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Medieval Ballads

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Medieval Ballads are a specific branch of Medieval Music and the Folk Song genre. As the name suggests, the form originated in Europe in medieval times, most probably during The High Middle Ages, around the late 13th or early 14th century. The songs and styles cover a number of topics, and the most common themes, like The Twa Sisters, are found all over the North Sea. The Twa Sisters is by far the most popular, as the song is documented all over the area, from Iceland (Hörpukvædi) to Sweden (Systrarna), Denmark (Den förtrollade fiolen), and, Norway, where a number of related versions are found. This particular song is even found in Finland. A Norwegian version traditionally sung: click here. Not much is known about what instrumental accompaniment was used for medieval ballads, but paintings from the era suggest that lute (a guitar family instrument) players, vihuela (a Spanish guitar family instrument that could be plucked or bowed) players performed with singers.


People were once at odds about where and when the ballad form originated. It was clear that the style owed a lot to French medieval romances and Arthurian Legend, but something didn't add up. Eventually, scholars agreed upon it originating at the court of Norwegian king Hakon V, who died in 1319. Thus, the place the style was invented was actually Oslo, at the fortress of Akershus, and in the courts of the king. Development came gradually, but the dance tunes at the Norwegian court became high fashion in the late 13th century, as the king held his court in town and had good contact with France. By 1310, this chivalric style spread out and became high fashion. Most of this can be credited to the Norwegian queen, who saw to it that a lot of French romances were translated. This trend had actually florished as early as in the 1260s, when a good portion of European literature came in Norse translations. Much of this material contributed to the ballad style.

Later, in the 1500s Danish collectors gathered a large body of songs as performed in Denmark, and those books were popular at the Danish court in the time of King Christian IV. In Denmark, the ballad was never forgotten, and at this point in time, English and Scottish ballads also florished (see the Child Ballads). In Norway, declining into a Medieval Stasis, the songs fell out of fashion when new instrumental music came in use, but they were still sung as epics, and never actually forgotten.


In the romantic nationalist movements, folk music was considered interesting, and about 1853, Norwegian priest Magnus Brostrup Landstad wrote and edited a whole lot of them, careful to keep the old pronunciations and styles in the dialects. This book became a breakthrough for more collectors, allowing comparative cultural research and giving the scholars opportunities to compare the English, the Danish, the Norwegian and the Swedish material. The Faroe Islands became particularly interesting, because the people there also danced, and still dance, to their songs, as they apparently have done for hundreds of years. Norwegian enthusiasts who wished to "revive" a long lost tradition, found their clues there, and began a whole new way of performing the songs, also using more recent melodies.

Because of immigration, the style was headed for America, and thus the strain of "Appalachian ballads" emerged.


The Medieval Ballads have a number of subgroups, not all of them chivalric, some of them rather nonsensical:

  • The "real" chivalry ballads, concerning a Knight in Shining Armor, and dames in high towers.
  • The "troll ballads". Most of those are found in Norway, concern pagan heroes, and recycle elements from Norse Mythology. Even the god Thor gets cameos. The heroes fight trolls.
  • Ballads of abduction and "natural myth": concerning The Fair Folk and abduction, mostly the Mountain King getting a girl from a human community, or a knight or suitor pissing off an elf maiden. Murder ballads feature here, because the abductor is often a secondary world power. In Norway, the heroine gets the better of him; in the US, he gets the better of her (Pretty Polly).
  • Religious Ballads or "saintly stories", often concerning the Virgin Mary. The greatest ballad to be found, the "dream ballad" (Draumkvedet), stands out, as this is equivalent of The Divine Comedy, sung in ballad metre. It was first written down in a secluded area of Telemark, and the song was found only there. The source was a 19 year old girl, who had learned the song from her father.
  • Animal stories and joking songs. Like Frog Went a-Courtin', or stories of wooing insects, or of a beast so huge (twenty feet long and forty feet wide) that the killing of it is a feat in itself, or stories of people who are complete jerkasses, or social satire.

Related Material

The ballad style serves as a "father" to "staff" (stev) singing in Norway, particularly the "old staves" (gamalstev), who share the rythmic pattern with the ballad. Sometimes, single verses can double as staves and as ballad verses. This is very common in the Telemark area. Melodies are abundant as the ballads were sung all over the country.


The ballad comes in different metres and with different refrains. The staff variety comes in four lines, with or without refrains. This variety is found all over the North Sea area.

A second variety has two lines and an ending refrains, while a third would put a repeating phrase in between the lines, and an ending to boot. Sometimes, one line is repeated twice with a follow up line in the end, without any refrains. Mostly, the repeated lines refer to dancing ("My maiden dances in the meadow").

The ballads are stock full of formulas, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness. This makes the songs easy to memorize, but may also be bit bewildering.

The song tradition contains tropes like these:

  • The Ace: Heming. Stated in tradition to be the best skier ever. And he usually outwits the trolls, and the king.
  • Canon Immigrant: Yvain, hailing from Arthurian Legend, is the main character (and occasional Butt-Monkey) in a number of Scandinavian ballads.
  • Cliché Storm: Not surprising, when you consider the ballads rely heavily on formulas. Over time, the formulaic mode got stale, with rather surreal results.
  • Downer Ending: The ballads of abduction seldom ends well for the abducted. The chivalric ballads usually ends with death.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sir Ridderval kills himself finding his spouse dead with their newborn sons. Grisilla kills herself after being confronted with the knight she betrayed. The bride of sir Olav (herr Oluf in Denmark) kills herself finding him dead.
  • Empathic Weapon: Features prominently in the ballad of The Avenging Sword, where Alv, the protagonist, is finding the man who killed his father. The sword goes batshit and slashes out to almost everyone present, until Alv begs it to stop in the name of Jesus. The sword then halts, and responds: "Had you not mentioned that holy name, I would have taken your heart blood as well..."
  • Historical Domain Character: Several Norwegian kings: Harald Fairhair, Olav the holy (many songs cast him in a magical role). The virgin Mary also joins in several times.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Bendik and Årolilja good and proper.
  • World of Ham: Pretty much a staple.

My maiden is dancing in the meadow