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Medieval English lyrical texts have come down to us as parts of manuscripts collecting a variety of topics, like The Harley Lyrics, or as marginal notes, when a medieval scribe thought a poem interesting enough to be jotted down. All in all we know about 450 manuscripts containing poems and lyrics between 1150 and 1500, for which we sometimes even have the music.

The range of themes in medieval English lyrics is great and can be divided into religious and secular.

  • Religious lyrics comprise complaints of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, songs and poems for various feasts of the church year, penitential lyrics and rhymed prayers to Jesus or Mary.
  • Secular lyrics include spring and love lyrics, political poems, poems on the contempt of the world, satirical verse, convivial and drinking songs.

The form of the lyrics also differs greatly: from cross rhyme (abab, bcbc etc.) to rhyme royal stanzas (ab ab bcc; introduced by Chaucer in his Troilus), from ballads and roundels to simple songs.

A special form of song is the carol that has survived up to nowadays as the famous English Christmas carol, but was used in medieval times for nearly any topic. An especially charming form of medieval poetry is the macaronic verse that reflects humour and a great love for playing with words and languages.

Lyrical Poetry