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How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe


How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe

Today we usually think of a book of poems as composed by a poet, rather than assembled or adapted by a network of poets and readers. But the earliest European vernacular poetries challenge these assumptions. Medieval songbooks remind us how lyric poetry was once communally produced and received—a collaboration of artists, performers, live audiences, and readers stretching across languages and societies.

The only comparative study of its kind, Songbook treats what poetry was before the emergence of the modern category “poetry”: that is, how vernacular songbooks of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries shaped our modern understanding of poetry by establishing expectations of what is a poem, what is a poet, and what is lyric poetry itself. Marisa Galvez analyzes the seminal songbooks representing the vernacular traditions of Occitan, Middle High German, and Castilian, and tracks the process by which the songbook emerged from the original performance contexts of oral publication, into a medium for preservation, and, finally, into an established literary object. Galvez reveals that songbooks—in ways that resonate with our modern practice of curated archives and playlists—contain lyric, music, images, and other nonlyric texts selected and ordered to reflect the local values and preferences of their readers. At a time when medievalists are reassessing the historical foundations of their field and especially the national literary canons established in the nineteenth century, a new examination of the songbook’s role in several vernacular traditions is more relevant than ever.

296 pages | 7 color plates, 33 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages

Medieval Studies


“As is characteristic of University of Chicago Press books, Songbook is written in an eloquent, confident, elegant style, clearly argued and exceptionally well designed and edited.”

Bettina Bildhauer | Times Literary Supplement

“[A]n innovative comparative study that challenges existing assumptions about how medieval poetry was preserved and transmitted. . . . Given the nineteenth-century Romantic ‘rediscovery’ of the medieval world, this cross-disciplinary work effectively reassesses the European literary canon, making relevant anew a whole body of poetic experience. Recommended.”

R. Cormier, Longwood University | Choice

“Medieval vernacular versifiers called themselves trobadors. . . . In relating their history, Galvez juxtaposes works such as the thirteenth-century Middle Latin/German/French/Provençal Carmina Burana, which criticized the Catholic Church, with the fourteenth-century Castilian Libro de buen amor, which delineated the joys and perils of carnality, and she interleaves pages from comedic and terpsichorean chansonniers with the comparatively dignified longings of the Liederhandschriften of the German minnesingers. The essential theme being gestured at in these pairings is the creation of authorship. . . . The roving minstrelsy, which Galvez regards as a medieval Creative Commons, were treated by Dante and Petrarch as a type of market research for their later pagebound poetries.”


“A book distinguished not only by clarity of presentation and learning but also by impressive comparative scope.”

Daniel Heller-Roazen, Princeton University | Speculum

"A book of incredibly ambitious scope. . . . Her arguments challenge some outdated ideas about chansonniers, and provide fresh readings of a number of fascinating lyric corpora."

Kathy M. Krause, University of Missouri, Kansas City | French Review

"This book’s ambitious and salutary aim, signalled in its subtitle, is to study comparatively a variety of lyric manuscripts--mainly Occitan, Castilian, and German--that have received attention separately within national literary historical traditions, but which taken together can be viewed as an important cultural phenomenon in medieval Europe. The argumentation is subtle, stimulating, at times challenging, and it will be of great interest to those working on lyric poetry and on the reception of literary texts in manuscripts."

Thomas Hinton, Durham University | Medium Aevum

"The particular strength of her study is its comparative approach. Modern fascination with troubadours has seldom extended (at least, among literary scholars) to reading in more than one linguistic tradition at a time. So it is exhilarating to find these great treasures of medieval illumination and penmanship, of gothic script and poetic bravura, in the Carmina Burana, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, the German Minnesänger, and the songs of Bernart de Ventadorn, put alongside one another and pondered not singly but collectively. Galvez’s thoughtful and linguistically agile performance as critic provides the reader with a sophisticatedly visualized account of pan-continental ways of writing the lyric down in words and in gilded portraits of poets."

Common Knowledge

“Galvez offers us one of the most detailed studies to date of the process by which an oral genre is transformed through the process of writing. . . . Her observations can help folklorists to begin to come to terms with of this type of material, which is neither strictly oral nor strictly written.”

Journal of Folklore Research

"Numerous works exist on the songbooks of individual vernacular cultures, but none has the comparative range of Marisa Galvez’s Songbook. This book is groundbreaking, erudite, elegant, and sophisticated, and it will be of major importance to medieval and Renaissance scholars of lyric poetry.”

Sarah Kay, New York University

“A landmark of material philology, Songbook presents a vibrantly imaginative voice in medieval studies. Marisa Galvez breaks new ground with this sophisticated analysis of the troubadour chansonnier as an emergent genre of medieval literature. Besides opening new perspectives on the chansonnier as a performative mode, Songbook is the first work to consider the theoretical implications of the poetic codex in relation to medieval lyric poetry generally. It concludes with a fascinating look at how transmission practices influenced the modern reception of medieval lyric and vice versa.”

Stephen G. Nichols, Johns Hopkins University

“A brilliant and comprehensive book. Galvez’s approach is essentially dynamic: she sees medieval songbooks not as a frozen deposit of lyrics, but as a poetic experience, actually as the very process, that generated the idea of the poetry and the image of the poet we still live with.”

Michel Zink, Collège de France and Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Medieval Songbook as Emergent Genre
Chapter One. Paradigms: The Carmina Burana and the Libro de buen amor
Chapter Two. Producing Opaque Coherence: Lyric Presence and Names in Songbooks
Chapter Three. Shifting Mediality: Visualizing Lyric Texts in Songbooks
Chapter Four. Cancioneros and the Art of the Songbook
Conclusion: Songbook Medievalisms


Medieval Academy of America: John Nicholas Brown Prize

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