The prevalence of verse in medieval Dutch and English Arthurian fiction

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Author: Bart Eesamnsca
Date: Oct. 2013
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,756 words

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Chretien de Troyes produced a highly original corpus of works that proved to be immensely influential. (1) Apart from providing later authors with a stock of Arthurian characters, themes, motifs, and narrative structures, he showed them the attractiveness and flexibility of the octosyllabic couplet. This is demonstrated by the impressive number of later Arthurian verse romances. With regard to this medium, however, we should remark that his successors, both French and non-French, explored other forms as well. Whereas many of his continuators stuck to couplets, others preferred to write in prose. In addition, in Britain there were authors composing, for instance, alliterative texts, as well as poets who produced the tail-rhyme stanza, characterized by Rosalind Field as "this jog-trot metric with its tendency to collapse in banality." (2 ) In the past, scholars have studied all these different forms, their origins, and their reception, mainly focusing on one particular linguistic area. In this article, I would like to broaden the scope of our research somewhat by looking at the use of the different media in medieval Dutch and English Arthurian literature in comparison to French literature. What catches the eye when we look at these forms from this comparative perspective? I will show that authors of both Dutch and English Arthurian narrative fiction had a strong preference for writing verse, and I will offer a speculative explanation of this common feature by incorporating the audiences of their narratives in my argument.

I would like to thank Frank Brandsma and Ad Putter for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. The comments of the reader for JEGP were also very helpful. I am grateful to Carleton W. Carroll and Vera Westra for their bibliographical assistance.


Syllabic poetry in the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish) developed from medieval Latin verse forms. (3) Among all the syllabic variations, two forms were prevailing in French texts: the decasyllabe and the octosyllabe. (4) While the decasyllabe made its first appearance, as far as we know, in a religious text, the Vie de saint Alexis (ca. 1050), it soon was one of the favorite forms (alongside the longer alexandrine, which became the meter of choice in the thirteenth century) of the poets of the chansons de geste, who used, moreover, common assonance at the end of the lines to bind them together in laisses. (5) The octosyllabe appeared even earlier than the decasyllabe, that is in the late tenth-century religious texts La Passion de Jesns-Ohrist and the Vie de saint Leger. (6) The first rhymed text in the French vernacular that has come down to us is the Occitan Chanson de sainte Foy, composed between 1060 and 1080 in octosyllabic laisses. (7) Some decades later, we witness the rise of rhyme united in an extremely happy marriage to the couplet, which was introduced in French literature in the tenth century, among others in the Passion de Jesus-Christ and the Vie de saint Legerjust mentioned. The proper history of rhyming couplets, favored by many...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A412800243