Category Archives: glossary

dit, dit(i)e and ditee

dit, dit(i)e and ditee (noun)

The various dictionary entries give a sense of the overlap between these terms, and also the range of general and specific meanings they can communicate.  The Oxford English Dictionary separates dite (meaning ‘something said or put in writing’ or ‘a poem or song’) from ditty (meaning ‘lyrics for singing’, ‘birdsong’ and ‘a poem’).  The Middle English Dictionary likewise has dit (‘a poem’) and dite (‘literary composition’, ‘poem, song’).  Both words are borrowed into English from French.  The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français has dit (meaning both ‘thing said/written’ and ‘a poem’) and dité or ditié (meaning both ‘a poem’ and also ‘the text of a song as opposed to its music’); the Anglo-Norman Dictionary likewise has both dit (‘saying’, ‘tale’) and dit(i)é (‘poem’, ‘story’, ‘writing’, ‘song’).  The trilingual Magnus Cato in the Vernon manuscript translates Latin carmen with dit in French and dite in English, showing their equivalence as terms for verse.

Chaucer doesn’t call his own works dites, though the Eagle in the House of Fame acknowledges that Chaucer has made ‘bookys, songes, dytees, / In ryme or elles in cadence in praise of Love and lovers.  The Eagle presents Chaucer as the stereotype of the young love poet, and Gower uses exactly these terms (‘ditees…songes glade’) when Venus describes Chaucer’s youthful service at the end of the Confessio.  I suspect that both Chaucer and Gower use ditee somewhat ironically and somewhat tautologically: generic terms to indicate the generic forms of juvenilia, from which Chaucer is moving on in the House of Fame. Continue reading dit, dit(i)e and ditee


cadence (noun)

In medieval Latin prose cursus composition, cadences are the patterns of long and short vowels in words and phrases at the ends of clauses.  The Libellus de arte dictandi rhetorice (by ?Peter of Blois, 1182/3) records that the notaries of the Roman Curia call their cursus clause endings ‘cadencias’, i.e. cadences.  An Oxford treatise on the art of letter-writing says that ‘cadencia could not be anything other than the final closure of clauses or phrases, and especially of words’ [cadencia nichil aliud esse poterit nisi distinccionis vel scissure et precipue diccionum finalis clausura] (Summa dictandi, trans. Cornelius). Continue reading cadence

two, four, six, eight, a stanza to appreciate…

The popularity of seven-line rhyme royal stanzas in late medieval and early Tudor verse means that it’s easy to overlook eight-line stanzas, especially those rhyming ababbcbc.  This verse form doesn’t really have a name in Middle English, though eight-line stanzas are sometimes called ballades (meaning a discrete stanza unit such as that used in the French fixed-form lyric, in contrast to verse in couplets or long lines), a word that is also used for stanzas of seven or nine lines.  Fifteenth-century French arts of poetry call this rhyme-scheme ‘double croisée’, meaning that the rhymes cross over each other twice.

Continue reading two, four, six, eight, a stanza to appreciate…


staff noun, staves (plural)

In Old English stæf means both ‘staff’ or ‘stick’ and also an individual alphabetic character.  By extension, it also refers to letters or to writing.  These meanings continue into early Middle English, with Orm calling individual letters ‘an staff’ and Layamon calling engraved writing ‘boc-stauen’ and ‘run-stauen’.  By the mid-fifteenth century, the word emerges as a term for either a line of verse or a whole stanza.  This re-emergence may be a semantic calque on the term bastoun (meaning both ‘stick, staff’ and ‘bundle’, and also ‘line’ and ‘stanza’), used in earlier Middle English and in later continental French for both ‘line’ and ‘stanza’.  The word staf in Middle English means ‘stick’, ‘staff’, ‘club’ and ‘rung of a ladder’, as well as being used for a line of verse or a bundle of lines in a stanza.

The author of a mid-fifteenth-century English collection of proverbs based on Nicole de Bozon’s Proverbes de bon enseignment, the Summum sapientie or Liber proverbium, uses the term to talk about the number of lines in a stanza.  In an epilogue addressed to his unnamed patron, the author says that he has translated from the French as carefully as he can ‘All be it the frenssh in foure staves be, / The ynglissh sevyn kepith in degree’ [albeit that the French text is in four-line groups, whilst the English adheres to seven in its order].  He acknowledges the amplification of his source’s French quatrains required by his preferred rhyme royal. Continue reading staff

poesie and poetrie

poesie and poetrie, both nouns

Glending Olson, in his 1979 essay ‘Making and Poetry in the Age of Chaucer’, showed that poetry in the later Middle Ages predominantly meant writing about ‘classical lore’ (p. 278), often writing metaphorically and allegorically, an activity with moral and philosophical purpose.  This definition of poetrie is confirmed in Sarah Kay and Adrian Armstrong’s 2011 discussion of verse and poetrie in Knowing Poetry: Verse in Medieval France from the ‘Rose’ to the ‘Rhétoriqueurs’ (pp. 9–13).  Kay and Amstrong define poetry as ‘a style of writing that relies on figural complexity, and is potentially expressive of philosophical meaning […] The features that typify poetrie are the use of classical myths, sustained personification, or forms of extended metaphor: devices constitutive of what we might call allegory’ (p. 9).  Poetry doesn’t thus refer to verse form (Christine de Pisan can write poetry in prose, for example) but to a particular type of content and mode. Continue reading poesie and poetrie

refrain and refreit

refrain and refreit (also refreid), both nouns

Refrain in Middle French refers to the repeated chorus of a dance-song or carol.  Hence it also refers to the repeated section of music and words which begins a virelai and to the repeated final line and section of melody at the end of a stanza in a ballade.  The French poet Eustache Deschamps, in his 1392 L’Art de dictier, uses it interchangeably with rubrique (rubriche, rebriche) which he also uses to mean ‘refrain’.  As poets begin to write non-musical lyrics, refrain comes to refer to the repeated line or lines of a lyric.

The Anglo-Norman Dictionary has the form refrait used to refer to repeated sections in liturgical singing.  It is also used figuratively to refer to the burden of a discourse, the prevailing sentiment (i.e. the thing which is repeated over and again, like a musical refrain or a piece of repeated liturgy).  Refrain doesn’t seem to be used widely in Middle English, with the form refreit being preferred.  Charles d’Orleans, translating one of his French poems into English, uses ‘refrayt’ where the French original has ‘refrain’. Continue reading refrain and refreit


complainte (noun), also compleinte

Complainte usually designates content rather than form: the expression of grief, pain and suffering, a lamentation, a petition or list of grievances.  Complaints appear as speeches within longer works or as stand-alone poems.  Complaint is recognised as a literary register or genre having its own styles and conventions.  Chaucer tells us that Damian in the Merchant’s Tale writes about his unrequited love in a letter ‘[i]n manere of a compleynt or a lay’, which might specify the letter’s form or content or both (see also the entry on lai).

The complaint section of Chaucer’s Complaint of Mars begins with a statement of what the ‘order of compleynt’ requires in terms of its content, again suggesting a particular set of genre-expectations.  Chaucer’s triple ballade, the Complaint of Venus, calls itself ‘this complaint or this lay’, indicating these terms could be used generally about the content of a poem even if in another form.  Dorigen’s complaint in the Franklin’s Tale (labelled as such by the narrator both before and after she speaks) is not distinguished from the rest of the narrative  by a change of form.

Continue reading complainte


virelai (noun), also virelay

(NB this post has been improved and corrected thanks to some very helpful advice from Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach, who kindly but firmly educated me in the core structure of the French virelai)

The word virelai appears in Middle English in lists of examples of lyric forms for love poetry, often lists translating or imitating similar lists in French poetry.  Aurelius, in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, laments his unrequited love for Dorigen in ‘manye layes, / Songes, compleintes, roundels, virelayes’.  Alceste, in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, tells the God of Love that Chaucer himself has written hymns for the God of Love’s feast days in various forms: ‘balades, roundels, virelayes’. Continue reading virelai


lai (noun), also laylaye, lei

Before I attempt this glossary entry, I concede that there is no wittier definition of lai than that by Jonathan Hsy on Twitter:

As per its Middle English Dictionary entry, lai in Middle English can refer to a short romance narrative of love and adventure, the Breton lai of the Franklin’s Tale.  It can also mean both ‘song’ and ‘birdsong’.  In medieval French, lai can also refer to a type of lyric.  Barbara K Altmann, in an essay on ‘Guillaume de Machaut’s Lyric Poetry’ in A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut, ed. McGrady and Bain, defines it as follows: ‘It is elaborate in its structure, generally consisting, in the work of Machaut and his followers, of 12 strophes, each one heterometric (i.e. composed of lines of different lengths) and internally divided into two or four sections.  Each strophe is different from the others, with the exception that the last one mirrors exactly the format of the verse’ (p. 322). Continue reading lai


fitt (noun), also fytte, fytt

Fitt is used in the Old English translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae to mean ‘song, verse’.  It re-emerges in Middle English as a term for a subdivision of a poem or romance.  Fitt divisions are the subject of a very useful article by Phillipa Hardman, to which this glossary entry is indebted.

1.  Fitt can refer to a subdivision of a long alliterative poem, an equivalent of Latin passus and used interchangeably with Middle English pas. These subdivisions often correspond to chapter or book divisions in these poems’ Latin or French sources. The term is used by the narrator to announce the end of such sections in the Wars of Alexander (1361 x circa 1450) and the Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy (?later 15thC), often in a single brief concluding line (e.g. ‘And now fynes here a fitt & folows anothire’, WA, 5752). Continue reading fitt