By THLaird Colyne Stewart, for the Trillium War School AS 51 (2016)
General Background Information on Debate Poetry
Various scholars have differing opinions on just what qualifies as a “true” debate poem, but for the purposes of this class a debate poem is any poem wherein two or more different points of view expound on a topic (two or three being the most common). The points of view in debate poetry are expressed by speakers which can be almost anything, including people, inanimate objects, personifications (of emotions, seasons, etc.), or religious figures. Popular pairings were the body and the soul, as well as various avians (the nightingale was used a lot). Medieval people tended to think in binary (as many people still do today), with everything having a polar opposite. This way of thinking fits the debate model very well. If there was a third voice it was often a judge who had been invoked to choose a winner of the debate.
Debate poetry has its roots in the Greek and Roman eclogue. Eclogues were short passages of any genre, including longer poetic works. Ancient writers such as Theocritus (3rd century BCE), Virgil, Ovid, Nemesianus, Calpurnius Siculus all wrote eclogues that would have been available to medieval readers.
Debate poems first appeared in Medieval European literature in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Carolingian Renassaince but reached the height of their popularity from the 12th to the 16th.
Debate poems were written in Latin to begin with. However, in the 13th century they began to appear in several vernacular languages including English, French, Italian and German.
The subject of love in these debates was very popular from the 12th to 15th centuries. Other topics will be discussed below.