Rules of rhyme and Middle English verse

Researchers have been using the rules of rhyme to understand popular medieval romance texts and recreate them in authentic musical form.

A team of researchers led by Professor Ad Putter from the University of Bristol have identified changing patterns by studying the use of rhyme and dialect in Middle English romance texts. “Some poets from this period, such as Chaucer, were strict about rhyme, ” says Professor Putter. “But medieval romances used a wide variety of stanza forms. You won’t find those in Chaucer’s works. And Chaucer also used lines with the same number of beats – except when he was parodying popular romances.”

Determine the structure of verse forms and you can use them to learn about language, explains Professor Donka Minkova, a linguistic historian from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who says working on the project helped her to rethink parts of her latest book, A Historical Phonology of English. “We lack commentary about the rules of language back then, so we have to work it out. You can learn about the poet from their choice of words and expressions and the level of formality.”

“Verse is the most valuable source of information. If you can put the structure together, you will know how many syllables are needed for a word to rhyme and how that word should sound,” she adds. “Scribes copied and changed text, but they are also our link to living speakers of the language so it’s still a very valuable resource.”

And scribes were less likely to change rhymes, says Putter, so they can potentially tell us what a poet meant to write. “They did make mistakes, though. Sometimes they even knowingly changed the rhyming structure. A scribe might think he was doing his audience a favour by making a rhyme more accessible.” As a result, “you have to satisfy yourself as to what actually is a rhyme,” Putter says.

The researchers examined types of rhyme such as ‘feature rhyme’ and ‘subsequence rhyme’. Examples of partial or feature rhyme, a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, include rhyming ‘Rome’ with ‘one’ and ‘hoom’ with ‘noon. ‘Subsequence rhyme’ adds a significant sound or syllable to the second word in the rhyming pair, such as ‘knyghtes’ and ‘light’.

Imperfect rhyme, they concluded, was acceptable to many medieval romance poets. And they did not simply tolerate it, but often intentionally set out to use it. In this, Middle English Romance is linked to modern pop and rock music. The researchers, including Dr Judith Jefferson from the University of Bristol, traced the use of such rhyme through medieval and modern song – from Latin hymns to nursery rhymes (‘Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper’) and rock lyrics (Bruce Springsteen rhymes ‘young’ with ‘run’ in ‘Born to Run’).

“We have assumptions about what makes a ‘good’ rhyme,” says Putter. “A value system has built up. It’s not helpful to talk about true or false rhyme, or perfect or imperfect rhyme. So-called false rhymes actually also obey rules, he adds. “There’s an assumption that if something doesn’t rhyme perfectly then anything goes.” Indeed a poet following an alternative verse structure may not have tried to find a ‘perfect’ rhyme because it won’t fit the pattern.”

The research team also used rhyme to uncover the human geography behind the poetry. By inspecting the rhymes and the dialect in Sir Tristrem, which tells the story of Tristan and Iseult, the team were able to reveal that it was written in Yorkshire and then transcribed by a Londoner. “People knew it had a mix of northern and southern forms,” says Putter. “But they weren’t sure if it might have been a southerner adopting some northernisms.”

Medieval romance texts were usually sung, sometimes to the tune of religious songs. They were written for musical performance, as Putter explains: “We know this because of descriptions in prologues of minstrels who accompanied themselves by harp or fiddle.”

Very little music has survived, however, as people weren’t in the habit of writing it down. The medieval Scottish romance Eger and Grime is a rare exception: Robert Gordon of Straloch recorded the tune in a lutebook in the 17th century, and a transcription made in 1847 still survives today. “We know from royal accounts that this was sung,” says Putter. “King James IV of Scotland paid ‘tua fithelaris’ (two fiddlers) for singing it in 1497.”

Without existing music, verse forms can provide clues. The team examined stanza forms and line lengths, then looked for texts written in similar verse forms that had surviving music, such as Latin religious songs. Professor Putter, who is himself an amateur chorister, teamed up with other musicians including Linda Marie Zaerr of Boise State University and her sister Laura. They recorded a double CD of reconstructed sung romances at project partner Chaucer Studio.

Linda Marie Zaerr pioneered the musical performance of medieval romance. “I’m intrigued by the way these romances present themselves in performance,” she says. “This work met with incredible resistance when I first started doing it. People had read these stories as texts for many years. They had strong arguments for why they should be read as texts, not performance pieces.”

But the text encourages performance, she says. “These romances set themselves up as relationships between performance and audience. That’s what makes them so exciting and it can only occur in live performance.”

To put this into practice, they staged a live performance of Octavian Imperator at the ‘Medieval Romance in Britain’ conference dinner. This musical interlude was designed to capture the attention of the diners, as would have happened originally, and it certainly did the trick.

While the live performance also marked the end of the main project phase, Professor Putter says there are still “unsolved problems”. The team are currently working on the meter of King Horn, the oldest Middle English Romance (c. 1220), and are completing an article about how short or ‘bob’ lines are presented in manuscripts.

He believes this is the first time stanza forms have been used to inform musical performances of these texts, and concludes: “Responding musically means you’re more attuned to what the text is saying and doing.”

Article by Anne Wollenberg

Image caption: Detail from The Life of John of Bridlington illustrating the lay-out of the one-beat bob-line ('Be sight'), from New Haven, Yale University Beinecke Library, MS 331, p. 168; reproduced by kind permission of the Beinecke Library.

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