A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature

By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin | Go to book overview

4

Balladry

Gwendolyn Morgan

The folk-song tradition of balladry, expressing popular perceptions on a particular issue or a world view in general, comes to us as the only substantial poetry corpus of the medieval English commoner. Oral in nature, balladry tends to a high degree of superficial change (i.e., variation in surface expression), but the consistency in underlying narrative is surprisingly strong. Nonetheless, balladry remains a slippery term, and the genre eludes all but the most general of classifications. Formally, for example, although certain theorists insist upon very specific rhyme and metrics, both the medieval genre and its modern descendant defy such limitations: most examples employ stanzas of two or four lines, but others pattern stanzas on up to eight or ten lines; four stresses per line may be the most common, but meters range from three to seven stresses; the most usual rhyme schemes are alternating (abab) and couplet, but others surface with sufficient frequency to belie any rule. In other words, loose formal guidelines exist, but they are no more than guidelines. Even what would seem a universal formal characteristic—that ballads are set to music (which, incidentally, accounts for the regularity of formal characteristics within any specific example)—cannot be taken for granted, for the earliest surviving example in the English canon is almost certainly a clerical composition, literary in origin, and by the late twentieth century, this arguably had become the norm.

The most notable mechanical attribute of medieval balladry is the vocabulary of stock lines and phrases shared by the genre as a whole. These are formulaic descriptions that attach themselves frequently to completely unrelated ballads. Consider, for example, that any number of heroes and heroines call for their servants to “saddle me the black, the black / or saddle me the brown”; that many a lover sets his mistress on a “milk-white steed / and himself on a dappled grey”; that Robin Hood, Johnny Cock, Adam Bell, and other such outlaws all

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A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1 - Old English and Anglo-Norman Literature 1
  • Selected Bibliography 23
  • 2 - Religious and Allegorical Verse 26
  • 3 - Alliterative Poetry in Old and Middle English 37
  • Selected Bibliography 48
  • 4 - Balladry 50
  • Selected Bibliography 66
  • 5 - The Beast Fable 69
  • Selected Bibliography 84
  • 6 - Breton Lay 86
  • 7 - Chronicle 98
  • 8 - Debate Poetry 118
  • Selected Bibliography 152
  • 9 - Medieval English Drama 154
  • 10 - Dream Vision 178
  • Selected Bibliography 196
  • 11 - Epic and Heroic Poetry 210
  • 12 - The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics 230
  • Selected Bibliography 253
  • 13 - The Fabliau 255
  • 14 - Hagiographic, Homiletic, and Didactic Literature 277
  • Selected Bibliography 294
  • 15 - Lyric Poetry 299
  • 16 - The Middle English Parody/ Burlesque 315
  • Selected Bibliography 333
  • 17 - Riddles 336
  • 18 - Romance 352
  • Selected Bibliography 373
  • 19 - Visions of the Afterlife 376
  • Selected Bibliography 394
  • Selected Bibliography 399
  • Index 425
  • About the Editors and Contributors 431
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