Introduction to Literature, Spring 1998


Medieval Ballads

What is a ballad?  Simply put, it is "A formalized story, often choral, told in a situational rather than a narrative style, which is sung to a tune."  Child's Ballads mean the ballads in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published by Francis James Child at the end of the nineteenth century.  The five-volume collection embodies a definition of `ballad' which largely holds today.
* Ballads  "Barbara Allen" "Sir Patrick Spence
*Lyrics "Western Wind" "Now Goes the Sun Under the Wood"
* Relevank Links: Ballads & Lyrics; Medieval Period
(ca. 1200-1485)

"Barbara Allen"
"'Barbara Allen' (Child #84) is perhaps the most widely-spread of all Child's ballads. It goes back a long way -- Pepys wrote of hearing it sung in 1666 -- but our earliest versions of the text date to the mid-eighteenth century and the music can't even be traced back that far' (from Early Child Ballads) .   There are many, many versions of this poem, including versions from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the United States.  Three Versions:
Questions for Group Discussion and Journal
  1.  Why does Sir John Graeme get sick and then die for Barbara Allan? When Barbara Allen says that he once ignored her, what is his reaction?  What does that show about him? 
  2.  What kind of person is Barbara Allen? (pay attention to the ways she treats Sir John Graeme: telling him that he is dying, leaving him before he dies, and then dying for him after he does.) 
  3. The ballad does not explicitly describe Barbara Allen as being cruel, but it implies it. Identify places in the poem that reveal her hard-heartedness. 
  4. Barbara seems to experience a change in the poem. At what point does she change? How are those changes implied?                back to the top
"Sir Patrick Spence" 
An e-text site with the original spelling
Questions for Group Discussion and Journal
  • Like all ballads, this one tells a story. Briefly what is the story presented in this traditional Scottish ballad? 
  • Does the fact that the king in line one likes to drink "blood-red" wine suggest something about him? Does it foreshadow something that will happen later in the poem? 
  • How would you describe Sir Patrick's character? Why, for example, does he move rapidly from laughter to tears in the fourth stanza? 
  • Why does Sir Patrick Spence goes on the trip even after he knows it is a death-mission? 
  • contrasts & ironies
    • How is the "eldern knicht" (elder knight) contrasted with Sir Patrick Spence?  (What do they each do?  Where are they?) Why do the Scotish nobles go along with him? What details can you find in the poem that suggest the poet was critical of the lives of the nobles? 
    • A contrast is set respectively in stanza eight and stanza nine (between the first two lines and the last two).  What kind of contrasts are they?  (e.g. the sea and the play, the ladies with fans in their hand and Patrick Spence at sea). 
  • omission in ballad form
    1. As you look at the story in this ballad, it is interesting to notice the parts of the story that the poet left out. What parts are not included in the poem? Why do you think the poet chose to leave them out? Also, what parts of the story did the poet develop in detail? 
    2.  back to the top
    Medieval Lyrics
    Topics of Medieval Lyrics: The song of spring  (the French reverdie), the love lyric and love complaint, the celebration of Virgin Mary, the witty satire of women, the meditation upon Calvary--and some rollicking erse in praise of good food, good drink, and good living (Norton Anthology 365)
    "Western Wind"
    Questions for Group Discussion and Journal
    1.  This poem, written around the year 1500, consists of only one quatrain. What is the relationship between the first two lines and the final two lines? 
    2. Who do you think is the speaker of the poem? What clues in the poem help you to identify and understand him? Who is the speaker talking about  in lines three and four? 
    3. After you begin to question the identity of the speaker, you will need to consider what the context for this short poem is. Explain WHY the speaker is saying these lines. (It may help you to know that in England the west wind is accompanied by rain and warmth; it marks the beginning  of spring.) 
    4. In line three the speaker says, "Christ."  What do you think his tone is? Do you think he is praying to Christ? Or is the speaker simply using an exclamation? (How does this invocation of Christ in the third line compare and contrast with the invocation of the wind in line one?) 
      Application and Wild Association
      • Can you think of a possible story that would explain this speaker's relationship with his lover?                 back to the top

      "Now Goes the Sun Under the Wood"
      The version in Modern English
    The original version:
    Nou goth sonne vnder wode; 

    Me rewes, Marie, thi faire rode. 

    Nou goth sonne vnder tre; 

    Me rewes, Marie, thi sone and the. 

     Questions for Group Discussion and Journal
    1. This thirteenth century poem, like "Western Wind," focuses on one specific moment. What is the moment being described in this poem? And what is happening at this moment of sunset? Is the poem simply describing a beautiful sunset? 
    2.  An understanding of Jesus'  passion and death may help you to appreciate this poem. Jesus' mother, Mary, in some accounts, was present at  Jesus' crucifixion and that she stood at the foot of the cross. Why does the speaker pity Mary? If you consider the Crucifixion as the background for this poem, what new understandings of the poem do you have? 
    3. This poem relies on words with dual meanings. For example, the sun, mentioned in lines one and three, also suggests Jesus as Son of God and  son of Mary. Also, the word "wood" and "tree" can both suggest the wooden cross on which Jesus died. 
    4. Do the final two lines move beyond Mary's personal position and suggest something about the presence of suffering, death, and night in the world? 
        Application and Wild Association
      • Can you think of the Chinese/Taiwanese counterparts to the ballads and lyrics here--both in ancient times and contemporary Taiwan? 
        • examples of traditional Chinese ballads?  〈木蘭辭〉, 〈孔雀東南飛〉
        • examples of ancient Chinese lyrics:
         先秦歌  南風歌
        先秦歌  擊壤歌


        (for more examples, please search the Chinese poetry database)
                        back to the top

    Ballads and Lyrics: Relevant Links
    General Introduction & Major Site
    • ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD, including introduction to Early History of England, Religion, & Anglo-Saxon Poetry  (from Fu Jen English Literature Databank; by Dr.  Marguerite Connor) 
    • The Labyrinth:  Resources for Medieval Studies, including library, national cultures, international cultures, special topics, pedagogical resources, Professional Information,etc.  (Sponsored by Georgetown University) 
    • The Internet Medieval Sourcebook
    History and Culture
    • Introduction to Medieval History, By Paul Halsall of Fordham University. 
    • Music of the 14th Century
    • MEDIEVAL SUBJECTIVITY  An on-line academic discussion of medieval subjectivity and faculty psychology.  ['Patrick Diehl (_The Medieval European Religious Lyric,_ (67-72) shows how "In many medieval religious poems, singular and plural first-person pronominal forms seem to be virtually interchangeable." ') 
    Site for Fun and Vivual Resources Other Important Work or Writers For Further Studies in the English Medieval Studies 
          (selected from Medieval & Renaissance History site at NYU)  E-Texts back to the topInternet-Assisted Course page
     Image sources
  •  bar--adjusted from Beowulf manuscript image192v-small.jpg  from Medieval Art 
  • background image: tapestry from Regensburg, c.1390.  with love scenes from many sources, including the poems of the Minnesinger and romances such as Tristan and Isolde.  The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe.  Ed. George Holmes.  Oxford UP, 1988: 337