Some Thoughts on Performance as a Tradition

When researching my book Performance in Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, an issue developed in my thinking that I partially tested, and it’s something that has become more pertinent as the book project finished and I began thinking about dealing with the inevitable questions that emerge during the writing process. This issue has to do with the way in which acts of artistic performance are represented in poems, and specifically how these representations relate to each other, as possibly being part of a tradition of representation that exposes influences and interconnections. This strand of thinking was influenced by the work of Michael D. C. Drout, who considers tradition in two works, How Tradition Works and Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature. At first glance, there seems to be comparable treatment of the ingredients of performance, particularly in “heroic” or “epic” poetry. And particularly in what used to be called the alliterative poetic tradition. Representations are characterised particularly by idealisation. Performances are always effective, symbolising flourishing society. My book notes the contrast between such positivity at the start of Beowulf, and the loss of performance as a reflection of the decline and loss of society at the poem’s end. In other significant poems, performance has comparable functions.

 The effect of influence over time is an attractive focus, because it enables us to engage with the development of English literature and discern patterns in that development. For instance, there is an uncertain relationship between the Old English alliterative tradition (essentially all Old English poetry is alliterative) and the later, Middle English alliterative poems such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Ploughman, sometimes referred to collectively as “the alliterative revival”. Certainly, traces of the idealised depiction of performance in the Old English period do persist in post-Conquest Middle English material, particularly in that alliterative poetry, so that in English, traditional form and traditional theme appear to be associated. In The Alliterative Morte Arthure, for example, dating from around 1400, ‘minstralsy noble’ is associated with ‘mirth’ and drinking in a royal hall (231-42, 3173-75), showing evidence of influence from instances in earlier Arthurian material such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Laȝamon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains a varied application of performance, some of which is reminiscent of the Old English tradition, particularly in the final stanza of the first fitt, when Arthur ruminates on the pleasures of feasting and performance, unnamed performers accompany good food, and the court is joyous (467-86). Festive music-making also features as a central component in the joyous life of the mysterious castle wherein lives the Green Knight, disguised as Bertilak (1648-56). In non-alliterative poems, however, a discontinuity from earlier English poetry is perceptible. While performance occasionally features as part of celebration, such passages are isolated, as in the single example in the late thirteenth century Lay of Havelock the Dane upon the coronation of Havelock (2320-35) and in the early fourteenth century Ywain and Gawain (1393-400).

 As I discuss in the book, Chaucer is shown to be the great disruptor. His depictions of performance contrast radically from those in the English alliterative poetic tradition. Performance as idealised symbol is lost. Chaucer’s performers are also problematic, ambiguous characters. In the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales, the wayward friar Hubert took enjoyment from playing the harp and singing (I, 266), and the repulsive, drunkard Miller plays the bagpipes (I, 565). The ‘Cook’s Tale’ associates performance with moral corruption (I, 4365-422), as does the opening of the ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ (VI, 463-71). Chaucer’s representation of and attitude towards string instruments is particularly noteworthy. The openings to ‘The Cook’s Tale’ and ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ shows this instrument class to represent deviance. He isolates particular string instruments: ‘gyterne or ribible’ (I, 4396); ‘harpes, lutes, and gyternes’ (VI, 466), as accompaniment to corrupt behaviours. This might reflect his particular distaste for them, or a negative perception of them in wider society. Chaucer uses the verb ‘to harp’ to reference the playing of any string instrument, perceiving them to be a linguistically classifiable group. Later in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, performance is associated with gluttony (VI, 477-82), subverting the performance-feasting association characteristic of earlier poetry. By portraying performers as instigators of lechery, Chaucer also satirises the gnomic association between performance and feasting stated so overtly in Homeric epic. His views additionally align with those of the early medieval religious community, who are critical of secular and instrumental performance and performers. In ‘Sir Thopas’, meanwhile, the harp, pipe and hurdy-gurdy are associated with the perils of Faerie, and his hero’s clichéd plea for minstrelsy while arming himself in preparation for a fight with a giant with three heads reflects the tale’s satirical tone (VII, 845-50). Elsewhere, we are told at the start of ‘The Manciple’s Tale’ that Phoebus was a multi-instrumentalist (IX, 113) and an unrivalled singer (IX, 114-18). However, he ‘brak his mynstralcie’ – again all string instruments: ‘harpe, and lute, and gyterne, and sautrie’ ‑­ in sorrow, after hearing of his wife’s adultery and killing her (IX, 267-68). Meanwhile, the Wife of Bath danced to the harp and sang in her younger days after drinking wine (III, 457-59). In such instances, Chaucer precludes musical performance from offering any morally acceptable enjoyment.

Chaucer’s representation is radically distinct from the references to performance as component of the theme in the Old English literary tradition. Yet performance as isolated occurrence, representing joy, community and belonging, did not die out with the demise of the Middle English alliterative tradition. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, from 1590, ‘Minstrales’ and ‘Bardes’ operate in the ‘commune hall’ (Book 1, Canto V, Stanza iii). Like Laȝamon in his Brut, Spenser invents his own archaising style, in which performance is envisaged as being present in traditional circumstances, and such representation of poetic performance persists as a component in the archaic or retrospective poetic imagination. It is appealing to consider literary traditions as being closely interrelated, involving straightforward influences that inspire in a network of interrelated “great minds”. When it comes to performance as a theme, Chaucer’s apparent originality is stark, possibly a result of his conscious breaks from stylistic and formal concerns in English literature. His work stands in contrast to the “tradition” in much other English writing. But as my research develops, such distinction may blur, as further material builds up a more complex picture of what may or may not be a conscious tradition of idealised performance practices.

This guest post was written by Steven Breeze, who completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He is a tutor of medieval literature in the Humanities and Languages departments at the City Literary Institute, London.

Performance in Beowulf and other Old English Poems
by Steven J.A. Breeze
9781843846451, hardcover, £70.00 / $105.00
Blog price*:  £45.50 / $68.25
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