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Medieval Literature


Traditional ballads were meant to be sung at the communal ring dance. In fact the refrains represented the chorus. Popular ballads were a mixture of dialogue and narration where the narrator didn’t speak in the first person. They usually told dramatic stories not as a continuous sequence of events but as a series of rapid flashes. They were characterized by repetitive textual structures linked to melody and meter and by four-line stanzas usually rhyming ABCB or in couplets with an alternating refrain. The refrain is when the same section of the story is repeated lots of times. Some ballads also had an incremental repetition that is when a phrase recurs lots of times with minor differences. Example LORD RANDAL.
Moreover they were composed for country folks so their language was simple and employed commonplaces. The main characters were: speaking animals and birds, fairies, witches and even ghosts while the main themes were:
- Ballads of magic, about spells, witchcraft and all kind of supernatural power;
- Ballads of love
- Border ballads, about the rivalry between English and Scottish people:
- Ballads of outlaws, as robin hood.

Narrative Poem

The narrative poem tells a story in verse and contains the narrative elements such as the setting in time and space, the description of the characters and the use of the narrator that is always in the 1 person.
They were really popular in the Middle Ages and they were used to entertain people. The medieval narrative included also the exempla, stories that illustrate moral teachings. Other narrative genres were the romance (about love and war in a court setting) and the fabliau (often anti-clerical and full of remarks about sex). The medieval narrative poem was linked to the moral view of the time as well as the changing social structure. In so doing it marked a shift from a religious to a lay outlook. The greatest poem of this time is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a long poem framed by a General Prologue.

Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury tales’ plot is really simple. The narrator, with other people (men, women, monks and other members of the clergy) is going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, a journey that will last several days during which every pilgrim will have to tell some stories. Obviously there will be a prize for the best tale as well as a penalty for anyone who gives up.
The poem doesn’t follow a logical order of events and all remains in flux. It is composed by a General Prologue where all pilgrims are described, and 24 tales that are preceded by a prologue which explains their theme. All that is framed by the pilgrimage journey that is seen as the allegory of the course of human life. Unfortunately this work remained unfinished so Canterbury has never been reached by the pilgrims.
This poem is a portrait of English society (feudal society, clergy, middle-classes). There weren’t the aristocracy and the peasants because no nobleman would have traveled with commoners and the lower class could not afford the expense of such a trip. In the general prologue where all pilgrims are described (tools, clothes and even their personal qualities and their names are related to their jobs) there a mixture of male and female characters to underline the new importance of the woman. The new factor in the Canterbury tales is the individualization (dynamism) that is in contrast with the medieval character that was usually rather static. The Canterbury tales presents a mixture of genres: the parable, the beast-fable, the fabliau, the romance. In fact it s characterized by a stylistic variety and each tale is a unique work as regards the vocabulary, the technique, and the imagery.
But the most important feature is the use of realism that is given by the frame of the pilgrimage that is considered a key metaphor from the religious sphere.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born about 1343 in London. He was young when he participated to war in France where he was taken prisoner and then ransomed by the king himself. So he grew up in close contact with the royal family: the king sent him on various missions and between 1368 and 1378 his journeys brought him also in Italy where he became interested in Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. In the Canterbury tales each story is narrated by a pilgrim but actually it is Chaucer who speaks. This creates a sort of interplay between real and unreal; so the reader has to decide if what he’s reading is true or false. The Canterbury tales is a long narrative poem characterized by rhyming couplets made up of iambic pentameters.
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