Monday 4 July 2016

Medieval Debate Poetry

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.

Types of Debate Poems

As the debate genre flourished, several local versions began to spring up.

Tenso or Tenson (Occitan)

Likely appearing in the 12th century, the tenso was a song of the troubadours and were usually written by two poets. Occasionally the contributing poets would be male and female (especially when the topic was love). Sometimes the poem was only written by a single poet, while the second voice was attributed to an imaginary party (such as God, the poet’s horse, or even the poet’s cloak). If the tenso was only two stanzas long, it was known as a cobla exchange[1]. If the debate is judged by a third party (whose judgement was delivered in a final tornada[2]) the poem was known as a contenson.

Tenzone (Provençal)

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the tenzone was a verbal exchange or debate done in the form of invective (a verbal duel).

Partimen or Partia (Occitan), Partiment (Catalan), Jeux Parties (French)

The partimen also appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries and was considered a subgenre of the tenso.

Unlike a tenso, the first speaker in the partimen presents a problem with two solutions and leaves his opponent to choose which solution to defend and then taking up the second option themselves. Though sometimes based on conviction, often the poem was written simply for the sake of discussion. One of the most common themes in partimen was courtly love. Each speaker (sometimes the same poet, sometimes two different poets) contributed three stanzas and an envoi[3] in which he appeals to someone to be his judge. In some poems the two participants appeal to the same person, but more often each participant chose their own judge.

Pregunta (Spanish)

The pregunta (or requesta), with corresponding respuesta (answer), was a form of poetic debate in the Spanish courts in the late 14th and 15th century. One poet would present his question in a poem, while a second answered in another poem using identical form and rhymes.

Famous Examples

Conflictus Veris et Hiemis (debate between Spring and Winter), Alcuin, 8th century.

De Divisione Naturae (dialogue on the nature of the universe between a master and his disciple), Johannes Scotus, 9th century.

Contest between the Lily and the Rose (Rosae Lilique Certamen), Sedulius Scottus, 9th century.

Als I lay in winteris nyt (The Disputisoun bitwen þe Bodi and þe Soule), 10th century

The Owl and the Nightingale, a parody of the genre with the debaters basing their arguments on bias rather than logic, 12th century.

Debate of Phyllis and Flora (Altercatio Phyllidis et Florae), in the Carmina Burana, 12th century. Two speakers debate whose lover is better (the knight or the cleric). The God of love judges the cleric to be the better.

The Tenso of Blacatz and Peire Vidal, 12th century. A debate on the nature of love.

Council of Remiremont, 12th century. Nuns debate on the subject of love.

Dialogue Between Water and Wine, Walter Map, late 12th or early 13th century. A debate between Thetis (goddess of waves) and Lyaeus (god of wine).

Dialogue Between the Body and the Soul, Walter Map, late 12th or early 13th century.

The Thrush and the Nightingale, 13th century, debating the worth of women.

Dialogues Miraculorum (between a monk and a novice), Caesarius of Heisterbach, late 12th or early 13th century.

The Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer,  14th century. Three male eagles debate over who would make the worthier mate. Mother Nature judges that the female eagle is free to choose not to choose any of them.

The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,  14th century, on love (with the nightingale mocking it).

The Merle and the Nightingale (romantic love versus love of God), 15th century.

Ackermann aus Bohmen (between Death and a plowman), Johann von Tepl, 15th century.

Excerpt from Conflictus Veris et Hiemis (debate between Spring and Winter), Alcuin, 8th century.

Spring. And what are you that throw your blame on him ?
That huddle sluggish in your half-lit caves
After your feasts of Venus, bouts of Bacchus ?

Winter. Riches are mine and joy of revelling,
And sweet is sleep, the fire on the hearth stone.
Nothing of these he knows, and does his treasons.

Spring. Nay, but he brings the flowers in his bright bill,
And he brings honey, nests are built for him.
The sea is quiet for his journeying,
Young ones begotten, and the fields are green.

Winter. I like not these things which are joy to you.
I like to count the gold heaped in my chests;
And feast, and then to sleep, and then to sleep.

Spring. And who, thou slug-a-bed, got thee thy wealth?
And who would pile thee any wealth at all,
If spring and summer did not toil for thee?

Winter. Thou speakest truth; indeed they toil for me.
They are my slaves, and under my dominion.
As servants for their lord, they sweat for me.

Spring. No lord, but poor and beggarly and proud.
Thou couldst not feed thyself a single day
But for his charity who comes, who comes!

The Tenso of Blacatz and Peire Vidal, 12th century.


I. Peire Vidal, since I have decided to compose a tenso,
do not be angry if I ask you, first of all,
why you have such a venal sense
in many matters which do not profit you,
but in poetry you have such knowledge and talent;
he who, in old age continues to wait
after spending his youth in such a way,
he has acquired less wealth than if he had never been born.

Peire Vidal

II. Blacatz, I do not appreciate your song,
for never have you debated so unconvincingly;
that I possess a good, refined and natural intelligence
in all matters, for this I am justly recognized.
And since I have placed my love and my youth
in the best and most worthy lady,
I do not wish to lose the rewards or favours,
for he who gives up is base and unworthy.


III. Peire Vidal, I do not wish to pursue your argument
with my lady, who is so worthy,
for I wish to serve her equally every day,
and I like her to give me a reward;
I leave the long wait without joy to you,
what I want is enjoyment,
for you should well know that a long wait without joy
is joy lost, never to be recovered.

Peire Vidal

IV. Blacatz, I am not made like this,
like you others who care little for love.
I want to do a good days work to be well lodged,
and to do a long service to receive a noble gift.
The pure lover does not change so often
nor does a good lady consent to it.
It is not love but obvious deception
if today you request love and tomorrow you abandon it.[5]

Practical Exercise

Students should work in pairs to write a debate poem of their own, in the style of the tenso or partimen.  
Students will define the following before they begin:

1.       The topic for debate.
2.       Will the topic be introduced in a neutral stanza, or will the first poet’s first stanza present the issue?
3.       How many stanzas each poet will write.
4.       Will each poets stanzas be grouped together or will the poem jump from one poet to the next (as in The Tenso of Blacatz and Peire Vidal)?
5.       What kind of stanza structure will be used? What meter? (As this is a practical exercise taking place in a class session, I would suggest that only advanced students worry about using specific meters or stanza forms, while others simply use rhyming couplets or 8 or 10 syllables.)
6.       Will judges be invoked? The same judge, or separate judges?
7.       Will the judge write his verdict (such as in the tenso)?


Burt, Kathleen R., "Argument in Poetry: (Re)Defining the Middle English Debate in Academic, Popular, and Physical Contexts" (2014). Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 366. Web: (accessed June 14, 2016)

Cartlidge, Neil, “Medieval Debate-Poetry and The Owl and the Nightingale”.  Saunders, Corinne, ed. A Companion to Medieval Poetry. Wiley-Blackwell: West Sussex, 2010. Web: (accessed June 14, 2016)

Cayley, Emma. Debate and Dialogue: Alain Chartier in his Cultural Context. Oxford University Press: New York, 2006.

Reale, Nancy M., “Debate Poetry, Medieval European”. Encyclopedia of Medieval Poetry. Lambden, Robert Thomas and Laura Cooner Lambdin, eds. Routledge: New York, 2000. Web: (accessed June 14, 2016)

Rytting, Jenny Rebecca, " A Disputacioun Betwyx þe Body and Wormes: A Translation”.  Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 31(1). 2000. Web: (accessed June 14, 2016)

Vidal, Peire. The Songs of Peire Vidal. Fraser, Veronica M., trans. Peter Lang, Germany, 2006.

[1] A cobla was a stanza.
[2] A shorter, final stanza.
[3] A concluding stanza.
[5] Peire Vidal: 246-248.

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