A Medievalist’s Life: Hysteron Proteron

What does a medievalist do on a Saturday afternoon in early September? Smash skulls? Go jousting?

No, no. Better than that. He walks the hundred yards to his department building in flip-flops and ragged shorts, saunters down a quiet hall to his office, scoots past the polished and ready weaponry, fires up his computer, and starts writing the paper he’s going to present at the Southeastern Medieval Association Conference in a month.

He sent in a title for this paper-to-be — “The Unfolding of the King: The Structure of The Alliterative Morte Arthure and Its Authorship” — several months ago, and he sent with it an abstract written in haste between classes on a hot morning even earlier than that. He reads these things over as a sort of knuckle-cracking exercise, getting his mind onto the subject at hand.

Some time later he is still staring at the abstract and title, trying to figure out what it was he meant by all this gibberish, trying to ignore the blank Word document open on his computer.

And then, perhaps an hour after he arrived, he begins typing:

In a 1981 essay, Russell Peck argued that The Alliterative Morte Arthure, widely regarded as one of the finest works of the late-medieval alliterative revival and a key component to the wide dissemination of the Arthurian legend in the hands of Malory and Caxton, has at its core a coherent design that he termed “hysteron proteron.” If this sounds like Greek to you, that’s because it is: it means “latter first,” and in rhetorical practice the example most often given comes from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Moriamur, et in media arma ruamus,” that is to say, “let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight” (ii. 353). The two events in Aeneas’ exhortation — the dying and the charging — are related in reverse chronological order, so that the more important idea — the dying — is told in first position, thus highlighting it. Another example can be found in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “Th’ Antoniad, the Egyptian admiral, / With all their sixty, fly and turn the rudder” (3.10.1-2). Antony’s ship, you see, cannot fly before someone turns its rudder, but Shakespeare gives as the flying before the turning since it’s the former that is the key idea. These inverted orders are paradoxically impossible, and indeed in chapter 13 of George Puttenham’s 1590 Arte of English Poesie he says of this device: “we call it in English proverbe, the cart before the horse, the Greeks call it Histeron proteron, we name it the Preposterous.” And thus, by twists and turns from Greek rhetoric, we got a more commonly known word meaning “impossible” today.

But all this is not really what Peck meant by hysteron proteron.

I’m not sure if that’s good or not, but it’s a start.


  1. I just want a time-travel ship named “hysteron proteron”

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