The Importance Of Ballads In The Middle Ages

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“Nothing, perhaps, serves better as an introduction to the Middle Ages than a glimpse at how it was preserved in verse” (Wallace). This statement, in my opinion, summarizes the importance of ballads for this era very well. As the quote indicates, ballads do not only have their roots in the Middle Ages, but were also of great significance back then, and served a major function, especially for the poor and illiterate (cf. Ólason 137): although not everyone could read or even afford books in those times, literature and the written word gradually gained in importance during the Middle Ages; consequently, an oral tradition established itself, and books were often read to out loud to certain groups of people (cf. ibid.). Reading books to the people, however, was not the only oral tradition; apart from books, there was another way of sharing information with the masses: the ballad, which the folklorist and literary critic Bengt R. Jonsson defines as “a folksong […] in the sense that it is an anonymous song, for which the authorized archetype is unknown. What we have is a greater or smaller number of versions or variants, mainly produced in oral tradition” (140). Whereas written literature retained its importance over the time, the tradition of reciting ballads has become extinct by now. When looking at medieval ballads, however, one will soon realize that sometimes their contents might still sound rather familiar to many people although they are not very well-known nowadays. The
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