Are the ballads medieval?

Traditions consisting of long, narrative songs are found throughout Europe. One type is the (often heroic) epics which are not divided into stanzas and have no refrains. These are common in the eastern and south– eastern parts of Europe; the Finnish epos Kalevala is one example. The other type, dominating in western and central Europe, but existing also in the eastern part, consists of stanzaic songs with couplets or quatrains and usually with a refrain. These stanzaic songs are today termed ”ballads”.

The terminology has changed through the years. Ballads collected in Scandinavia during the Romanticism of the 19th century were mostly termed ”folk songs” in accordance with prevailing ideas about folk culture, folk tales, legends, et cetera, as a kind of collective creations. 20th century Scandinavian ballad scholars increasingly used the term ”medieval ballad”. But how medieval are the ballads?

The ballad form spread throughout large parts of Europe from early modern days. Ballads appear to have been sung in Scandinavia as early as the 13th and 14th centuries – there are traces of ballad texts in the ”Euphemia songs”, chivalrous romances in stanzaic form from the early 14th century.

In use since medieval days

The earliest complete ballad texts documented in Scandinavia are handwritten examples in Danish – and, somewhat later, Swedish – songbooks of the nobility from the 16th and 17th centuries. This suggests that the songs were in use during late medieval and renaissance days. The term ”medieval” refers to the origins of this type of song and to most of the concepts associated with it, but does not apply when we consider each individual ballad – least of all with regard to the melodies, for which we in Sweden have scant documentation prior to the 19th century.

It is also mainly in Scandinavia that the term ”medieval ballad” is used to demarcate these older songs from later stanzaic narrative songs. This is because earlier ballad scholars were chiefly interested in the texts and their origins. Much of the history of the ballad is, however, unknown due to a lack of source material. The ballad is usually said to originate from the poetry of medieval Provence. There are a number of theories regarding the earliest routes as well as the most important routes by which the ballads reached Scandinavia – from the Continent, via Denmark, and/or from the British Isles via Norway. An English term used for roughly the same kind of songs is ”traditional ballad”.

Read more

Colbert, David. The Birth of the Ballad. The Scandinavian Medieval Genre. Stockholm: Svenskt visarkiv 1989.
Jansson, Sven-Bertil. Den levande balladen: medeltida ballad i svensk tradition. Stockholm: Prisma, 1999.

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Skrivet av Musikverket den 12 June, 2017
Nyckelord: Medeltida ballader


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