The goliards were a group of clergy who wrote 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.
The derivation of the word is uncertain. It may simply come from the Latin gula, gluttony. 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". 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. By the 14th century, the word goliard became synonymous with minstrel, no longer referring to this group of clergy.
Origins of the goliardic tradition
The goliardic class began, in large part, as a result of the medieval social convention of primogeniture. This practice of bestowing the rights of inheritance upon the eldest son left younger sons to seek other means by which to support themselves. Often, these younger sons went (or were sent to) the universities or monasteries of the day, where theology and the clergy were a major focus. Many felt no particular affinity for religious office, and many could not secure an office even if they desired one because of an overabundant supply of those educated in theology. Consequently, over-educated, under-motivated clerics often adopted not the life of an ordered monk, but one mainly intent on the pursuit of carnal pleasures.
The goliards, as scholars, often wrote their poetry in Latin. Travelling entertainers, the goliards composed many of their poems to be sung. These poems, or lyrics, focus on two overarching themes: depictions of the lusty lifestyle of the vagrant and satirical criticisms of society and the church. Portraying their lusty lifestyle, the goliards wrote about the physicality of love, in contrast to the chivalric focus of the troubadours. They wrote drinking songs, and reveled in riotous living. Their satirical poems directed at the church grew from what they saw around them, including mounting corruption in monasteries and escalating tensions among religious leaders. As a result of their rebellious writings against the church, the goliards were eventually denied privileges of the clergy. Their strained relationship with the church, along with their vagabond lifestyle, also contributed to many poems describing the complaints of such a lifestyle. One of the largest and most famous collections of goliardic poetry is the Carmina Burana.
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 upon. 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 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.
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