Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
French Popular Song, 15th century (Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. franç. 12744). All images from Bédier and Hazard 1923, p.118.
This is not the most stunning photograph and has required a bit of work to make it usable, but I couldn't resist this little gem of popular culture. Why do paleography books only concentrate on what they regard as important works? This really represents another step in the transition from oral to written culture, as a work that has been in the popular oral repertoire, and hitherto invisible to our prying historical eyes, has got written down. This process continued right into modern times, of course, as people who designated themselves folk song collectors wrote down things that other people sang in the banqueting hall or the pub. The author is anonymous, because nobody recorded his name, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a professional balladeer. It could have been a she of course; the song is sung from the female perspective.
The script is a somewhat informal and cursive bâtarde, which basically means a hybrid script from the late middle ages but French looking. The melody is also presented at the bottom in musical notation. My translation makes no attempt to be poetic, but you get the idea. The same sad tale continues through the centuries with Napoleonic era songs like My Bonny Light Horseman and innumerable ditties about drowned sailor boys. Why even now there is probably somebody singing "My love has gone away, to Guantanamo Bay".

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 1/6/2005.