Poetry in Motion: The Mobility of Lyrics and Languages in the European Middle Ages

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Lyric poetry is privileged in many literary histories as the foundation of the European vernacular tradition. For medievals it was a particularized expression, beyond the bounds of normal discourse, worth careful critique, dissemination, and preservation. Transmitted with or via music, whose mobility and mouvance differs from that of written texts, courtly song was part of a cultural phenomenon common to most of Western Europe. The rise of the courtly lyric created a common poetic culture in which lyric poetry moved freely between and across geopolitical entities, where knowledge of ‘foreign’ poetry was far from unusual. Medieval poetry thus challenges modern conceptions of normative boundaries: the requisite recalibration is the subject of this investigation. It is concerned especially with linguistic boundaries: these differ, naturally enough, from modern ones, and invite closer examination of what languages were or could be in literary circles in the High Middle Ages.
The material examined centres on Occitan and Old French literature between c. 1140 and 1350, but also makes substantial reference to works produced in Italian and German-speaking areas, and, occasionally, to Catalan, Latin and Middle English texts. My aim is to examine the different modes in which lyric poetry and lyrical forms moved around medieval Europe, suggesting patterns of crossing and confronting linguistic boundaries, both in their composition and their subsequent MS transmission. Each variety of mobility (contrafactum, multilingual poetry, lyric intercalation, translation, and the adoption of ‘foreign’ languages) has formed in previous scholarship a single topic of discussion. It is thus the novelty of this work to bring them together in order to give a richer account of European lyrical culture in the Middle Ages. There emerges a polycentric poetic field which does not map onto the Europe of standard national languages and literatures, but where the most important language was that of the courtly lyric itself.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSimon Gaunt (Supervisor) & Sarah Bowden (Supervisor)

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