In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Middle English Lyric

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographic Guides
  • Anthologies
  • Critical Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Hybrid Lyrics
  • Style
  • New Lyric Theory and the Middle English Lyric

Medieval Studies Middle English Lyric
Michael P. Kuczynski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0330


Middle English lyrics (c 1200–1500) are short, emotive poems that take up sacred or profane topics, usually in relation to themes of love and death. Some scholars widen the genre to involve shorter historical and political poems. This widening, however, is problematic: it ignores the density of emotional expression that for most readers is typical of lyric poetry and renders the term “lyric” unnecessarily vague. The term derives from a Greek word for a stringed musical instrument and was not applied to medieval poetry until the sixteenth century. Only a few Middle English lyrics survive with musical accompaniment, although some were written to be sung. Many of the poems exhibit musical qualities—for example, lively or incantatory rhythms. They acquire these from ingenious combinations of simple sound effects, such as alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, as well as from repetition, including regular patterns of stresses in short lines and stanzas that end in refrains. Such features make the poems memorable, if not singable. By numbers, lyric is the largest genre of Middle English writing. Over two thousand lyrics survive, in single and multiple versions, across all the Middle English dialects and primarily in manuscript copies. Lyrics survive less often in other material contexts, too—as inscriptions on walls, in stained glass, or on pottery. New lyrics continue to be discovered by scholars. By a ratio of about five to one, the vast majority of lyrics are religious rather than secular. Their poets, who are learned, emphasize feelings about ideas rather than ideas themselves, although some religious lyrics engage points of theology in sophisticated ways. There are more named authors of religious than of secular lyrics, but most lyrics are anonymous. This circumstance lends an air of mystery to their verses and encourages sometimes conflicting interpretations of unambiguous poems. Several canonical Middle English authors wrote lyrics of distinction: for instance, the Yorkshire hermit Richard Rolle (d. 1349) and the author of the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Whether anonymous or named, the poets adopt personas whose moods become the focus of their poems. These are subtle in lyrics where superior poets master the challenge of using conventional meters, diction, and imagery in distinctive ways. Overall, the quality of the Middle English lyric corpus is highly uneven. The best lyrics command attention because they sustain an impression of affective immediacy that exceeds the constraints of simple verse. Accomplished lyrics suggest a reflective interiority and deep engagement with oft-pondered subjects. Middle English lyrics cover a wide stylistic range, from plain through decorated verse. Dating of the poems is approximate: the lyrics themselves provide scant internal evidence of when they were composed. Manuscript date, where this is known, should not be mistaken for date of composition.

Bibliographic Guides

There are three basic bibliographic guides to the Middle English lyric. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse is an open-access, machine-searchable digital index of Middle English verse, comprising nearly seven thousand items, many of these of course not lyrics. As an electronic resource, it is regularly updated. The digital index is based on two earlier print indexes: Brown and Robbins 1943, the long standard guide, covering verse items in the years 1200–1500, and its supplement, Robbins and Cutler 1965, which extended coverage to c.1530. Boffey and Edwards 2005 updates and revises Brown and Robbins 1943 and Robbins and Cutler 1965, by both adding and subtracting entries. It indexes nearly 4,500 items of Middle English poetry, including multiple versions of poems. Again, many of the items indexed are not lyrics. It returns to the 1200–1500 parameters of Brown and Robbins 1943, but also includes c.1500 materials that survive only in post-1500 manuscript transcripts, some of these as late as the eighteenth century, and in early print copies. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse and Boffey and Edwards 2005 both index poems alphabetically by first line and give information about metrical form, manuscript context, and bibliography for the poems they compile. The alphabetical arrangements between the two indexes do not agree, however. In The Digital Index of Middle English Verse, first lines appear in modernized spelling; in Boffey and Edwards 2005, they appear in medieval orthography. Nor do the numberings of items agree, because of the different alphabetic schemes and regular updates to the digital index. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse does, however, provide useful cross-listings to Boffey and Edwards 2005 and to Brown and Robbins 1943 and Robbins and Cutler 1965. Greentree 2001 is a bibliographic guide of a different kind: an annotated bibliography of editions and criticism of Middle English lyrics covering the years 1839 through 1997 and comprising over 1,000 entries, with further bibliography on items cited but not annotated. It includes four useful indexes to its entries: of scholars and critics, subjects, first lines, and a temporary index of first lines that are not listed in Brown and Robbins 1943 and Robbins and Cutler 1965.

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

    The standard print guide to beginning research on individual lyrics. Indexes by medieval spelling nearly 4,500 items, including multiple versions of poems. Many items indexed are not lyrics. Updates and revises two earlier indexes: Brown and Robbins 1943 and Robbins and Cutler 1965, contracting the latter’s end date from c.1530 to 1500.

  • Brown, Carleton, and Rossell Hope Robbins, eds. An Index of Middle English Verse (IMEV). New York: Index Society, 1943.

    Until Boffey and Edwards 2005, the standard print guide, with Robbins and Cutler 1965, to research on individual religious and secular lyrics. Indexes by medieval spelling about four thousand items, not all of them lyrics, from about 2,000 manuscripts.

  • The Digital Index of Middle English Verse (DIMEV).

    Edited by Linne R. Mooney, Daniel W. Mosser, and Elizabeth Solopova, this is a regularly updated, open-access and machine-searchable database incorporating listings from standard print indexes of Middle English verse and providing numbered cross-listings to these. Indexes by modern spelling nearly seven thousand items—as in the print indexes, many of them not lyrics. First lines are given in Modern English spelling. Also cited as DIMEV.

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

    Gives bibliographic information, including subsequent printings and editions, of editions and criticism covering the years 1839 through 1997. Comprises over one thousand entries and bibliography on additional items cited but not annotated. Annotations, especially of books, are expansive. All annotations conclude with a complete list of lyrics mentioned in each item, according to Brown and Robbins 1943 and Robbins and Cutler 1965, with a handful of items not indexed in these.

  • Robbins, Rossell Hope, and John L. Cutler, eds. Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

    Adds about two thousand entries to Brown and Robbins 1943, many from manuscripts in private libraries. Cited by scholars as SIMEV.

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