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Highlands Ranch High School - Mr. Sedivy
Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Voices From The Middle Ages
Medieval Poetry & Prose

Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th Century
Canterbury Tales
Detail from an early illustration from The Caterbury Tales

Vintner's son, veteran of French campaigns, diplomat, civil servant, member of Parliament-- Chaucer knew all levels of English society and portrayed them with earthy humor and vigor. The tales are told by pilgrims bound for Becket's shrine. We meet the friar, "a very festive man":

A friar there was, a wanton and a merry...
He heard confession gently, it was said,
Gently absolved too, leaving naught of dread.
He was an easy man to give penance
When knowing he should gain a good pittance...
His tippet was stuck always full of knives
And pins, to give to young and pleasing wives.
And certainly he kept a merry note:
Well could he sing and play upon the rote.
At balladry he bore the prize away.
His throat was white as lily of the May;
Yet strong he was as ever champion.
In towns he knew the taverns, every one,
And every good host and each barmaid too
Better than begging lepers, these he knew...
He lisped a little, out of wantonness,
To make his English soft upon his tongue;
And in his harping, after he had sung,
His two eyes twinkled in his head as bright
As do the stars within the frosty night.

The Ballad of Dead Ladies
Francois Villion, 15th Century

Born the year Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, Villon studied at the University of Paris--then turned to a life of crime, haunting alleys, taverns, brothels. He wrote of the degradation of life and the cruelty of death, themes appropriate to his time, when chivalry itself was dying:

Tell me where, in what country,
Is Flora the beautiful Roman,
Archipiada or Thais
Who was first cousin to her once,
Echo who speaks when there's a sound
On a pond or a river
Whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?
Where is the leamed Heloise
For whom they castrated Pierre Abelard
And made him a monk at Saint-Denis,
For his love he took this pain,
Likewise where is the queen
Who commanded that Buridan
Be thrown in a sack into the Seine?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?
The queen white as a lily
Who sang with a siren's voice,
Big-footed Bertha, Beatrice, Alice,
Haremburgis who held Maine
And Jeanne the good maid of Lorraine
Whom the English bumt at Rouen, where,
Where are they, sovereign Virgin?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?


Romance of the Rose
William of Lorris, John of Meun
13th Century

Twenty thousand lines, a work spanning forty years, the Romance enjoyed immense popularity. In the First part William devised an allegory of courtly love peopled by Mirth, Fair-Welcome, Danger, and such. In the second part the bourgeois, sometimes cynical John often digresses to display his encyclopedic mind or to offer advice:

Woman should gather roses ere
Time's ceaseless foot o'ertaketh her,
For if too long she make delay,
Her chance of love may pass away,
And well it is she seek it while
Health, strength, and youth around her smile.
To pluck the fruits of love in youth
Is each wise woman's rule forsooth,
For when age creepeth o'er us, hence
Co also the sweet joys of sense,
And ill doth she her days employ
Who lets life pass without love's joy.
And if my counsel she.despise,
Not knowing how 'tis just and wise,
Too late, alas! will she repent
When age is come, and beauty spent.

Piers The Plowman
William Langland, 14th Century

Welling up from the peasantry comes a cry of suffering-an allegorical poem attributed to a cleric who may have known poverty in London with wife and child. It extols the simple life, warns the heartless rich of retribution in hell:

The needy are our neighbors, if we note rightly;
As prisoners in cells, or poor folk in hovels,
Charged with children and overcharged by landlords.
What they may spare in spinning they spend on rental,
On milk, or on meal to make porridge
To still the sobbing of the children at mealtime.
Also they themselves suffer much hunger.
They have woe in winter time, and wake at midnight
To rise and to rock the cradle at the bedside,
To card and to comb, to darn clouts and to wash them,
To rub and to reel and to put rushes on the paving.
The woe of these women who dwell in hovels
Is too sad to speak of or to say in rhyme.
And many other men have much to suffer
From hunger and from thirst;
They turn the fair side outward,
For they are abashed to beg,
Lest it should be acknowledged
At their neighbors what they need at noon and even.

The Decameron
Giovanni Boccaccio, 14th Century

Natural son of a Tuscan merchant and a Parisian woman, Boccaccio won fame at Florence as a poet and diplomat. His prose classic, a collection of tales told by gentlefolk who have fled to a country estate to escape the Black Death, aims only to entertain. Many of the 100 stories, like the sampling below, dwell on affairs of the heart:

There were once two noble knights of Provence, one of whom was named Messer Guglielmo Rossiglione and the other Messer Guglielmo Guardastagno. Both were valiant men-at-arms and therefore loved each other. It happened that Messer Guglielmo Guardastagno fell deeply in love with Messer Guglielmo Rossiglione's beautiful and charming wife. She fell in love with him too, and they often came together.

The husband found it out. He was so much enraged that his old love for Guardastagno changed to mortal hatred. He armed, and laid an ambush in a wood through which he knew Guardastagno had to pass. When he came up, Rossiglione rushed at him furiously, lance in hand, shouting: "You are a dead man," and so saying thrust his lance through the knight's chest. Rossiglione cut open Cuardastagno's breast with a dagger, tore out his heart with his own hands, and then remounted his horse and returned to his castle.

Rossiglione dismounted and called for the cook, to whom he said: "Take this boar's heart and make the best and most delicious dish of it you can." The cook sent him the dressed heart and he had it set before his wife. The lady had a good appetite, tasted the dish and thought it good; and therefore ate it all up. "What you have eaten," said the knight, "is verily the heart of Messer Guglielmo Guardastagno, whom you loved so dearly. And you may be certain it is he, because I tore the heart from his breast with these hands."

No need to ask whether the lady was in anguish. After a little time she said: "You have acted like a base and treacherous knight. But, please God, no other food shall ever follow a food so noble." And jumping to her feet she ran to a window and threw herself out of it. This window was high above the ground so that the lady was not only killed by her fall but smashed to pieces.

Medieval Poetry - Page 1

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