Suzannah's Reviews > One Hundred Middle English Lyrics

One Hundred Middle English Lyrics by Robert David Stevick
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really liked it
bookshelves: poetry

I picked this book up in a NZ secondhand shop...yesterday. What a treasure! Ranging from the courtly to the buffoonish, these lyrics are full of the ineffable grace that so beautifully characterises Middle English literature.

Three interwoven themes predominate. First, the ostensibly secular love songs, most of them clearly drawing on the courtly love tradition. Second, religious songs dwelling on the brevity and uncertainty of life, the certainty of death, and the need for salvation. Third, an odd mix of the two - songs like #49 and 50 - in which either Christ or Mary appear as courtly lovers of the human soul, pining away with love of the fickle and hard hearted human race.

In other words, this is an invaluable window into the late medieval imagination - what was most important to them, how they perceived the messages of Scripture.

Me, I am perhaps too enthusiastic a medievalist to do without this as a reality check. These are very definitely poems from the darkness just before the Reformation. Church authorities are spoken of as hypocrites. Humanity becomes the fickle mistress of Christ rather than his bride. There is more emphasis on works than on grace. The Augustinian doctrines of salvation, later known as Calvinism, have been subsumed by something that may be more Thomistic. Most worrisome of all, Mary emerges as a quasi-salvific figure, in some songs taking on a role as mediatrix and redeemer that seems to leave Christ in the background. Believers are bidden to hope based on her reception into heaven as queen, not as in Scripture, based on Christ's resurrection, the first of many brethren.

So in some ways this is a very confronting look at all that was wrong with the religion of the time (to say nothing of that whole courtly love mess). In other ways, there's some truly wonderful stuff here. There's plenty here to agree with, plenty to learn from, and all of it couched in the most glorious language.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 14, 2015 – Shelved
May 14, 2015 – Finished Reading
May 18, 2015 – Shelved as: poetry

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