Alliterative Revivals

Alliterative Revivals

Christine Chism
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Alliterative Revivals
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0158-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (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 drag along on their mantles lost memories that compel their audiences to confront their foundational evasions, to rewrite their histories, and to renovate themselves. Ghosts trouble the strategic amnesias, substitutions, and transcendences through which history is shaped and the contours of the present are inaugurated. And the living respond, not simply because...

  4. 1 Alliterative Romance: Improvising Tradition
    (pp. 14-40)

    At the beginning St. Erkenwald an Anglo-Saxon construction crew digging the foundations of a new Christian cathedral unearths an ancient tomb graven with mysterious writing.

    Hit was a throgh of thykke ston thryuandly hewen

    With gargeles garnysht aboute alle of gray marbre.

    The sperl of þe spelunke that spradde hit olofte

    Was metely made of þe marbre and menskefully planed

    And þe bordure enbelicit with bryƷt golde lettres;

    Bot roynyshe were þe resones þat þere on row stoden.

    Full verray were þe vigures þere auisyd hom many

    Bot all muset hit to mouth and quat hit mene shuld,

    Mony clerke...

  5. 2 St. Erkenwald and the Body in Question
    (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 itself.¹ 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 of salvation but also a strong center of urban authority for the city of London.² It tests the foundations of episcopal control of the city in the person of Erkenwald, a bishop and saint whose shrine...

  6. 3 Heady Diversions: Court and Province in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
    (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 happen if it were one of these gods that the bishop unearthed in St. Paul’s churchyard? Imagine a British aborigine, divorced from the classical traditions of secular justice that sanitize Erkenwald’s virtuous pagan, a figure both native and uncanny, “an alvysh man” [an elvish man] perhaps, or “half etayne in erde, I trow” [Half a giant on earth I hold him to be].² This, of course, is the Green...

  7. 4 Geography and Genealogy in The Wars of Alexander
    (pp. 111-154)

    Both St. Erkenwald and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stage confrontations 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 clique of gamesters into a true fellowship of knights in the crowning era of British history. The next two chapters, on The Wars of Alexander and The Siege of Jerusalem, also describe pivotal historic transitions but on even larger scales: the construction of new...

  8. 5 Profiting from Precursors in The Siege of Jerusalem
    (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. The alliterative Siege of Jerusalem tells the tale of the conquest of Jerusalem by recently converted provincial Roman leaders who decide to launch a crusade to avenge Christ’s death.² The siege culminates in the destruction of the temple, the subjection of the Jews, and the liquidation of their...

  9. 6 King Takes Knight: Signifying War in the Alliterative Morte Arthure
    (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: insignia, armor, and body. Sir Cador’s war prayer above makes war into knighthood’s animating spirit, a hoard-bound dragon, always astir and craving for conflagration. The Morte Arthure describes the last great campaign of King Arthur against a range of enemies from the past, at...

  10. 7 Grave Misgivings in De Tribus Regibus Mortuis, The Awntyrs off Arthure, and Somer Sunday
    (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 of the other alliterative romances in this study in order to pronounce judgment upon them. The past distills itself into the shape of the dead, as monarchs are brought face to face with their dead fathers and mothers. The disruptions of death and temporality which...

  11. 8 Conclusion: The Body in Question—Again
    (pp. 265-268)

    It seemed apt to close this book, which began with a medieval exhumation, by describing a very different Renaissance one:

    On the third day of which Month [September] it was, that the great and dreadful Fire of London began in a narrow Lane amongst old rotten Buildings, near to the lower end of Gracechurch Street, which in a short time, notwithstanding all the Help that could be, consumed the greatest Part of the City; in which not only the Parochial Churches were destroyed, but also this ancient Cathedral: The Roof whereof falling down with a mighty Force, broke through those...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 269-298)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 299-316)
  14. Index
    (pp. 317-328)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 329-329)