The Goliards and Vagabond Poets
by Will Fletcher and Rebecca Bailey
Bands of vagabond poets roamed through Europe in the 10th through the 12th centuries. Their work and their way of life came to be associated with a mythical hero named Golias, an amalgam of the "greedy, half-starved reprobates who traveled light with threadbare cloaks and a few staves of Latin verse as their only baggage" (Walsh, 3). Many of their poems are literary tributes to this lifestyle and the vices they enjoy.
They travel from city to city, or more accurately, from center of learning to center of learning, taking knowledge and leaving poems. These men were the epitome of professional students, planting no roots, they had nothing to keep them in one place or another, unless of course they found work. Their career options as learned men were not too wide, the only jobs really open to them were as a cleric or court poet to a magistrate or high officer in the clergy. But, even if they were tied to a place or a patron, they would not give up their vagabond lifestyle; they still felt the draw of the drink and dice, and would often find themselves in trouble because of it. In The Danger of Asking for One's Own, Primas reports an account of a man chasing him out of a boarding house and almost killing him (one can only guess at why). There is also a fine example of the poverty enjoyed by these vagabonds in A Plea for Clothing in which the author begs of a kind lord to "cover up his body."
Those that were clerics enjoyed a certain amount of legal freedom:
Pay no secular taxes
Perform no military service
Not tried in secular courts
Entitled to alms
Not Subject to the death penalty
This allowed them the freedom to speak their minds more freely and to enjoy themselves without fear of extreme legal retribution. But their main concern was neither art nor social change. These poets did not write just to make a living, often they wrote just to stay alive; because of this unique and precarious situation, their poetry mostly reflects their actual lives. Examples of the work of two such clerici vagi (wandering scholars) can be found on our website.