115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Beowulf after 1066: The Afterlife of Old English Heroic Lexis in Middle English Literature

Peter Ramey, Northern State University

Beowulf is marked by a distinctive heroic vocabulary, a semantic field that includes an expansive vocabulary for warriors and honor. By tracing out the development of this lexis in Middle English literature, this paper argues that a substratum of Old English heroic values continues to function in Middle English courtly verse, one that is never fully assimilated to French-based courtly poetry.

Proposal: 

Beowulf is marked by a distinctive heroic vocabulary, a semantic field that includes an expansive vocabulary for warriors (wiga, thegn), formal speech (maþelian), terms of honor (lof, þrym), and rulers (drihten). The Old English heroic vocabulary suffered a curious fate following the advent of Norman rule in 1066, and this paper explores the shifts in register and semantics that several of these terms undergo during the Middle English period. By tracing out the development of several prevalent terms in Beowulf that refer to warriors, kings, and words relating to honor and glory, this paper demonstrates that the common conception—the view that the special aristocratic vocabulary was elided by aristocratic Norman French terms—is not entirely justified. In fact, much of the lexis remains intact throughout the Middle English period, but its influence is diminished. This results less from displacement of equivalent terms derived from French than by an alteration in poetics and a fashion for new forms of courtly verse. Underscoring this argument, a chronological sampling of this vocabulary is given as used in Middle English heroic alliterative verse, Chaucer, and ending with its role within Malory’s Morte Darthur. This survival of these terms in Middle English literature reveals argues a substratum exists in Middle English courtly verse, one that is never fully assimilated to French-based courtly poetry.