evidence. Ralph Hanna says five features of Langland’s Tree of Charity “are certainly derived from” the Glossa ordinaria on the Song of Songs, which features some similar employments of the gardening metaphor (128). He does not think “that there can be a great deal of doubt” about his claims (133). More exposition and less hectoring would have benefited this effort, which makes few concessions to the virtues of clarity and logic.

Other approaches are more successful in negotiating such difficulties. Ad Putter sensibly argues that in assessing Cleanness’s homiletic passages we need to look to biblical versifications such as the Cursor mundi, which “are valuable repositories of the apocryphal lore, the received wisdom and textual variants, that made the medieval Bible so different from our own” (184). And Andrew Galloway’s new identification of John of Tynemouth’s mid-fourteenth-century universal history as a major source for The Siege of Jerusalem is wholly convincing, relying on often exact verbal parallels, and reducing the minimally necessary number of sources for the Siege from the five postulated by Hanna and David Lawton to three.

Two other contributions that approach such magisterial levels are A. V. C. Schmidt’s and John Burrow’s, both on Langland, whose “profoundly original exploration of the sacramental significance of blood,” inspired by the Easter liturgy and its religious iconography, is the former’s topic (217). The editors might profitably have brought Schmidt’s analysis of the pervasive imagery of blood and the piercing of the body into conversation with Calabrese’s study of womb imagery, or his description of Langland’s religious vision as “in a wide sense sacramental” (217) with Adams’s assertion that the poet held “a subjective view of the sacrament [of the altar]’s efficacy” (33).

Ilyke (ME “similarly, likewise”), Burrow’s essay on the lives of Piers the Plowman through A...

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