By Dave Henderson
PhD Dissertation, University of Missouri, 2008
Abstract: Since the only consistent feature of medieval English begging poems is the fact that they beg, usually for funds due, the form cannot quite be considered a genre. However, the relationships between poets and patrons that provide motivation for the poems’ composition have a variety of things in common, primary among them being the social disparity between poet and patron and the overall nature of the social structure that defines that disparity. In the case of the Old English poems, the social structure is termed the comitatus; in the Middle English poems, it is the affinity, the medieval Church, and the workplace. By taking note of poets, patrons, and the transactional nature of poetry that begs, narratives can be constructed that illuminate how begging poems came to be written, as well as the success or failure of their object. Each chapter constructs one or more such narratives.
Introduction: This study will examine in some detail the purposes and practices of medieval English begging poetry. A begging poem, loosely defined, is a short poem that makes a request for compensation in the form of money or goods and implicitly or explicitly identifies the supplicant as well as the party to whom the request is directed. At the outset, let me emphasize that the preceding (loose) definition is not a first attempt at defining a genre. Begging poems tend to be sufficiently dissimilar in style and technique to militate against the formulation of an organic critical construct complete with genesis, evolution, and characteristic forms and content. In fact, poems that beg can perhaps be more comprehensively understood if we consider poetic begging as a trope, the use of embellished language as an enabling medium rather than as a generic marker.
Although no overarching theory will be specified, my analysis suggests that there is a consistent and productive methodology for studying this peculiar industry. The foundation upon which my analysis will be built is the relationship between poet and patron. It is clear that the typical medieval poet needed patronage of some kind if he intended to support himself, even in part, with his art. Thus, our study of begging poetry takes us straight to the heart of a process, an exchange, that was essential to the production of a very significant proportion of medieval poetry. By focusing upon the social contract prevailing between poet and patron, then building upon this foundation by recourse to the literary, historical, anthropological, and other resources available to us, we can gain a more thorough understanding of the way in which the business of poetry was transacted in England in the Middle Ages. At the outset, we will recognize that our approach is not particularly reusable or portable. Each poet (and sometimes, each poem as well) must be considered in the light of the circumstances pertaining to its inspiration, composition, and dissemination.