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  • Why Medieval Lyric?
  • Ardis Butterfield

i. lyrics on the page

Look at this page from the back of a fifteenth-century legal roll:

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Figure 1.

The Armburgh Roll, Manchester, Chetham’s Library, Mun. E.6.10 (4), published by permission

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It is a roll of letters, mostly in English, about the property disputes from the 1420s–1450s of the Armburghs, an aspirant gentry family. Here at the end of one group of letters comes a separate section in different handwriting. It comes as a complete surprise. Probably written by one of the legal clerks who was commissioned to copy out the entire roll, it consists in expressions of love from a man to a woman, full of the usual compliments, expressions of ardent desire, and pleas for reciprocal feeling. Who knows whether he wrote this on his own account, or on behalf of someone else? As one can see, the visual impression is of paragraph after paragraph of elegant but tightly written prose. Yet on closer inspection it turns out to be somewhere between prose and verse, lyric and letter. The layout on the page is uncommunicative about any of these ambivalences. Its formal opacity pushes the reader far away from any sense of “lyric.”1

As one zooms in, however, the page crackles into formal life, not clearly, but puzzlingly. For one thing, in places it is written in more than one language: French and Latin as well as English. This is how it begins:

A celuy que pluys ayme de moundeOf all that I haue foundeCarissimaSalutez ad verray amourWith grace joie and honourDulcissima.2

This is not, of course, the layout on the roll, but that of the roll’s only editor. But it makes sense since it indicates a rhyme and metrical scheme: a8´a7b4 c8c7b4.3 The first paragraph contains five of these stanzas, but then finishes (without visual warning) with a little quatrain rhyming abab that has a rather rough sense of “meter”:

He that is youre manI ensure yow to his lasteSendyth to yow as he canA rude letre y written in haste (156).4

On an even closer look, it is the first of three embedded mixed language poems, distinct from the surrounding writing only by virtue of the fact that two of them occur separately in other manuscripts.5 Later in the section, we find much more formal vagueness. If one were to try to turn the prose lineation into verse, then there are many sequences of lines that have no single possible pattern. There are rhymes, of a [End Page 320] kind, but they do not create consistent line lengths or much sense of meter; other “poetic” features such as assonance, concatenation, apostrophe, and refrain-like repetitions of whole lines occur sporadically, but without a visible structural logic. These passages might also be extrapolable into stanzas or other units that one could set out as discrete poems, but on what grounds? Perhaps this is merely loose love writing, flowing with rough spontaneity, and expressed with frequent, exuberant, but only marginally considered repetition.

Let me present one more example. Here is a page from a medieval sermon manuscript:

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Figure 2.

British Library Harley MS 7322, f.157r, published by permission.

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Again, to paraphrase, is there a lyric on this page?6 If you have started looking from the top, you will have seen that the writing is well shaped but hard to read straightforwardly because it is full of flourishes. It is also hard to read (for a modern or medieval reader) unless one is reasonably competent in heavily abbreviated medieval Latin. Three lines from the bottom, starting roughly in the middle, are some words in English: “Worldis blisse strif hat wrout • for it [New line] is wit serwe to ende brout. • ” If one were leafing through this book it would be hard to spot the English words unless one knew they were there, or were reading every word. There is no visual fanfare; nothing marks them out. If one carries on...


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