Medieval Writing
Poetry (3)
Not all medieval poems were long works. There was also a tradition of short poems, usually referred to as lyric poems. These also derived from the oral tradition, as they were designed to be sung. Performance was part of their art. Their collection in manuscripts probably bears some similarity in concept to those school anthologies of our youth. They were collected to be learned, appraised, analysed.
These were not necessarily the warblings of medieval pop singers. The art of the Latin lyric could be a scholarly art of the literate, albeit, it seems, some of the more anti-establishment and unorthodox of the literate. Short poems were also composed in the vernacular. A poem could be a brief, encapsulating thing.
The website Middle English Lyrics gives texts and manuscript images from this genre.
The texts of the Mystery Plays, those religous tableaux performed at various sites around towns such as York or Chester on particular religious festivals, were in poetic form. This should be no surprise. The various segments of the plays were performed by members of the craft guilds of the towns. How else do you get a bunch of illiterate or semi-literate town artisans to remember their lines?
mouth of hell
The mouth of hell, as depicted in the Mystery Plays and the clerestory stained glass windows of York Minster.
Poetry and song have been much used for patriotic purposes over the centuries. Marginalised or oppressed groups have treasured their ethnic verse as a marker of their identity. Vernacular verse in the various Celtic languages has been recorded in medieval manuscripts, along with chronicles, genealogical data and all those other ethnically defining things. Vernacular poetry was being used consciously as an ethnic marker by the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Bretons and recorded for posterity before the French and English got everything all sewn up between them. The Gaelic languages are now rare, but having sat in a plane with a bunch of Scottish football fans singing "O Flower of Scotland" over and over again between Manchester and Paris, I can assure you that the tradition of ethnic singing is still well and truly alive.
The Medieval Irish Poetry website gives texts and translations, as well as links to other resources.
At various times in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars of oral culture and folklore have attempted to recover remnants which they believed to be a tradition of poetry and ballad that owes at least something to the middle ages. Fossicking through early printed editions and the imperfect memories of ancient rural dwellers who learned the songs 15th hand in their long departed youth, they collected the fragmentary relics of scrambled songs. The giant collection assembled by Francis James Child in the late 19th century from an array of manuscript and printed sources has become a canonical text in its own right. Singers got evicted from folk clubs in the 1960s for altering the words, imperfect as they were. The tunes were already lost forever. We are left with an incomprehensible jumble of elf knights, murdered lovers, demonic seductions and just plain blighted love affairs as the only remains of a vibrant culture of oral poetry that lasted for centuries. It lasted, in fact, until that invention of the devil, the printing press, made everybody sing the same song in the same way!
It would seem that various poetic forms constituted a much larger proportion of the literary corpus in medieval times than they do today. So where are our poets, apart from at little poetry reading nights or limited edition book launches? The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind.
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