Dr Daniel Sawyer


I'm writing a book drawing together new research in poetics and manuscripts with the current turn in literary studies to global perspectives. A wider perspective offers us a chance to re-evaluate the sixteenth century’s verse inheritance. What would English poems either side of 1500 have seemed like to readers coming from elsewhere, rooted in more secure and more confident verse traditions? English verse was tentative, decentralised and decentred in ways we haven’t fully appreciated: uniquely among literary periods, the Middle English centuries arm us to study English in a form which wasn’t standardised or prestigious even within England.

As a first move towards this book, I have published an article on a poem which conventional literary history says shouldn't exist: an accidental Shakespearean sonnet from 1448/9, embedded in a romance which imagines itself as a story coming from Persia and translated from Greek. I’m currently writing, among other things, a discussion of the three inventions of blank verse—two of which occurred before 1500—and the first study of the earliest known poem in English with a specific, naming attribution to a woman.

In tandem with this research, informed by the same materials, I have written a teaching book, How to Read Middle English PoetryHow to Read explains English and Scots verse-craft c. 1150 to c. 1500 for beginners. The book primarily serves a student audience, but it contains new research insights, and will also be accessible and useful for students in secondary education and general readers interested in literary history. It is forthcoming in spring 2024 from Oxford University Press in hardback and paperback.


In a long-term project, I’m studying the problem of early manuscripts which do not survive from England—which is to say, most of the manuscripts which once existed. This loss of material is a widely acknowledged hurdle for research, but the missing books have received little attention as a problem in and of themselves. Many now-lost manuscripts have left small traces of evidence behind, however, and by gathering these on a large scale we can fill in more of the period’s literary and book history. The first result of this project is a substantial article published in 2019; a second, collaborative and interdisciplinary study based on several thousand manuscripts came out in Science in 2022; a third piece discusses how canonicity works in the corpus of surviving manuscripts we have.

My 2020 book, Reading English Verse in Manuscript c.1350–c.1500, offers the first book-length history of reading for later Middle English poetry. It emerged from the close consultation of hundreds of surviving manuscripts, and it deploys techniques ranging from close readings of rhyme and syntax to surveys of manuscript weight to establish a new ‘baseline’ picture of the reading practices which were applied to English verse. I show how later medieval readers navigated through poems, handled books of poetry, and responded to poetic form, and I flip the present-day canon of Middle English verse inside out, demonstrating that readers at the time saw a landscape of poems rather different to that imagined in modern scholarship.

Other research

On the side, I publish on various topics such as manuscript fragments and the history of reading. I have a side interest in the medievalisms of queer California poets, which occasionally yields short articles, such as this piece on Thom Gunn, and a study of Jack Spicer currently in press.

I’m involved in the effort to produce a new edition of the Wycliffite Bible, the first complete English translation of the Bible and the most sophisticated and most successful of the medieval European vernacular Bible translations. Oxford’s long-term project to re-edit the Wycliffite Bible can be found online. I have also edited Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale and Man of Law’s Tale for the Cambridge Chaucer project.

In the English Faculty, I lecture on a cluster of my sixteenth century interests—poetry about and by women during the early English Reformation/s—and on Middle English verse-craft in its local and transnational contexts. I currently convene for the MSt B course in palaeography, codicology, and textual criticism, 650–1550. I also teach on, among other things, the undergraduate Course II 'Material Text' paper and the Course II lyric comparative paper.

I also supervise BA and MSt dissertations, co-supervise DPhil theses, undertake various examining duties, and mentor graduate students.

See also my website and my Twitter profile.

I have reviewed books for, or am currently reviewing books for, Speculum, The Library, The English Historical ReviewStudies in the Age of Chaucer, the Review of English Studies, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, the Journal of the Early Book Society, The Medieval Review, and Arthuriana. I have served as a peer reviewer for a number of journals, including SpeculumViator, the Review of English Studies, and Philological Quarterly. I welcome book review and peer review requests from editors and consider them all carefully, though I cannot guarantee that I will take them all on!