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What Is Medieval Poetry?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Medieval poetry is a type of literary verse that was written during the Middle Ages and that has specific subject matter relevant to this time period. This kind of poetry most often covers topics of religious devotion and of courtly love, both of which had a great deal of importance in medieval society. Since rates of literacy were relatively low during this period in history, medieval poetry was often spoken before it was eventually written down. Professional reciters called minstrels or troubadours typically traveled from one town to the next and performed long epic poems from memory. Their purpose was usually to instruct as much as to entertain the denizens of each town or village.

Many topics of medieval poetry were concerned with religion and the accepted ideas of virtue. This subject matter reflects the importance of the church as a unifying influence on people from otherwise different cultural backgrounds. Monks and priests were usually the ones who composed or transcribed medieval religious poems because they were the literate minority during this time period. Much of this religious poetry sought to teach lessons on morality and piety, and it also offered solace to an audience frequently living with hardships such as disease and poverty.

Courtly love was an additional focus of medieval poetry. These poems were the most popular ones for troubadour performances. These types of verses revered women and imparted ideas of heroism.

Much of this poetry was composed in verses that were set to music, and some performers also sang these romantic poems a cappella instead of simply reciting them. Medieval poetry about courtly love is considered one of the first appearances of romantic passion ideals in literature. Since much of this poetry has a definite oral tradition, the exact identities of many courtly love poets have been lost to history.

While many medieval poems were dramatic and serious, others were satirical and meant to poke fun at the shortcomings of certain socioeconomic classes. One of the most famous examples is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. This poem and others written during the medieval period also represent a shift in written language use as well. While many poems were written only in Latin, others appeared in vernacular languages such as Old English, Irish, and French. This new literary practice grew along with rates of literacy among the common people, and this aspect of later medieval poetry helped to set the stage for the Renaissance era that followed.

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Discussion Comments
By Monika — On Jul 23, 2012

It's amazing to me that so much medieval poetry has survived into the present day. After all, most people at that time weren't even literate! I know some of these poems survived as part of oral traditions, but I still think it's pretty neat.

I also wonder how much medieval poetry has been lost since it was never written down. I imagine people of that time didn't just commit every poem to paper, and instead decided which ones were good enough to preserve. I wonder if we're missing out on any masterpieces that were lost because they were never written down.

By JessicaLynn — On Jul 23, 2012

@LoriCharlie - Interesting. I must just be a big softie, because I enjoyed reading the poems about courtly love. I found the whole thing to be very romantic. And it's even more romantic because the lovers in the poems seldom get to be together!

During that time, most people didn't marry for love. So courtly love was usually expressed between a married lady and perhaps someone else in her court. Since the lady is obviously married, the two lovers can never really be together. So it makes the poems a lot more poignant, I think.

By LoriCharlie — On Jul 22, 2012

I had to read some medieval poetry when I took English in college, and I will admit, I did not enjoy it one bit! My teacher made us read it in old English, and it was very, very hard to understand.

Plus, I found a lot of the themes of courtly love to be a bit silly. Most of the language in these poems is very flowery to the point where it borders on being ridiculous.

But then again, I'm not a big fan of modern romance novels either, so perhaps it isn't surprising that medieval poetry about courtly love didn't appeal to me.

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