So you want to write a medieval narrative poem…

…the poets of the times were very well read individuals who could demonstrate incredible feats of memory. Many of the most popular stories told in the fourteenth century were well known to every audience. The challenge for the medieval scholar was to re-make the story in an original and memorable way.
The first thing to do is choose the story you want to tell. The best place for a fourteenth century poet to start looking is the Bible. It was the bestselling book of the era, there was very nearly one in every parish in England.
Step two is to decide how the story can be told through local settings, how to bring the story ‘home’ to your audience. The Canterbury Tales did exactly that, bracketing a range of stories within the realms of the everyday.
Step three is all about putting these elements together, how many lines, and the number of stanzas, what rhyme and metre to use. The structure of Pearl is very exact, with rhyming hooks at the beginning and end of each stanza.
Step four is very important. How will the poem sound when performed? The poem Gawain and the Green Knight was written with a ‘bob and wheel’ construction which gave each stanza a mini four short line ‘summing up’ at the end.
Step five already. How memorable is your poem? How much can you, the poet, remember off by heart? What hooks have you employed in order to carry the reciter through from start to finish? Which lines do you want your audience to take away and recite to themselves?
Writing poetry is not an easy job. It is unlikely that it will put very much food on your table today. But if you could turn the clock back seven hundred years, you would find that storytelling poets were the entertainment of the day.

About 14thcenturypoet

Author of The Legend of Zonza, an historical fantasy based on traditional Italian folk tales...
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