Voicing medieval English poetry

Tue 25 Mar 2003, 00:00

Warton Lecture on English Poetry, delivered by Dr Christopher Page, on 25 March 2003.

'I shall tell it as I heard it told with tongue', says the poet at the beginning of the fourteenth-century English poem Sir Gawayn and the Green Knight. This remark is one of many that have inspired critics to explore what might be called the performing dimension of Medieval English poetry. But we still know remarkably little about the ways in which a medieval reader - or perhaps it was sometimes a singer - would lift a poem from the manuscript onto the voice. As they survive in the manuscripts, many medieval English poems (especially perhaps the lyrics) are poorly preserved, their rhymes impaired, and their metres damaged, in the way that Chaucer feared for his own Troilus and Crisedye. But perhaps many of the copies are simply swift 'notations' for a performance, to which the reader-singer would bring a range of skills that he or she could rapidly deploy, perhaps simply with a scan of the eye? And how does our knowledge of medieval music and its manner of performance help us to understand how a great poem like Sir Gawayn and the Green Knight might have been 'told with tongue'?

Dr Christopher Page, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

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