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

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Collected Anthologies and General Editions
  • General Introductions to the Middle English Lyric
  • The Medieval Lyric and its European Context

British and Irish Literature Medieval Lyrics
Natalie Jones
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0154


As a result of the great thematic, formal, and stylistic diversity that marks the lyric genre throughout the Middle Ages, the medieval lyric is somewhat difficult to define in precise terms. Modern expectations of the term “lyric,” typically understood as words set to music or as a poem designed to convey the emotions of the author, while not entirely inappropriate, do not have immediate or universal relevance here. The medieval lyric is most often, and perhaps most simply, understood as a term that refers to a short poem, typically written as verse, on a given subject. Such a definition may initially seem unhelpful, but it is necessarily and even usefully broad, given the lack of overall uniformity that governs the lyric corpus. Although a considerable number of lyrics survive in Middle English, the lyric genre initially flourished in the Latin and French literary traditions. Indeed, the earliest medieval lyrics were written in Latin from around the 4th century onward, with such early writers as Juvencus and Prudentius composing Christian Latin verse. Although the Latin lyric remained a popular form throughout the Middle Ages, by the 12th century an increasing number of writers had begun to compose lyrics in the vernacular. The earliest and most influential composers of vernacular verse were the French poets known as the troubadours and trouvères. Writing in their own regional dialects, these poets typically composed songs about love and courtly themes that were often accompanied by music. Given the proliferation of the early lyric in Latin and French, it is perhaps unsurprising that these poems served as a direct source of inspiration for the earliest writers of lyrics in Middle English. Written from the turn of the 12th century to the first half of the 16th, the Middle English lyrics are a remarkably varied group of texts: the poems, which are largely anonymous, exhibit great diversity in terms of subject matter, style, and sophistication, and they are preserved in a wide range of manuscript contexts. In keeping with the scholarly treatment of medieval lyric more generally, the Middle English lyrics are traditionally divided thematically into religious and secular poems, although often within these two groupings lie smaller, thematic units of texts. For instance, within the category of Middle English religious lyrics we find Christological, Mariological, and moral poems, while the Middle English secular lyrics include courtly verse on love and nature, as well as political lyrics and poems that are commonly described as “popular.” In addition to the Middle English lyric tradition, it is also important to note that a significant corpus of lyrics survives in Medieval Welsh, Scottish, and Irish, respectively. Although this article takes as its primary focus the Middle English lyrics, space is devoted to the lyric traditions in Latin and French, as well as those lyrics written in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland throughout the medieval period. The approximate point of termination for the material under discussion is c. 1500.

Bibliographies and Reference Works

Those wishing to study the Middle English lyric corpus in detail should be aware of the wealth of reference works and indexes available to aid in the navigation of what is a vast and complex field. The Middle English lyrics were first catalogued in an index by Brown and Robbins 1943 and this, in conjunction with Robbins and Cutler 1965 and Hamer 1995, still provide a useful resource to locate and identify lyrics. It is important to note, however, that the new index by Boffey and Edwards 2005 largely supersedes these three volumes and is now one of the standard reference works used by scholars. This is complemented by Mooney, et al. 1995–, which provides a digitized edition of Brown and Robbins 1943, Robbins and Cutler 1965, and Boffey and Edwards 2005, with some new additions. Ringler 1988 and Ringler 1992 assist in the investigation of those lyrics that appear in early printed books, or in manuscripts that date to after 1500, the point of termination for Boffey and Edwards 2005. For those wishing to review the critical work done on the Middle English lyrics, Greentree 2001, which includes all material up to 1995, is an invaluably comprehensive resource.

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

    Abbreviated to the NIMEV, this work corrects and updates Brown and Robbins 1943 and Robbins and Cutler 1965. Entries are numbered and arranged in accordance with the format followed in the IMEV, but those poems that have been discovered since 1963 have been added. It includes a thematic index as well as a manuscript index.

  • Brown, Carleton, and Rossell Hope Robbins. The Index of Middle English Verse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

    The IMEV provides a list of all known Middle English lyrics at the time of publication. All entries are arranged alphabetically and numbered. Information about manuscript context, numbers of extant poems, and authorship, where relevant, are supplied.

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

    This annotated bibliography includes all material published on the Middle English lyric up to c. 1995. It lists all published editions of lyrics as well as relevant critical works, both large and small scale. Material is arranged chronologically, rather than alphabetically. The volume includes a helpful introduction.

  • Hamer, Richard. A Manuscript Index to the Index of Middle English Verse. London: British Library, 1995.

    Provides an index of manuscripts, which is missing from the IMEV and its supplement. It is worth noting that Boffey and Edwards 2005 provides an updated index of manuscripts.

  • Mooney, Linne R., Daniel W. Mosser, and Elizabeth Solopova. Digital Index of Middle English Verse. 1995–.

    A searchable, online database that brings together all the information recorded in Brown and Robbins 1943, Robbins and Cutler 1965, and Boffey and Edwards 2005. The DIMEV includes some new additions and also renumbers all of the entries (for ease of access, the original IMEV and NIMEV numbers are also supplied). Its point of termination is 1550.

  • Ringler, William A., Jr. Bibliography and Index of English Verse Printed 1476–1558. London: Mansell, 1988.

    An index and bibliography for those lyrics that appear in early printed books and incunabula. The volume is a useful tool to consult alongside Boffey and Edwards 2005, which refers its readers to this source for all entries of verse recorded in print sources.

  • Ringler, William A., Jr. Bibliography and Index of English Verse in Manuscript 1501–1558. London: Mansell, 1992.

    Ringler’s index lists all known examples of English verse that are recorded in manuscripts from 1501 to 1558. As with Ringler 1988, Boffey and Edwards 2005 directs readers to this volume for those lyrics which postdate 1500.

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

    Serves as a supplement to the IMEV. It includes those poems recorded between 1943 and 1965 and increases the chronological span, adding lyrics written or copied after 1500. It also provides a number of corrections to the original index.

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