Reading English Verse in Manuscript c.1350-c.1500

Reading English Verse in Manuscript book cover

The period 1350–1500 saw a flourishing of English poetry unprecedented in its scale. This flourishing included major figures such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and John Lydgate, alongside a mass of interesting and often excellent anonymous poets.

Yet we know surprisingly little about how this poetry was read: how readers moved into and through poems, how they handled poetry books, and what their attitudes to aspects of poetic form were. Reading English Verse in Manuscript is the first book-length history of reading for the Middle English poetry of this time.

To write this history, Daniel Sawyer turns to the surviving manuscripts themselves, examining several hundred medieval English books preserved today in fifty-one different libraries. Broad numerical surveys combined with close analyses of crucial examples reveal how poetic form interacted with the material book, how readers responded to rhyme, and how the works of Chaucer and other known poets were read in manuscript in the context of anonymous verse, in a pattern of mutual influence.

Later-medieval readers emerge from the study as an active, varied and omnivorous group who absorbed and altered verse according to their own wishes. Situated just before print’s rise to primacy, this was the last great age of truly distributed poetry-reading and poetry-writing in English.

Find out more on the OUP website.