Poems during the medieval era were religious in nature and written by clerics. They were used mostly in church and other religious events. Medieval poems were mainly read by troubadours and minstrels. According to scholars, literature in the Middle Ages was international rather than local. Medieval poetry was divided by lines of class and audience rather than language although, Latin was the language of the church and education. Medieval poetry in itself was very diverse.
Medieval poetry was divided into periods and styles. The 3rd and 4th centuries were called Patristic Latin times. This period marked the beginning of Christian poetry as inspired by the works for St. Ambrose, who wrote poetry mostly for the church.
Monastic Period was the period where the desire for Latin poems had increased. However, between the 7th and 10th centuries, poems written did not have much originality. Most of the poems imitations of Christian songs. The Revival of Latin Literature between the 11th and 12th century brought about secular medieval poetry as well as new forms and styles of writing medieval poems. It was during this period when epics, satires, epigrams, elegies and tales were written and became very popular.
The 12th and 13th centuries were marked by the increase in education and the churches control over it. It was called the Scholastic period. During this time, medieval religious poems flourished. It was also marked by the appearance of mystical, passionate and personal medieval poems.
Latin was the most common and adopted language of the medieval period. This was the primary language use for instruction and by the church. However, after the 11th century, French became the dominant language especially of the European secular culture. When Edward, the Prince of Wales took the King of France as prisoner, he had more in common with the royals than that of the English people.
During his time, King Arthur became internationally known for his adventures and gallantry through medieval poems, tales and stories. The legendary king Arthur’s story originated from Celtic poems but were eventually adopted and expanded in Latin. Several secular medieval poems during the medieval period were also written in Latin. Medieval songs were also written in Latin, such as the Christian hymns and other melodies, which included love songs and ballads.
Medieval English Poetry was not written. They were passed on by mouth from generation to generation by travelling musicians called troubadours and minstrels. These aristocratic men were poets who were originally from the southern part of France. They were also referred to as Trouveres.
Poems during the medieval period were perpetually linked with music, even the legendary tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable were said to have originated from the music and poetry of the English and Welsh Bards, which eventually were included in the lyrics of these travelling musicians. It must be noted however, that Latin and French were the distinct languages for literature during these times. It was only until King Henry IV that English was adopted as a language in England as it was for the royalty at that time.
Carmina Burana was a collection of 254 poems and dramatic text from the 11th century. Most of these poems were satirical and irreverent, written in Latin, German and Old French.
Cambridge Songs was a collection of Goliardic Medieval Latin poems. These songs were written shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066 and were collected by an English scholar who travelled across Europe.
The Song of Roland was an epic French poem based from the story of the Battle of Roncevaux. This was the oldest surviving French literary work.
Beowulf was an old English epic. It consisted of more than 3000 alliterative long times. According to scholars, it may be the oldest surviving piece of Old English long poem.
The Canterbury Tales was a collection of more than 20 stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chauver towards the end of the 14th century.
Medieval songs were usually poems turned into songs, since the primary mode of passing on the poems from one generation to another was through the travelling musicians who incorporated these poems to their lyrics.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, music and poetry had declined. However, in certain parts of Southern England and France, some courageous poets continued to write words to music and spread them to different villages. This has further ignited the Provencal troubadour movement, which marked the beginning of modern lyric-based songs and music.
There were several well-known authors and poets throughout the medieval period. Here are some of them:
Caedmon (657–680) – He was known to be the only Anglo-Saxon poet who was primarily known for his ability to write vernacular verses. He was also the first known English poet who wrote The Dream of the Holy Rood.
Venerable Bede (673-735) – who was also known as St. Bede, was widely acknowledged as the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar of all time. St. Bede wrote the Ecclesiastical History of England.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – October 25, 1400) – He has written several English poems in his lifetime. However, he was best known for the famous Canterbury Tales. He was considered the greatest poet who wrote in English.
Margery Kempe (1373 – c1438) – was a Christian mystic and was known to be the first who wrote autobiographies in English.
John Gower (1330 – October 1408) – one of the famous medieval poets and a great friend of William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, best known for Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis, which were written in French, Latin and English.
Francesco Petrarch (July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374) – was an Italian scholar and poet during the Renaissance period. He was also a humanist and known as the “Father of Humanism”.
Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) – was a philosopher, scholar and poet. He wrote the famous “The Divine Comedy” which made a great impact on both theology and literature especially during the medieval period.
William Longland (c1332 – c1386) – famous for Vision of Piers Plowman.
Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) – was the Italian correspondent of Francesco Petrarch. He was a writer, poet and humanist during the Italian Renaissance, and was famous for writing “The Decameron” and “On Famous Women”.
Raphael Holinshed (c1529 – 1580) – was a famous English chronicler. He was famous as the Medieval Author of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. According to historians, he was the one major source of some Shakespearean plays.
On the contrary, not all medieval poems are lengthy and daunting to read. Here’s a list of short medieval poems that are quite interesting to read.
Medieval Love Poems revolved around courtly love and it has introduced the culture of romance and love to the middle ages. This phenomenon has spread throughout Europe and caused a shift in literature and social traditions.
Before mid-12th century, medieval poetry rarely mentioned love and romance as they were mostly about religion and its teachings. It was only after a decade, when passionate love stories began to flourish and were adapted. Stories of combat and war were eventually replaced with tales of love and women were exalted to higher status.
Medieval Poetry was very diverse as there are several influences, not only limited to language. Medieval Poems, especially in creative medieval literature, flourished more in vernacular language as these were the most easy to understand for medieval people. These were medieval poems written in native language as opposed to scholarly languages. However, the most common theme or genre for medieval poetry was bravery, gallantry and heroic deeds written in various formats.