Medieval Galician lyric poetry



Jorge Pulpeiro

Chronology: (from 1198 to 1354)

Secular Galician medieval verse lasted from the late twelfth century until 1354, the year of the death of Don Pedro, Count of Barcelos, and the last patron of this type of poetry. We must bear in mind that a poetic tradition does not vanish overnight, but rather requires a progressive process of disapperance.

From a literary point of view we can divide Galician medieval lyrics in four periods:

  • 1200-1225: originated in the Occitan trobadour poetry.
  • 1225-1250: fixation of the three main genres by the Galician and north Portugal nobility, after the adoption and reelaboration of the Occitan poetry.
  • 1250-1300 (splendor period): active trobadour poetry generation by the royal court of Alfonso X, Sancho IV of Castile, Alfonso III and Dinís of Portugal.
  • 1300-1354 (decadence period): an over-use and depletion of the model starts a creative decadence period which is enhanced by the absence of a king for encouraging it. Other socio-historical problems affected it too, like the Black Death and the lack of interest by the aristocracy.

Geographical area:

The medieval Galician lyric poety was born in the different kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula with the exception of Catalonia. The court of Leon is the centre where we can situate the influence that the Occitan poets exercised on the Galician-Portuguese ones. The main courts will be those of Castile Alfonso X and Portugal D. Dinís.

Most of the poets are Galician and Portuguese, but there are also some from Provence, Aragon, Castile, and so on. The Portuguese represent 50%, the Galicians 40%, the Castilians 5%, those from Leon, Aragon and Seville 1%. From Provence we know Picandon and Arnaut and from Italy Bonifaz de Genua. All of them employed the Galician-Portuguese language, in fact this was the lyric code of the Peninsula in this period excepting Catalonia. A writer from the 15th century, called Marqués de Santillana, said: “No far away every poet, could it be from Castile, Andalucia, Extremadura, all their songs were written in Galician or Portuguese”.


TROBADOR (troubadour)

this word comes from Provençal culture. Galician medieval troubadours were not always, like those from Provence, from noble origin. So we have kings like Afonso X or D. Dinís who practised the art for their own pleasure and, once they have composed the text, they bring it to a "xograr" (jongleur) to be interpreted. They could even have a jongleur at their own service.

There was also a good number of them who came from low social levels. Those lived off that profession and they were paid by the audience.

The troubadours were often the authors of the songs, although they didn’t always interpret them. When they did it, it used to be in special scenes like courts or church porches.

XOGRAR (jongleur)

we can distinguish two different kinds. Some of them made their performances on the streets of small towns and they were paid for it by the audience; others worked for the king’s or a nobleman’s court.

He used to be a companion of the trobadour who interpreted, with music or with his voice, the different songs composed by the troubadour. But they often were the composers too. Their social origin used to be humble.


this artist is specific of the Galician lyric. Some critics affirm that there was no difference between them and troubadour or jongleur but others think that this is an intermediate figure between them. They were people that earned money for their job of singing and composing and they belonged to the low nobility.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the “segrel” was called “menestrel”. They were responsible for the musical part of the song.


they were women that accompanied the jongleurs and sang, danced or played musical instruments. They usually had bad reputation and were accused of dubious morality. In the songs they were mentioned in an obscene way, talking about their sexual life and not about the artistic quality of their performances. The most famous one was María Pérez, known by the nickname of “A Balteira”.

Genres and features

Main genres


Song of a friend / song of women in love:

A girl voice (all the ditties are written by men) expresses happiness or sadness about her lover. The word "amigo" (friend) is used to refer to him. This is the main feature of this genre. This "friend" isn´t always called directly. Very often the girl can talk to an unknown listener or to the natural elements. In other songs she can talk with her mother or with a real friend. We´ve got three themes:

  • Panegyric: When she talks about her own beauty or the great ability to make poetry about her "friend".
  • Requited or unrequited love: The girl talks about her happiness or sadness depending on how their relationship is doing.
  • Ban: It`s defined by the banning of the lovers’ meeting. It can be because of her mother or major causes like war or nature.

In the poetic resources we´ve got:

  • Refrain: one or two verses are repeated at the end of each stanza.
  • Parallelism: repeating stanzas in pairs making little variations between them.
  • "Leixaprén" (take and leave): it’s the repetition of the second verse of the first stanza in the first verse of the third stanza; the second of the second in the first of the fourth, and so on.


Song of love/ song of men in love:

It´s quite similar to the song of a friend but it has a male voice. It has a Provençal "cançó" origin. The man talks to his beloved, using the term "senhor" (sir), or to an unkown listener, friends, God or to the feeling itself. He can ask for her love or complain about her indifference. The themes are:

  • Praise of the lady: her beauty or morals are praised.
  • The poet’s love for the lady.
  • The coldness of the lady: secrecy of the relationship, the ban to talk to or to see the lady, the rejection of or indifference about the man.
  • Pain of love: we can find mourning, madness or death for love.

There are two types in this genre:

  • Song with refrain, quite similar to the song of a friend
  • Master song: it doesn’t have a refrain, there are stanzas with six or seven verses and it has more poetic resources.

Poetic resources:

  • "Dobre" (double): repeating a word or group of words in symmetrical positions of one stanza.
  • "Mordobre": it comes from the previous, it repeats in symmetrical positions the same lexeme with diferent morphemes.
  • "Finda": two or three verses at the end of the poem used as a conclusion.
  • "Cobras capcaudadas": the first verse of the second stanza repeats the rhyme of the last verse of the first stanza.
  • "Cobras capfinidas": when the first verse of the second stanza takes a word or group of words from the last verse of the previous.
  • "Cobras capdenais": when two or more "cobras" have verses starting with the same word.


Song of mockery and vilification / song of ridicule:

In this genre the troubadours want to hurt somebody. They have many ways: the cowardice of the noble in the war, their vices and manners, attacks between poets.... We can divide them in:

  • "Aldraxe": it can be affront, dispute and raffle, punishment...
  • Food: it ridicules misery and greed.
  • Social controversy: it involves all sectors and social groups.
  • Obscene: it talks about erotic practices and sexual organs.

They are classified in political satire, moral satire, social and personal satire and literary satire.

The poetic resources are:

  • "Equivoco" (ambiguity): it uses double meaning words to provoke laughter.
  • Irony: it affirms the opposite of what you´re thinking.

Minor genres

  • The "pastorela": It describes the meeting of a shepherdess and a knight. The keyword is "pastor" (shepherd).
  • The "pranto": They lament someone’s death.
  • The "tenzón": Dialogated ditty , almost always satirical.
  • The "cantiga de seguir" (following song): ironic or parodic composition where one poet starts and another has to complete it following the previous form and rhyme.
  • Religious songs: "Cantigas de Santa María" written by King Afonso X, The Wise (Songs of St. Mary/ Songs of Holy Mary):
  • Liric songs:

"Loores": it praises the Virgin.

"Festas" (festivals): they tell the story of different points in the life of the Virgin and Christ.

"Maias" (Mays): it celebrates the coming of the month of May.


All of these 427 songs are an adaptation of the song of love to the divine. So the Virgin is called "senhor" and all of it praises the Virgin’s virtues.

The majority of the conserved songs come from three songbooks:

Songbook of "Ajuda"

Manuscript from the 13th century, the only one from the troubadours time. Discovered in the Portuguese palace of "Ajuda", it has 300 songs of love.

Songbook of the Vatican Library

Manuscript from the beginnings of the 16th century, discovered in the Vatican Library. It contains 1200 songs of the three main genders with the authors’ names.

Songbook of the National Library of Lisbon

Copied in the 16th century, currently in the library which gives it its name. It contains 1600 songs of all the genres and a valuable poetic treaty "Arte de Trovar" (Troubadourism art), which explains the techniques of song composition.

Other minor songbooks are the following ones:

Songbook of Berkeley

discovered recently, it’s a copy of the original Songbook of the Vatican Library made in Italy at the end of the 15th century or at the beginning of the 16th.

Pergamiño Vindel

It contains the seven songs of women in love by Martín Códax, six of them with musical score.

Fragment Sharrer

It’s a fragment of a songbook that is lost (dated in the 13th century) which contains seven songs of men in love, from the Portuguese king D. Dinís with their musical chords.


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