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An image from the 11th-13th Century Carmina Burana, Benediktbeuern Abbey, a collection of Goliard love and vagabond songs.

The Goliards were a group of clergy who wrote bibulous, satirical Latin poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were mainly clerics at or from the universities of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England who protested the growing contradictions within the Church through song, poetry and performance, often within a structured carnivalesque setting such as the Feast of Fools.[1]


The derivation of the word is uncertain. It may simply come from the Latin gula, gluttony.[2] It may also originate from a mythical "Bishop Golias", a medieval Latin form of the name Goliath, the giant who fought King David in the Bible - thus suggestive of the monstrous nature of the goliard - or from gailliard, a "gay fellow".[3] Many scholars believe it goes back to a letter between St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Innocent II, in which he referred to Pierre Abélard as Goliath, thus creating a connection between Goliath and the student adherents of Abélard.

Satirical poets[edit]

The satires were meant to mock and lampoon the Church. For example, at St. Remy, the goliards went to mass in procession each trailing a herring on a string along the ground, the game being to step on the herring in front and keep your own herring from being trod on. In some districts, there was the celebration of the ass, in which a donkey dressed in a silly costume was led to the chancel rail where a cantor chanted a song of praise. When he paused, the audience would respond: "He Haw, Sire Ass, He haw!". The University of Paris complained:

"Priests and clerks.. dance in the choir dressed as women.. they sing wanton songs. They eat black pudding at the altar itself, while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play dice on the altar. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap throughout the church, without a blush of their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby carriages and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and with scurrilous and unchaste words."

The Goliards used sacred sources like texts from the Roman Catholic Mass and Latin hymns and warped them to secular and satirical purposes in their poems (such as in the Drinkers Mass). The jargon of scholastic philosophy also frequently appears in their poems, either for satirical purposes, or because these concepts were familiar parts of the writers' working vocabulary. Their satires were almost uniformly directed against the church, attacking even the pope. The Goliard were a protest movement and marked a distinct step in the growing criticism of Church abuses from within its own ranks.

The Goliards faced retribution from the Church. In 1227, the Council of Trier forbade them from taking part in the chanting service. In 1229, Goliards played a part in disturbances at the University of Paris in connection with intrigues of the papal legate. They were the subject of numerous Church councils, notably in 1289, where it was ordered "no clerks shall be jongleurs, goliards or buffons", and in 1300 at Cologne, when they were forbidden to preach or engage in the indulgence traffic. Often the "privileges of clergy" were withdrawn entirely from the Goliards.

Much of the Carmina Burana collection of Latin poetry belongs to this school. One Goliardic author, otherwise anonymous, has been given the name of the Archpoet. Other Goliards whose names are known include Peter of Blois and Walter of Châtillon.


The Goliards have literary significance in that they wrote Latin verse using stress-based prosody, rather than the Classical quantitative meters, since syllable-weight had long ceased to be an actual part of Latin pronunciation. This literary movement ultimately made possible new sacred Latin verse, such as Thomas of Celano's Dies Iræ or St Thomas Aquinas's Pange Lingua, sequences written in Latin poetic forms the Goliards had helped to develop.

With its quick pace and scathing subject matter, the Goliards' poetry became part of the model for English satirical verse that flourished in the age of Samuel Butler, Jonathan Swift, and others.

The word "goliard" outlived the original meaning and passed over into the French and English literature of the 14th century, generally meaning jongleur or wandering minstrel, no longer related to its original clerical association. It is thus used in Piers Plowman,[4] and by Chaucer.

Debate over Authorship and Recent Scholarship[edit]

Although the idea of scholars wandering around in defiance to the wishes of the Church is an attractive view, it is not a whole view of the composition of secular monophonic song. Bryan Gillingham argues that the music did not come from wandering scholars, but within the ranks of the mainstream clergy and particularly in monasteries. Gillingham presents many theories on who wrote and distributed secular monophonic Latin song, which is also known as goliardic song. Clerks could have been the main transmitters because they were involved in every aspect of Medieval life, but there is not much written about them and they were not linked exclusively with music and poetry. He also does not attribute them to the Goliards because they were not very chronicled, had little to do with song production, and were confused with jongleurs, but many of the famous poets could have started out as followers of the goliardic ideal.

Gillingham believes that monks are the most likely creators and consumers of the goliardic poetry and music. Monasteries of the Middle Ages were not as closed as they seem. They were centers of great power, strong economic influence, the publishing houses of the Middle Ages, and the home of the literate, educated elite. They were also the locations where manuscripts were written, these reflecting both the sacred and the secular together, and are the primary sources for what medieval society was like. They were also closely linked with the universities in Europe, and monks moved freely from university to the monastery where they could transmit the poetry and music. Another important aspect of monasteries was who entered a monastery. It was not always the pious who sought a religious refuge, but aristocratic men who were forced into monastic life by their families. This made them more open to secular forms of song about love and earthly affairs. Certain monastic orders were also less strict than others because of the forced monastic way of living, such as the Benedictine monks at Cluny. This makes the monks of large monasteries the likely authors and consumers of these songs.

A very important question after examining these two views is how such songs could exist within a society that seems so closed to contradictions to the authority of the Church at the time. Gillingham and Bayless offer some interesting insights about the medieval culture at the time. Their thinking allows the authors of these works to follow Gillingham’s ideas that the composers of these songs were not from the Goliardic tradition which often receives the credit. Bayless argues in Parody in the Middle Ages, that all of these manuscripts still exist because they were enjoyed by clergy and in particular monks because they were the ones who copied and transmitted the texts. She also believes that especially mock masses were popular because they allowed the monk to engage in a form of self-mockery and because mocking the parodies, they were actually speaking against the vices instead of condoning the behavior. The practice could also have a theological and moral importance as well. Although it would seem that the songs are openly mocking the Church and its rituals, they are actually there to prepare humans for heaven and to show how un-heavenly earth is. Another theological aspect of the songs is that by laughing, a person becomes similar to children as they are in the eyes of God. Finally, it prepares them for heaven because laughter is constant in heaven, so this prepares those laughing for their eternity with God. Although there are these different theological perspectives, which does not mean that all the poems does have religious morals, but that they represent all the contradiction that existed in Medieval society. Gillingham also uses contradiction as the reason that this type of music can exist in Medieval society. This is due to the lack of clear identities in the Middle Ages because all was part of same organism. His belief that everyone is part of the world as both a sinner and saint actually made the Medieval world more tolerant to certain aspects of society. One example of this type of tolerance was in a certain form of sexual tolerance; clergy were about to and did own brothels during the Middle Ages. Since they did not have the notion of separated sacred and secular that exists in modern society, they could express themselves in these many different ways without incurring punishment. Another reason they could have these types of texts was because of the lax monasticism that happened in many of the monasteries, such as the Cluny Monastery. At these monasteries, the monks would have been more open to these styles of music commingling with religious texts. This leads to the conclusion that although the idea of the wandering scholars as the sole composers of this style of music and poetry is attractive, it is not a full view of the authorship of the song or its cultural consumption.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ P. Brown ed., A Companion to Chaucer (2008) p. 94
  2. ^ D. E. Wellbery et al, A New History of German Literature (2004) p. 66
  3. ^ P. Brown ed., A Companion to Chaucer (2008) p. 94
  4. ^ G. Rudd, Managing Language in Piers Plowman (1994) p. 90


Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Further reading[edit]