I love ribald, rebellious humor in the works I read, and will go out of my way to read anything written by Sir Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, or Jasper Fforde. I admire their wit and ability to cause us to laugh at our own outrageousness.
Crazy humor at the expense of the establishment is nothing new. It’s part of the Human Condition. And to that end, I love goliardic poetry.
Carl Orff and his amazing cantata, Carmina Burana, catapulted me into the poetry of the Goliards. But who and what were the goliards?
During what we call the Middle Ages, noble and wealthy middle-class families had a tradition that the eldest son inherited everything, the second son went into the church, and the younger sons went to the crusades.
The old-fashioned practice of “primogeniture” or bestowing the rights of inheritance upon the eldest son, often leaving younger sons penniless, is responsible for some of the most ribald and hilarious poetry of the middle ages. This was because the church had far too many clergy who weren’t all that enthusiastic about having been forced into taking the ecclesiastical path, and who became, for lack a better definition, medieval frat-boys.
There was such an abundance of well-educated clergy that most were unable to gain a decent appointment within the church, despite good family connections.
Having been educated at the finest universities of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England these men weren’t content to spend their lives hidden away in a rural monastery painstakingly copying the great books written by others when they could be writing their own.
Going indie (or rogue) is nothing new.
They took their show on the road, going from town to town, protesting the growing contradictions within the church through song, poetry and performance.
The disillusionment and disappointment they experienced in regard to the hypocritical, abusive, greedy state of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of that time, was fertile soil for medieval mockery on a grand scale.
Not unlike the current political climate here in the US.
Most goliardic poetry is written in Latin, as Latin was the language of commerce, and every educated person understood and read it. Remember, if someone could read, they were well off, and if they could read, they read Latin. Those were the people the indie was writing books for in the early Middle Ages.
Some of the goliards’ more popular church services when they would arrive in a new town included celebrating the annual Feast of Fools, a brief social revolution, where roles were reversed, and power, dignity and impunity was briefly conferred on the lowest of the social order. Thus, the town drunk, or the local fool would be made mayor for a day, feted and given the status of a lord for a day.
As you might imagine, the nobility was unimpressed with that particular “holy” festival, and rarely participated
Even less popular with those in power was the Feast of the Ass. From Wikipedia, the holy fount of all knowledge: A girl and a child on a donkey would be led through town to the church, where the donkey would stand beside the altar during the sermon, and the congregation would “hee-haw” their responses to the priest.
So, I guess you could say the goliards were a traveling Monty Python type of show, painfully hilarious and sometimes too good at what they did for the censor’s comfort.
Their point was that too much emphasis was placed on the pageantry and trappings of faith in Medieval Europe.
But they couldn’t run forever. Their satires were almost always directed against the church, attacking even the pope, and the church didn’t take that well. Heresy, during the Middle Ages, was not something you wanted to be accused of, as the famous heretic and collector of goliardic poetry, Peter Abelard would tell you. Yet, though he was harshly punished, he remains one of the most respected philosophers and free-thinkers of the Middle Ages.
By the 14th century, the word goliard had become synonymous with minstrel, no longer referring to this group of rebellious clergymen. However, a century after the overabundance of bored poor-little-rich-boy clergymen that spawned the goliards had been squashed by the church, that tradition of irreverence was carried on by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.
For me, Orff’s cantata was a ‘gateway drug.’ From first becoming intrigued by the libretto to Carmina Burana, I moved on to “the hard stuff,” studying modern translations of the works of an author who was highly influenced by goliardic poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer.
Of course, eventually that meant I had to go to the source, learning a great deal about the roots of our modern English language at the same time.
Chaucer was unique, in that he wrote in Middle English, the vernacular of his time, rather than in Latin. Because of this, and the enduring hilarity of his works, Chaucer is considered the Father of English Literature.
The goliardic works that survive to this day still surprise us with how relevant the concepts put forth in those poems and tales are to contemporary society.
It is through the surviving literature and song that the truth of a past culture is discovered. The true nature of the common medieval man and woman survives in the rebellious, ribald literary tradition of the naughty clergy, the goliards.
We may be separated in time by centuries, but we are not too different from those ancestors of ours who survived the Dark and early Middle Ages by getting drunk and singing bawdy songs, and poking fun at the establishment.