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Goliards: Marvelous and Terrible Vagabond Poets


Artists, clerics and medieval students, they wandered Europe reciting and singing poetry of earthly pleasure and the contradictions of the world into which they’d been born.

The intimate relationship between poetry and rebellion goes back to time immemorial possibly, this is due to this particular art form’s undeniable ability to communicate powerful, courageous ideas). From the Satires of the Latins to the French Symbolist poets, going against the establishment has always born an implicit, charming poetic. This is the case of the goliards, young clerics and university students who wandered Europe during the Middle Ages. They were poets who lived licentious lives (or, perhaps, they were simply free). They took on, through their art, positions with regard to physical love, earthly pleasure and the corrupt policies of their era. And thus they became perhaps the most captivating rebels of the European Middle Ages.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, Europe’s great universities came into being, bound though they were to the various religious orders of the time. Into this context, the goliards emerged, as young students and priests (though lacking in true religious inclinations), and used their educations and culture for the writing of poetry, nearly always in Latin. Their poetry celebrated what were considered then “earthly pleasures,” practices far from the pious life considered exemplary for their time.

In some cases, the poets were the younger brothers of wealthy families who, by custom, passed their wealth and property only to elder brothers, that is, to the firstborn. The rebel goliards traveled through the cities of Europe singing poems as a means to survive. And despite their closeness to the religious life, they dedicated themselves to the enjoyment of drinking, of nature, of sex, and to the raising of severe but humorous criticism of the increasing contradictions of both the Church and the medieval states that had come to be.

The start of a tapestry in creation showing a sun and a moon

One of the most beautiful and well-known examples of goliardic poetry is the Carmina Burana, which might be translated as “Songs from Beuern”. The work is a series of lyrical pieces found in the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern, in Bavaria in Germany. The collection includes some 300 poems written mostly in Latin, although a few are in Old French, Provencal and Middle German. Several of them are accompanied by musical scores. The manuscript was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century, and 24 of the poems were set to music in 1936 by the German, Carl Orff. The resulting symphonic pieces are known today, also, as the Carmina Burana.

The figure of the goliard is so attractive because it recalls, in archetypal terms, the figure of Prometheus, the beloved Titan who challenged the gods to give fire to humankind. The term could also remind us of the wanderers from the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon worlds: travelers and adventurers who used their wisdom to create and question the laws of the places they inhabited. The life that’s believed to have been lived by the medieval goliards might easily be idealized, but beyond that idealization, their work in denouncing corruption and defending the beauty of “worldly pleasures” through poetry and music can’t but turn them into distinguished and forgotten heroes.



*Images: 1) Creative Commons; 2) Carmina Burana, 1959 / Creative Commons

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