Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2013
Over the centuries, a great deal of poetry has been devoted to warfare and its practitioners. While the majority has tended to celebrate the heroism of men involved in conflict, a not insignificant part has condemned the carnage and futility, a condemnation that reached its height during the First World War in the works of such writers as Wilfred Owens, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Service.
During the Middle Ages, martial poetry followed both strains. Much of it emphasized the glory of combat, serving as the supreme tool for recalling honor and assigning shame earned on the battlefield. This was true of the most widely-recited works of the period, the great epics and chanson de geste, including Beowulf, the Song of Roland, the Tales of King Arthur, and the Poema del mio Cid, to name only the most prominent. All centered on human conflict and extolled the heroism of their protagonists. Poets, like the great troubadour, Bertran de Born (c. 1140–c. 1215), could look on war as a spectacle complete with “proud pavilions high … squadrons of armored chivalry … trumpets and tabors, ensigns and pennants.” To Born's mind, participants were expected to spill blood and engage in butchery in their pursuit of “death or victory.”