Pointing Rhythm and Rhyme: The Role of Manuscript Punctuation in English Literary Form, c. 1000-1300

Leslie Ann Carpenter, Fordham University


English literature in the years spanning 1000 to 1300 CE is characterized by ongoing transformation, brought on by constant interaction with other languages. This upheaval led to changes in the social register, verse forms, and available genres of English verse. One surprising development was the systematic adoption of metrical punctuation, given the reluctance of earlier Anglo-Saxon scribes to punctuate vernacular poetry. This dissertation examines the ongoing developments of punctuation practices, manuscript layouts, and metrical forms across the late Old and Early Middle English periods, revealing an unexpectedly symbiotic relationship between scribal conventions and the creation of new verse. Traditionally, studies of medieval literature have branded scribal production a form of technical skill separate from the artistic innovations of composition. In this period, however, poets and copyists both seem to be experimenting in close succession, building off one another’s ideas. Copyists’ use of metrical punctuation comes to represent their work’s adherence or disruption to traditional verse forms. In this way, scribal punctuation is revealed to be indicative of genre rather than an aid to performance or readability, as has previously been assumed. I trace these developments across three chronological divisions. Chapter 1 explores the standardizing punctuation systems in the eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poems. Chapter 2 then examines the predominantly homiletic verse of the twelfth century, as poets created hybridized Latinate-English verse, like the Ormulum, the Worcester Fragments , and Poema Morale. Chapter 3 explores canonical miscellanies of the thirteenth century, such as MS Digby 86, MS Jesus College 29, and Laud Misc. 108, wherein English, Latin, and French come together on the page. In this mixing, we see an explosion of new verse and the establishment of a shared system for formatting verse across languages that need not always include punctuation.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Carpenter, Leslie Ann, "Pointing Rhythm and Rhyme: The Role of Manuscript Punctuation in English Literary Form, c. 1000-1300" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13427587.