Tag Archives: complainte

Death of the Middle English Virelai

Just a quick post to say that my article on a group of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century lyrics which in the past were misidentified as Middle English virelais has been published in Medium Ævum 85.1 (2016).  The poems in question are in fact English versions of various French complainte forms.  The article explains how they came to be misidentified, and discusses the imitation of French forms in English.  It argues that this form was recognisable and had distinctive connotations, meaning that it could be used parodically or ironically in some instances.  You can download a copy of the article here:

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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.

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