Terms and Definitions: B
This page is under perpetual
construction! It was last updated April 8, 2013.
This list is
meant to assist, not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for
important concepts and vocabulary that we will cover during
the term. Vocabulary terms are listed alphabetically.
BAADE SETAEE (Persian, "Wine Prizing"): A genre of Persian poetry extolling the virtues of wine, carousing, and celebration.
A fanciful monster, silly creature, or a leering face drawn
in the margins of a medieval manuscript. We get our modern word
baboon from this French term for the little grotesque
creatures that illuminators drew and doodled. Typically, the
babuin is engaged in silly antics, such as playing or interacting
with the letters on the page, chasing other babuins, or even
engaging in copulatory and scatological activities.
FOOT: A three-syllable foot of poetry consisting of a light
stress followed by two heavy stresses. This verse pattern was
not unknown in Greek verse, but is fairly rare in English verse.
An example of a phrase that corresponds in meter to the Bachic
foot is "that strong king."
The bachic foot is also called a bachius or a molossus, and poetry
written in bacchic feet is said to be written in bachic
meter. See meter and palimbacchius.
METER: Poetry in which each foot is a three-syllable foot
consisting of three heavy stresses. It is rare in English. The individual three-syllable foot is called a molossus.
Another term for a bachic
(1) The process of creating a new word when speakers (often
mistakenly) remove an affix or
other morpheme from
a longer word. For instance, English speakers created the
by mistakenly thinking the word burglar as an agent
noun derived from a verb. (2) Linguists call any word formed
by this previously described process a "back-formation."
For extended discussion see Algeo on pages 260-62.
VOWEL: A vowel made with the topmost portion of
the tongue in the back of the oral cavity. These include the
vowel sounds found in ooze, oomph, go,
law, and father. For a list of IPA phonetic
transcriptions for vowels in PDF format, click
QUARTO: In the jargon of Shakespearean scholars, a "bad
quarto" is a copy of the play that a disloyal actor would recreate
from memory and then submit for publication in a rival publishing
house without the consent of the author. These bad quartos are
often grossly inaccurate, but may contain useful stage directions
not included in the original. See quartos,
In common parlance, song hits, folk music, and folktales or
any song that tells a story are loosely called ballads. In more
exact literary terminology, a ballad is a narrative poem consisting
of quatrains of iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter.
Common traits of the ballad are that (a) the beginning
is often abrupt, (b) the story is told through dialogue
and action (c) the language is simple or "folksy,"
(d) the theme is often tragic--though comic ballads do
exist, and (e) the ballad contains a refrain repeated
several times. One of the most important anthologies of ballads
is F. J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular
Ballads. Famous medieval and Renaissance examples include
"Chevy Chase," "The Elfin Knights," "Lord
Randal," and "The Demon Lover." A number of Robin
Hood ballads also exist. More recent ballads from the 18th century
and the Scottish borderlands include "Sir Patrick Spens,"
"Tam Lin," and "Thomas the Rhymer." See
A French verse form consisting most often of three eight-line
stanzas having the same rhyme pattern, followed by a four-line
envoy. In a typical ballade, the last lines
of each stanza and of the envoy are the same. Among
the most famous ballades are Chaucer's "Ballade of Good
Advice" and Rossetti's translation of François Villon's
"Ballade of Dead Ladies," which asks in each stanza
and in the envoy, "Mais ou sont les nieges
d'antan?" ("But where are the snows of yesteryear?")
The ballade first rose to prominence in the 14th and
15th centuries, popularized by French poets like Guillaume de
Machaut and Eustache Deschampes. It was perfected in the 16th
century by François Villon, but it later fell into disrepute
when 17th century poets like Moliere and Boileau mocked its
conventions. See envoy,
MEASURE: Traditionally, ballad measure consists of a four-line
stanza or a quatrain containing alternating four-stress and
three-stress lines with an ABCB
rhyme scheme. Works written in ballad measure often include
such quatrains. As an example, the opening stanza to "Earl
Brand" illustrates the pattern. Note also the bits of Scottish
in phrases such as "hae" for have
and "awa" for away.
up, rise up, my seven brave sons,
dress in your armour so bright;
Earl Douglas will hae Lady Margaret awa
Before that it be light.
OPERA: An eighteenth-century
featuring lyrics set to existing popular tunes. The term originated
to describe John Gay's The Beggar's Opera of 1728.
An east-European branch of the Indo-European
language family--usually grouped with the Slavic languages
BALTO-SLAVIC: A branch of Indo-European
including the Slavic and Baltic languages.
(Welsh Bardd, Irish Bard): (1) An ancient
Celtic poet, singer and harpist who recited heroic poems by
memory. These bards were the oral historians, political critics,
eulogizers, and entertainers of their ancient societies. They
were responsible for celebrating national events such as heroic
actions and victories. (2) The word in modern usage has become
a synonym for any poet. Shakespeare in particular is often
referred to as "the Bard" or "the Bard
in spite of the fact he wrote in the Renaissance, long after
the heyday of Celtic bards. The modern day has seen a sort
revival of bardic performance since 1822, when the ancient
bardic performance contests were revived in Wales. These contests
called in Welsh Eisteddfodau (singular Eisteddfod).
In modern Welsh, the term bardd refers to any participant
who has competed in an Eisteddfod. See also skald and rhapsodoi.
MORPHEME: A free or bound morpheme,
to which other meaningful sounds can be added to form words.
Examples of base morphemes include base in basic,
or frame in reframe.
(Grk, "depth"): Not to be confused with pathos,
bathos is a descent in literature in which a poet or
writer--striving too hard to be passionate or elevated--falls
into trivial or stupid imagery, phrasing, or ideas. Alexander
Pope coined the usage to mock the unintentional mishaps of incompetent
writers, but later comic authors and poets used bathos
intentionally for mirthful effects. One of the most common types
of bathos is the humorous arrangement of items so that
the listed items descend from grandiosity to absurdity. In this
technique, important or prestigious ideas precede an inappropriate
or inconsequential item. For instance, "In the United States,
Usama bin Laden is wanted for conspiracy, murder, terrorism,
and unpaid parking tickets." Many modern humorists like
Lewis Grizzard make liberal use of bathos, but the technique
is common in older literature as well. Famous examples appear
in Lord Byron's mock-epic Don Juan and Alexander Pope's
satires. See rhetorical schemes
for more information.
OF HASTINGS: This battle in 1066 CE marks the rough
boundary between the end of the Anglo-Saxon
(Old English) period from about 450-1066 CE and the beginning
of the Middle
English period from about 1066-1450. No other historical
event except perhaps the Great
Vowel Shift (c. 1400-1450 CE) has had such a potent
influence on the development of English.
The battle took place between
Duke William the Bastard (later known as King William I or "William
the Conqueror") and the last claimant to the Anglo-Saxon
throne, King Harold. William felt that King Edward the Confessor
(who died childless in the twenty-fourth year of his reign)
had promised him the throne of England. Duke William, leading
a band of Norman
and Picardian mercenaries, traveled from his dukedom in Normandy
(northwestern France) to southeast England by sailing across
the English channel after receiving the Pope's blessing. After
William defeated Harold and pillaged southeast England, the
citizens of London surrendered. He continued conquering sections
of England until the 1080s, but 1066 was the decisive moment
in history that positioned him for inevitable expansion and
increasingly centralized control. William rapidly deposed or
killed many Anglo-Saxon noblemen, priests, bishops, and archbishops,
replacing them with French-speaking officials, favoring those
knights who had fought for him previously.
As a result of this, by
1100, England became bilingual, with the aristocracy speaking
Norman French and the common peasantry speaking Anglo-Saxon.
The two languages began to merge, with Anglo-Saxon losing declensions,
rather than synthetic
in grammatical structure, and incorporating thousands of French
and Latin loan-words. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, still largely
tribal in nature, were replaced by a complex but highly centralized
monarchy operating by French feudal standards. See also Norman
FABLE: A short, simple narrative with speaking animals as
characters designed to teach a moral or social truth. Examples
include the fables of Aesop and Marie de France, Kipling's Jungle
Books and Just So Stories, George Orwell's Animal
Farm, Richard Adams' Watership Down, and Rudyard
Kipling's The Jungle Book, and Chaucer's "Nun's
Priest's Tale." Contrast with fable,
A motif common
in medieval Germanic literature (including Anglo-Saxon,
Old Norse, and continental German poems) in which a raven,
a wolf, and an eagle (or vulture) appear in short sequence--often
one right after another. Because these three creatures scavenge
the bodies of fallen warriors, they together serve as quick foreshadowing that
a battle is about to occur.
A heavy stress or accent in a line of poetry. The number of
beats or stresses in a line usually determines the meter of
the line. See meter.
I have also been informed
that in drama, the term beat can be used to refer to
a completed transaction in stage dialogue. The following example
comes from Edmond Clay: "ACTOR #1: Hello! How
are you? ACTOR #2: "Fine, thank you for asking."The
second actor's response is an example of "finishing the
beat" established by the first actor's line, but the beat
can also be finished by any suitable action made in response
to the requirements of earlier stage activity.
BECHDEL/WALLACE MEASURE: A test or thought experiment proposed by Liz Wallace in 1985 but popularized by comedian Alison Bechdel. The test illustrates how many narratives tend to focus character development and agency in male characters but reduce female characters to passive or supporting roles--even when it is not logical to do so. To pass the Bechdel measure, the narrative has to fulfill three requirements: (1) it must have at least two female characters in the story, (2) the two female characters must at some point in the narrative actually speak to each other rather than only talking to male characters, and (3) their conversation must be about something other than a male character. In popular culture, it is often referred to as the "Bechdel Movie Measure" or the "Bechdel Movie Test" since it is most commonly applied to films, though it serves equally well for novels and short stories. One might initially suspect that since women compose over 54% of the population, they would have roughly equal amounts of "screen time" and interaction compared to the male characters in popular books and movies. Strikingly, a significant number--even a majority--of common books and popular films fail this test--even when the writers or directors (or even the protagonists) are female. If in fact the narrative passes the Bechdel measure, it may be scorned as a "chick flick." The Bechdel measure serves to illustrate principles literary theorists have commented upon for decades concerning objectification as discussed by Martha Nussbaum, "the male gaze" as discussed by Jaques Lacan and Laura Mulvey, and the role of women as intermediaries between men as discussed by Eve Sedgwick.
BECHDEL MOVIE MEASURE: See above.
The term for a recurring folklore motif in which circumstances
cause two characters in a story to end up having sex with each
other because of mistaken identity--either confusion in a dark
room or deliberate acts of disguise in which one character impersonates
another. This folklore motif appears in various jokes, fabliaux,
and in various works of literature as well. Examples include
the switch played upon Angelo in Shakespeare's Measure for
Measure and the sexual confusion at miller Simkin's house
in Chaucer's "The Reeve's Tale." See also cradle-trick.
GAME: A motif
from Celtic literature that appears in diverse works such as
the Middle Irish Briciu's Feast and the Middle English
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this situation is
one, according to Marie Boroff, "in
which an unknown challenger proposes that one of a group of
warriors volunteer to cut off his head, the stroke to be repaid
in kind at some future date; the hero accepts this challenge,
and at the crucial moment of reprisal is spared and praised
for his courage" (See viii, Introduction to Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight, Trans. Marie Boroff, NY: W.
W. Norton Company, 1967.)
INCONNU ("The Fair Unknown," from Breton French
le bel inconnu): A motif
common to fairy tales, folklore and medieval
Romance in which the protagonist's identity remains
unknown until some suitably dramatic moment. This anonymity
may result from a child being raised as an orphaned commoner
until the revelation of an heirloom proves the child is noble-born,
or it may result from a hero's intentional disguise in order
to penetrate certain social circles, as in the case of a boy
who disguises himself so that he can work in the kitchens near
the knights, later becoming a page, and then ultimately becoming
a knight himself. In a third definition, le bel inconnu
might be a famous, prestigious knight who is so doughty in combat
that no one will face him willingly (e.g., Lancelot). This knight
must then enter the jousting lists disguised so that his opponents
will not refuse the match. The motif appears in tales such as
Lybeaus Desconus, a romance written in tail-rhyme by
Thomas Chester, a fourteenth-century poet. In that romance,
a young knight named Guinglian, the son of Sir Gawain, assumes
the name Lybeaus Desconus (i.e., "the fair unknown")
to hide his illustrious ancestry. See motif,
(Anglo-Saxon: "vow"; becomes Modern English "boast"):
A ritualized boast or vow made publicly by Anglo-Saxon warriors
known as thegns before the hlaford in a mead-hall
the night before a military engagement. A typical warrior's
boast might be that he would be the first to strike a blow in
the coming battle, that he would kill a particular champion
among the enemy, that he would not take a single step backward
in retreat during the battle, that he would claim a renowned
sword from an enemy warrior as booty, and so on. This vow or
boast was often accompanied by stories of his past glorious
deeds. While later Christianized medieval culture (and perhaps
modern American culture) might disdain boasting as a sign of
arrogance or sinful pride, the pagan Anglo-Saxons valued such
behavior. The beot was not so much a negative sign
of arrogance as a positive sign of determination and character.
Examples of the beot can be seen throughout Beowulf
such as when Beowulf vows to fight Grendel without using any
weapons. See also fame/shame
"in the beginning"): (1) The opening words of the Torah (or
the first five books of the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible); (2)
As a noun, the Hebrew title of what Protestant Christians
would call "Genesis."
BERSERKER (Old Norse Ber-sirk, "bear-skin";
becomes Modern English "berserk"): The Icelandic,
Scandinavian, and Norwegian sagas give accounts of fearsome
Viking warrior-shamans who could entrance themselves
and enter a frenzied hypnagogic state. During this period of
rabid ferocity, the berserker no longer felt the pains of cold,
injury, or fear. The berserkers simply became immune to such
effects in their altered state of consciousness. In the Ynglinga
Saga and other legends, they would enter combat either
naked or wearing nothing but bear-skins, howling and roaring,
biting the edges of their shields until blood flowed from their
tongue and gums. (Thus we get the modern term "going berserk"
to describe an insane frenzy.) In combat, they were apparently
equally likely to attack both friend and foe, so the other Vikings
kept their distance from them. The name berserker comes
from the bearskin garments worn by these shamans, who believed
that through their magic they absorbed the spirit, stamina,
and strength of the bear into their own bodies, being effectively
possessed by the soul of the bear. At the end of their trance,
they were not expected to be able to recall their actions, since
it was the bear-spirit fighting rather than the Viking himself.
The tradition of the berserker gradually died out after
and jarls elected to accept Christianity, at which point such
pagan practices become socially unacceptable. See saga
A typical protagonist or anti-hero from the science fiction stories
of Alfred Bester, such as Ben Reich in The Demolished
or Gully Foyle of The Stars My Destination. These
complex characters embody traits of the Nietzchean uberman,
and they combine both positive and negative qualities. They
are rarely predictable, and they can alternately destroy
or save the world, engage in heroic self-sacrifice or selfish
A medieval treatise listing, naming, and describing various
animals and their attributes,
often using an elaborate allegory
to explain the spiritual significance in terms of Christian
doctrine. The bestiaries are examples of didactic
literature, in that each animal's behavior ultimately
points to a moral. The oldest bestiaries adapt material
Pliny and classical sources, though by the early 1200s, French
bestiaries had doubled or tripled the entries found in Pliny
by adding new materials. Later, thirteenth-century additions
were made to Latin versions, usually derived from the Etymologiae
of Isidore of Seville (570-636 CE).The oldest surviving reference
to this sort of bestiary that uses Christian doctrine is a
notation in a copy of Genesis dating from the early fifth-century,
which refers the reader to the Physiologus for details
about the animals in Genesis. The Physiologus (literally,
"the Natural Philosopher" or "the Biologist") was particularly
widespread, appearing in Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian,
French, and Italian texts; its name comes from the opening
lines in Latin, "Physiologus ait . . ." ["The
biologist says . . ."]. Corresponding to
bestiaries, lapidaries were treatises on the magical
and spiritual properties of stones and gems, and herbaries
or botanies discussed the magical and herbal properties
of plants and trees. Often these materials would be packaged
in single manuscripts, such as De Animalibus et Aliis Rebus
(Concerning Animals and Other Things). See didactic
literature. For an external link, see http://www.camrax.com/symbol/Bestiaryintro.php4.
BILABIAL: In phonetics, a sound such as /p/,
/b/, or /m/ that
requires both the upper and lower lip to articulate.
"formation novel"): The German term for a coming-of-age
story. Also called an Erziehungsroman. For more
information, see coming-of-age
BIOGRAPHICAL FALLACY: The error of believing, as George Kane phrases it in Chaucer studies, that "speculative lives" of narrators and characters "have some historical necessity" (17), i.e., characters and events in the author's historical life must have inspired, influenced, or been the source for any fictional events or characters in the work, or that the narrative speaker in a literary work must be synonymous with the author or poet's own voice and viewpoints. It was very common in nineteenth-century scholarship, for instance, to assume that Shakespeare's political or religious beliefs manifest in Prospero's words or Hamlet's soliloquies. The truth is often more complex; several of Shakespeare's characters in different plays express diametrically opposed viewpoints from each other, so which ones (if any) can we safely declare represent the playwright's personal perspectives? Even in cases where the narrator speaks in the first person, or when a character in a poem has the exact same name as the author, it proves impossible to prove that voice is identical with the author's personal beliefs. For example, the voice of "Geoffrey" in The Canterbury Tales appears to be ignorant of details that the historical author Geoffrey Chaucer knew intimately, so his fictional character cannot be equated safely with the historical author Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote the work. Likewise, the voice speaking in the poem, "Daddy," by Sylvia Plath, refers to multiple suicide attempts and a father's early death, and these two details lure readers into equating that voice with the suicide attempts and abusive father in the poet Sylvia Plath's own life--even though the age of the father's death and the number of suicide attempts do not match Plath's age when she attempted suicide or her total number of suicide attempts. Trying to make a direct connection here results in the biographical fallacy.
(Greek, bios+graphe "life writing"):
A non-fictional account of a person's life--usually a celebrity,
an important historical figure, or a writer. If a writer uses
his or her own life as the basis of a biography, the work
called an autobiography.
Contrast with a memoir.
VERNACULAR: The ethnic dialect(s) associated with Americans
of African ancestry is often called black vernacular or "Black
English." It is also known a "African American Vernacular
English," and abbreviated AAVE in scholarly texts. Click
here for more information.
VERSE (also called unrhymed iambic pentameter):
Unrhymed lines of ten syllables each with the even-numbered
syllables bearing the accents. Blank verse has been called the
most "natural" verse form for dramatic works, since it supposedly
is the verse form most close to natural rhythms of English speech,
and it has been the primary verse form of English drama and
narrative poetry since the mid-Sixteenth Century. Such verse
is blank in rhyme only; it usually has a definite meter. (Variations
in this meter may appear occasionally.) The Earl of Surrey first
used the term "blank verse" in his 1540 translation
of The Aeneid of Virgil. As an example, in Shakespeare's
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus' speech to Hippolyta
appears in blank verse:
poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.12-17)
BLENDING: Making a neologism
by taking two or more existing expressions and shortening at
least one of them. Examples include such as smog (from
smoke and fog), motel (from motor
and hotel), and brunch (from breakfast
and lunch), workaholic (from work
and alcoholic) or Lewis Carroll's chortle
(chuckle and snort). Contrast with compounding.
The spatial grouping and movement of characters on stage. Typically,
good blocking ensures that all characters are visible to the
audience, that the stage is not cluttered with a clump of actors
in any one area, and that important action or actors remain
positioned in such a way as to emphasize their centrality to
the story. The best blocking arranged characters in a symbolic
manner. The term should not be confused with blocking
agent (see below).
AGENT: A person, circumstance, or mentality that prevents
two potential lovers from being together romantically. The blocking
agent was a common generic trait for classical Roman comedies
and for many of Shakespeare's plays. It remains a feature even
in modern genres such as Harlequin romances. The term
should not be confused with blocking
BLOOD-FEUD (OE fae∂u):
The custom among certain Germanic tribes like the Anglo-Saxons
or the Vikings
of seeking vengeance against another tribe or family if a member
of that tribe or family injured or killed an individual belonging
to one's own tribe or family. See also wergild
BOB: See discussion
A metrical devise in some alliterative-verse poetry, especially
that of the Pearl Poet and that of fourteenth-century
poems like Sir Tristrem. The first short line of a group
of rhyming lines is known as the "bob" and the subsequent
four are a quatraine called the "wheel." The bob contains
one stress preceded by either one or occasionally two unstressed
syllables (i.e., the bob is only two or three syllables long).
Each line of the wheel contains three stresses. Together, the
bob-and-wheel constitutes five lines rhyming in an ABABA
pattern. Since it matches the alliterative pattern of the first
part of the stanza, but also fits the rhyme scheme of the last
five lines, the "bob" serves as a structural bridge
between the alliterative sections and the rhyming sections of
the poem. It is easier to understand by looking at an example.
for a sample to view with the different components labeled by color. See also alliteration
BODILY HUMORS: See
POLITIC, THE: The monarchial government, including all its
citizens, its army, and its king. Political theory in the Elizabethan
period thought of each kingdom as a "body," with the king functioning
as its head. Events affecting the body politic, such as political
turmoil, warfare, and plague, would be mirrored in the macrocosm,
and the Chain
of Being (see below).
Having to do with the philosophy of Boethius, i.e., a philosophy
of predestination suggesting all events appearing evil, misfortunate,
disastrous, or accidental are none of these things. Rather,
such events are illusions that only appear this way to humans
because we are limited in our perceptions while bound by time.
In actuality, such events serve a higher beneficial purpose
that must remain unknown to us as long as we are trapped by
the limits of the physical universe. The term comes from the
philosopher Boethius, who formulated an argument concerning
it in his immensely influential work, Consolatio Philosophiae
(The Consolation of Philosophy), which he wrote in
524 AD while awaiting his execution in prison on unjust charges.
To give the reader an idea of how popular this book was in the
Middle Ages, over five hundred manuscripts of it survive today;
in comparison, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales only
survives in about eighty-two manuscripts. A common intellectual
party-game in medieval times may have been to take turns reciting
lines of the Consolatio by memory.
Boethian thought profoundly
influenced Chaucer, who wrote Boece, his own translation
of the Latin text. The concerns of Boethius were profoundly
influential in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and Troilus
and Criseyde. In "The Knight's Tale," Palamoun
and Arcite's plight in prison is in many ways akin to that of
the semi-autobiographical narrator in the Consolatio,
and Duke Theseus' famous speech about the First Mover is a rough
paraphrase of Boethian thought. In the conclusion to Chaucer's
Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus' spirit floating over
the battle and laughing at the small scale of the war and his
old, bitter, fleshly desires is another Boethian moment.
BOGATYR: An epic hero in the Russian starinas or byliny (Old Russian folk-epics or historical songs), often having supernatural strength or abilities (Zenkovsky 523).
MORPHEME: A morpheme
used exclusively as part of a larger word rather than one
that can stand alone and retain independent meaning. Examples
morpheme ept in
the word inept,
or the morpheme gruntle in the word disgruntled.
This term is the opposite of a free
morpheme, which can function by itself as
a word, such as the morphemes it and self in
In medieval manuscripts, a border is, as Kathleen Scott puts
type of book decoration placed around one to four sides of the
justification [writing space] in order to distinguish and decorate
main divisions of the text; usually more elaborate on the first
page and/or Table of Contents page; also used around miniature
frames" (Scott 370).
As Simon Horobin defines it, "The
process by which words are adopted into
one language from another" (192).
Linguists use this term because borrowing sounds
better than the term stealing, which would be more
accurate given that we do not typically return the
words we borrow. See also loanword.
See discussion under bourgeoisie, below.
(French, "city-dwelling"): The French term bourgeoisie
is a noun referring to the non-aristocratic middle-class, while
the word bourgeois is the adjective-form.
Calling something bourgeois implies that something is
middle-class in its tendencies or values. Marxist literary critics
use the term in a specialized sense to indicate the comfortable,
well-to-do class of consumers that have more status than the
proletariat, the lower-class workers who perform
the "real" work of a civilization in actually producing
goods and materials. In another sense--one particularly useful
for medieval historians--the term bourgeoisie encompasses
the city-dwelling yeomen
in the late medieval period who were no longer tied to agricultural
work as enfeoffed serfs. These city-dwellers--including
traders, and skilled laborers--worked on a capitalistic model
in which goods and services would be provided in exchange for
cash. Though to a modern American this arangement seems normal
enough, it was a revolutionary concept in a feudal
society where transactions took place in barter, where most
male citizens would swear loyalty to a liege lord in exchange
for land or protection, and where serfs were bound to a section
of land as the "property" of their feudal overlord.
It was also a departure from the traditional "Three
Estates" theory of government sanctioned by the church.
The increasing number of bourgeois workers in cities
and the diminishing number of serfs working in rural areas marked
the transition from feudalism to modernity. Indeed, many of
these so-called "middle class" citizens were fantastically
wealthy--far richer in terms of their liquid assets than the
knights and minor nobility who were their social "betters."
The aristocrats attempted to distinguish themselves by the use
of heraldic symbols, last-names, and sumptuary
laws that made it illegal for "commoners"
(no matter how rich) to wear particular types of clothing or
The rise of the bourgeoisie
accelerated after the Black Death of 1348, which killed on average
about one-third of the European and Insular population. Suddenly,
the earlier surplus of cheap labor vanished, and common laborers
realized they could demand concessions from the nobility for
their work. (If the nobleman refused, the serf could simply
run away and find work in town, or on the lands of another nobleman
who was less stingy with his demands; these outlets had been
less accessible before. Previously, under the Three Estates
system, the only social escape-hatch was to become a monk.)
In England, aristocratic measures like the 1351 Statute of Laborers
failed to freeze labor prices, and they failed to stop the slow
slide from feudalism to capitalism. Such efforts along with
ruinous taxes and corrupt government kindled widespread resentment
amongst the lower classes. This anger exploded in the so-called
Peasant's Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler. The uprising was
more accurately a popular bourgeois revolt against the
nobility and the corruption of the gentry, but the appellation
shows how the aristocracy still tended to think of the "lower
classes" as serfs and treat them accordingly.
The rise of the bourgeoisie
is mirrored in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, where
Chaucer depicts humanity as a collection of pilgrims. Each character
is a member of a specific occupation. We also see signs of social
tension between various pilgrims, which manifests itself in
the Miller's parody of the Knight's love-triangle, in the pretensions
of the Monk and Prioress, the Franklin's concern with the idea
that even non-aristocratic people can be "noble,"
and so on.
BOUSTROPHEDON (Greek, "as
the ox turns while plowing"):
A method of writing in which the text is read alternately from
left to right on odd numbered lines and then read right
in even numbered lines. Some early Greek texts are written
in this manner, including Solon's laws. This method contrasts with
English convention (left-to-right), Hebrew convention
(right to left), and various Oriental conventions (top to
BOWDLERIZATION: A later editor's censorship
of sexuality, profanity, and political sentiment of an earlier
author's text. Editors and scholars usually use this term in
a derogatory way to denote an inferior or incomplete text. A
text censored in this way is said to be bowdlerized. The term
comes from the name of Reverend Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) who
produced The Family Shakespeare (1815-18). He removed
whatever he considered "unfit to be read by a gentleman
in the company of ladies."
The following passages are
a few examples of lines still frequently bowdlerized in American
high-school and college textbooks:
jokes with the Nurse about masturbation in Romeo
and Juliet (Act II. scene iv. l12-19)
Sampson and Gregory's
talk about raping virgins in Romeo and Juliet (Act
I, scene i, 16-27)
Petruchio's joke with
Kate about oral sex ("my tongue in your tail")
in The Taming of the Shrew (Act II, i, 215-17)
Iago's claim that
Othello and Desdemona are, in modern slang, "having
doggy-style sex" ("making the beast with
in Othello (Act I, scene i, 112-13).
Other editors such as A. W. Verity
continue to produce school editions of Shakespeare with
sections removed or altered. The tendency is not confined to
Shakespearean plays, however. Victorian editions of Ovid's Art
of Love and the poetry of Catallus often use ellipses
in Latin editions to indicate expurgated lines dealing with
sexual practices. Alternatively, Victorian "translations"
of these texts would leave the Latin untranslated in those
sections dealing with Ovid's advice in the bedroom or with
Many modern editions of Greek mythology and many college anthologies
of the Iliad quietly gloss over the homosexual nature
of Achilles' relationship with Patroclus, or the lesbian
of Sappho's poetry (circa 7th century BCE). J. M. Manly's
version of Chaucer's fabliaux
and many other college Chaucer anthologies frequently remove
or skip over the "naughty bits" in the Miller's,
Reeve's, Wife's, and Shipman's tales. Other literary works
include Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726),
where later editors often remove the sections discussing how
the protagonist saves the Lilliputian village by urinating
on a fire and those discussing how the protagonist ends up
from the oversized nipples of a naked Brobdingnagian giantess.
The 1001 Arabian Nights and the works of Sir Richard
Burton are often bowdlerized to remove discussion of polygamous
Arabic customs, sexuality, or violence.
Even the Bible itself has
not escaped attempts at bowdlerization. In the nineteenth century,
"decorous" versions of the Bible were printed in which
"improper" verses were removed from the text and placed
in a separately published appendix. To give some idea of the
extent of the bowdlerization, these editors removed references
to nudity in the Adam and Eve narrative (Gen 2:24-25), to Noah's
drunkenness (Gen.9:20-25), genitalia (Deut.23:11-12), circumcision
(Gen. 17: 12-14, Joshua 5:1-3, 1 Sam. 18:24-27), rape (Judges
19:22-26), homosexuality (Gen. 19-14), descriptions of incest
(Gen. 19:30-36), masturbation (Gen. 38:8-10), Judah's sexual
intercourse with his daughter-in-law (Gen. 38:15 et passim),
and David's adultery with Bathsheba after seeing her bathing
in the nude (2 Sam. 11:2 et passim). The list of expurgations
goes on much further than this, but these few examples illustrate
the over-zealous tendencies of censors. It seems that, for some
editors, even God is guilty of puerile titillations.
Victorian and early twentieth-century
editors were most likely to bowdlerize a text based on its sexual
content. Today, texts tend to be censored or altered to remove
racist or gender-biased content. The works of Ray Bradbury,
Mark Twain, and William Faulkner also face bowdlerization when
later editors and educators seek to remove racial epithets or
stereotypes that African-American readers find insulting. Many
anthologies of Chaucer leave out "The Prioress' Tale"
because of her blatant antisemitism. Similar drives to edit
sexist pronoun usage (i.e., using the masculine he
in reference to individuals of indeterminate gender), or the
use of masculine-tinged words like man or mankind
instead of gender-neutral words like humanity have
led to proposed alterations to the poems of John Milton and
others, even though such attempts at bowdlerization often clash
with the metrical or grammatical constraints of the original
work, or elide the author's intentions and historical realities
of the period. Click here to download a PDF
handout discussing this material.
To censor or alter an earlier writer's work. See discussion
THEORY: In linguistics, the idea that language
began when humans imitated animal noises or other natural sounds.
Contrast with the yo-he-ho
SET: A theatrical structure common to modern drama in which
the stage consists of a single room setting in which the "fourth
wall" is missing so the audience can view the events within
the room. Contrast with the theater in the round and
SHIFT: Not to be confused with
Vowel Shift, the Bradshaw Shift is a suggested alteration
to the order of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, one which
differs radically from the manuscript tradition.
Chaucer never completed
The Canterbury Tales, and he left us today ten
fragments that can be organized in various ways to make a larger
narrative. These fragments are bits of narrative linked together
by internal signs--such as pieces of conversation or passages
referring to an earlier story or the story about to come next.
The fragments are usually designated with Roman numerals (i.e.,
in modern editions of the text, though the Chaucer Society uses
alphabetical designations to refer to these fragments (i.e.,
Only between Fragments IX-X and
(in the case of the Ellesmere
family between Fragments IV-V)
do we find explicit indication of an order. Consequently, modern
editions differ in the order the tales are presented.
The most controversial and
influential of these theorized orders is known as the Bradshaw
Shift. In this arrangement, Fragment
VII (B2) is moved to follow
Fragment II (B1),
with Fragment VI following.
The complete arrangement thus looks like this: I
(A), II (B1), VII (B2), VI (C), III (D), IV (E), V (F), VIII
(G), IX (H),
and X (I).
A slight variant of this order is that of Baugh and Pratt, who
move Fragment V
so that it follows Fragment VI.
The controversy about such an arrangement stems from the fact
that none of the surviving 82 manuscripts of Chaucer's Canterbury
Tales contains such a specific order, even though there
is good evidence from the stories that such an order makes sense.
Click here to download a detailed pdf
handout discussing the Bradshaw Shift and the order of the
One of the four groupings of Welsh tales in The Mabinogion.
Tradition divides The Mabinogion into a series
of loosely connected narratives revolving around one or more
(1) First Branch: Pwyll
(2) Second Branch: Branwen
(3) Third Branch: Manawydan
(4) Fourth Branch: Math
Collectively, these are
famously called "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi."
A Celtic language spoken in the northwestern
part of France. Not to be confused with a Briton with an
-i (i.e., a British person).
See further discussion under "Bretons"
BRETON LAI (also
spelled Breton lay): Another term for a lai.
The Celtic inhabitants of Brittany ("Little Britain") in
northeast France who speak the Breton language.
The term is related to British "Briton."
The Bretons may be responsible for carrying Arthurian legends
into France, where they influenced Chretien de Troyes and other
continental writers. They also produced the lais that
influenced Marie de France. Click here for a map
of the regions where Breton is spoken.
A mark in the shape of a bowl-like half circle that indicates
a light stress or an unaccented syllable.
BRITICISM: An expression or word that developed in
Britain after the American colonies separated politically from
ENGLISH: The English language in the British
isles, especially in contrast with Canadian, Australian, or
An inhabitant of Britain--especially a Celtic one. Do not
confuse it with a Breton,
a Celtic inhabitant of Brittany in France. Note that while
English, the Scottish, and the Welsh are often called Britons
or Brits, none of them are Bretons. Additionally,
only the folks in Southeastern portions of Britain are English.
an "Englishman" is a good way for ignorant American
travelers to have their jaws broken in a rowdy pub.
Imprecise phonetic transcription for general comparative purposes.
Individuals in medieval warfare who have sworn a military
partnership with each other, agreeing to ransom each other
if one of the two is captured by the enemy, swearing to abide
by the rules established in their company, vowing loyalty
one another, and agreeing to share their plunder amongst themselves
in a predetermined way. Chaucer's Palamon and Arcite in "The
Knight's Tale" appear to swear brothership-in-arms
with each other, but that vow of loyalty falls apart when
lovestruck by the sight of Emilye. For further discussion of
this medieval practice, consult Maurice H. Keen's
books and articles on chivalry.
(also spelled Brittanic): One of the two branches
of the Celtic family of languages descended from Proto-Indo-European.
Brythonic includes Celtic languages such as Cornish,
Breton, and Welsh.
The Brythonic language branch is also referred to as "P-Celtic"
because it tends to use a <p>
in certain words where a <q>
or <c> appears in Goidelic
cognates. Contrast with the related Goidelic
or Q-Celtic branch, which includes Manx, Irish
Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic.
A work that ridicules a topic by treating something exalted
as if it were trivial or vice-versa. See also parody
(also called stage business): The gestures, expressions, and
general activity (beyond blocking) of actors on-stage. Usually,
business is designed to elicit laughter. Such activity is often
spontaneous, and may vary from performance to performance. Cf.
Originally called kothorni in Greek, the word buskins
is a Renaissance term for the elegantly laced boots worn by
actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator
shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize
the royal status or importance of the character. Contrast with
BYLINA (plural byliny) : Also called a starina, an Old Russian epic song in which a bogatyr (supernatural hero) serves as the protagonist. As Zenkovsky notes, byliny are divided into two separate cycles--a Kievan cycle dealing with the ruler Prince Vladimir of Kiev and a Novgorodian cycle dealing with the merchant-bogatyr named Sadko (524). The Kievan cycle focused on eleventh-century events, and its most popular bogatyrs were Ilya Murmoets, Alesha Popovich, and Dobryni Nikitich (though judging from the pagan material, many of the original byliny appear to pre-date Christianity in Russia); the Novgorodian cycle appear to be much later in origin, and they seem more thoroughly Christianized, and most surviving Novgorodian examples appear to date from the 13th-15th centuries (524).
HERO: An antihero
who is a romanticized but wicked character. Conventionally,
the figure is a young and attractive male with a bad reputation.
He defies authority and conventional morality, and becomes paradoxically
ennobled by his peculiar rejection of virtue. In this sense,
Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost may be considered sympathetically as an antihero, as are many of Lord Byron's protagonists
(hence the name). From American pop culture, the icon of James
Dean in Rebel Without a Cause is a good example. Other
literary examples are Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights
and the demonic Melmoth in Melmoth the Wanderer. Byronic
heroes are associated with destructive passions, sometimes selfish
brooding or indulgence in personal pains, alienation from their
communities, persistent loneliness, intense introspection, and
TO TOP OF THIS PAGE
I consulted the following works
while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when
feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or
provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these
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Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles.
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Baugh, A. C. and Thomas
Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th edition. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
Brown, Michelle P. Understanding
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Catholic University of America
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Form. New York: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1974. Reprinted New York:
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Zireaux. E-mail Communication. 21 June 2012.