Alliterative Proverbs in Medieval England

Language Choice and Literary Meaning

Susan E. Deskis


October 18, 2016

177 pp. 6x9

$29.95 paperback 978-0-8142-5364-9
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Table of Contents


“Deskis’s book offers a thought-provoking expansion of our understanding of alliteration, moving beyond the well-worn confines of works composed in (or in something approximating) alliterative prosody and entering into a study that sees alliteration as a vibrant cultural material that played a productive role in various prose works and in rhyme-based poetic productions.” —Randy Schiff, author of Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (OSU Press)

“No similar book on proverbs, especially those on the Old English and Middle English continuum, exists. This makes Deskis’s study rare and, consequently, even more important.” —Johanna Kramer, University of Missouri

Medieval England’s specific political and linguistic history encompasses a great number of significant changes, some of the most disruptive of which were occasioned by the Norman Conquest. The alliterative proverb, with roots in Old English and continued vitality in Middle English, serves as a unique verbal icon allowing exploration of cultural conditions both before and after the Conquest. As a durable yet flexible form, the proverb remained just as important in the fifteenth century as it was in the sixth.

The proverb has been an underutilized resource in tracing the linguistic and intellectual cultures of the past. Making the fullest use of this material, this study, by Susan E. Deskis, is complex in its combination of philology, paroemiology, literary history, and sociolinguistics, ultimately reaching conclusions that are enlightening for both the literary and linguistic histories of medieval England. In the language ecology of England from about 1100 to about 1500, where English, French, and Latin compete for use, alliterative proverbs are marked not only by the choice of English as the language of expression but also because alliteration in Middle English connotes a conscious connection to the past. Alliterative Proverbs in Medieval England: Language Choice and Literary Meaning explores how that connection is exploited in various literary genres from school texts and sermons to romances and cycle plays.

Susan E. Deskis is Professor of English at Northern Illinois University.