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Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe

Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe

by Marisa Galvez


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Today we usually think of a book of poems as composed by a poet, rather than assembled or adapted by a network of poets and readers. But the earliest European vernacular poetries challenge these assumptions. Medieval songbooks remind us how lyric poetry was once communally produced and received—a collaboration of artists, performers, live audiences, and readers stretching across languages and societies.

The only comparative study of its kind, Songbook treats what poetry was before the emergence of the modern category “poetry”: that is, how vernacular songbooks of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries shaped our modern understanding of poetry by establishing expectations of what is a poem, what is a poet, and what is lyric poetry itself. Marisa Galvez analyzes the seminal songbooks representing the vernacular traditions of Occitan, Middle High German, and Castilian, and tracks the process by which the songbook emerged from the original performance contexts of oral publication, into a medium for preservation, and, finally, into an established literary object. Galvez reveals that songbooks—in ways that resonate with our modern practice of curated archives and playlists—contain lyric, music, images, and other nonlyric texts selected and ordered to reflect the local values and preferences of their readers. At a time when medievalists are reassessing the historical foundations of their field and especially the national literary canons established in the nineteenth century, a new examination of the songbook’s role in several vernacular traditions is more relevant than ever.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226270050
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/10/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 293
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Marisa Galvez is assistant professor of French at Stanford University. 

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How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-28051-6

Chapter One


UPON HEARING THE term medieval songbook a modern reader usually imagines a manual with musical notation and lyric texts for a performance. While many such manuals exist, most songbooks that are at the origin of European lyric traditions are actually large format manuscripts written in court hand on parchment. These are luxurious artifacts of the aristocracy—far from props for orally circulated lyric used by traveling minstrels. Though likely based on paper exemplars of the manuals we imagine, the great Occitan chansonniers transmit lyrics without music, and were probably compiled at least a generation after the lyrics were last performed. If we lack such manuals, what might a songbook look like that documents lyric texts being composed, performed, glossed, and compiled contemporaneously? In other words, how can we reconstruct a songbook that both accounts for the performance of lyric and is itself a literary object? Considering these questions in this chapter, I will analyze two works that are not conventionally considered songbooks in the manner of, for example, the Italian troubadour chansonniers or the Castilian cancioneros discussed in the later chapters. Yet, in treating them as "songbooks," I apply the term as a descriptive experiment: Does the term pertain when the editorial intention typical of a chansonnier is not explicitly present, and the characterization of the work as songbook can be deduced from the work's functional openness rather than from a single moment of reception? It is a truism, with few exceptions, that almost all lyric of the Middle Ages was composed to be sung or recited. Exploring how we can read a unified medieval "work" as a collection of separate lyric texts, and the value of reading a work as such, is the goal of this first chapter.

My analysis treats two codices containing songs that were being performed close to the time of their compilation. (As my later chapters will show, this is not the case in most troubadour or Minnesang manuscripts.) Together, these codices offer a paradigmatic contrast of the songbook mode: both show uses of scholastic and theological ordinatio (the ordering of texts) and compilatio (compiling glosses on texts), but they deploy these practices differently according to subject matter of lyric performance, moral-satirical lessons, or the agency of a first-person narrator. These works show polarities in their manner of participatory emendation and compilation, and as such provide a basis for understanding the songbook as a kind of heterogeneous work space.

Although it is impossible to determine with any certainty how a work was used by a medieval reader, the two works that I treat in this chapter—the Carmina Burana, circa 1230 (Carmina), and the Libro de buen amor, circa 1330–43 (Libro)—contain texts whose nature suggests that these codices were understood as autonomous books even if read, sung, or consulted in fragments. Like an anthology or a miscellany, each work may have been read as a moral encyclopedia, a collection of lyric or fables, or a musical repertory. The Carmina contains anonymous clerical student songs, mostly middle Latin but including macaronic and bilingual verse, that reflect the influence of liturgical song and treat various secular topics such as springtime, satirical diatribes against the church, or drinking and gambling. The latest manuscript of the Libro, the Salamanca or S manuscript, is a heterometric codex containing fables, love stories in cuaderna vía, a variety of lyric verse, and a scholastic prose sermon. The erotic autobiographical narrative, which includes doctrinal excurses, tales, and songs, treats the central theme of buen amor or good love. Displaying Hispano-Arabic, Hispano-Hebraic, and European literary influences, its theme is elusive due to the variety of sources on which the composition is based (exempla, learned and popular sermons, fabliaux, Goliard poetry, Ovid, Latin drama, and religious and popular lyric) as well as the enigmatic narrator. Recent studies regarding the author's intentions and hermeneutic strategies and the work's deliberate ambiguity have focused on Augustinian readings of the author's truth claims and the influence of Semitic literary traditions. While this study is not the first to view the Libro as a songbook or "Cancionero," its comparison with the Carmina aims to expand upon former analyses by Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Leo Spitzer, and others of this work as at once a humorous, ironic, and didactic text. Furthermore, the analysis advances an interpretive account of the Libro that maintains its aspect as intended for a learned, clerical audience of individual readers while not eliminating the possibility of other kinds of audience and delivery in the long history of the work's reception.

In the case of the Carmina, the versus, or quantitative verse or verses (the plural of this Latin word is the same as the singular), structures the codex into thematic subgroups and offer moral gloss. In the Libro, the narrator-protagonist Archpriest of Hita unifies the disparate elements of the Libro without promoting any one moral interpretation. Indeed, buen amor can mean both divine and sexual love, and the Archpriest seems to want to undermine a reader's desire to gloss the text for its meaning. In the way that the Archpriest merges into different characters, and different parts of the Libro resist becoming a unified narrative, his role converges with the compilers and annotators of the Carmina. In both the Carmina and the Libro, a compiler brings together a heterogeneous variety of songs and verse. Yet such a unifying presence, while joining diverse elements to form a book, does not eliminate the integrity of autonomous texts or text groups. Further, even as the Carmina elements such as the versus and the Archpriest's yo (I) are the tissue that unites the songs into a book, the codices always retain the a priori quality of having to be interpreted by their users. We can deduce from the evidence of the manuscripts that these codices are open enough for readers to use as they see fit: performed aloud or studied silently from any point and through one's own moral lens. Whether sung or used as a mnemonic aid, the codex invites an evolving interaction between composer, compiler, and audience.

Examining the formal structure and content of these works, I will describe how songbooks entail a kind of ordinatio and compilatio that takes into account these activities in a secular performance and literary environment. I have chosen the Carmina and the Libro because, although they are very different, they document a fluid translation and adaptation of scholastic, secular, and liturgical cultures, as well as Latin and vernacular composition and performance of lyric. In the way their organization tends toward a coherent narrative unity while retaining distinct subgroups, these codices reflect the gathering of diverse material into a protean text in relation to a particular performance-oriented environment. A songbook resembles a form made of building blocks that never merge into a seamless, autonomous whole: it reflects the reception of song clusters toward a platonic ideal or form—the book, the Archpriest as auctor, the seven sins. While the Carmina and the Libro document a process of lyric reception between audience, singers, composers, and scribes, such a reception does not preclude the ordering of texts by means of scribal and literary processes.


Both the Carmina and the Libro, as codices compiled near the time of their songs' production, reflect the adaptation of several traditions within a student milieu. While several historical and social factors that I describe below shape each of these milieus, the songbook itself, as a sort of work space, reinforces the student practices of translating established musical and literary forms into local, orally transmitted ones.

The Carmina Burana

A diverse collection of monolingual medieval Latin poems and bilingual poems (Latin/German, Latin/Romance), the Carmina is exceptional as the single witness of secular lyric composition in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries other than hymns and poetry for ecclesiastical feasts. Although most of the poems are anonymous, including secular and a few sacred Latin lyrics, liturgical plays and a Latin Gamblers' Mass, many poets are known from other manuscripts such as the Saint Martial and Notre-Dame repertories. While the versus and many poems treating antique material are in quantitative meter, all of the secular and religious songs (hymns, tropes, sequences) use stress-syllabic or rhythmical meters meant to accompany melodies. As I will discuss later on in this chapter, in the Carmina the appearance of the quantitative verse differs from the rhythmical. Such diversity of lyric in the Carmina corresponds to the idea of this period as a kind of Renaissance: there is an emerging interest in newly translated writings of Plato and other philosophers; universities in Chartres, Paris, and Bologna flourish; and Latin culture attains a wider reach from Spain to Scandinavia. A Latin poetry emerges from this student world of the nascent universities—a poetry, since labeled "Goliard," often critical of political and social conditions, influenced by the vernacular lyric of the troubadours/trouvères, and merging sacred and secular traditions.

The Carmina was compiled in Bavaria, and associated with the abbey of Benedictbeuern and a wealthy or important patron schooled in both clerical and courtly love poetry. It documents a local milieu over a span of time and serves as witness to an international phenomenon. Through a process of textual adaptation and bibliographic groupings, the codex represents a clerical community's experimenting with discrete traditions—ecclesiastical and secular song traditions, liturgical conductus and hymn forms, and love songs inspired by Ovid, Minnesänger, and the trivium taught in the schools.

The Libro de buen amor

Although in many respects unlike a collection of Goliard poetry, the Libro also emerges from a milieu in which more established literate forms are in the process of being adapted to native or popular traditions. The dating of its manuscripts, along with what we can deduce from Juan Ruiz, the Archpriest of Hita, the supposed composer of the Libro, situates the Libro in terms of its audience and historical context. Similar to the Carmina, the Libro exhibits a milieu conversant in Ovid, Romance genres, and Catholic didacticism. Yet the work also represents the culture of the Iberian peninsula during the reign of Alfonso XI (1312–50). A confluence of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions, Spain at this time experienced social changes due to a flourishing maritime and wool trade, and literary developments after the founding of new universities and expansion of the church's pedagogical activities. A university-educated Archpriest of Hita (whether or not he really existed) would have been involved in the local affairs of his synod, knowledgeable about canon law, and well traveled: an excellent conduit of church, university, and lay culture in a town historically known to have been populated by Jews and Mozarabs (Spanish Christians who adopted Muslim dress and spoke Arabic). Although many scholars are convinced that the Libro's intended audience was exclusively clerics familiar with its scholastic references, the work also clearly aims to serve as popular entertainment by including minstrel song and folk tales. Moreover, like the Carmina, the Libro's changes of register and diversity of content speak to a work adapted to the needs and tastes of its audience.

During this period in Spanish literary history, monastic cuaderna vía poems of religious and didactic subjects gave way to a form of verse as social criticism. The Libro is cast as a cuaderna vía composition, but it incorporates such a variety of metrical texts and a prose sermon that it escapes simple classification. Much of its complexity is due to its autobiographical aspect mixed with didactic materials—for instance an exemplum after the narrator's rejection by his lady is offered as a means of interpreting the rejection. Religious and popular lyric elaborate on the love affairs of the narrator, but it is most likely that these texts circulated orally before being incorporated into the composition. The scholarly consensus tends toward the idea that the Libro was composed or assembled over a long chronological period, the disparate materials brought together by a university student as a unified composition. Dagenais has argued for the Libro to encompass the medieval text (in all the different forms of its manuscripts, fragments, and quotations) and its readers' glosses during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. I build on Dagenais's treatment of reading practices rather than of an author and his work: what I will try to describe in this chapter is how the songbook aspect of the Libro—illuminated through a comparison of the Libro with the Carmina—constitutes its character as a book to the extent that it overrides the questionable authorial intention of the Archpriest.


Despite their differences, both collections may have been used in various student performance environments. The dance songs of the Carmina may have been performed for large festive gatherings, while the Libro's lyric works were likely musically staged, especially in the case of the lyric using the estribote form of rhyming couplets with refrains. The Carmina's poems with musical notation, rhythmical poetry, and quantitative versus suggest songs sung aloud and read, as well as studied for their content; the Archpriest likewise indicates various modes of performing his Libro in other ways, inviting his audience to play his book like an instrument (stanza 70). These books allow multiple modes of interpretation because readers can consult lyric texts as separate performance pieces or as parts of a literary or moral narrative.

The Carmina and the Libro reflect the influence of scholastic material culture as well as the importance of song—liturgical and secular—in the life of the cleric. Since the physical modification of the Bible at the end of the fourth century from scroll to codex, participants in literary culture and especially the scholastic culture of the high Middle Ages depended more on indexed codices for the storing of information than on memory. Given the value of codices in general and the notion of medieval man as an "organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems," the prevalence of heterogeneous compiled materials in manuscripts is hardly surprising, especially during the flourishing of the universities. The Carmina and the Libro emerge from a manuscript environment where the dominant works include Gratian's Decretum, the Glosa Ordinaria, and Peter Lombard's Sententiae—the common books of scholastic research. Peter compiles the Sententiae "ut non sit necesse quaerenti librorum numerositatem evolvere, cui brevitas collecta quod quaeritur offert sine labore" (to escape the need for the researcher to search numerous books, since without effort a compact collection offers him what is sought, PL 192.522). Such compilations, as a natural progression of the Bible Codex, enable encyclopedic comparison and cross-referencing, and facilitate the research of specific information.

While these works share some of these physical aspects of the scholastic codex, they remain distinctive as lyric anthologies. Although these codices would have been consulted as an archive, they also represent the confluence of orally transmitted vernacular song and student literary activity: they document lyric composition, performance, and compilation—quite possibly a reception situation that includes a public recital from (or with the help of) a written text but does not preclude the occasional private reader. They may also document literary composition as inflected by nonliterary lay performance practices. In the Carmina, many lyrics were probably written from memory, or at the dictation of those who sang them; this would account for the better versions of these poems in other repertories where there exists a longstanding literary transmission of a song. Like other medieval books, songbooks bestow symbolic, cultural, and canonical value on a collection of songs—whether for a patron or a community of users. Although what I describe as songbooks certainly share many characteristics with other medieval texts such as scholastic florilegia, these codices both reflect the strong influence of oral traditions and performance communities and maintain the literary qualities of these texts.

As I will describe in detail the songbook aspects of the Libro in the second half of this chapter, in discussing the Carmina I will focus on the versus and vernacular stanzas in several senses: the versus are the "unique contribution of the Carmina compilers," and are literary-historical unica unattested elsewhere, while the vernacular stanzas, though not always original compositions, are unique in the way they supplement or complement the Latin poems that precede them. Both play a significant role in helping us imagine how the Carmina was compiled as well how it may have been received and consulted as a codex.


The Carmina, or Codex latinus Monacensis (Clm 4660), consists of one hundred and twelve leaves with an additional seven called the Fragmenta Burana (Clm 4660a); it has four main sections: moral and satirical poems; love songs; songs of drinkers, gamblers, and goliards; and religious plays. The compilers collated the texts according to subject matter and other internal thematic groupings, yet the organizational principles allowed for the inclusion of songs according to the practical availability of sources and preferences of the moment.


Excerpted from Songbook by MARISA GALVEZ Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Medieval Songbook as Emergent Genre
Chapter One. Paradigms: The Carmina Burana and the Libro de buen amor
Chapter Two. Producing Opaque Coherence: Lyric Presence and Names in Songbooks
Chapter Three. Shifting Mediality: Visualizing Lyric Texts in Songbooks
Chapter Four. Cancioneros and the Art of the Songbook
Conclusion: Songbook Medievalisms

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