In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section English Prosody

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections of Papers
  • Comparative Metrical Studies
  • Old English Metrical Style
  • Middle English Iambic Meter
  • Middle English Mixed Meter
  • Phonology and Middle English Meter

Medieval Studies English Prosody
Thomas Cable
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0035


Medieval English poetry was composed over a period of eight centuries that split roughly into two periods: Old English (late 7th to early 12th century) and Middle English (mid-12th to mid-15th century). The prosody of Old English poetry is a Germanic inheritance with parallels in the meters of Old Norse, Old Saxon, and Old High German. These meters are usually referred to as “accentual,” “strong-stress,” and “alliterative,” although all the terms are problematic. The prosody of Middle English poetry has two main strands, the native Germanic meter and the various meters adapted from foreign sources—French primarily, but also Latin and Italian. Controversy surrounds all these topics. For Old English, the concerns are not only matters of empirical fact (Were the poems chanted? What does “chant” mean?) but also matters of theoretical simplicity and elegance. For Middle English, the empirical matters concern source, filiation, and influence, especially in poetry where the categories are blurred (Is this poem in a native meter or a foreign meter?). For both strands of Middle English poetry, there are parallels to the questions of theoretical elegance posed for the earlier period, and indeed the main issues have not been resolved in the poetry of Modern English up to the present, where direct access to the poet and the poem is possible. The issues are ultimately ontological. They can be summarized by the reef on which the study of English prosody has split during the past two centuries: the assumptions of “temporal” prosody (also “rhythmical,” “musical” prosody) versus the assumptions of “stress” prosody (including most “linguistic” approaches). The selection of features of the English language with which a theory begins is the source of the contrasting approaches of “timers” and “stressers.”

General Overviews

There is no general treatment of medieval English prosody that takes into account the discoveries made during the past forty years. Our understanding of both Old English meter and Middle English meter in the early 21st century is considerably different from mid-20th-century views, such as those of Lehmann 1956, Wimsatt and Beardsley 1959, and Pearsall 1977. Standard summaries of 19th-century prosodical scholarship, especially in Britain and Germany, can be found in Kaluza 1911, Saintsbury 1923, and Schipper 1910, along with the sometimes idiosyncratic contributions of the authors. Stockwell and Minkova 1997 is still up-to-date on Old English prosody.

  • Kaluza, Max. A Short History of English Versification from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Translated by A. C. Dunstan. London: George Allen, 1911.

    English translation of Englische Metrik in historischer Entwicklung dargestellt (Berlin: Felber, 1909).Valuable insights, especially on Old English meter, some of which have been “rediscovered” a century later.

  • Lehmann, Winfred P. The Development of Germanic Verse Form. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956.

    A focus on the linguistic determinants of metrical artifice and their changes over time.

  • Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

    A literary survey that has useful comments on meter.

  • Pope, John C., ed. Eight Old English Poems. 3d ed. Revised by R. D. Fulk. New York: Norton, 2001.

    Fulk’s revision of Pope 1966 (listed under Rhythmical Theories), an essay on “Old English Versification,” is the best up-to-date introduction to the subject.

  • Saintsbury, George. A History of English Prosody from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day. 3 vols. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1923.

    First edition 1910. Still useful for Middle English despite the author’s skepticism about elision in Chaucer. Nothing on Old English.

  • Schipper, Jakob. A History of English Versification. Oxford: Clarendon, 1910.

    English translation of Grundriss der englischen Metrik (Vienna, Wilhem Braumüller: 1895), itself an abridgement of a three-volume work from 1881–1888. Helpful summaries of earlier scholarship but an overstatement of the continuation of the Germanic tradition in King Horn and later poems.

  • Stockwell, Robert P., and Donka Minkova. “Prosody.” In A Beowulf Handbook. Edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, 55–84. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

    A clear and even-handed account of major metrical theories, with a listing of studies of the past two centuries but with most attention to current views.

  • Wimsatt, W. K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Concept of Meter: An Exercise in Abstraction.” PMLA 74.5 (1959): 585–598.

    DOI: 10.2307/460509

    A classic essay that clarifies the mid-20th-century stories of historical English metrics, and a useful place to begin. Its main assumptions must now be resisted, but it remains immensely helpful for locating the productive points of resistance.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.