The Eighteenth Annual Rossell Hope Robbins Lecture
Friday, October 5, 2007, 7:30 PM
CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave. @ 34th St.), Room 4406.
Reception, with wine and cheese, follows.
"Iconicity and Alliterative Poetry: Piers Plowman and the Bohun World"
Andrew GallowayLate-medieval alliterative English poetry is often emphatically sumptuous in its imagery, but (with rare exception) its medieval copies are notoriously not de luxe nor, it seems, valued by the world of the higher nobility. Indeed very little is known of the origins and supporting patronage of the alliterative writings that appear in a large and rich quantity from the mid-fourteenth century, supreme among which is the work with the most complex social and intellectual vision and the most elusive social and intellectual immediate context of production: Piers Plowman. One earlier and much less popular alliterative work, however, from mid-fourteenth century Herefordshire or Gloucester, and indeed the earliest datable instance of the "alliterative revival," William of Palerne, directly claims noble patronage: that of Humphrey de Bohun, seventh earl of Hereford and Essex. This connection has long been pondered, as has the possible connection between the poet of Piers and that of William of Palerne. But one avenue—by way of visual materials—to pursue the connections between this one instance of alliterative poetry and the world that Humphrey also evidently supported hasn’t been pursued: the magnificent Vienna Bohun Psalter that appears to have been made directly for Humphrey. I will discuss the modes of visual and textual literacy that both the Vienna Psalter and William of Palerne present around the treatments of an ethic particularly relevant to the world of the higher nobility: pride. I will then consider some of the same elements in Piers Plowman, a popular, in some ways anti-aristocratic London work whose origins in some Hereford or Worcester background are clear in the poem. The present study cannot prove the connections between the author of the two alliterative poems, although it does present some new support. The comparison I will make does, however, show more clearly than ever how radically novel were the social ethics and poetic mode of Piers Plowman. The comparison I will set forth also offers a new look at the broad history of the visual and literary circumstances of late-medieval alliterative traditions, as those came into somewhat wider "public" prominence in the late fourteenth century—even as such growing readership continued to bypass the fifteenth century higher nobility.
Andrew Galloway is Professor of English and Medieval Studies at Cornell University. He is the author of The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, Volume One: C Prologue-Passus 4; B Prologue-Passus 4; A Prologue-Passus 4 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), Medieval Literature and Culture (London: Continuum Press, 2007), and numerous articles on Middle-English literature.