The Goliards were a group of clergy who wrote bibulous, satirical Latin poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were mainly clerical students at the universities of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England who protested the growing contradictions within the Church, such as the failure of the Crusades and financial abuses, expressing themselves through song, poetry and performance.
The derivation of the word is uncertain. It may simply come from the Latin gula, gluttony. It was said by them to originate from a mythical "Bishop Golias", a mediæval Latin form of the name Goliath, the giant who fought King David in the Bible, suggestive of their posing as heavy drinking yet learned students who lampooned the ecclesiastical and political establishment. 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. Others support its derivation from gailliard, a "gay fellow".
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 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 and by Chaucer.
- Waddell, Helen, The Wandering Scholars, 1927.
- Symonds, John Addington, Wine, Women, and Song, 1966 .