Medieval Lists

A few weeks ago I attended a fascinating interdisciplinary workshop on the medieval list, and I wrote a blog post about it for the TORCH site. Drawing on the distinctions I made there, I wound up producing some some extra material related to my own work. So: a little B-side blog post!

Here’s just the start of a list within one fourteenth-century poem:

On thise thre wyse the Gast of Wisdome 		[wyse: ways; gast: spirit
Hallows the hert that is bouxsome 		[bouxsome: obedient
First he clenses and fynes it right, 		[fynes: refines
Als fyre fynes gold that es bright
Aftirward I fynde alswa 			[alswa: also
He puttes away alle erthe tharfra 		[tharfra: from there

Speculum Vitae, lines 2411–16

Though framed in couplets, this is still what I think of as a typical organised later medieval list. It is a precisely numbered set of categorical equivalents which is (though there is no easy way to show this in a short quotation) intimately embedded within a nested system of lists: Speculum Vitae is a 16,000-line poem structured almost entirely by lists embedded one within another. This particular list is, in my diagram of the poem, at least four levels deep.

Here is the beginning of another list, of sorts, from a slightly earlier poem known to the poet of Speculum Vitae:

The grete day of delyveraunce,
The day of wreke and of vengeaunce,	[wreke: retribution
The day of wrethe and of wrechdeness,	[wrethe: anger
The day of bale and of bitternes,	[bale: distress
The day of pleynyng and accusyng,	[pleynyng: lamenting
The day of answer and strait rekkenyng,
The day of jugement and of juwys	[juwys: justice, punishment

The Prick of Conscience, 6097–6103

Though it has far more rigid syntax than the list quoted from Speculum Vitae, this is a baggy sequence which seems to me to be written to provoke feeling than to invite thought. Not all the items are categorical equivalents, and the list runs on for many, many (many) lines more. Indeed, I suspect that it is designed to be open-ended in order to give an impression of endlessness.

The Prick of Conscience is a poem of extremes which frequently reaches for senses of the unspeakable, the indescribable and the eternal. I think capacious, disorganised lists such as this one play a significant part in achieving these effects. They don’t display the intellectual precision of the nested lists in Speculum Vitae, but they might still be an expression of technique rather than mere flailings.

(The quotations in this post are taken, with light modernisation of the orthography, from Ralph Hanna, ed., Speculum Vitae: A Reading Edition, 2 vols, EETS, o.s., 331 and 332 (Oxford, 2008); and Ralph Hanna and Sarah Wood, eds, Richard Morris’s ‘Prick of Conscience’: A Corrected and Amplified Reading Text, EETS, o.s., 342 (Oxford, 2013).)

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