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The Rise of English Printing and the Decline of Alliterative Verse

The Rise of English Printing and the Decline of Alliterative Verse

Although the origins of the Alliterative Revival have been the focus of a considerable body of scholarship over the past century, little attention has been paid to the decline of the alliterative long line during the fifteenth century. Why did this verse form disappear as a vehicle for poets during a period that saw the beginnings of printing in England and a consequent increase in the circulation of literary texts? And why were the poems not printed in the late fifteenth century even though they appear coevally in manuscript copies and share the subject matter and narratives of a number of early English printed books? This essay seeks to answer these questions by considering those few long-line poems printed early in the history of English and Scottish printing, including PPl, Pierce the Plowman’s Crede, and Dunbar’s Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, as well as the alliterative prose work Jack Upland and Caxton’s revision of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. Stinson concludes that of all known poems in the alliterative long line, only PPl clearly meets the combined criteria of popularity, orthodoxy, availability in multiple manuscripts copied in accessible dialects, evidence of local copying and readership, and sustained appeal and reception into the sixteenth century that would make a work in alliterative verse a likely candidate for printing during this time. (TS)


YLS, 22 (2008), 165–97.


Stinson, Timothy