In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Religious Lyrics

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Standard References
  • General Histories
  • Authorial Practice
  • Private Devotion
  • Gender
  • Origins of the Middle English Religious Lyric
  • James Ryman, O.F.M.
  • Corpus Christi Carol [NIMEV 1132]
  • Studies Devoted to a Single Poem, Theme, or Image
  • Didactic and “Emblem” Lyrics
  • The Findern Lyrics
  • Other Grouped Lyrics

Medieval Studies Religious Lyrics
John C. Hirsh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0112


Although dimly anticipated by certain Old English poetic texts, the Middle English religious lyric appears in the manuscript record in the first half of the 13th century, when a rich and diverse collection of largely religious lyrics sprang into being in what must have seemed like a Russian spring. The phenomenon almost certainly owes its birth to the entry into Britain of the Franciscans, and to the preaching these Franciscans initiated, and to the warm, engaged, and meaningful spirituality their order both practiced and inculcated. Preceded and informed by Latin and Continental examples, the English religious lyric soon developed its own practices and its own audience, sometimes simply translating into English familiar Latin hymns, at other times producing texts of extraordinary originality and complexity. The English religious lyric retained from its earliest appearances elements of instruction, learning, and joy, and these qualities came to inform later production, thus remaining central to its identity. Changes having been made, religious lyrics in English continued to be written in large numbers well into the 17th century, informed by a number of traditions, that of Latin (and latterly, vernacular) meditation and European devotional practices and images, among them. The roughly two thousand medieval lyrics now known, many preserved in only one version, were no doubt only a fraction of the total number sung, recited, and inscribed, and although they have been long known to students of the period, an understanding of their cultural importance and their literary artistry is of relatively recent date. Since the 1960s, however, the depth, complexity, and beauty of these extraordinary works of art have been widely accepted, and, though their study was somewhat curtailed by the advent of literary theory, it has now begun again and continues with interest, learning, and vigor. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse (DIMEV) is available online, and its numbers have been listed where appropriate.

Bibliographies and Standard References

The medieval religious lyric has now been widely examined, and many tools are available to the student. The single most important of these may still be Brown and Robbins 1943, and all that has come from it: a supplement, Boffey and Edwards 2005, and now a digital version, Mooney, et al. 1995–. Students also have available to them a concordance in Preston 1975, annotated bibliographies in Greentree 2001, and a recorded collection in Switten 1988–2001, which takes into account many (not all) of the lyrics. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse (DIMEV) is approaching completion, and its numbers have been listed where appropriate.

  • Boffey, Julia, and A. S. G. Edwards. The New Index of Middle English Verse. London: British Library, 2005.

    Universally the NIMEV and the standard reference for identifying which lyrics, both secular and religious, are known, in which manuscripts they appear, and in what numbers and completeness. The NIMEV effectively replaces, while preserving the same entry numbers, Brown and Robbins 1943. Unlike the Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (SIMEV), the NIMEV ends at 1500 and so excludes a number of anonymous lyrics and other poetic texts (many with known authors) the earlier IMEV represented.

  • Brown, Carleton, and Rossell Hope Robbins. Index of Middle English Verse. New York: Index Society, 1943.

    Although intended as an extension of Brown’s Register of Middle English and Didactic Verse (2 vols., Oxford: Bibliographical Society, 1916–1920), the IMEV supplanted the Register not only by the addition of secular lyrics, but also by increasing the number of religious lyrics. Robbins, in collaboration with John L. Cutler, published SIMEV in 1965 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press).

  • Greentree, Rosemary. The Middle English Lyric and Short Poem. Annotated Bibliographies of Old and Middle English Literature 7. Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

    Contains annotated references to article- and book-length studies of the medieval lyric and to Middle English lyrics in particular. Also contains selected book reviews of the same, examinations of individual lyrics and groups of lyrics, and references to ballads and carols and to the academic scholarship that individual lyrics as well as the genre as a whole have generated.

  • Mooney, Lynn R., Daniel W. Moser, and Elizabeth Solopova, eds. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse. 1995–.

    Begun in 1995 and revived in 2008, the DIMEV now contains all the records in the IMEV and its supplement (but not the NIMEV), together with many other records generated by the editors. Currently, the DIMEV provides transcriptions of the first two and last two lines of each collected entry containing an INDEX number. It records texts preserved in incunabula, inscriptions, wall paintings, monuments, etc., together with authorship attributions and titles in manuscripts from c. 1200 to c. 1550, together with probable dates and known locations.

  • Preston, Michael J. A Concordance to the Middle English Shorter Poem. 2 vols. Computer-Generated Aides to Literary and Linguistic Research 6. Leeds, UK: W. S. Maney, 1975.

    A helpful concordance to many (not all) Middle English lyrics; useful in language studies generally.

  • Switten, Margaret, dir. The Medieval Lyric. 5 CDs. South Hadley, MA: Mount Holyoke College, 1988–2001.

    A recorded selection of sung and performed medieval lyrics, the joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Mount Holyoke College. A recorded selection of Middle English lyrics appears in CD 5, with an accompanying anthology and commentary by Howell D. Chickering Jr. (1989).

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