Periods: Medieval

Here you will find Old English prosody and style. Other pages cover a general overview and major authors.

Reference Works:

  • A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 12 vols. (PR255 .M3)
  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century
  • Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
  • Harris, Stephen and Bryon Grigsby. Misconceptions about the Middle Ages
  • "Meter," Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature.
  • Oxford Reference On-Line (UMass only)


Web Sites:

Library Reference Guide

Labyrinth Resources for Medieval Studies
Corpus of Middle English
Middle English Dictionary
The Medieval Lyric (Mt. Holyoke)
Chaucer Metapage
Harvard Chaucer Page
Luminarium anthology
Guide to Meter



Literature Online (UMass only)
Labyrinth medieval editions
The Electronic Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales Project
Canterbury Tales in Modern Spelling


Medieval Prosody and Style


Vernacular English prosody undergoes its single most important shift in this period: from Germanic to Latin verse forms. By the end of the 14th century, Chacuer will mock the old Germanic verse form, although some northern poets are still writing in it. For example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight keeps many of the old forms.

Latin verse forms are described by their meter and stanza. (See this handout.) Originally, meter had to do with the length of vowels. For example, Old English god had a short /o/, and meant "God." Old English gōd had a long /o/, and meant "good." They were pronounced exactly the same way, but one was spoken longer. Semantically, it mattered how long you made your /o/. By the Middle Ages, spelling conventions had changed and the long /o/ was indicated by putting two o's next to one another: "oo."

So, an early Latin iamb was a short vowel followed by a long vowel. What mattered was the quantity of the vowel: was it long or short? We still scan (measure the meter of) classical Latin poetry that way.

But in the early Middle Ages, quality replaced quantity as the standard of measure. Instead of asking about the length of a vowel, poets asked about the stress on a vowel. So a word like "telephone," with three syllables, has its stress on the first syllable. It's TELephone. All English words are stressed in a particular way (see the divisions of a headword in any good dictionary). So an iamb becomes a weak stress followed by a strong stress.The GIRL reTURNS the HAT is a series of three iambs. We mark strong stresses with a backslash "/" and weak stresses with an "x" or a "u":

iamb ( x / ) weak + strong
trochee ( / x ) strong + weak
dactyl ( / x x ) strong + weak + weak
anapest ( x x / ) weak + weak + strong

These are the four basic feet. There are many, many more including dithyrambs and choriambs and acephelous amphibrachs.

Poetic feet are arranged into series. A hexameter line, which is typical of epic poetry, begins with a dactyl and contains six feet. The last foot should be a trochee or a spondee ( / / ). We use Greek names for the numbers. So a line of one foot is a monometer, of two feet is a dimeter, and so on.

1 footspacespacespacespacespacemonometer
2 feetspacespacespacespacespacedimeter
3 feetspacespacespacespacespacetrimeter
4 feetspacespacespacespacespacequadrameter
5 feetspacespacespacespacespacepentameter
6 feetspacespacespacespacespacehexameter
7 feetspacespacespacespacespaceheptameter
8 feetspacespacespacespacespaceoctameter

and so forth. Five iambs in a line are therefore called iambic pentameter. Milton writes, "Methought I saw my late espoused saint ...." which is an iambic pentameter line (stress in blue: Methought | I saw | my late | espou | séd saint). Shakespeare wrote his plays in iambic pentameter.

The art of poetry before the modern age requires that a poet follow a formal metrical guide. Underlying all poems like a blueprint is a poetic form. But the poet is free to vary the form to meet the needs of his or her content. Forms include the ballad, the sonnet, and so forth. Here is a handout of poetic forms (sh). A ballad is typically a four-foot line followed by a three-foot line, another four-foot line, and a three-foot line, rhyming ABCB. Oscar Wilde adds a third couplet (2 lines) in his Ballad of Reading Gaol:

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

This six-line stanza rhymes ABCBDB. In English, stress tends to fall on nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs--but not on prepositions or conjunctions. So the form of Wilde's first line is imabic tetrameter (He did not wear his scarlet coat), but Wilde has introduced a variant--an initial spondee--to indicate something about the content (He did not wear his scarlet coat), perhaps the dereliction of form brought on by emotion.

Medieval vernacular verse uses all these poetic conventions. Medieval poets also experimented with verse, trying to apply Latin forms to English. Chaucer famously developed the rime royal, which is a highly formal line of iambic pentameter in a seven-line stanza rhyming ABABBCC. Chaucer developed some of the major metrical forms used in poetry to this day.


Medieval style varies from the plain style to the highly ornate style. One can compare Chaucer's highly ornate Knight's Tale to the simpler Miller's Tale to see the difference.

An essential observation for any student of literature is that the same content can be expressed in many different ways--the means of expression is called style. Take the following example: "Jim likes ice cream. He likes vanilla. He eats it a lot." Sounds childish, no? Simple-minded? In fact, it's merely said in the simple style. Now, let's add some rhetorical tropes, tropes that don't change the content of a phrase, but that makes it seem intelligent. That requires us to interrupt the normal syntactic pattern (Subject-Verb-Object) of an English sentence and replace Anglo-Saxon words with Latinate ones.

Jim likes ice cream. Ice cream is something that Jim likes.
He likes vanilla. What he likes is vanilla.
He eats it a lot. It is a lot of it that he eats.

Now, we add appositive phrases in subordinate positions, find synonyms, and recast the sentences:

Ice cream is something one of the things that Jim likes enjoys a lot immensely. He likes is especially fond of vanilla ice cream flavored with vanilla, and, if one were pressed to say, it is also something that he eats a lot great deal of.

Compare that to our original set of sentences. Any difference in content? Not really. Both sets of sentences make the same three points. But the style is different. The longer version seems more intelligent, more perceptive, more informative. In fact, it isn't. But it seems that way. Our original, simple style is called the Attic style, and the longer, more complex style is called Ciceronian style.

Chaucer's work is what one critic calls a drama of style. Among other things, Chaucer explores the relationship between style and status. For example, the Knight's Tale is beautiful and dignified. But it has no obvious moral (the Host, Harry Baily, requires that each tale entertain and offer a moral). The Miller's Tale is rough and undignified, but it has a great deal of "moralite." So who is the more effective morally among the pilgrims, the Knight or the Miller? Exploring our own prejudices about style and status is part of the challenge of the Canterbury Tales.