Medieval poetry


Medieval poetry

Because most of what we have was written down by clerics, much of extant medieval poetry is religious. The chief exception is the work of the troubadours and the minnesänger, whose primary innovation was the ideal of courtly love. Among the most famous of secular poetry is Carmina Burana, a manuscript collection of 254 poems. Twenty-four poems of Carmina Burana were later set to music by German composer Carl Orff in 1936.

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Examples of medieval poetry

Old English religious poetry includes the poem Christ by Cynewulf and the poem The Dream of the Rood, preserved in both manuscript form and on the Ruthwell Cross. We do have some secular poetry; in fact a great deal of medieval literature was written in verse, including the Old English epic Beowulf. Scholars are fairly sure, based on a few fragments and on references in historic texts, that much lost secular poetry was set to music, and was spread by traveling minstrels, or bards, across Europe. Thus, the few poems written eventually became ballads or lays, and never made it to being recited without song or other music.

Medieval Latin literature

In medieval Latin, while verse in the old quantitative meters continued to be written, a new more popular form called the sequence arose, which was based on accentual metres in which metrical feet were based on stressed syllables rather than vowel length. These metres were associated with Christian hymnody.

However, much secular poetry was also written in Latin. Some poems and songs, like the Gambler's Mass (officio lusorum) from the Carmina Burana, were parodies of Christian hymns, while others were student melodies: folksongs, love songs and drinking ballads. The famous commercium song Gaudeamus igitur is one example. There are also a few narrative poems of the period, such as the unfinished epic Ruodlieb, which tells the story of a knight's adventures.

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Medieval Latin poets

Medieval vernacular literature

One of the features of the renaissance which marked the end of the medieval period is the rise in the use of the vernacular or the language of the common people for literature. The compositions in these local languages were often about the legends and history of the areas in which they were written which gave the people some form of national identity. Epic poems, sagas, chansons de geste and acritic songs (songs of heroic deeds) were often about the great men, real or imagined, and their achievements like Arthur, Charlemagne and El Cid.

The earliest recorded European vernacular literature is that written in the Irish language. Given that Ireland had escaped absorption into the Roman empire, this had time to develop into a highly sophisticated literature with well-documented formal rules and highly organised Bardic schools. The result was a large body of prose and verse recording the ancient myths and sagas of the Gaelic-speaking people of the island, as well as poems on religious, political and geographical themes and a body of nature poetry.

The formality which Latin had gained through its long written history was often not present in the vernaculars which began producing poetry, and so new techniques and structures emerged, often derived from oral literature. This is particularly noticeable in the Germanic languages, which, unlike the Romance languages, are not direct descendants from Latin. Alliterative verse, where many of the stressed words in each line start with the same sound, was often used in the local poetry of that time. Other features of vernacular poetry of this time include kennings, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme. Indeed Latin poetry traditionally used meter rather than rhyme and only began to adopt rhyme after being influenced by these new poems.

Romance languages

Old French

The Matter of France

The Matter of Britain

The Matter of Rome

Provençal

Catalan

Italian

Spanish

Galician-Portuguese

Authors

Germanic languages

Alliterative verse

Medieval English poetry

Medieval German poetry

Medieval Greek poetry

Medieval Celtic poetry

Welsh

Irish

Further reading


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