How Rhyme Made Its Way into Medieval Europe


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Rhyme was an essential feature of Arabic communication, instrumental not just for sung or chanted verse but for a range of other narrative genres. The entire Qur’an, to take the most monumental example, is couched in a form of rhyming prose known as Saj’, and so is the famous collection of folktales known as One Thousand and One Nights.

Cassim in the cave, by Maxfield Parrish, 1909, from the story Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
One Thousand and One Nights is a well-known collection of folktales, couched in a form of rhyming. (Image: Arabian Nights/Public domain)

Rhyme in Western Works

It is noteworthy that rhyme only became an important feature of Hebrew poetry in the centuries after the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of what turned out to be a permanent Jewish diaspora. Indeed, Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic (all closely related Semitic languages) were probably trading influences throughout the early Middle Ages.

Prior to these developments, rhyme was only occasionally employed in Western literary works to add emphasis or color to a phrase or passage, but it was never fundamental. 

Like classical Hebrew, both Greek and Latin relied on meter, rhythm, and alliteration for their aesthetic effects. One significant exception is the ditty with which the Roman poet Catullus dedicated his first libellus (or “booklet”) to the historian Cornelius Nepos, in the mid-1st century BCE. But the very fact that these couplets are both satirical and self-deprecating suggests that the Romans considered rhyme to be childish and silly.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70.
Rhyme became a feature of Hebrew poetry in the centuries after the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem. (Image: David Roberts/Public domain)

To give you a flavor:

Cúi dono lepidum novum libellum         

áridá modo pumic’ expolitum?

Corneli tibi—namque tu solebas

me-as ess’aliquid putare nugas.

To whom do I dedicate this nice new little tome,

Just now rubbed clean with a dry pumice stone?

Cornelius, to you, because you’ve always thought

That all my nonsense was worth it, no matter what.

Chanson de Roland

It’s ironic—perhaps even tragic—that medieval Christians were learning the Arabic art of rhyme at the very time when Christian warlords were beginning the so-called reconquest of Muslim Spain. 

Although it was not written down until after 1100, in the immediate aftermath of the First Crusade, the Arabic-influenced rhyme-scheme of the Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) had its origins in a centuries-long oral tradition that commemorated the feats of the Frankish king Charlemagne. 

Roland’s epic verse is composed of hard-driving ten-syllable lines, each featuring a strong caesura in the middle, organized into stanzas of laisses which share the same vowel sound. 

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The Glories of Douce France

In the oldest manuscript, copied in Anglo-Norman England in the early part of the 12th century—a further irony, for a poem that celebrates the glories of douce France, “sweet France”—many of these laisses end with a mysterious acronym, AOI, which scholars have never deciphered and which might be a signal for the performer to supply a musical interlude at those junctures.

Here’s the opening laisse:

Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes

set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:

Tresqu’en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.

N’i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;

Mur ne citet n’i est remés a fraindre

Fors Saraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.

Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen amet,

Mahumet serte Apollin recleimet:

Nes poet guarder que mals ne l’i ateignet. AOI.

Charles the King, our Emperor Charlemagne,

For seven years has been away in Spain,

From sea to sea he’s conquered the terrain

And in his path no castles can remain,

No wall or fort is left to be reclaimed

Save Saragossa, high above the plain:

Marsilie’s holding, a king who God defames;

Muhammad serves, Apollo he proclaims.

But that alone won’t shield him from his shames. AOI

And yet, for all its vilification of the Saracens as pagans who worship an unholy trinity composed of Muhammad, Apollo, and a demon called Tervagant, Roland never depicts these rivals as politically, culturally, or even ethnically different from their Frankish counterparts—a tacit acknowledgment that these traits, like rhymed versification, can be shared.

Other Products of the Crusades

Within decades after that these earliest surviving romance songs began circulating in textual forms, rhyme was becoming indispensable to Latin and Germanic poetry as well. Two early examples are, like Roland, products of the crusades.

Pious German warriors chanted this hymn while they marched along:

In Gotes namen fara wir,

seyner genaden gara wir,

Nu heff uns dié gotes kraft

und das helig grab,

dá got selber ynne lag.

In God’s name are we wayfaring

And in his grace we’re traveling.

Now God’s might help us all today

And his holy grave,

Where God himself was laid.

Meanwhile, Latin propagandists adopted a similar martial cadence to rally more soldiers to the cause of liberating the Holy City:

Jerusalem mirabilis

urbs beatior aliis,

quam permanens obtalis,

gaudéntibus te angelis.

Illic debemus pergere   

nostros honores vendere

templum dei adquiere

Sarracenos destruere.

Jerusalem the marvelous

above all cities beauteous

more everlasting glorious

angels praise you, marvelous.

There we’ll go with one accord,

and sell our lands for this reward:

to win the Temple of the Lord

and put the pagans to the sword.

Embracing the new Vernacular of Rhyme

Surprisingly, rhyme did not become a structural feature of medieval Greek poetry until the pioneering work of Stephanos Sahlikis, a layman from Crete who wrote satirically about local affairs during the latter half of the 14th century. 

Elsewhere in the eastern Roman Empire, imitation of the metrical, non-rhyming verse-forms of Homer and other classical poets remained an important marker of elite status and good taste. It was only after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, in 1453, that Geek poets embraced the new vernacular of rhyme.

From this point until the second half of the 19th century, when a few mavericks like Walt Whitman began to experiment with free verse, rhyme was considered to be a nearly indispensable feature of Western poetics—with the exception of some metrical forms, like blank verse, which became the poetics of the English playhouse beginning in the 1560s.

Common Questions about How Rhyme Made Its Way into Medieval Europe

Q: What is the origin of rhyme?

As an essential feature of Arabic communication, rhyme was not just for sung or chanted verse but for a range of other narrative genres; such as Qur’an.

Q: On which occasions was rhyme used before becoming a significant feature in Hebrew poetry?

It was employed in Western literary works. They used rhyme whenever they wanted to add emphasis or color to a phrase or passage, although it was never fundamental.

Q: What did classical Hebrew, Greek, and Latin have in common when it came to rhyme?

These all relied on meter, rhythm, and alliteration for their aesthetic effects. Although it somehow seems that Romans considered rhyme to be childish and silly.

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