The Vagantendichtung: The Secular Latin Poetry of the Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages

The Vagantendichtung: The Secular Latin Poetry of the Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages

By David Zakarian

Master’s Thesis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2009)

Introduction: The Middle Ages can undoubtedly be considered to be one of the most important stages in the formation of modern Western civilisation, since it is the very historical period when the national identity of virtually all the contemporary European nations is forged. Despite many a cultural difference, the common Christian religion and Latin – the universal language of education – created a fertile ground for the emergence of an extraordinarily rich literature (both religious and secular), which later, in conjunction with the vernacular tradition, laid the foundations for the national literatures of the Romano-Germanic peoples.

Unfortunately the ensuing turbulent centuries of various socio-political cataclysms, such as wars and revolutions, witnessed the destruction and disappearance of many manuscripts which were meant to keep the precious gems of medieval literature. As a result very scarce, as compared to the actual amount of the material, information is currently available to contemporary scholars who aspire to shed light on the centuries which are conventionally, though erroneously (to my mind), known as the “Dark Ages‟.


In 1927 Charles H. Haskins published one of his most influential studies of the Middle Ages under the title The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, with the obvious intention to stir the minds of European scholars who connected the term “Renaissance‟ primarily with Italy of later centuries. Yet, without doubt, however provocative the title was, it had sound grounds to be applied to the particular period of time in history. Haskins describes this period as one that witnessed “great economic changes,” “the influx of the new learning from the East, the shifting currents in the stream of mediaeval life and thought,” “the mediaeval revival of the Latin classics and of jurisprudence, the extension of knowledge by the absorption of ancient learning and by observation”. All in all, a great social transition took place and it led to a more centralised type of government, the creation of a certain social and ecclesiastical hierarchy, as well as the establishment of a more powerful feudal rule. All these factors, in their turn, created favourable conditions for a spiritual resurgence thus leaving its imprint on the literature of the epoch, both Latin and the budding vernacular ones.

One of the most enchanting pages of the newly-emerged literature that has survived to some extent is the poetry attributed to the so-called “goliards‟ or clerici vagantes, otherwise known as the wandering scholars. The richness of topics and the freshness of the forms of expression that have survived in the manuscript of Cambridge University Library MS Gg. 5.35 of the eleventh century and the very famous thirteenth century Bavarian manuscript widely known as Carmina Burana or Codex Buranum allow us to speak about new peaks in Latin poetry.


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