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Title: Medieval English Literature - Home University of Modern Knowledge #43
Author: Ker, W. P. (William Paton), 1855-1923
Language: English
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                      _THE HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
                          OF MODERN KNOWLEDGE_


                           ENGLISH LITERATURE

                              _EDITORS OF
                      The Home University Library
                          of Modern Knowledge_

                  GILBERT MURRAY, O.M., D.C.L., F.B.A.
                       G. N. CLARK, LL.D., F.B.A.
                      G. R. DE BEER, D.SC., F.R.S.

                            _United States_

                        JOHN FULTON, M.D., PH.D.
                     HOWARD MUMFORD JONES, LITT.D.
                        WILLIAM L. LANGER, PH.D.

                          English Literature_

                               W. P. KER

                         _Geoffrey Cumberlege_
                        OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
                     LONDON    NEW YORK    TORONTO

_First published in_ 1912, _and reprinted in_ 1925, 1926, 1928 (_twice_),
                            1932, _and_ 1942
                _Reset in_ 1945 _and reprinted in_ 1948

                        PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN


  CHAP.                                                              PAGE
      I INTRODUCTION                                                    7
     II THE ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD                                         16
    III THE MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD (1150-1500)                          43
     IV THE ROMANCES                                                   76
      V SONGS AND BALLADS                                             107
     VI COMIC POETRY                                                  124
    VII ALLEGORY                                                      137
     IX CHAUCER                                                       163
        NOTE ON BOOKS                                                 187
        SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE _by_ R. W. CHAMBERS                        188
        INDEX                                                         190

                               CHAPTER I

Readers are drawn to medieval literature in many different ways, and it
is hardly possible to describe all the attractions and all the approaches
by which they enter on this ground. Students of history have to learn the
languages of the nations with whose history they are concerned, and to
read the chief books in those languages, if they wish to understand
rightly the ideas, purposes and temper of the past ages. Sometimes the
study of early literature has been instigated by religious or
controversial motives, as when the Anglo-Saxon homilies were taken up and
edited and interpreted in support of the Reformation. Sometimes it is
mere curiosity that leads to investigation of old literature—a wish to
find out the meaning of what looks at first difficult and mysterious.
Curiosity of this sort, however, is seldom found unmixed; there are
generally all sorts of vague associations and interests combining to lead
the explorer on. It has often been observed that a love of Gothic
architecture, or of medieval art in general, goes along with, and helps,
the study of medieval poetry. Chatterton’s old English reading and his
imitations of old English verse were inspired by the Church of St. Mary
Redcliffe at Bristol. The lives of Horace Walpole, of Thomas Warton, of
Sir Walter Scott, and many others show how medieval literary studies may
be nourished along with other kindred antiquarian tastes.

Sometimes, instead of beginning in historical or antiquarian interests,
or in a liking for the fashions of the Middle Ages in general, it happens
that a love of medieval literature has its rise in one particular author,
e.g. Dante or Sir Thomas Malory. The book, the _Divina Commedia_ or _Le
Morte d’Arthur_, is taken up, it may be, casually, with no very distinct
idea or purpose, and then it is found to be engrossing and
captivating—what is often rightly called ‘a revelation of a new world’.
For a long time this is enough in itself; the reader is content with
Dante or with the _Morte d’Arthur_. But it may occur to him to ask about
‘the French book’ from which Malory got his adventures of the Knights of
King Arthur; he may want to know how the legend of the Grail came to be
mixed up with the romances of the Round Table; and so he will be drawn
on, trying to find out as much as possible and plunging deeper and deeper
into the Middle Ages. The same kind of thing happens to the reader of
Dante; Dante is found all through his poem acknowledging obligations to
earlier writers; he is not alone or independent in his thought and his
poetry; and so it becomes an interesting thing to go further back and to
know something about the older poets and moralists, and the earlier
medieval world in general, before it was all summed up and recorded in
the imagination of the Divine Comedy. Examples of this way of reading may
be found in the works of Ruskin and in Matthew Arnold. Matthew Arnold,
rather late in his life (in the introductory essay to T. H. Ward’s
_English Poets_), shows that he has been reading some old French authors.
He does not begin with old French when he is young; evidently he was
brought to it in working back from the better known poets, Dante and
Chaucer. Ruskin’s old French quotations are also rather late in the
series of his writings; it was in his Oxford lectures, partly published
in _Fors Clavigera_, that he dealt with _The Romance of the Rose_, and
used it to illustrate whatever else was in his mind at the time.

Thus it is obvious that any one who sets out to write about English
literature in the Middle Ages will find himself addressing an audience
which is not at all in agreement with regard to the subject. Some will
probably be historical in their tastes, and will seek, in literature, for
information about manners and customs, fashions of opinion, ‘typical
developments’ in the history of culture or education. Others may be on
the look-out for stories, for the charm of romance which is sometimes
thought to belong peculiarly to the Middle Ages, and some, with ambitions
of their own, may ask for themes that can be used and adapted in modern
forms, as the Nibelung story has been used by Wagner and William Morris
and many others; perhaps for mere suggestions of plots and scenery, to be
employed more freely, as in Morris’s prose romances, for example. Others,
starting from one favourite author—Dante or Chaucer or Malory—will try to
place what they already know in its right relation to all its
surroundings—by working, for instance, at the history of religious
poetry, or the different kinds of story-telling. It is not easy to write
for all these and for other different tastes as well. But it is not a
hopeless business, so long as there is some sort of interest to begin
with, even if it be only a general vague curiosity about an unknown

There are many prejudices against the Middle Ages; the name itself was
originally an expression of contempt; it means the interval of darkness
between the ruin of ancient classical culture and the modern revival of
learning—a time supposed to be full of ignorance, superstition and bad
taste, an object of loathing to well-educated persons. As an example of
this sort of opinion about the Middle Ages, one may take what Bentham
says of our ‘barbarian ancestors’—‘few of whom could so much as read, and
those few had nothing before them that was worth the reading’. ‘When from
their ordinary occupation, their order of the day, the cutting of one
another’s throats, or those of Welshmen, Scotchmen or Irishmen, they
could steal now and then a holiday, how did they employ it? In cutting
Frenchmen’s throats in order to get their money: this was active
virtue:—leaving Frenchmen’s throats uncut was indolence, slumber,
inglorious ease.’

On the other hand, the Middle Ages have been glorified by many writers;
‘the Age of Chivalry’, the ‘Ages of Faith’ have often been contrasted
with the hardness of the age of enlightenment, rationalism, and material
progress; they are thought of as full of colour, variety, romance of all
sorts, while modern civilization is represented as comparatively dull,
monotonous and unpicturesque. This kind of view has so far prevailed,
even among people who do not go to any extremes, and who are not
excessively enthusiastic or romantic, that the term ‘Gothic’, which used
to be a term of contempt for the Middle Ages, has entirely lost its
scornful associations. ‘Gothic’ was originally an abusive name, like
‘Vandalism’; it meant the same thing as ‘barbarian’. But while
‘Vandalism’ has kept its bad meaning, ‘Gothic’ has lost it. It does not
now mean ‘barbarous’, and if it still means ‘unclassical’ it does not
imply that what is ‘unclassical’ must be wrong. It is possible now to
think of the Middle Ages and their literature without prejudice on the
one side or the other. As no one now thinks of despising Gothic
architecture simply because it is not Greek, so the books of the Middle
Ages may be read in a spirit of fairness by those who will take the
trouble to understand their language; they may be appreciated for what
they really are; their goodness or badness is not now determined merely
by comparison with the work of other times in which the standards and
ideals of excellence were not the same.

The language is a difficulty. The older English books are written in the
language which is commonly called Anglo-Saxon; this is certainly not one
of the most difficult, but no language is really easy to learn.
Anglo-Saxon poetry, besides, has a peculiar vocabulary and strange forms
of expression. The poetical books are not to be read without a great deal
of application; they cannot be rushed.

Later, when the language has changed into what is technically called
Middle English—say, in the thirteenth century—things are in many ways no
better. It is true that the language is nearer to modern English; it is
true also that the language of the poetical books is generally much
simpler and nearer that of ordinary prose than was the language of the
Anglo-Saxon poets. But on the other hand, while Anglo-Saxon literature is
practically all in one language, Middle English is really not a language
at all, but a great number of different tongues, belonging to different
parts of the country. And not only does the language of Yorkshire differ
from that of Kent, or Dorset, or London, or Lancashire, but within the
same district each author spells as he pleases, and the man who makes a
copy of his book also spells as he pleases, and mixes up his own local
and personal varieties with those of the original author. There is
besides an enormously greater amount of written matter extant in Middle
English than in Anglo-Saxon, and this, coming from all parts of the
country, is full of all varieties of odd words. The vocabulary of Middle
English, with its many French and Danish words, its many words belonging
to one region and not to another, is, in some ways, more difficult than
that of Anglo-Saxon.

But luckily it is not hard, in spite of all these hindrances, to make a
fair beginning with the old languages—in Anglo-Saxon, for example, with
Sweet’s _Primer_ and _Reader_, in Middle English with Chaucer or _Piers

The difference in language between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English
corresponds to a division in the history of literature. Anglo-Saxon
literature is different from that which follows it, not merely in its
grammar and dictionary, but in many of its ideas and fashions,
particularly in its fashion of poetry. The difference may be expressed in
this way, that while the older English literature is mainly English, the
literature after the eleventh century is largely dependent on France;
France from 1100 to 1400 is the chief source of ideas, culture,
imagination, stories, and forms of verse. It is sometimes thought that
this was the result of the Norman Conquest, but that is not the proper
explanation of what happened, either in language or in literature. For
the same kind of thing happened in other countries which were not
conquered by the Normans or by any other people speaking French. The
history of the German language and of German literature in the Middle
Ages corresponds in many things to the history of English. The name
Middle English was invented by a German philologist (Grimm), who found in
English the same stages of development as in German; Anglo-Saxon
corresponds to Old German in its inflexions; Middle English is like
Middle German. The change, in both languages, is a change from one kind
of inflexion to another. In the ‘Old’ stage (say, about the year 900) the
inflexions have various clearly pronounced vowels in them; in the
‘Middle’ stage (about 1200) the terminations of words have come to be
pronounced less distinctly, and where there is inflexion it shows most
commonly one vowel, written _e_, where the ‘Old’ form might have _a_ or
_o_ or _u_. Changes of this kind had begun in England before the Norman
Conquest, and would have gone on as they did in Germany if there had been
no Norman Conquest at all. The French and the French language had nothing
to do with it.

Where the French were really important was in their ideas and in the
forms of their poetry; they made their influence felt through these in
all Western Christendom, in Italy, in Denmark, and even more strongly in
Germany than in England. Indeed it might be said that the Norman Conquest
made it less easy for the English than it was for the Germans to employ
the French ideas when they were writing books of their own in their own
language. The French influence was too strong in England; the native
language was discouraged; many Englishmen wrote their books in French,
instead of making English adaptations from the French. The Germans, who
were independent politically, were not tempted in the same way as the
English, and in many respects they were more successful than the English
as translators from the French, as adapters of French ‘motives’ and
ideas. But whatever the differences might be between one nation and
another, it is certain that after 1100 French ideas were appreciated in
all the countries of Europe, in such a way as to make France the
principal source of enlightenment and entertainment everywhere; and the
intellectual predominance of France is what most of all distinguishes the
later medieval from the earlier, that is, from the Anglo-Saxon period, in
the history of English literature.

The leadership of France in the literature of Europe may be dated as
beginning about 1100, which is the time of the First Crusade and of many
great changes in the life of Christendom. About 1100 there is an end of
one great historical period, which began with what is called the
Wandering of the German nations, and their settlement in various parts of
the world. The Norman Conquest of England, it has been said, is the last
of the movements in the wandering of the nations. Goths and Vandals,
Franks, Burgundians, Lombards, Angles, Jutes and Saxons, Danes and
Northmen, had all had their times of adventure, exploration, conquest and
settlement. One great event in this wandering was the establishment of
the Norwegian settlers in France, the foundation of Normandy; and the
expeditions of the Normans—to Italy as well as to England—were nearly the
last which were conducted in the old style. After the Norman Conquest
there are new sorts of adventure, which are represented in Chaucer’s
Knight and Squire—the one a Crusader, or Knight errant, the other (his
son) engaged in a more modern sort of warfare, England against France,
nation against nation.

The two forms of the English language, Anglo-Saxon and Middle English,
and the two periods of medieval English literature, correspond to the two
historical periods of which one ends and the other begins about 1100, at
the date of the First Crusade. Anglo-Saxon literature belongs to the
older world; Anglo-Saxon poetry goes back to very early times and keeps a
tradition which had come down from ancient days when the English were
still a Continental German tribe. Middle English literature is cut off
from Anglo-Saxon, the Anglo-Saxon stories are forgotten, and though the
old alliterative verse is kept, as late as the sixteenth century, it is
in a new form with a new tune in it; while instead of being the one great
instrument of poetry it has to compete with rhyming couplets and stanzas
of different measure; it is hard put to it by the rhymes of France.

                               CHAPTER II
                         THE ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD

In dealing with Anglo-Saxon literature it is well to remember first of
all that comparatively little of it has been preserved; we cannot be
sure, either, that the best things have been preserved, in the poetry
especially. Anglo-Saxon poetry was being made, we know, for at least five
hundred years. What now exists is found, chiefly, in four manuscript
volumes,[1] which have been saved, more or less accidentally, from all
sorts of dangers. No one can say what has been lost. Many manuscripts, as
good as any of these, may have been sold as old parchment, or given to
the children to cut up into tails for kites. One Anglo-Saxon poem,
_Waldere_, is known from two fragments of it which were discovered in the
binding of a book in Copenhagen. Two other poems were fortunately copied
and published about two hundred years ago by two famous antiquaries; the
original manuscripts have disappeared since then. Who can tell how many
manuscripts have disappeared without being copied? The obvious conclusion
is that we can speak about what we know, but not as if we knew everything
about Anglo-Saxon poetry.

With the prose it is rather different. The prose translations due to King
Alfred are preserved; so is the English Chronicle; so are a fair number
of religious works, the homilies of Ælfric and others; it does not seem
likely from what we know of the conditions of authorship in those times
that any prose work of any notable or original value has disappeared.
With the poetry, on the other hand, every fresh discovery—like that of
the bookbinding fragments already mentioned—makes one feel that the
extent of Anglo-Saxon poetry is unknown. Anything may turn up. We cannot
say what subjects were not treated by Anglo-Saxon poets. It is certain
that many good stories were known to them which are not found in any of
the extant manuscripts.

The contents of Anglo-Saxon literature may be divided into two sections,
one belonging to the English as a Teutonic people who inherited along
with their language a form of poetry and a number of stories which have
nothing to do with Roman civilization; the other derived from Latin and
turning into English the knowledge which was common to the whole of

The English in the beginning—Angles and Saxons—were heathen Germans who
took part in the great movement called the Wandering of the Nations—who
left their homes and emigrated to lands belonging to the Roman empire,
and made slaves of the people they found there. They were barbarians; the
civilized inhabitants of Britain, when the English appeared there,
thought of them as horrible savages. They were as bad and detestable as
the Red Indians were to the Colonists in America long afterwards.

But we know that the early English are not to be judged entirely by the
popular opinion of the Britons whom they harried and enslaved, any more
than the English of Queen Elizabeth’s time are to be thought of simply
according to the Spanish ideas about Sir Francis Drake. There were
centuries of an old civilization behind them when they settled in
Britain; what it was like is shown partially in the work of the Bronze
and the early Iron Age in the countries from which the English came. The
_Germania_ of Tacitus tells more, and more still is to be learned from
the remains of the old poetry.

Tacitus was not quite impartial in his account of the Germans; he used
them as examples to point a moral against the vices of Rome; the German,
in his account, is something like the ‘noble savage’ who was idealized by
later philosophers in order to chastise the faults of sophisticated
modern life. But Tacitus, though he might have been rather inclined to
favour the Germans, was mainly a scientific observer who wished to find
out the truth about them, and to write a clear description of their
manners and customs. One of the proofs of his success is the agreement
between his _Germania_ and the pictures of life composed by the people of
that race themselves in their epic poetry.

The case of the early English is very like that of the Danes and Northmen
four or five hundred years later. The Anglo-Saxons thought and wrote of
the Danes almost exactly as the Britons had thought of their Saxon
enemies. The English had to suffer from the Danish pirates what the
Britons had suffered from the English; they cursed the Danes as their own
ancestors had been cursed by the Britons; the invaders were utterly
detestable and fiendish men of blood. But luckily we have some other
information about those pirates. From the Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic
historians, and from some parts of the old Northern poetry, there may be
formed a different idea about the character and domestic manners of the
men who made themselves so unpleasant in their visits to the English and
the neighbouring coasts. The pirates at home were peaceful country
gentlemen, leading respectable and beneficent lives among their poorer
neighbours. The Icelandic histories—including the history of Norway for
three or four centuries—may be consulted for the domestic life of the
people who made so bad a name for themselves as plunderers abroad. They
appear there, several varieties of them, as members of a reasonable,
honourable community, which could have given many lessons of civilization
to England or France many centuries later. But the strangest and most
convincing evidence about the domestic manners of the Northmen is found
in English, and is written by King Alfred himself. King Alfred had many
foreigners in his service, and one of them was a Norwegian gentleman from
the far North, named Ohthere (or Ottárr, as it would be in the Norse
tongue rather later than King Alfred’s time). How he came into the King’s
service is not known, but there are other accounts of similar cases which
show how easy it was for Northmen of ability to make their way in the
world through the patronage of kings. Ohthere belonged exactly to the
class from which the most daring and successful rovers came. He was a
gentleman of good position at home in Halogaland (now called Helgeland in
the north of Norway), a landowner with various interests, attending to
his crops, making a good deal out of trade with the Finns and Lapps; and
besides that a navigator, the first who rounded the North Cape and sailed
into the White Sea. His narrative, which is given by Alfred as an
addition to his translation of Orosius, makes a pleasant and amusing
contrast to the history of the Danish wars, which also may have been
partly written by King Alfred himself for their proper place in the
English Chronicle.

As the Icelandic sagas and Ohthere’s narrative and other documents make
it easy to correct the prejudiced and partial opinions of the English
about the Danes, so the opinions of the Britons about the Saxons are
corrected, though the evidence is not by any means so clear. The Angles
and Saxons, like the Danes and Northmen later—like Sir Francis Drake, or
like Ulysses, we might say—were occasionally pirates, but not restricted
to that profession. They had many other things to do and think about.
Before everything, they belonged to the great national system which
Tacitus calls _Germania_—which was never politically united, even in the
loosest way, but which nevertheless was a unity, conscious of its
separation from all the foreigners whom it called, in a comprehensive
manner, Welsh. In England the Welsh are the Cambro-Britons; in Germany
Welsh means sometimes French, sometimes Italian—a meaning preserved in
the name ‘walnut’ (or ‘walsh-note’, as it is in Chaucer)—the ‘Italian
nut’. Those who are not Welsh are ‘Teutonic’—which is not a mere modern
pedantic name, but is used by old writers in the same way as by modern
philologists, and applied to High or Low Dutch indifferently, and also to
English. But the unity of _Germania_—the community of sentiment among the
early German nations—does not need to be proved by such philological
notes as the opposition of ‘Dutch’ and ‘Welsh’. It is proved by its own
most valuable results, by its own ‘poetical works’—the heroic legends
which were held in common by all the nations of _Germania_. If any one
were to ask, ‘What does the old English literature _prove_?’ the answer
would be ready enough. It proves that the Germanic nations had a
reciprocal free trade in subjects for epic poems. They were generally
free from local jealousy about heroes. Instead of a natural rivalry among
Goths, Burgundians and the rest, the early poets seem to have had a
liking for heroes not of their own nation, so long as they were members
of one of the German tribes. (The Huns, it may be here remarked, are
counted as Germans; Attila is not thought of as a barbarian.) The great
example of this common right in heroes is Sigfred, Sigurd the Volsung,
Siegfried of the _Nibelungenlied_. His original stock and race is of no
particular interest to any one; he is a hero everywhere, and everywhere
he is thought of as belonging, in some way or other, to the people who
sing about him. This glory of Sigurd or Siegfried is different from the
later popularity of King Arthur or of Charlemagne in countries outside of
Britain or France. Arthur and Charlemagne are adopted in many places as
favourite heroes without any particular thought of their nationality, in
much the same way as Alexander the Great was celebrated everywhere from
pure love of adventurous stories. But Siegfried or Sigurd, whether in
High or Low Germany, or Norway or Iceland, is always at home. He is not
indeed a national champion, like the Cid in Spain or the Wallace in
Scotland, but everywhere he is thought of, apart from any local
attachment, as the hero of the race.

One of the old English poems called _Widsith_ (the Far Traveller) is an
epitome of the heroic poetry of _Germania_, and a clear proof of the
common interest taken in all the heroes. The theme of the poem is the
wandering of a poet, who makes his way to the courts of the most famous
kings: Ermanaric the Goth, Gundahari the Burgundian, Alboin the Lombard,
and many more. The poem is a kind of _fantasia_, intended to call up, by
allusion, the personages of the most famous stories; it is not an epic
poem, but it plays with some of the plots of heroic poetry familiar
throughout the whole Teutonic region. Ermanaric and Gundahari, here
called Eormanric and Guthhere, are renowned in the old Scandinavian
poetry, and the old High German. Guthhere is one of the personages in the
poem of _Waldere_; what is Guthhere in English is Gunnar in Norse,
Gunther in German—the Gunther of the _Nibelungenlied_. Offa comes into
Widsith’s record, an English king; but he has no particular mark or
eminence or attraction to distinguish him in the poet’s favour from the
Goth or the Lombard; he is king of ‘Ongle’, the original Anglia to the
south of Jutland, and there is no room for doubt that the English when
they lived there and when they invaded Britain had the stories of all the
Teutonic heroes at their command to occupy their minds, if they chose to
listen to the lay of the minstrel. What they got from their minstrels was
a number of stories about all the famous men of the Teutonic race—stories
chanted in rhythmical verse and noble diction, presenting tragic themes
and pointing the moral of heroism.

Of this old poetry there remains one work nearly complete. _Beowulf_,
because it is extant, has sometimes been over-valued, as if it were the
work of an English Homer. But it was not preserved as the _Iliad_ was, by
the unanimous judgement of all the people through successive generations.
It must have been of some importance at one time, or it would not have
been copied out fair as a handsome book for the library of some
gentleman. But many trashy things have been equally honoured in
gentlemen’s libraries, and it cannot be shown that _Beowulf_ was nearly
the best of its class. It was preserved by an accident; it has no right
to the place of the most illustrious Anglo-Saxon epic poem. The story is
commonplace and the plan is feeble. But there are some qualities in it
which make it (accidentally or not, it hardly matters) the best worth
studying of all the Anglo-Saxon poems. It is the largest extant piece in
any old Teutonic language dealing poetically with native Teutonic
subjects. It is the largest and fullest picture of life in the order to
which it belongs; the only thing that shows incontestably the power of
the old heroic poetry to deal on a fairly large scale with subjects taken
from the national tradition. The impression left by _Beowulf_, when the
carping critic has done his worst, is that of a noble manner of life, of
courtesy and freedom, with the dignity of tragedy attending it, even
though the poet fails, or does not attempt, to work out fully any proper
tragic theme of his own.

There is a very curious likeness in many details between _Beowulf_ and
the _Odyssey_; but quite apart from the details there is a real likeness
between them in their ‘criticism of life‘—i.e. in their exhibition of
human motives and their implied or expressed opinions about human
conduct. There is the same likeness between the _Odyssey_ and the best of
the Icelandic Sagas—particularly the _Story of Burnt Njal_; and the
lasting virtue of _Beowulf_ is that it is bred in the same sort of world
as theirs. It is not so much the valour and devotion of the hero; it is
the conversation of the hosts and guests in the King’s hall, the play of
serious and gentle moods in the minds of the freeborn, that gives its
character to the poem. _Beowulf_, through its rendering of noble manners,
its picture of good society, adds something distinct and unforgettable to
the records of the past. There is life in it, and a sort of life which
would be impossible without centuries of training, of what Spenser called
‘vertuous and gentle discipline’.

_Beowulf_ is worth studying, among other reasons, because it brings out
one great difference between the earlier and later medieval poetry,
between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English taste in fiction. _Beowulf_ is a
tale of adventure; the incidents in it are such as may be found in
hundreds of other stories. Beowulf himself, the hero, is a champion and a
slayer of monsters. He hears that the King of the Danes is plagued in his
house by the visits of an ogre, who night after night comes and carries
off one of the King’s men. He goes on a visit to Denmark, sits up for the
ogre, fights with him and mortally wounds him. That does not end the
business, for the ogre’s mother comes to revenge her son, and Beowulf has
a second fight and kills her too, and is thanked and goes home again.
Many years afterwards when he is king in his own country, Gautland (which
is part of modern Sweden), a fiery dragon is accidentally stirred up from
a long sleep and makes itself a pest to the country. Beowulf goes to
attack the dragon, fights and wins, but is himself killed by the poison
of the dragon. The poem ends with his funeral. So told, in abstract, it
is not a particularly interesting story. Told in the same bald way, the
story of Theseus or of Hercules would still have much more in it; there
are many more adventures than this in later romances like _Sir Bevis of
Southampton_ or _Sir Huon of Bordeaux_. What makes the poem of _Beowulf_
really interesting, and different from the later romances, is that it is
full of all sorts of references and allusions to great events, to the
fortunes of kings and nations, which seem to come in naturally, as if the
author had in his mind the whole history of all the people who were in
any way connected with Beowulf, and could not keep his knowledge from
showing itself. There is an historical background. In romances, and also
in popular tales, you may get the same sort of adventures as in
_Beowulf_, but they are told in quite a different way. They have nothing
to do with reality. In _Beowulf_, the historical allusions are so many,
and given with such a conviction of their importance and their truth,
that they draw away the attention from the main events of the story—the
fights with the ogre Grendel and his mother, and the killing of the
dragon. This is one of the faults of the poem. The story is rather thin
and poor. But in another way those distracting allusions to things apart
from the chief story make up for their want of proportion. They give the
impression of reality and weight; the story is not in the air, or in a
fabulous country like that of Spenser’s _Faerie Queene_; it is part of
the solid world. It would be difficult to find anything like this in
later medieval romance. It is this, chiefly, that makes _Beowulf_ a true
_epic_ poem—that is, a narrative poem of the most stately and serious

The history in it is not English history; the personages in it are Danes,
Gauts, and Swedes. One of them, Hygelac, the king whom Beowulf succeeded,
is identified with a king named by the Frankish historian Gregory of
Tours; the date is about A.D. 515. The epic poem of _Beowulf_ has its
source pretty far back, in the history of countries not very closely
related to England. Yet the English hearers of the poem were expected to
follow the allusions, and to be interested in the names and histories of
Swedish, Gautish, and Danish kings. As if that was not enough, there is a
story within the story—a poem of adventure is chanted by a minstrel at
the Danish Court, and the scene of this poem is in Friesland. There is no
doubt that it was a favourite subject, for the Frisian story is mentioned
in the poem of Widsith, the Traveller; and more than that, there is an
independent version of it among the few remains of Anglo-Saxon heroic
poetry—_The Fight at Finnesburh_. Those who listened to heroic songs in
England seem to have had no peculiar liking for English subjects. Their
heroes belong to _Germania_. The same thing is found in Norway and
Iceland, where the favourite hero is Sigurd. His story, the story of the
Volsungs and Niblungs, comes from Germany. In _Beowulf_ there is a
reference to it—not to Sigfred himself, but to his father Sigemund.
Everywhere and in every possible way the old heroic poets seem to escape
from the particular nation to which they belong, and to look for their
subjects in some other part of the Teutonic system. In some cases,
doubtless, this might be due to the same kind of romantic taste as led
later authors to place their stories in Greece, or Babylon, or anywhere
far from home. But it can scarcely have been so with _Beowulf_; for the
author of _Beowulf_ does not try to get away from reality; on the
contrary, he buttresses his story all round with historical tradition and
references to historical fact; he will not let it go forth as pure

The solid foundation and epic weight of _Beowulf_ are not exceptional
among the Anglo-Saxon poems. There are not many other poems extant of the
same class, but there is enough to show that _Beowulf_ is not alone. It
is a representative work; there were others of the same type; and it is
this order of epic poetry which makes the great literary distinction of
the Anglo-Saxon period.

It is always necessary to remember how little we know of Anglo-Saxon
poetry and generally of the ideas and imaginations of the early English.
The gravity and dignity of most of their poetical works are
unquestionable; but one ought not to suppose that we know all the
varieties of their poetical taste.

It is probable that in the earlier Middle Ages, and in the Teutonic
countries, there was a good deal of the fanciful and also of the comic
literature which is so frequent in the later Middle Ages (after 1100) and
especially in France. One proof of this, for the fanciful and romantic
sort of story-telling, will be found in the earlier part of the Danish
history written by Saxo Grammaticus. He collected an immense number of
stories from Danes and Icelanders—one of them being the story of
Hamlet—and although he was comparatively late (writing at the end of the
twelfth century), still we know that his stories belong to the North and
are unaffected by anything French; they form a body of Northern romance,
independent of the French fashions, of King Arthur and Charlemagne. The
English historians—William of Malmesbury, e.g.—have collected many things
of the same sort. As for comic stories, there are one or two in careful
Latin verse, composed in Germany in the tenth century, which show that
the same kind of jests were current then as in the later comic poetry of
France, in the _Decameron_ of Boccaccio, and in the _Canterbury Tales_.
The earlier Middle Ages were more like the later Middle Ages than one
would think, judging merely from the extant literature of the Anglo-Saxon
period on the one hand and of the Plantagenet times on the other. But the
differences are there, and one of the greatest is between the Anglo-Saxon
fashion of epic poetry and the popular romances of the time of Edward I
or Edward III.

The difference is brought out in many ways. There is a different choice
of subject; the earlier poetry, by preference, is concentrated on one
great battle or combat—generally in a place where there is little or no
chance of escape—inside a hall, as in _The Fight at Finnesburh_, and in
the slaughter ‘grim and great’ at the end of the _Nibelungenlied_; or, it
may be, in a narrow place among rocks, as in the story of Walter of
Aquitaine, which is the old English _Waldere_. This is the favourite sort
of subject, and it is so because the poets were able thus to hit their
audience again and again with increasing force; the effect they aimed at
was a crushing impression of strife and danger, and courage growing as
the danger grew and the strength lessened. In _Beowulf_ the subjects are
different, but in _Beowulf_ a subject of this sort is introduced, by way
of interlude, in the minstrel’s song of _Finnesburh_; and also _Beowulf_,
with a rather inferior plot, still manages to give the effect and to
bring out the spirit of deliberate heroic valour.

Quite late in the Anglo-Saxon period—about the year 1000—there is a poem
on an English subject in which this heroic spirit is most thoroughly
displayed: the poem on the Battle of Maldon which was fought on the Essex
shore in 993 between Byrhtnoth, alderman of East Anglia, and a host of
vikings whose leader (though he is not mentioned in the poem) is known as
Olaf Tryggvason. By the end of the tenth century Anglo-Saxon poetry had
begun to decay. Yet the Maldon poem shows that it was not only still
alive, but that in some respects it had made very remarkable progress.
There are few examples anywhere of poetry which can deal in a
satisfactory way with contemporary heroes. In the Maldon poem, very
shortly after the battle, the facts are turned into poetry—into poetry
which keeps the form of the older epic, and which in the old manner works
up a stronger and stronger swell of courage against the overwhelming
ruin. The last word of the heroic age is spoken, five hundred years after
the death of Hygelac (above, p. 26), by the old warrior who, like the
trusty companion of Beowulf, refused to turn and run when his lord was
cut down in the battle:

  Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
  Mood the more, as our might lessens.

It is one of the strange things in the history of poetry that in another
five hundred years an old fashion of poetry, near akin to the
Anglo-Saxon, comes to an end in a poem on a contemporary battle The last
poem in the Middle English alliterative verse, which was used for so many
subjects in the fourteenth century—for the stories of Arthur and
Alexander and Troy, and for the Vision of Piers Plowman—is the poem of
_Scottish Field_ A.D. 1513, on the battle of Flodden.

This alliterative verse, which has a history of more than a thousand
years, is one of the things that are carried over in some mysterious way
from the Anglo-Saxon to the later medieval period. But though it survives
the great change in the language, it has a different sound in the
fourteenth century from what it has in _Beowulf_; the older verse has a
manner of its own.

The Anglo-Saxon poetical forms are difficult at first to understand. The
principal rule of the verse is indeed easy enough; it is the same as in
the verse of _Piers Plowman_; there is a long line divided in the middle;
in each line there are _four_ strong syllables; the first _three_ of
these are generally made alliterative; i.e. they begin with the same

  Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten
  mære mearcstapa, se the móras heold
  fen and fæsten.

  Was the grievous guest Grendel namèd
  mighty mark-stalker, and the moors his home
  fen and fastness.

or they all begin with _different_ vowels—

  Eotenas and ylfe and orcneas.

  Etins and elves and ogres too.

But there is a variety and subtilty in the Anglo-Saxon measure which is
not found in the Middle English, and which is much more definitely under
metrical rules. And apart from the metre of the single line, there is in
the older alliterative poetry a skill in composing long passages, best
described in the terms which Milton used about his own blank verse: ‘the
sense variously drawn out from one line to another’. The Anglo-Saxon
poets, at their best, are eloquent, and able to carry on for long periods
without monotony. Their verse does not fall into detached and separate
lines. This habit is another evidence of long culture; Anglo-Saxon
poetry, such as we know it, is at the end of its progress; already
mature, and with little prospect in front of it except decay.

The diction of Anglo-Saxon poetry is a subject of study by itself. Here
again there is a great difference between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English
poetry. Middle English poetry borrows greatly from French. Now in all the
best French poetry, with very few exceptions, the language is the same as
that of prose; and even if there happen to be a few poetical words (as in
Racine, for example, _flammes_ and _transports_ and _hymenée_) they do
not interfere with the sense. Middle English generally copies French, and
is generally unpretentious in its vocabulary. But Anglo-Saxon poetry was
impossible without a poetical dictionary. It is very heavily ornamented
with words not used in prose, and while there are hardly any similes, the
whole tissue of it is figurative, and most things are named two or three
times over in different terms. This makes it often very tiresome, when
the meaning is so encrusted with splendid words that it can scarcely
move; still more, when a poet does not take the trouble to invent his
ornaments, and only repeats conventional phrases out of a vocabulary
which he has learned by rote. But those extravagances of the Anglo-Saxon
poetry make it all the more interesting historically; they show that
there must have been a general love and appreciation of fine language,
such as is not commonly found in England now, and also a technical skill
in verse, something like that which is encouraged in Wales at the modern
poetical competitions, though certainly far less elaborate. Further,
these curiosities of old English verse make it all the more wonderful and
admirable that the epic poets should have succeeded as they did with
their stories of heroic resistance and the repeated waves of battle and
death-agony. Tremendous subjects are easily spoilt when the literary
vogue is all for ornament and fine language. Yet the Anglo-Saxon poets
seldom seem to feel the encumbrances of their poetic language when they
are really possessed with their subject. The eloquence of their verse
then gets the better of their ornamental diction.

The subjects of Anglo-Saxon poetry were taken from many different sources
besides the heroic legend which is summarized by Widsith, or contemporary
actions like the battle of Maldon.

The conversion of the English to Christianity brought with it of course a
great deal of Latin literature. The new ideas were adopted very readily
by the English, and a hundred years after the coming of the first
missionary the Northumbrian schools and teachers were more than equal to
the best in any part of Europe.

The new learning did not always discourage the old native kind of poetry.
Had that been the case, we should hardly have had anything like
_Beowulf_; we should not have had the poem of Maldon. Christianity and
Christian literature did not always banish the old-fashioned heroes.
Tastes varied in this respect. The Frankish Emperor Lewis the Pious is
said to have taken a disgust at the heathen poetry which he had learned
when he was young. But there were greater kings who were less delicate in
their religion. Charles the Great made a collection of ‘the barbarous
ancient poems which sung the wars and exploits of the olden time’. Alfred
the Great, his Welsh biographer tells us, was always ready to listen to
Saxon poems when he was a boy, and when he was older was fond of learning
poetry by heart. That the poems were not all of them religious, we may
see from some things in Alfred’s own writings. He was bold enough to
bring in a Northern hero in his translation of the Latin philosophical
book of Boethius. Boethius asks, ‘Where are the bones of Fabricius the
true-hearted?’ In place of the name Fabricius, Alfred writes, ‘Where are
now the bones of Wayland, and who knows where they be?’ Wayland Smith,
who thus appears, oddly, in the translation of Boethius, is one of the
best-known heroes of the Teutonic mythology. He is the original craftsman
(like Daedalus in Greece), the brother of the mythical archer Egil and
the harper Slagfinn—the hero of one of the finest of the old Scandinavian
poems, and of many another song and story.

The royal genealogies in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are an example of the
conservative process that went on with regard to many of the old beliefs
and fancies—a process that may be clearly traced in the poem of
_Beowulf_—by means of which pre-Christian ideas were annexed to
Christianity. The royal house of England, the house of Cerdic, still
traces its descent from Woden; and Woden is thirteenth in descent from
Noah. Woden is kept as a king and a hero, when he has ceased to be a god.
This was kindlier and more charitable than the alternative view, that the
gods of the heathen were living devils.

There was no destruction of the heroic poetry through the conversion of
the English, but new themes were at once brought in, to compete with the
old ones. Bede was born (672) within fifty years of the baptism of King
Edwin of Northumbria (625), and Bede is able to tell of the poet Cædmon
of Whitby who belonged to the time of the abbess Hild, between 658 and
670, and who put large portions of the Bible history into verse.

Cædmon the herdsman, turning poet late in life by a special gift from
Heaven and devoting himself exclusively to sacred subjects, is a
different sort of minstrel from that one who is introduced in _Beowulf_
singing the lay of Finnesburh. His motive is different. It is partly the
same motive as that of King Alfred in his prose translations. Cædmon made
versions of Bible history for the edification of Christian people.

Anglo-Saxon poetry, which had been heathen, Teutonic, concerned with
traditional heroic subjects was drawn into the service of the other world
without losing its old interests. Hence comes, apart from the poetical
value of the several works, the historical importance of Anglo-Saxon
poetry, as a blending of _Germania_, the original Teutonic civilization,
with the ideas and sentiments of Christendom in the seventh century and

Probably nothing of Cædmon’s work remains except the first poem, which is
paraphrased in Latin by Bede and which is also preserved in the original
Northumbrian. But there are many Bible poems, _Genesis_, _Exodus_, and
others, besides a poem on the Gospel history in the Saxon language of the
Continent—the language of the ‘Old Saxons’, as the English called
them—which followed the example and impulse given by Cædmon, and which
had in common the didactic, the educational purpose, for the promotion of
Christian knowledge.

But while there was this common purpose in these poems, there were as
great diversities of genius as in any other literary group or school.
Sometimes the author is a dull mechanical translator using the
conventional forms and phrases without imagination or spirit. Sometimes
on the other hand he is caught up and carried away by his subject, and
the result is poetry like the _Fall of the Angels_ (part of _Genesis_),
or the _Dream of the Rood_. These are utterly different from the regular
conventional poetry or prose of the Middle Ages. There is no harm in
comparing the _Fall of the Angels_ with Milton. The method is nearly the
same: narrative, with a concentration on the character of Satan, and
dramatic expression of the character in monologue at length. The _Dream
of the Rood_ again is finer than the noblest of all the Passion Plays. It
is a vision, in which the Gospel history of the Crucifixion is so
translated that nothing is left except the devotion of the young hero (so
he is called) and the glory; it is not acted on any historical scene, but
in some spiritual place where there is no distinction between the Passion
and the Triumph. In this way the spirit of poetry does wonderful things;
transforming the historical substance. It is quite impossible to dismiss
the old English religious poetry under any summary description. Much of
it is conventional and ordinary; some of it is otherwise, and the
separate poems live in their own way.

It is worth remembering that the manuscripts of the _Dream of the Rood_
have a history which is typical of the history in general, the progress
of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the change of centre from Northumberland to
Wessex. Some verses of the poem are carved in runic letters on the
Ruthwell Cross (now in the Parish Church of Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire) in
the language of Northumberland, which was the language of Cædmon and
Bede. The Ruthwell Cross with the runic inscription on it is thus one of
the oldest poetical manuscripts in English, not to speak of its
importance in other ways.

The Ruthwell verses are Northumbrian. They were at first misinterpreted
in various ways by antiquaries, till John Kemble the historian read them
truly. Some time after, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript was found at Vercelli
in the North of Italy—a regular station on the old main road which
crosses the Great St. Bernard and which was commonly used by Englishmen,
Danes, and other people of the North when travelling to Rome. In this
Vercelli book the _Dream of the Rood_ is contained, nearly in full, but
written in the language of Wessex—i.e. the language commonly called
Anglo-Saxon—the language not of Bede but of Alfred. The West Saxon verses
of the _Rood_ corresponding to the old Anglian of the Ruthwell Cross are
an example of what happened generally with Anglo-Saxon poetry—the best of
it in early days was Anglian, Northumbrian; when the centre shifted to
Wessex, the Northern poetry was preserved in the language which by that
time had become the proper literary English both for verse and prose.

Cynewulf is an old English poet who has signed his name to several poems,
extant in West Saxon. He may have been the author of the _Dream of the
Rood_; he was probably a Northumbrian. As he is the most careful artist
among the older poets, notable for the skill of his verse and phrasing,
his poetry has to be studied attentively by any one who wishes to
understand the poetical ideals of the age between Bede and King Alfred,
the culmination of the Northumbrian school. His subjects are all
religious, from the Gospel (_Crist_) or the lives of saints (_Guthlac_,
_Juliana_, _Elene_, probably _Andreas_ also). The legendary subjects may
be looked on as a sort of romance; Cynewulf in many ways is a romantic
poet. The adventure of St. Andrew in his voyage to rescue St. Matthew
from the cannibals is told with great spirit—a story of the sea. Cynewulf
has so fine a sense of the minor beauties of verse and diction that he
might be in danger of losing his story for the sake of poetical ornament;
but though he is not a strong poet he generally manages to avoid the
temptation, and to keep the refinements of his art subordinate to the
main effect.

There is hardly anything in Anglo-Saxon to be called lyrical. The epic
poetry may have grown out of an older lyric type—a song in chorus, with
narrative stuff in it, like the later choral ballads. There is one old
poem, and a very remarkable one, with a refrain, _Deor’s Lament_, which
may be called a dramatic lyric, the utterance of an imaginary personage,
a poet like Widsith, who comforts himself in his sorrow by recalling
examples of old distresses. The burden comes after each of these records:

  That ancient woe was endured, and so may mine.

_Widsith_ in form of verse is nearer to this lyric of _Deor_ than to the
regular sustained narrative verse of _Beowulf_. There are some fragments
of popular verse, spells against disease, which might be called songs.
But what is most wanting in Anglo-Saxon literature is the sort of poetry
found at the close of the Middle Ages in the popular ballads, songs and
carols of the fifteenth century.

To make up for the want of true lyric, there are a few very beautiful
poems, sometimes called by the name of elegies—akin to lyric, but not
quite at the lyrical pitch. The _Wanderer_, the _Seafarer_, the _Ruin_,
the _Wife’s Complaint_—they are antique in verse and language but modern
in effect, more than most things that come later, for many centuries.
They are poems of reflective sentiment, near to the mood of a time when
the bolder poetical kinds have been exhausted, and nothing is left but to
refine upon the older themes. These poems are the best expression of a
mood found elsewhere, even in rather early Anglo-Saxon days—the sense of
the vanity of life, the melancholy regret for departed glories—a kind of
thought which popular opinion calls ‘the Celtic spirit’, and which indeed
may be found in the Ossianic poems, but not more truly than in the _Ruin_
or the _Wanderer_.

When the language of Wessex became the literary English, it was naturally
used for poetry—not merely for translations of Northumbrian verse into
West Saxon. The strange thing about this later poetry is that it should
be capable of such strength as is shown in the Maldon poem—a perpetual
warning against rash conclusions. For poetry had seemed to be exhausted
long before this, or at any rate to have reached in Cynewulf the
dangerous stage of maturity. But the Maldon poem, apart from some small
technical faults, is sane and strong. In contrast, the earlier poem in
the battle of Brunanburh is a fair conventional piece—academic laureate
work, using cleverly enough the forms which any accomplished gentleman
could learn.

Those forms are applied often most ingeniously, in the Anglo-Saxon
riddles; pieces, again, which contradict ordinary opinion. Few would
expect to find in Anglo-Saxon the curious grace of verbal workmanship,
the artificial wit, of those short poems.

The dialogue of _Salomon and Saturnus_ is one of the Anglo-Saxon things
belonging to a common European fashion; the dialogue literature, partly
didactic, partly comic, which was so useful in the Middle Ages in
providing instruction along with varying degrees of amusement. There is
more than one Anglo-Saxon piece of this sort, valuable as expressing the
ordinary mind; for, generally speaking, there is a want of merely popular
literature in Anglo-Saxon, as compared with the large amount later on.

The history of prose is continuous from the Anglo-Saxon onwards; there is
no such division as between Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry. In
fact, Middle English prose at first is the continuation of the English
Chronicle, and the transcription of the homilies of Ælfric into the later
grammar and spelling.

The English had not the peculiar taste for prose which seems to be dealt
by chance to Hebrews and Arabs, to Ireland and Iceland. As in Greece and
France, the writing of prose comes after verse. It begins by being
useful; it is not used for heroic stories. But the English had more
talent for prose than some people; they understood it better than the
French; and until the French influence came over them did not habitually
degrade their verse for merely useful purposes.

Through the Chronicle, which probably began in King Alfred’s time, and
through Alfred’s translations from the Latin, a common available prose
was established, which had all sorts of possibilities in it, partly
realized after a time. There seems no reason, as far as language and
technical ability are concerned, why there should not have been in
English, prose stories as good as those of Iceland. The episode of King
Cynewulf of Wessex, in the Chronicle, has been compared to the Icelandic
sagas, and to the common epic theme of valorous fighting and loyal
perseverance. In Alfred’s narrative passages there are all the elements
of plain history, a style that might have been used without limit for all
the range of experience.

Alfred’s prose when he is repeating the narratives of his sea-captains
has nothing in it that can possibly weary, so long as the subject is
right. It is a perfectly clean style for matter of fact.

The great success of Anglo-Saxon prose is in religious instruction. This
is various in kind; it includes the translation of Boethius which is
philosophy, and fancy as well; it includes the Dialogues of Gregory which
are popular stories, the homilies on Saints’ Lives which are often prose
romances, and which often are heightened above prose, into a swelling,
chanting, alliterative tune, not far from the language of poetry. The
great master of prose in all its forms is Ælfric of Eynsham, about the
year 1000. Part of his work was translation of the Bible, and in this,
and in his theory of translation, he is more enlightened than any
translator before Tyndale. The fault of Bible versions generally was that
they kept too close to the original. Instead of translating like free men
they construed word for word, like the illiterate in all ages. Ulphilas,
who is supposed by some to have written Gothic prose, is really a slave
to the Greek text, and his Gothic is hardly a human language. Wycliffe
treats his Latin original in the same way, and does not think what
language he is supposed to be writing. But Ælfric works on principles
that would have been approved by Dryden; and there is no better evidence
of the humanities in those early times than this. Much was lost before
the work of Ælfric was taken up again with equal intelligence.

                              CHAPTER III
                  THE MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD, 1150-1500


Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature had many things in common. The
educational work of King Alfred was continued all through the Middle
Ages. Chaucer translates Boethius, five hundred years after King Alfred’s
translation. The same authors are read and adapted. The sermons of
Ælfric, A.D. 1000, have the same sort of matter as those of the
thirteenth or the fourteenth century, and there is no very great
difference of tone. Many of the literary interests of the Plantagenet
times are found already among the Anglo-Saxons. The Legends of the Saints
are inexhaustible subjects of poetical treatment in the earlier as well
as the later days. The poetical expression is, of course, very greatly
changed, but earlier or later the Saints’ Lives are used as material for
literature which is essentially romantic, whatever its other qualities
may be. There are other sources of romance open, long before the French
influence begins to be felt in England; particularly, the wonders of the
East appear in the Anglo-Saxon version of Alexander’s letter to
Aristotle; and later Greek romance (through the Latin) in the Anglo-Saxon
translation of _Apollonius of Tyre_.

The great difference between the two ages is made by the disappearance of
the old English poetry. There is nothing in the Plantagenet reigns like
_Beowulf_ or the Maldon poem; there is nothing like the _Fall of the
Angels_ and the dramatic eloquence of Satan. The pathos of the later
Middle Ages is expressed in a different way from the _Wanderer_ and the
_Ruin_. The later religious poetry has little in it to recall the
finished art of Cynewulf. Anglo-Saxon poetry, whether derived from
heathendom or from the Church, has ideas and manners of its own; it comes
to perfection, and then it dies away. The gravity and thought of the
heroic poetry, as well as the finer work of the religious poets, are
unlike the strength, unlike the graces, of the later time. Anglo-Saxon
poetry grows to a rich maturity, and past it; then, with the new forms of
language and under new influences, the poetical education has to start

Unfortunately for the historian, there are scarcely any literary things
remaining to show the progress of the transition. For a long time before
and after 1100 there is a great scarcity of English productions. It is
not till about 1200 that Middle English literature begins to be at all
fully represented.

This scantiness is partly due, no doubt, to an actual disuse of English
composition. But many written things must have perished, and in poetry
there was certainly a large amount of verse current orally, whether it
was ever written down or not. This is the inference drawn from the
passages in the historian William of Malmesbury to which Macaulay refers
in his preface to the _Lays of Ancient Rome_, and which Freeman has
studied in his essay on _The Mythical and Romantic Elements in Early
English History_. The story of Hereward the Wake is extant in Latin; the
story of Havelock the Dane and others were probably composed in English
verse much earlier than the thirteenth century, and in much older forms
than those which have come down to us.

There is a gap in the record of alliterative poetry which shows plainly
that much has been lost. It is a curious history. Before the Norman
conquest the old English verse had begun to go to pieces, in spite of
such excellent late examples as the Maldon poem. About 1200 the
alliterative verse, though it has still something of its original
character, is terribly broken down. The verse of Layamon’s _Brut_ is
unsteady, never to be trusted, changing its pace without warning in a
most uncomfortable way. Then suddenly, as late as the middle of the
fourteenth century, there begins a procession of magnificent alliterative
poems, in regular verse—_Sir Gawayne_, the _Morte Arthure_, _Piers
Plowman_; in regular verse, not exactly with the same rule as _Beowulf_,
but with so much of the old rule as seemed to have been hopelessly lost
for a century or two. What is the explanation of this revival, and this
sudden great vogue of alliterative poetry? It cannot have been a new
invention, or a reconstruction; it would not in that case have copied, as
it sometimes does, the rhythm of the old English verse in a way which is
unlike the ordinary rhythms of the fourteenth century. The only
reasonable explanation is that somewhere in England there was a tradition
of alliterative verse, keeping in the main to the old rules of rhythm as
it kept something of the old vocabulary, and escaping the disease which
affected the old verse elsewhere. The purer sort of verse must have been
preserved for a few hundred years with hardly a trace of it among the
existing documents to show what it was like till it breaks out
‘three-score thousand strong’ in the reign of Edward III.

In the Middle Ages, early and late, there was very free communication all
over Christendom between people of different languages. Languages seem to
have given much less trouble than they do nowadays. The general use of
Latin, of course, made things easy for those who could speak it; but
without Latin, people of different nations appear to have travelled over
the world picking up foreign languages as they went along, and showing
more interest in the poetry and stories of foreign countries than is
generally found among modern tourists. Luther said of the people of
Flanders that if you took a Fleming in a sack and carried him over France
or Italy, he would manage to learn the tongues. This gift was useful to
commercial travellers, and perhaps the Flemings had more of it than other
people. But in all the nations there seems to have been something like
this readiness, and in all it was used to translate the stories and adapt
the poetry of other tongues. This intercourse was greatly quickened in
the twelfth century through a number of causes, the principal cause being
the extraordinary production of new poetry in France, or rather in the
two regions, North and South, and the two languages, French and
Provençal. Between these two languages, in the North and the South of
what is now France, there was in the Middle Ages a kind of division of
labour. The North took narrative poetry, the South took lyric; and French
narrative and Provençal lyric poetry in the twelfth century between them
made the beginning of modern literature for the whole of Europe.

In the earlier Middle Ages, before 1100, as in the later, the common
language is Latin. Between the Latin authors of the earlier time—Gregory
the Great, or Bede—and those of the later—Anselm, or Thomas Aquinas—there
may be great differences, but there is no line of separation.

In the literature of the native tongues there is a line of division about
1100 more definite than any later epoch; it is made by the appearance of
French poetry, bringing along with it an intellectual unity of
Christendom which has never been shaken since.

The importance of this is that it meant a mutual understanding among the
laity of Europe, equal to that which had so long obtained among the
clergy, the learned men.

The year 1100, in which all Christendom is united, if not thoroughly and
actively in all places, for the conquest of the Holy Sepulchre, at any
rate ideally by the thought of this common enterprise, is also a year
from which may be dated the beginning of the common lay intelligence of
Europe, that sympathy of understanding by which ideas of different sorts
are taken up and diffused, outside of the professionally learned bodies.
The year 1100 is a good date, because of the first Provençal poet,
William, Count of Poitiers, who was living then; he went on the Crusade
three years later. He is the first poet of modern Europe who definitely
helps to set a fashion of poetry not only for his own people but for the
imitation of foreigners. He is the first modern poet; he uses the kind of
verse which every one uses now.

The triumph of French poetry in the twelfth century was the end of the
old Teutonic world—an end which had been long preparing, though it came
suddenly at last. Before that time there had been the sympathy and
informal union among the Germanic nations out of which the old heroic
poems had come; such community of ideas as allowed the Nibelung story to
be treated in all the Germanic tongues from Austria to Iceland, and even
in Greenland, the furthest outpost of the Northmen. But after the
eleventh century there was nothing new to be got out of this. Here and
there may be found a gleaner, like Saxo Grammaticus, getting together all
that he can save out of the ancient heathendom, or like the Norwegian
traveller about fifty years later, who collected North German ballads of
Theodoric and other champions, and paraphrased them in Norwegian prose.
The really great achievement of the older world in its last days was in
the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change
the whole world, if they had only been known and understood; but they
were written for domestic circulation, and even their own people scarcely
knew how good they were. Germania was falling to pieces, the separate
nations growing more and more stupid and drowsy.

The languages derived from Latin—commonly called the Romance
languages—French and Provençal, Italian and so on—were long of declaring
themselves. The Italian and Spanish dialects had to wait for the great
French outburst before they could produce anything. French and Provençal,
which are well in front of Spanish and Italian, have little of importance
to show before 1100. But after that date there is such profusion that it
is clear there had been a long time of experiment and preparation. The
earlier French epics have been lost; the earliest known Provençal poet is
already a master of verse, and must be indebted to many poetical
ancestors whose names and poems have disappeared. Long before 1100 there
must have been a common literary taste in France, fashions of poetry well
understood and appreciated, a career open for youthful poets. In the
twelfth century the social success of poetry in France was extended in
different degrees over all Europe. In Italy and Spain the fashions were
taken up; in Germany they conquered even more quickly and thoroughly; the
Danes and Swedes and Norwegians learned their ballad measures from the
French; even the Icelanders, the only Northern nation with a classical
literature and with minds of their own, were caught in the same way.

Thus French poetry wakened up the sleepy countries, and gave new ideas to
the wakeful; it brought the Teutonic and Romance nations to agree and,
what was much more important, to produce new works of their own which
might be original in all sorts of ways while still keeping within the
limits of the French tradition. Compared with this, all later literary
revolutions are secondary and partial changes. The most widely
influential writers of later ages—e.g. Petrarch and Voltaire—had the
ground prepared for them in this medieval epoch, and do nothing to alter
the general conditions which were then established—the intercommunication
among the whole laity of Europe with regard to questions of taste.

It seems probable that the Normans had a good deal to do as agents in
this revolution. They were in relation with many different people. They
had Bretons on their borders in Normandy; they conquered England, and
then they touched upon the Welsh; they were fond of pilgrimages; they
settled in Apulia and Sicily, where they had dealings with Greeks and
Saracens as well as Italians.

It is a curious thing that early in the twelfth century names are found
in Italy which certainly come from the romances of King Arthur—the name
Galvano, e.g. which is the same as Gawain. However it was brought there,
this name may be taken for a sign of the process that was going on
everywhere—the conversion of Europe to fashions which were prescribed in

The narrative poetry in which the French excelled was of different kinds.
An old French poet, in an epic on Charlemagne’s wars against the Saxons,
has given a classification which is well known, dividing the stories
according to the historical matter which they employ. There are three
‘matters’, he says, and no more than three, which a story-teller may take
up—the matter of France, the matter of Britain, the matter of Rome the
Great. The old poet is right in naming these as at any rate the chief
groups; since ‘Rome the Great’ might be made to take in whatever would
not go into the other two divisions, there is nothing much wrong in his
refusal to make a fourth class. The ‘matter of France’ includes all the
subjects of the old French national epics—such as Roncevaux, or the song
of Roland; Reynold of Montalban, or the Four Sons of Aymon; Ferabras;
Ogier the Dane. The matter of Britain includes all the body of the
Arthurian legend, as well as the separate stories commonly called Breton
lays (like Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale). The matter of Rome is not only
Roman history, but the whole of classical antiquity. The story of Troy,
of course, is rightly part of Roman history, and so is the Romance of
Eneas. But under Rome the Great there fall other stories which have much
slighter connexion with Rome—such as the story of Thebes, or of

Many of those subjects were of course well known and popular before the
French poets took them up. The romantic story of Alexander might, in part
at any rate, have been familiar to Alfred the Great; he brings the
Egyptian king ‘Nectanebus the wizard’ into his translation of
Orosius—Nectanebus, who is the father of Alexander in the apocryphal book
from which the romances were derived. But it was not till the French
poets turned the story of Alexander into verse that it really made much
impression outside of France. The tale of Troy was widely read, in
various authors—Ovid and Virgil, and an abstract of the _Iliad_, and in
the apocryphal prose books of Dares the Phrygian and Dictys the Cretan,
who were supposed to have been at the seat of war, and therefore to be
better witnesses than Homer. These were used and translated some times
apart from any French suggestion. But it was the French _Roman de Troie_,
written in the twelfth century, which spread the story everywhere—the
source of innumerable Troy Books in all languages, and of Chaucer’s and
Shakespeare’s _Troilus_.

The ‘matter of Britain’ also was generally made known through the works
of French authors. There are exceptions; the British history of Geoffrey
of Monmouth was written in Latin. But even this found its way into
English by means of a French translation; the _Brut_ of Layamon, a long
poem in irregular alliterative verse, is adapted from a French rhyming
translation of Geoffrey’s History. The English romances of Sir Perceval,
Sir Gawain and other knights are founded on French poems.

There is an important distinction between the ‘matter of France’ and the
‘matters’ of Britain and Rome; this distinction belongs more properly to
the history of French literature, but it ought not to be neglected here.
The ‘matter of France’, which is exemplified in the song of Roland,
belongs to an earlier time, and was made into French poetry earlier than
the other subjects. The poems about Charlemagne and his peers, and others
of the same sort, are sometimes called the old French epics; the French
name for them is _chansons de geste_. Those epics have not only a
different matter but a different form from the French Arthurian romances
and the French _Roman de Troie_. What is of more importance for English
poetry, there is generally a different tone and sentiment. They are
older, stronger, more heroic, more like _Beowulf_ or the Maldon poem; the
romances of the ‘matter of Britain’, on the other hand, are the
fashionable novels of the twelfth century; their subjects are really
taken from contemporary polite society. They are long love-stories, and
their motive chiefly is to represent the fortunes, and, above all, the
sentiments of true lovers. Roughly speaking, the ‘matter of France’ is
action, the ‘matter of Britain’ is sentiment. The ‘matter of Rome’ is
mixed; for while the _Roman de Troie_ (with the love-story of Troilus,
and with courteous modern manners throughout) is like the romances of
Lancelot and Tristram, Alexander, in the French versions, is a hero like
those of the national epics, and is celebrated in the same manner as

The ‘matter of France’ could not be popular in England as it was in its
native country. But Charlemagne and Roland and his peers were well known
everywhere, like Arthur and Alexander, and the ‘matter of France’ went to
increase the stories told by English minstrels. It was from an English
version, in the thirteenth century, that part of the long Norwegian prose
history of Charlemagne was taken; a fact worth remembering, to illustrate
the way in which the exportation of stories was carried on. Of course,
the story of Charlemagne was not the same sort of thing in England or
Norway that it was in France. The devotion to France which is so intense
in the song of Roland was never meant to be shared by any foreigner. But
Roland as a champion against the infidels was a hero everywhere. There
are statues of him in Bremen and in Verona; and it is in Italy that the
story is told of the simple man who was found weeping in the
market-place; a professional story-teller had just come to the death of
Roland and the poor man heard the news for the first time. A traveller in
the Faroe Islands not long ago, asking in the bookshop at Thorshavn for
some things in the Faroese language, was offered a ballad of

The favourite story everywhere was _Sir Ferabras_, because the centre of
the plot is the encounter between Oliver the Paladin and Ferabras the
Paynim champion. Every one could understand this, and in all countries
the story became popular as a sound religious romance.

Naturally, the stories of action and adventure went further and were more
widely appreciated than the cultivated sentimental romance. The English
in the reign of Edward I or Edward III had often much difficulty in
understanding what the French romantic school was driving at—particularly
when it seemed to be driving round and round, spinning long monologues of
afflicted damsels, or elegant conversations full of phrases between the
knight and his lady. The difficulty was not unreasonable. If the French
authors had been content to write about nothing but sentimental
conversations and languishing lovers, then one would have known what to
do. The man who is looking at the railway bookstall for a good detective
story knows at once what to say when he is offered the Diary of a Soul.
But the successful French novelists of the twelfth century appealed to
both tastes, and dealt equally in sensation and sentiment; they did not
often limit themselves to what was always their chief interest, the moods
of lovers. They worked these into plots of adventure, mystery, fairy
magic; the adventures were too good to be lost; so the less refined
English readers, who were puzzled or wearied by sentimental
conversations, were not able to do without the elegant romances. They
read them; and they skipped. The skipping was done for them, generally,
when the romances were translated into English; the English versions are
shorter than the French in most cases where comparison is possible. As a
general rule, the English took the adventurous sensational part of the
French romances, and let the language of the heart alone. To this there
are exceptions. In the first place it is not always true that the French
romances are adventurous. Some of them are almost purely
love-stories—sentiment from beginning to end. Further, it is proved that
one of these, _Amadas et Ydoine_—a French romance written in England—was
much liked in England by many whose proper language was English; there is
no English version of it extant, and perhaps there never was one, but it
was certainly well known outside the limited refined society for which it
was composed. And again there may be found examples where the English
adapter, instead of skipping, sets himself to wrestle with the
original—saying to himself, ‘I will _not_ be beaten by this culture; I
will get to the end of it and lose nothing; it shall be made to go into
the English language’. An example of this effort is the alliterative
romance of _William and the Werwolf_, a work which does not fulfil the
promise of its title in any satisfactory way. It spends enormous trouble
over the sentimental passages of the original, turning them into the form
worst suited to them, viz. the emphatic style of the alliterative poetry
which is so good for battle pieces, satire, storms at sea, and generally
everything except what it is here applied to. Part of the success of
Chaucer and almost all the beauty of Gower may be said to be their
mastery of French polite literature, and their power of expressing in
English everything that could be said in French, with no loss of effect
and no inferiority in manner. Gower ought to receive his due alongside of
Chaucer as having accomplished what many English writers had attempted
for two hundred years before him—the perfect adoption in English verse of
everything remarkable in the style of French poetry.

The history of narrative poetry is generally easier than the history of
lyric, partly because the subjects are more distinct and more easily
traceable. But it is not difficult to recognize the enormous difference
between the English songs of the fourteenth century and anything known to
us in Anglo-Saxon verse, while the likeness of English to French lyrical
measures in the later period is unquestionable. The difficulty is that
the history of early French lyric poetry is itself obscure and much more
complicated than the history of narrative. Lyric poetry flourished at
popular assemblies and festivals, and was kept alive in oral tradition
much more easily than narrative poetry was. Less of it, in proportion,
was written down, until it was taken up by ambitious poets and composed
in a more elaborate way.

The distinction between popular and cultivated lyric is not always easy
to make out, as any one may recognize who thinks of the songs of Burns
and attempts to distinguish what is popular in them from what is
consciously artistic. But the distinction is a sound one, and especially
necessary in the history of medieval literature—all the more because the
two kinds often pass into one another.

A good example is the earliest English song, as it is sometimes called,
which is very far from the earliest—

  Sumer is icumen in
  lhude sing cuccu.

It sounds like a popular song; an anonymous poem from the heart of the
people, in simple, natural, spontaneous verse. But look at the original
copy. The song is written, of course, for music. And the Cuckoo song is
said by the historians of music to be remarkable and novel; it is the
first example of a canon; it is not an improvisation, but the newest kind
of art, one of the most ingenious things of its time. Further, the words
that belong to it are Latin words, a Latin hymn; the Cuckoo song, which
appears so natural and free, is the result of deliberate study; syllable
for syllable, it corresponds to the Latin, and to the notes of the music.

Is it then _not_ to be called a popular song? Perhaps the answer is that
all popular poetry, in Europe at any rate for the last thousand years, is
derived from poetry more or less learned in character, or, like the
Cuckoo song, from more or less learned music. The first popular songs of
the modern world were the hymns of St. Ambrose, and the oldest fashion of
popular tunes is derived from the music of the Church.

The learned origin of popular lyric may be illustrated from any of the
old-fashioned broadsheets of the street ballad-singers: for example _The
Kerry Recruit_—

  As I was going up and down, one day in the month of August,
  All in the town of sweet Tralee, I met the recruiting serjeant—

The metre of this is the same as in the _Ormulum_—

  This book is nemned Ormulum, for thy that Orm hit wroughtè.

It is derived through the Latin from the Greek; it was made popular first
through Latin rhyming verses which were imitated in the vernacular
languages, Provençal, German, English. As it is a variety of ‘common
metre’, it is easily fitted to popular tunes, and so it becomes a regular
type of verse, both for ambitious poets and for ballad-minstrels like the
author quoted above. It may be remembered that a country poet wrote the
beautiful song on Yarrow from which Wordsworth took the verse of his own
Yarrow poems—

  But minstrel Burne cannot assuage
    His grief, while life endureth,
  To see the changes of this age
    Which fleeting time procureth—

verse identical in measure with the _Ormulum_, and with the popular Irish
street ballad, and with many more. So in the history of this type of
verse we get the following relations of popular and literary poetry:
first there is the ancient Greek verse of the same measure; then there
are the Latin learned imitations; then there is the use of it by scholars
in the Middle Ages, who condescend to use it in Latin rhymes for
students’ choruses. Then comes the imitation of it in different languages
as in English by Orm and others of his day (about 1200). It was very much
in favour then, and was used often irregularly, with a varying number of
syllables. But Orm writes it with perfect accuracy, and the accurate type
survived, and was just as ‘popular’ as the less regular kind. Minstrel
Burne is as regular as the _Ormulum_, and so, or very nearly as much, is
the anonymous Irish poet of The _Kerry Recruit_.

What happened in the case of the _Ormulum_ verse is an example of the
whole history of modern lyric poetry in its earlier period. Learned men
like St. Ambrose and St. Augustine wrote hymns for the common people in
Latin which the common people of that time could understand. Then, in
different countries, the native languages were used to copy the Latin
measures and fit in to the same tunes—just as the English Cuckoo song
corresponds to the Latin words for the same melody. Thus there were
provided for the new languages, as we may call them, a number of poetical
forms or patterns which could be applied in all sorts of ways. These
became common and well understood, in the same manner as common forms of
music are understood, e.g. the favourite rhythms of dance tunes; and like
those rhythms they could be adapted to any sort of poetical subject, and
used with all varieties of skill.

Many strange things happened while the new rhyming sort of lyric poetry
was being acclimatized in England, and a study of early English lyrics is
a good introduction to all the rest of English poetry, because in those
days—in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—may be found the origin of
the most enduring poetical influences in later times.

One of the strange things was that the French lyrical examples affected
the English in two opposite ways. As foreign verse, and as belonging
especially to those who were acquainted with courts and good society, it
had the attraction which fashionable and stylish things generally have
for those who are a little behind the fashion. It was the newest and most
brilliant thing; the English did all they could to make it their own
whether by composing in French themselves or by copying the French style
in English words. But besides this fashionable and courtly value of
French poetry, there was another mode in which it appealed to the
English. Much of it was closely related not to the courts but to popular
country festivals which were frequent also in towns, like the games and
dances to celebrate the coming of May. French poetry was associated with
games of that sort, and along with games of that sort it came to England.
The English were hit on both sides. French poetry was more genteel in
some things, more popular and jovial in others, than anything then
current in England. Thus the same foreign mode of composition which gave
a new courtly ideal to the English helped also very greatly to quicken
their popular life. While the distinction between courtly and popular is
nowhere more important than in medieval literature, it is often very hard
to make it definite in particular cases, just for this reason. It is not
as if there were a popular native layer, English in character and origin,
with a courtly foreign French layer above it. What is popular in Middle
English literature is just as much French as English; while, on the other
hand, what is native, like the alliterative verse, is as often as not
used for ambitious works. _Sir Gawayne and the Greene Knight_ and the
poem of the _Morte Arthure_ are certainly not ‘popular’ in the sense of
‘uneducated’ or ‘simple’ or anything of that kind, and though they are
written in the old native verse they are not intended for the people who
had no education and could not speak French.

The great manifestation of French influence in the common life of the
Middle Ages was through the fashion of the dance which generally went by
the name of _Carole_. The _carole_—music, verse and dance
altogether—spread as a fashion all over Europe in the twelfth century;
and there is nothing which so effectively marks the change from the
earlier to the later Middle Ages. It _is_ in fact a great part of the
change, with all that is implied in it; which may be explained in the
following way.

The _carole_ was a dance accompanied by a song, the song being divided
between a leader and the rest of the chorus; the leader sang the
successive new lines, while the rest of the dancers holding hands in a
ring all joined in the refrain. Now this was the fashion most in favour
in all gentle houses through the Middle Ages, and it was largely through
this that the French type of lyric was transported to so many countries
and languages. French lyric poetry was part of a graceful diversion for
winter evenings in a castle or for summer afternoons in the castle
garden. But it was also thoroughly and immediately available for all the
parish. In its origin it was popular in the widest sense—not restricted
to any one rank or class; and though it was adopted and elaborated in the
stately homes of England and other countries it could not lose its
original character. Every one could understand it and enjoy it; so it
became the favourite thing at popular festivals, as well as at the
Christmas entertainments in the great hall. Particularly, it was a
favourite custom to dance and sing in this way on the vigils or eves of
Saints’ days, when people assembled from some distance at the church
where the day was to be observed. Dancing-parties were frequent at these
‘wakes’; they were often held in the churchyard. There are many stories
to show how they were discouraged by the clergy, and how deplorable was
their vanity: but those moral examples also prove how well established
the custom was; some of them also from their date show how quickly it had
spread. The best is in Giraldus Cambrensis, ‘Gerald the Welshman’, a most
amusing writer, who is unfortunately little read, as he wrote in Latin.
In his _Gemma Ecclesiastica_ he has a chapter against the custom of using
churches and churchyards for songs and dances. As an illustration, he
tells the story of a wake in a churchyard, somewhere in the diocese of
Worcester, which was kept up all night long, the dancers repeating one
refrain over and over; so that the priest who had this refrain in his
ears all night could not get rid of it in the morning, but repeated it at
the Mass—saying (instead of _Dominus vobiscum_) ‘Sweet Heart, have pity!’
Giraldus, writing in Latin, quotes the English verse: _Swete lemman, thin
arè_. _Are_, later _ore_, means ‘mercy’ or ‘grace’, and the refrain is of
the same sort as is found, much later, in the lyric poetry of the time of
Edward I. Giraldus wrote in the twelfth century, in the reign of Henry
II, and it is plain from what he tells that the French fashion was
already in full swing and as thoroughly naturalized among the English as
the Waltz or the Lancers in the nineteenth century. The same sort of
evidence comes from Denmark about the same time as Giraldus; ring-dances
were equally a trouble and vexation to religious teachers there—for,
strangely, the dances seem everywhere to have been drawn to churches and
monasteries, through the custom of keeping religious wakes in a cheerful
manner. Europe was held together in this common vanity, and it was
through the _caroles_ and similar amusements that the poetical art of
France came to be dominant all over the North, affecting the popular and
unpretending poets no less than those of greater ambition and conceit.

The word ‘Court’ and its derivations are frequently used by medieval and
early modern writers with a special reference to poetry. The courts of
kings and great nobles were naturally associated with the ideas of polite
education; those men ‘that has used court and dwelled therein can Frankis
and Latin’, says Richard Rolle of Hampole in the fourteenth century; the
‘courtly maker’ is an Elizabethan name for the accomplished poet, and
similar terms are used in other languages to express the same meaning.
This ‘courtly’ ideal was not properly realized in England till the time
of Chaucer and Gower; and a general view of the subject easily leads one
to think of the English language as struggling in the course of three
centuries to get rid of its homeliness, its rustic and parochial
qualities. This period, from about 1100 to 1400, closes in the full
attainment of the desired end. Chaucer and Gower are unimpeachable as
‘courtly makers’, and their success in this way also implies the
establishment of their language as pure English; the competition of
dialects is ended by the victory of the East Midland language which
Chaucer and Gower used. The ‘courtly poets’ make it impossible in England
to use any language for poetry except their own.

But the distinction between ‘courtly’ and ‘vulgar’, ‘popular’, or
whatever the other term may be, is not very easy to fix. The history of
the _carole_ is an example of this difficulty. The _carole_ flourishes
among the gentry and it is a favourite amusement as well among the common
people. ‘Courtly’ ideas, suggestions, phrases, might have a circulation
in country places, and be turned to literary effect by authors who had no
special attachment to good society. A hundred years before Chaucer there
may be found in the poem of _The Owl and the Nightingale_, written in the
language of Dorset, a kind of good-humoured ironical satire which is very
like Chaucer’s own. This is the most _modern_ in tone of all the
thirteenth-century poems, but there are many others in which the rustic,
or popular, and the ‘courtly’ elements are curiously and often very
pleasantly mixed.

In fact, for many purposes even of literary history and criticism the
medieval distinction between ‘courtly’ and popular may be neglected.
There is always a difficulty in finding out what is meant by ‘the
People’. One has only to remember Chaucer’s Pilgrims to understand this,
and to realize how absurd is any fixed line of division between ranks,
with regard to their literary taste. The most attentive listener and the
most critical among the Canterbury Pilgrims is the Host of the Tabard.
There was ‘culture’ in the Borough as well as in Westminster. The
Franklin who apologizes for his want of rhetorical skill—he had never
read Tullius or Cicero—tells one of the ‘Breton lays’, a story elegantly
planned and finished, of the best French type; and the Wife of Bath,
after the story of her own life, repeats another romance of the same
school as the Franklin’s Tale. The average ‘reading public’ of Chaucer’s
time could understand a great many different varieties of verse and

But while the difference between ‘courtly’ and ‘popular’ is often hard to
determine in particular cases, it is none the less important and
significant in medieval history. It implies the chivalrous ideal—the
self-conscious withdrawal and separation of the gentle folk from all the
rest, not merely through birth and rank and the fashion of their armour,
but through their ways of thinking, and especially through their theory
of love. The devotion of the true knight to his lady—the motive of all
the books of chivalry—began to be the favourite subject in the twelfth
century; it was studied and meditated in all manner of ways, and it is
this that gives its character to all the most original, as well as to the
most artificial, poetry of the later Middle Ages. The spirit and the
poetical art of the different nations may be estimated according to the
mode in which they appropriated those ideas. For the ideas of this
religion of chivalrous love were _literary_ and _artistic_ ideas; they
went along with poetical ambitions and fresh poetical invention—they led
to the poetry of Dante, Petrarch and Spenser, not as ideas and
inspirations simply, but through their employment of definite poetical
forms of expression, which were developed by successive generations of

Stories of true love do not belong peculiarly to the age of chivalrous
romance. The greatest of them all, the story of Sigurd and Brynhild, has
come down from an older world. The early books of the Danish History of
Saxo Grammaticus are full of romantic themes. ‘A mutual love arose
between Hedin and Hilda, the daughter of Hogne, a maiden of most eminent
renown. For though they had not yet seen one another, each had been
kindled by the other’s glory. But when they had a chance of beholding one
another, neither could look away; so steadfast was the love that made
their eyes linger’. This passage (quoted from Oliver Elton’s translation)
is one of the things which were collected by Saxo from Danish tradition;
it is quite independent of anything chivalrous, in the special sense of
that word. Again, Chaucer’s _Legend of Good Women_, the story of Dido, or
of Pyramus and Thisbe, may serve as a reminder how impossible it is to
separate ‘romantic’ from ‘classical’ literature. A great part of medieval
romance is nothing but a translation into medieval forms, into French
couplets, of the passion of Medea or of Dido. Even in the fresh discovery
which made the ideal of the ‘courtly’ schools, namely, the lover’s
worship of his lady as divine, there is something traceable to the Latin
poets. But it was a fresh discovery, for all that, a new mode of thought,
whatever its source might be. The devotion of Dante to Beatrice, of
Petrarch to Laura, is different from anything in classical poetry, or in
the earlier Middle Ages. It is first in Provençal lyric verse that
something like their ideas may be found; both Dante and Petrarch
acknowledge their debt to the Provençal poets.

Those ideas can be expressed in lyric poetry; not so well in narrative.
They are too vague for narrative, and too general; they are the utterance
of any true lover, his pride and his humility, his belief that all the
joy and grace of the world, and of Heaven also, are included in the
worshipful lady. There is also along with this religion a firm belief
that it is not intended for the vulgar; and as the ideas and motives are
noble so must the poetry be, in every respect. The refinement of the idea
requires a corresponding beauty of form; and the lyric poets of Provence
and their imitators in Germany, the Minnesingers, were great inventors of
new stanzas and, it should be remembered, of the tunes that accompanied
them. It was not allowable for one poet to take another poet’s stanza.
The new spirit of devotion in love-poetry produced an enormous variety of
lyrical measures, which are still musical, and some of them still
current, to this day.

It was an artificial kind of poetry, in different senses of the term. It
was consciously artistic, and ambitious; based upon science—the science
of music—and deliberately planned so as to make the best effect. The
poets were competitors—sometimes in actual competition for a prize, as in
the famous scene at the Wartburg, which comes in _Tannhäuser_, or as at a
modern Welsh _eisteddfod_; the fame of a poet could not be gained without
the finest technical skill, and the prize was often given for technical
skill, rather than for anything else. Besides this, the ideas themselves
were conventional; the poet’s amatory religion was often assumed; he
chose a lady to whom he offered his poetical homage. The fiction was well
understood, and was highly appreciated as an honour, when the poetry was
successful. For example, the following may be taken from the Lives of the

‘Richard of Barbezieux the poet fell in love with a lady, the wife of a
noble lord. She was gentle and fair, and gay and gracious, and very
desirous of praise and honour; daughter of Jeffrey Rudel, prince of
Blaye. And when she knew that he loved her, she made him fair semblance
of love, so that he got hardihood to plead his suit to her. And she with
gracious countenance of love treasured his praise of her, and accepted
and listened, as a lady who had good will of a poet to make verses about
her. And he composed his songs of her, and called her _Mielhs de Domna_
(‘Sovran Lady’) in his verse. And he took great delight in finding
similitudes of beasts and birds and men in his poetry, and of the sun and
the stars, so as to give new arguments such as no poet had found before
him. Long time he sang to her; but it was never believed that she yielded
to his suit.’

Provençal poetry cannot be shown to have had any direct influence upon
English, which is rather strange considering the close relations between
England and the districts where the Provençal language—the _langue
d’oc_—was spoken. It had great indirect influence, through the French.
The French imitated the Provençal lyric poetry, as the Germans and the
Italians did, and by means of the French poets the Provençal ideas found
their way to England. But this took a long time. The Provençal poets were
‘courtly makers’; so were the French who copied them. The ‘courtly maker’
needs not only great houses and polite society for his audience; not only
the fine philosophy ‘the love of honour and the honour of love’, which is
the foundation of chivalrous romance. Besides all this, he needs the
reward and approbation of success in poetical art; he cannot thrive as an
anonymous poet. And it is not till the time of Chaucer and Gower that
there is found in England any poet making a great name for himself as a
master of the art of poetry, like the Provençal masters Bernart de
Ventadour or Arnaut Daniel in the twelfth century, or like the German
Walther von der Vogelweide at the beginning of the thirteenth.

Lyric poetry of the Provençal kind was a most exacting and difficult art;
it required very peculiar conditions before it could flourish and be
appreciated, and those conditions did not exist in England or in the
English language. At the same time the elaborate lyrics of Provence, like
those of the Minnesingers in Germany, are pretty closely related to many
‘popular’ forms and motives. Besides the idealist love-poetry there were
other kinds available—simple songs of lament, or of satire—comic
songs—lyrics with a scene in them, such as the very beautiful one about
the girl whose lover has gone on the Crusade. In such as these, though
they have little directly to do with English poetry, may be found many
illustrations of English modes of verse, and rich examples of that most
delightful sort of poetry which refuses to be labelled either ‘courtly’
or ‘popular’.

In French literature, as distinct from Provençal, there was a ‘courtly’
strain which flourished in the same general conditions as the Provençal,
but was not so hard to understand and had a much greater immediate effect
on England.

The French excelled in narrative poetry. There seems to have been a
regular exchange in poetry between the South and the North of France.
French stories were translated into Provençal, Provençal lyrics were
imitated in the North of France. Thus French lyric is partly Provençal in
character, and it is in this way that the Provençal influence is felt in
English poetry. The French narrative poetry, though it also is affected
by ideas from the South, is properly French in origin and style. It is by
means of narrative that the French ideal of courtesy and chivalry is made
known, to the French themselves as well as to other nations.

In the twelfth century a considerable change was made in French poetry by
the rise and progress of a new romantic school in succession to the old
_chansons de geste_—the epic poems on the ‘matter of France’. The old
epics went down in the world, and gradually passed into the condition of
merely ‘popular’ literature. Some of them survive to this day in roughly
printed editions, like the _Reali di Francia_, which is an Italian prose
paraphrase of old French epics, and which seems to have a good sale in
the markets of Italy still, as _The Seven Champions of Christendom_ used
to have in England, and _The Four Sons of Aymon_ in France. The decline
of the old epics began in the twelfth century through the competition of
more brilliant new romances.

The subjects of these were generally taken either from the ‘matter of
Britain’, or from antiquity, the ‘matter of Rome the Great’, which
included Thebes and Troy. The new romantic school wanted new subjects,
and by preference foreign subjects. This, however, was of comparatively
small importance; it had long been usual for story-tellers to go looking
for subjects to foreign countries; this is proved by the Saints’ Lives,
and also by the story of Alexander the Great, which appeared in French
before the new school was properly begun.

In form of verse the new romances generally differed from the _chansons
de geste_, but this again is not an exact distinction. Apart from other
considerations, the distinction fails because the octosyllabic rhyming
measure, the short couplet, which was the ordinary form for fashionable
romances, was also at the same time the ordinary form for everything
else—for history, for moral and didactic poetry, and for comic stories
like Reynard the Fox. The establishment of this ‘short verse’ (as the
author of _Hudibras_ calls it) in England is one of the most obvious and
one of the largest results of the literary influence of France, but it is
not specially due to the romantic school.

The character of that school must be sought much more in its treatment of
motives, and particularly in its use of sentiment. It is romantic in its
fondness for strange adventures; but this taste is nothing new. The real
novelty and the secret of its greatest success was its command of pathos,
more especially in the pathetic monologues and dialogues of lovers. It is
greatly indebted for this, as has been already remarked, to the Latin
poets. The _Aeneid_ is turned into a French romance (_Roman d’Eneas_);
and the French author of the _Roman de Troie_, who gives the story of the
Argonauts in the introductory part of his work, has borrowed much from
Ovid’s Medea in the _Metamorphoses_. Virgil’s Dido and Ovid’s Medea had
an immense effect on the imagination of the French poets and their
followers. From Virgil and Ovid the medieval authors got the suggestion
of passionate eloquence, and learned how to manage a love-story in a
dramatic way—allowing the characters free scope to express themselves
fully. Chivalrous sentiment in the romances is partly due to the example
of the Latin authors, who wrote long passionate speeches for their
heroines, or letters like that of Phyllis to Demophoon or Ariadne to
Theseus and the rest of Ovid’s _Heroides_—the source of Chaucer’s _Legend
of Good Women_. The idea of the lover as the servant of his mistress was
also taken first of all from the Latin amatory poets. And the success of
the new romantic school was gained by the working together of those ideas
and examples, the new creation of chivalrous and courteous love out of
those elements.

The ideas are the same in the lyric as in the narrative poetry; and it is
allowable to describe a large part of the French romantic poems as being
the expression in narrative of the ideas which had been lyrically uttered
in the poetry of Provence—

  The love of honour and the honour of love.

The well-known phrase of Sidney is the true rendering of the Provençal
spirit; it is found nearly in the same form in the old language—

  Quar non es joys, si non l’adutz honors,
  Ni es honors, si non l’adutz amors.

(There is no joy, if honour brings it not; nor is there honour, if love
brings it not.)

The importance of all this for the history of Europe can scarcely be
over-estimated. It was the beginning of a classical renaissance through
the successful appropriation of classical ideas in modern languages and
modern forms. It is true that the medieval version of the _Aeneid_ or of
the story of the Argonauts may appear exceedingly quaint and ‘Gothic’ and
childish, if it be thought of in comparison with the original; but if it
be contrasted with the style of narrative which was in fashion before it,
the _Roman d’Eneas_ comes out as something new and promising. There is
ambition in it, and the ambition is of the same sort as has produced all
the finer sentimental fiction since. If it is possible anywhere to trace
the pedigree of fashions in literature, it is here. All modern novelists
are descended from this French romantic poetry of the twelfth century,
and therefore from the classical poets to whom so much of the life of the
French romances can be traced. The great poets of the Renaissance carry
on in their own way the processes of adaptation which were begun in the
twelfth century, and, besides that, many of them are directly
indebted—Ariosto and Spenser, for example—to medieval romance.

Further, all the chivalrous ideals of the modern world are derived from
the twelfth century. Honour and loyalty would have thriven without the
chivalrous poets, as they had thriven before them in every nation on
earth. But it is none the less true that the tradition of honour was
founded for the sixteenth century and the eighteenth and the present day
in Europe by the poets of the twelfth century.

The poetical doctrine of love, which is so great a part of chivalry, has
had one effect both on civilization in general and on particular schools
of poetry which it is hard to sum up and to understand. It is sometimes a
courtly game like that described in the life of the troubadour quoted
above; the lady pleased at the honour paid her and ready to accept the
poet’s worship; the lady’s husband either amused by it all, or otherwise,
if not amused, at any rate prevented by the rules of polite society from
objecting; the poet enamoured according to the same code of law, with as
much sincerity as that law and his own disposition might allow;
thoroughly occupied with his own craft of verse and with the new
illustrations from natural or civil history by means of which he hoped to
make a name and go beyond all other poets. The difficulty is to know how
much there is of pretence and artifice in the game. It is certain that
the Provençal lyric poetry, and the other poetry derived from it in other
languages, has many excellences besides the ingenious repetition of stock
ideas in cleverly varied patterns of rhyme. The poets are not all alike,
and the poems of one poet are not all alike. The same poem of Bernart de
Ventadour contains a beautiful, true, fresh description of the skylark
singing and falling in the middle of the song through pure delight in the
rays of the sun; and also later an image of quite a different sort: the
lover looking in the eyes of his mistress and seeing himself reflected
there is in danger of the same fate as Narcissus, who pined away over his
own reflection in the well. Imagination and Fancy are blended and
interchanged in the troubadours as much as in any modern poet. But apart
from all questions of their value, there is no possible doubt that the
Provençal idealism is the source, though not the only source, to which
all the noblest lyric poetry of later times and other nations may be
referred for its ancestry. The succession of schools (or whatever the
right name may be) can be traced with absolute certainty through Dante
and Petrarch in the fourteenth century to Ronsard and Spenser in the
sixteenth, and further still.

The society which invented good manners and the theory of honour, which
is at the beginning of all modern poetry and of all novels as well, is
often slighted by modern historians. The vanity, the artifice, the
pedantry can easily be noted and dismissed. The genius of the several
writers is buried in the difficulty and unfamiliarity of the old
languages, even where it has not been destroyed and lost in other ways.
But still the spirit of Provençal lyric and of old French romance can be
proved to be, at the very lowest estimate, the beginning of modern
civilization, as distinct from the earlier Middle Ages.

                               CHAPTER IV
                              THE ROMANCES

All through the time between the Norman Conquest and Chaucer one feels
that _the Court_ is what determines the character of poetry and prose.
The English writers almost always have to bear in mind their inferiority
to French, and it is possible to describe their efforts during three
centuries (1100-1400) as generally directed towards the ideal of French
poetry, a struggle to realize in English what had been already achieved
in French, to make English literature polite.

In the history of the English romances this may be tested in various
ways. To begin with, there is the fact that many writers living in
England wrote French, and that some French romances, not among the worst,
were composed in England. It can hardly be doubted that such was the case
with the famous love-story of _Amadas and Ydoine_; it is certain that the
romance of _Ipomedon_ was composed by an Englishman, Hue de Rotelande.
Those two works of fiction are, if not the noblest, at any rate among the
most refined of their species; _Amadas and Ydoine_ is as perfect a
romance of true love as _Amadis of Gaul_ in later days—a history which
possibly derived the name of its hero from the earlier Amadas. _Ipomedon_
is equally perfect in another way, being one of the most clever and
successful specimens of the conventionally elegant work which was
practised by imitative poets after the fashion had been established.
There is no better romance to look at in order to see what things were
thought important in the ‘school’, i.e. among the well-bred unoriginal
writers who had learned the necessary style of verse, and who could turn
out a showy piece of new work by copying the patterns they had before
them. Both _Ipomedon_ and _Amadas and Ydoine_ are in the best possible
style—the genteelest of tunes. The fact is clear, that in the twelfth
century literary refinement was as possible in England as in France, so
long as one used the French language.

It must not be supposed that everything written in French, whether in
France or England, was courtly or refined. There is plenty of rough
French written in England—some of it very good, too, like the prose story
of Fulk Fitzwaryn, which many people would find much more lively than the
genteel sentimental novels. But while French could be used for all
purposes, polite or rude, English was long compelled to be rude and
prevented from competing on equal terms with the language of those ‘who
have used court’.

It is very interesting to see how the English translated and adapted the
polite French poems, because the different examples show so many
different degrees of ambition and capacity among the native English. In
the style of the English romances—of which there are a great many
varieties—one may read the history of the people; the romances bring one
into relation with different types of mind and different stages of
culture. What happened to _Ipomedon_ is a good illustration. First there
is the original French poem—a romantic tale in verse written in the
regular French short couplets of octosyllabic lines—well and correctly
written by a man of English birth. In this production Hue de Rotelande,
the author, meant to do his best and to beat all other competitors. He
had the right sort of talent for this—not for really original
imagination, but for the kind of work that was most in fashion in his
time. He did not, like some other poets, look for a subject or a
groundwork in a Breton lay, or an Arabian story brought from the East by
a traveller; instead of that he had read the most successful romances and
he picked out of them, here and there, what suited him best for a new
combination. He took, for example, the idea of the lover who falls in
love with a lady he has never seen (an idea much older than the French
romantic school, but that does not matter, for the present); he took the
story of the proud lady won by faithful service; he took from one of the
Arthurian romances another device which is older than any particular
literature, the champion appearing, disguised in different colours, on
three successive days. In _Ipomedon_, of course, the days are days of
tournament, and the different disguises three several suits of armour.
The scene of the story is Apulia and Calabria, chosen for no particular
reason except perhaps to get away from the scene of the British romances.
The hero’s name, Hippomedon, is Greek, like the names in the _Romance of
Thebes_, like Palamon and Arcita, which are taken from the Greek names
Palæmon and Archytas. Everything is borrowed, and nothing is used
clumsily. _Ipomedon_ is made according to a certain prescription, and it
is made exactly in the terms of the prescription—a perfect example of the
regular fashionable novel, well entitled to its place in any literary
museum. This successful piece was turned into English in at least two
versions. One of these imitates the original verse of _Ipomedon_, it is
written in the ordinary short couplets. In every other respect it fails
to represent the original. It leaves things out, and spoils the
construction, and misses the point. It is one of our failures. The other
version is much more intelligent and careful; the author really was doing
as much as he could to render his original truly. But he fails in his
choice of verse; he translates the French couplets of _Ipomedon_ into a
form of stanza, like that which Chaucer burlesques in _Sir Thopas_. It is
a very good kind of stanza, and this anonymous English poet manages it
well. But it is the wrong sort of measure for that kind of story. It is a
dancing, capering measure, and ill suited to translate the French verse,
which is quiet, sedate, and not emphatic. These two translations show how
the English were apt to fail. Some of them were stupid, and some of them
had the wrong sort of skill.

It may be an accident that the English who were so fond of translating
from the French should (apparently) have taken so little from the chief
French poet of the twelfth century. This was Chrestien de Troyes, who was
in his day everything that Racine was five hundred years later; that is
to say, he was the successful and accomplished master of all the
subtleties of emotion, particularly of love, expressed in the newest,
most engaging and captivating style—the perfect manner of good society.
His fine narrative poems were thoroughly appreciated in Germany, where
German was at that time the language of all the courts, and where the
poets of the land were favoured and protected in the same way as poets in
France and Provence. In English there is only one romance extant which is
translated from Chrestien de Troyes; and the character of the translation
is significant: it proves how greatly the circumstances and conditions of
literature in England differed from those of France and Germany. The
romance is _Ywain and Gawain_, a translation of Chrestien’s _Yvain_,
otherwise called _Le Chevalier au Lion_. It is a good romance, and in
style it is much closer to the original than either of the two versions
of _Ipomedon_, lately mentioned; no other of the anonymous romances comes
so near to the standard of Chaucer and Gower. It is good in manner; its
short couplets (in the language of the North of England) reproduce very
well the tone of French narrative verse. But the English writer is
plainly unable to follow the French in all the effusive passages; he
thinks the French is too long, and he cuts down the speeches. On the
other hand (to show the difference between different countries), the
German translator Hartmann von Aue, dealing with the same French poem,
admires the same things as the French author, and spins out his
translation to a greater length than the original. Another historical
fact of the same sort is that the English seem to have neglected the
_Roman d’Eneas_; while German historians note that it was a translation
of this French poem, the _Eneide_ of Heinrich van Valdeke, which first
introduced the courteous literary form of romance into Germany. German
poetry about the year 1200 was fully the equal of French, in the very
qualities on which the French authors prided themselves. England was
labouring far behind.

It is necessary to judge England in comparison with France, if the
history of medieval poetry is to be written and studied at all. But the
comparison ought not to be pressed so far as to obliterate all the
genuine virtues of the English writers because they are not the same as
the French. There is another consideration also which ought not to be
left out. It is true that the most remarkable thing in the French
romances was their ‘language of the heart’, their skill in rendering
passion and emotion—their ‘sensibility’, to use an eighteenth-century
name for the same sort of disposition. But this emotional skill, this
ingenious use of passionate language in soliloquies and dialogues, was
not the only attraction in the French romances. It was the most important
thing at the time, and historically it is what gives those romances, of
Chrestien de Troyes and others, their rank among the poetical ideas of
the world. It was through their sensibility that they enchanted their own
time, and this was the spirit which passed on from them to later
generations through the prose romances of the fourteenth century, such as
_Amadis of Gaul_, to those of the seventeenth century, such as the _Grand
Cyrus_ or _Cassandra_. To understand what the works of Chrestien de
Troyes meant for his contemporaries one cannot do better than read the
letters in which Dorothy Osborne speaks of her favourite characters in
the later French prose romances, those ‘monstrous fictions’, as Scott
called them, ‘which constituted the amusement of the young and the gay in
the age of Charles II’. Writing to Sir William Temple she says: ‘Almanzor
is as fresh in my memory as if I had visited his tomb but yesterday. . .
. You will believe I had not been used to great afflictions when I made
his story such an one to me as I cried an hour together for him, and was
so angry with Alcidiana that for my life I could never love her after
it’. Almanzor and Alcidiana, and the sorrows that so touched their gentle
readers in the age of Louis XIV and Charles II, were the descendants of
Chrestien de Troyes in a direct line; they represent what is enduring and
inexhaustible in the spirit of the older polite literature in France.
Sentiment in modern fiction can be traced back to Chrestien de Troyes. It
is a fashion which was established then and has never been extinguished
since; if there is to be any history of ideas at all, this is what has to
be recorded as the principal influence in French literature in the
twelfth century. But it was not everything, and it was not a simple
thing. There are many varieties of sentiment, and besides sentiment there
are many other interests in the old French romantic literature. The works
of Chrestien de Troyes may be taken as examples again. In one, _Cliges_,
there are few adventures; in _Perceval_ (the story of the Grail), his
last poem, the adventures are many and wonderful. In his _Lancelot_, the
sentimental interest is managed in accordance with the rules of the
Provençal poetry at its most refined and artificial height; but his story
of _Enid_ is in substance the same as Tennyson’s, a romance which does
not need (like Chrestien’s _Lancelot_) any study of a special code of
behaviour to explain the essence of it. The lovers here are husband and
wife (quite against the Provençal rules), and the plot is pure comedy, a
misunderstanding cleared away by the truth and faithfulness of the

Further, although it is true that adventure is not the chief interest
with Chrestien de Troyes and his followers, it is not true that it is
neglected by them; and besides, although they were the most fashionable
and most famous and successful authors of romance, they were not the only
story-tellers nor was their method the only one available. There was a
form of short story, commonly called _lai_ and associated with Brittany,
in which there was room for the same kind of matter as in many of the
larger romances, but not for the same expression and effusion of
sentiment. The best known are those of Marie de France, who dedicated her
book of stories to King Henry of England (Henry II). One of the best of
the English short romances, _Sir Launfal_, is taken from Marie de France;
her stories have a beauty which was not at the time so enthralling as the
charm of the longer stories, and which had nothing like the same
influence on the literature of the future, but which now, for those who
care to look at it, has much more freshness, partly because it is nearer
to the fairy mythology of popular tradition. The longer romances are
really modern novels—studies of contemporary life, characters and
emotions, mixed up with adventures more or less surprising. The shorter
_lais_ (like that of _Sir Launfal_) might be compared to the stories of
Hans Christian Andersen; they are made in the same way. Like many of
Andersen’s tales, they are borrowed from folk-lore; like them, again,
they are not mere transcripts from an uneducated story-teller. They are
‘old wives’ tales’, but they are put into fresh literary form. This new
form may occasionally interfere with something in the original
traditional version, but it does not, either with Marie de France or with
Andersen, add too much to the original. Curiously, there is an example in
English, among the shorter rhyming romances, of a story which Andersen
has told in his own way under the title of the _Travelling Companion_.
The English _Sir Amadace_ is unfortunately not one of the best of the
short stories—not nearly as good as _Sir Launfal_—but still it shows how
a common folk-lore plot, the story of the Grateful Dead, might be turned
into literary form without losing all its original force and without
being transformed into a mere vehicle for modern literary ambitions.

The relations between folk-lore and literature are forced on the
attention when one is studying the Middle Ages, and perhaps most of all
in dealing with this present subject, the romances of the age of
chivalry. In Anglo-Saxon literature it is much less to the fore, probably
not because there was little of it really, but because so little has been
preserved. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries there was a great
stirring-up of popular mythology in a number of countries, so that it
came to be noticed, and passed into scores of books, both in the form of
plots for stories, and also in scientific remarks made by investigators
and historians. Giraldus Cambrensis is full of folk-lore, and about the
same time Walter Map (in his _De Nugis Curialium_) and Gervase of Tilbury
(in his _Otia Imperialia_) were taking notes of the same sort. Both
Giraldus and Walter Map were at home in Wales, and it was particularly in
the relation between the Welsh and their neighbours that the study of
folk-lore was encouraged; both the historical study, as in the works of
these Latin authors just named, and the traffic in stories to be used for
literary purposes in the vernacular languages whether French or English.

The ‘matter of Britain’ in the stories of Tristram, Gawain, Perceval and
Lancelot came to be associated peculiarly with the courteous sentimental
type of romance which had such vogue and such influence in the Middle
Ages. But the value of this ‘matter’—the Celtic stories—was by no means
exclusively connected with the ambitious literary art of Chrestien and
others like him. Apart from form altogether, it counts for something that
such a profusion of stories was sent abroad over all the nations. They
were interesting and amusing, in whatever language they were told. They
quickened up people’s imaginations and gave them something to think
about, in the same way as the Italian novels which were so much read in
the time of Shakespeare, or the trashy German novels in the time of

It is much debated among historians whether it was from Wales or Brittany
that these stories passed into general circulation. It seems most
probable that the two Welsh countries on both sides of the Channel gave
stories to their neighbours—to the Normans both in France and England,
and to the English besides on the Welsh borders. It seems most probable
at any rate that the French had not to wait for the Norman Conquest
before they picked up any Celtic stories. The Arthurian names in Italy
(mentioned already above, p. 50) are found too early, and the dates do
not allow time for the stories to make their way, and find favour, and
tempt people in Lombardy to call their children after Gawain instead of a
patron saint. It is certain that both in Brittany—Little Britain—and in
Wales King Arthur was a hero, whose return was to put all things right.
It was to fulfil this prophecy that Geoffrey Plantagenet’s son was called
Arthur, and a Provençal poet hails the child with these auspices: ‘Now
the Bretons have got their Arthur’. Other writers speak commonly of the
‘Breton folly’—this hope of a deliverer was the Breton vanity, well known
and laughed at by the more practical people across the border.

Arthur, however, was not the proper hero of the romantic tales, either in
their shorter, more popular form or in the elaborate work of the courtly
school. In many of the _lais_ he is never mentioned; in most of the
romances, long or short, early or late, he has nothing to do except to
preside over the feast, at Christmas or Whitsuntide, and wait for
adventures. So he is represented in the English poem of _Sir Gawayn and
the Grene Knyght_. The stories are told not about King Arthur, but about
Gawain or Perceval, Lancelot or Pelleas or Pellenore.

The great exception to this general rule is the history of Arthur which
was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first half of the twelfth
century as part of his Latin history of Britain. This history of Arthur
was of course translated wherever Geoffrey was translated, and sometimes
it was picked out for separate treatment, as by the remarkable author of
the _Morte Arthure_, one of the best of the alliterative poems. Arthur
had long been known in Britain as a great leader against the Saxon
invaders; Geoffrey of Monmouth took up and developed this idea in his own
way, making Arthur a successful opponent not of the Saxons merely but of
Rome; a conqueror of kingdoms, himself an emperor before whom the power
of Rome was humbled. In consequence of which the ‘Saxons’ came to think
of their country as Britain, and to make Arthur their national hero, in
the same way as Charlemagne was the national hero in France. Arthur also,
like Charlemagne, came to be generally respected all over Christendom, in
Norway and Iceland, as well as Italy and Greece. Speaking generally,
whenever Arthur is a great conquering hero like Alexander or Charlemagne
this idea of him is due to Geoffrey of Monmouth; the stories where he
only appears as holding a court and sending out champions are stories
that have come from popular tradition, or are imitations of such stories.
But there are some exceptions. For one thing, Geoffrey’s representation
of Arthur is not merely a composition after the model of Alexander the
Great or Charlemagne; the story of Arthur’s fall at the hands of his
nephew is traditional. And when Layamon a ‘Saxon’ turned the French
rhyming version of Geoffrey into English—Layamon’s _Brut_—he added a
number of things which are neither in the Latin nor the French, but
obtained by Layamon himself independently, somehow or other, from the
Welsh. Layamon lived on the banks of the Severn, and very probably he may
have done the same kind of note-taking in Wales or among Welsh
acquaintances as was done by Walter Map a little earlier. Layamon’s
additions are of great worth; he tells the story of the passing of
Arthur, and it is from Layamon, ultimately, that all the later
versions—Malory’s and Tennyson’s—are derived.

None of the English authors can compete with the French poets as elegant
writers dealing with contemporary manners. But apart from that kind of
work almost every variety of interest may be found in the English
stories. There are two, _King Horn_ and _Havelok the Dane_, which appear
to be founded on national English traditions coming down from the time of
the Danish wars. _King Horn_ is remarkable for its metre—short rhyming
couplets, but not in the regular eight-syllable lines which were imitated
from the French. The verse appears to be an adaptation of the old native
English measure, fitted with regular rhymes. Rhyme was used in
continental German poetry, and in Icelandic, and occasionally in
Anglo-Saxon, before there were any French examples to follow; and _King
Horn_ is one thing surviving to show how the English story-tellers might
have got on if they had not paid so much attention to the French
authorities in rhyme. The story of Havelok belongs to the town of Grimsby
particularly and to the Danelaw, the district of England occupied by
Danish settlers. The name Havelok is the Danish, or rather the Norwegian,
Anlaf or Olaf, and the story seems to be a tradition in which two
historical Olafs have been confused—one the Olaf who was defeated at the
battle of Brunanburh, the other the Olaf who won the battle of
Maldon—Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway. _Havelok_, the English story, is
worth reading as a good specimen of popular English poetry in the
thirteenth century, a story where the subject and the scene are English,
where the manners are not too fine, and where the hero, a king’s son
disinherited and unrecognized, lives as a servant for a long time and so
gives the author a chance of describing common life and uncourtly
manners. And he does this very well, particularly in the athletic sports
where Havelok distinguishes himself—an excellent piece to compare with
the funeral games which used to be a necessary part of every regular epic
poem. _Horn_ and _Havelok_, though they belong to England, are scarcely
to be reckoned as part of the ‘matter of Britain’, at least as that was
understood by the French author who used the term. There are other
stories which will not go easily into that or into either of the two
other divisions. One of these is the story of _Floris and Blanchefleur_,
which was turned into English in the thirteenth century—one of the oldest
among the rhyming romances. This is one of the many stories that came
from the East. It is the history of two young lovers who are separated
for a time—a very well known and favourite type of story. This is the
regular plot in the Greek prose romances, such as that of Heliodorus
which was so much admired after the Renaissance. This story of _Floris
and Blanchefleur_, however, does not come from Greece, but from the same
source as the _Arabian Nights_. Those famous stories, the Thousand and
One Nights, were not known in Europe till the beginning of the eighteenth
century, but many things of the same sort had made their way in the
Middle Ages into France, and this was the best of them all. It is found
in German and Dutch, as well as in English; also in Swedish and Danish,
in the same kind of short couplets—showing how widely the fashions of
literature were prescribed by France among all the Teutonic races.

How various the styles of romance might be is shown by two poems which
are both found in the famous _Auchinleck_ manuscript in Edinburgh, _Sir
Orfeo_ and _Sir Tristrem_. The stories are two of the best known in the
world. _Sir Orfeo_ is Orpheus. But this version of Orpheus and Eurydice
is not a translation from anything classical; it is far further from any
classical original than even the very free and distinctly ‘Gothic’
rendering of Jason and Medea at the beginning of the old French tale of
Troy. The story of Orpheus has passed through popular tradition before it
turns into _Sir Orfeo_. It shows how readily folk-lore will take a
suggestion from book-learning, and how easily it will make a classical
fable into the likeness of a Breton lay. Orfeo was a king, and also a
good harper:

  He hath a queen full fair of price
  That is clepèd Dame Erodys.

One day in May Queen Erodys slept in her orchard, and when she awoke was
overcome with affliction because of a dream—a king had appeared to her,
with a thousand knights and fifty ladies, riding on snow-white steeds.

  The king had a crown on his head
  It was no silver, ne gold red,
  All it was of precious stone,
  As bright as sun forsooth it shone.

He made her ride on a white palfrey to his own land, and showed her
castles and towers, meadows, fields and forests; then he brought her
home, and told her that the next day she would be taken away for ever.

The king kept watch on the morrow with two hundred knights; but there was
no help; among them all she was fetched away ‘with the faerie’. Then King
Orfeo left his kingdom, and went out to the wilderness to the ‘holtes
hoar’ barefoot, taking nothing of all his wealth but his harp only.

  In summer he liveth by hawès
  That on hawthorne groweth by shawès,
  And in winter by root and rind
  For other thing may he none find.
  No man could tell of his sore
  That he suffered ten year and more,
  He that had castle and tower,
  Forest, frith, both field and flower,
  Now hath he nothing that him liketh
  But wild beasts that by him striketh.

Beasts and birds came to listen to his harping—

  When the weather is clear and bright,
  He taketh his harp anon right;
  Into the wood it ringeth shrill
  As he could harpè at his will:
  The wildè bestès that there beth
  For joy about him they geth
  All the fowlès that there were
  They comen about him there
  To hear harping that was fine
  So mickle joy was therein.
       .     .     .
  Oft he saw him beside
  In the hotè summer tide
  The king of Fayré with his rout
  Came to hunt all about.
       .     .     .

Sometimes he saw the armed host of the Faerie; sometimes knights and
ladies together, in bright attire, riding an easy pace, and along with
them all manner of minstrelsy. One day he followed a company of the Fairy
ladies as they were hawking by the river (or rather the _rivere_—i.e. the
bank of the stream) at

  Pheasant heron and cormorant;
  The fowls out of the river flew
  Every falcon his game slew.

King Orfeo saw that and laughed and rose up from his resting-place and
followed, and found his wife among them; but neither might speak with the

  But there might none with other speak
  Though she him knew and he her, eke.

But he took up his harp and followed them fast, over stock and stone, and
when they rode into a hillside—‘in at the roche’—he went in after them.

  When he was into the roche y-go
  Well three mile, and some deal mo
  He came to a fair countray
  Was as bright as any day.

There in the middle of a lawn he saw a fair high castle of gold and
silver and precious stones.

  No man might tell ne think in thought
  The riches that therein was wrought.

The porter let him in, as a minstrel, and he was brought before the king
and queen. ‘How do you come here?’ said the king; ‘I never sent for you,
and never before have I known a man so hardy as to come unbidden.’ Then
Sir Orfeo put in a word for the minstrels; ‘It is our manner’, he said,
‘to come to every man’s house unbidden’,

  ‘And though we nought welcome be
  Yet we must proffer our game or glee.’

Then he took his harp and played, and the king offered him whatever he
should ask.

  ‘Minstrel, me liketh well thy glee.’

Orfeo asked for the lady bright. ‘Nay’, said the king, ‘that were a foul
match, for in her there is no blemish and thou art rough and black’.
‘Fouler still’, said Orfeo, ‘to hear a leasing from a king’s mouth’; and
the king then let him go with good wishes, and Orfeo and Erodys went
home. The steward had kept the kingdom truly; ‘thus came they out of

It is all as simple as can be; a rescue out of fairyland, through the
power of music; the ideas are found everywhere, in ballads and stories.
The ending is happy, and nothing is said of the injunction not to look
back. It was probably left out when Orpheus was turned into a fairy tale,
on account of the power of music; the heart of the people felt that
Orpheus the good harper ought not to be subjected to the common plot. For
there is nothing commoner in romance or in popular tales than
forgetfulness like that of Orpheus when he lost Eurydice; the plot of
_Sir Launfal_ e.g. turns on that; he was warned not to speak of his fairy
wife, but he was led, by circumstances over which he had no control, to
boast of her—

  To speke ne mightè he forgo
    And said the queen before:
  ‘I have loved a fairer woman
  Than thou ever laidest thine eye upon,
    This seven year and more!’

The drama of _Lohengrin_ keeps this idea before the public (not to speak
of the opera of _Orfeo_), and _Lohengrin_ is a medieval German romance.
The Breton lay of Orpheus would not have been in any way exceptional if
it had kept to the original fable; the beauty of it loses nothing by the
course which it has preferred to take, the happy ending. One may refer to
it as a standard, to show what can be done in the medieval art of
narrative, with the simplest elements and smallest amount of decoration.
It is minstrel poetry, popular poetry—the point is clear when King Orfeo
excuses himself to the King of Faerie by the rules of his profession as a
minstrel; that was intended to produce a smile, and applause perhaps,
among the audience. But though a minstrel’s poem it is far from rude, and
it is quite free from the ordinary faults of rambling and prosing, such
as Chaucer ridiculed in his _Geste of Sir Thopas_. It is all in good
compass, and coherent; nothing in it is meaningless or ill-placed.

_Sir Tristrem_ is a great contrast to _Sir Orfeo_; not an absolute
contrast, for neither is this story rambling or out of compass. The
difference between the two is that _Sir Orfeo_ is nearly perfect as an
English representative of the ‘Breton lay’—i.e. the short French romantic
story like the _Lais_ of Marie de France; while _Sir Tristrem_ represents
no French style of narrative poetry, and is not very successful (though
technically very interesting) as an original English experiment in
poetical form. It is distinctly clever, as it is likewise ambitious. The
poet intends to do finer things than the common. He adopts a peculiar
stanza, not one of the easiest—a stanza more fitted for lyric than
narrative poetry, and which is actually used for lyrical verse by the
poet Laurence Minot. It is in short lines, well managed and effective in
their way, but it is a thin tinkling music to accompany the tragic story.

  Ysonde bright of hewe
    Is far out in the sea;
  A wind again them blew
    That sail no might there be;
  So rew the knightes trewe,
    Tristrem, so rew he,
  Ever as they came newe
    He one again them three
  Great swink—
    Sweet Ysonde the free
  Asked Brengwain a drink.

  The cup was richly wrought,
    Of gold it was, the pin;
  In all the world was nought
    Such drink as there was in;
  Brengwain was wrong bethought
    To that drink she gan win
  And sweet Ysonde it betaught;
    She bad Tristrem begin
  To say:
    Their love might no man twin
  Till their ending day.

The stage is that of a little neat puppet-show; with figures like those
of a miniature, dressed in bright armour, or in scarlet and vair and
grey—the rich cloth, the precious furs, grey and ermine, which so often
represent the glory of this world in the old romances—

  Ysonde of highe pris,
    The maiden bright of hewe,
  That wered fow and gris
    And scarlet that was newe;
  In warld was none so wis
    Of crafte that men knewe.

There is a large group of rhyming romances which might be named after
Chaucer’s _Sir Thopas_—the companions of _Sir Thopas_. Chaucer’s
burlesque is easily misunderstood. It is criticism, and it is ridicule;
it shows up the true character of the common minstrelsy; the rambling
narrative, the conventional stopgaps, the complacent childish vanity of
the popular artist who has his audience in front of him and knows all the
easy tricks by which he can hold their attention. Chaucer’s _Rime of Sir
Thopas_ is interrupted by the voice of common sense—rudely—

  This may well be rime doggerel, quoth he.

But Chaucer has made a good thing out of the rhyme doggerel, and
expresses the pleasant old-fashioned quality of the minstrels’ romances,
as well as their absurdities.

His parody touches on the want of plan and method and meaning in the
popular rhymes of chivalry; it is also intended as criticism of their
verse. That verse, of which there are several varieties—there is more
than one type of stanza in _Sir Thopas_—is technically called _rime
couée_ or ‘tail-rhyme’, and like all patterns of verse it imposes a
certain condition of mind, for the time, on the poets who use it. It is
not absolutely simple, and so it is apt to make the writer well pleased
with himself when he finds it going well; it very readily becomes
monotonous and flat—

  Now cometh the emperour of price,
  Again him rode the king of Galice
      With full mickle pride;
  The child was worthy under weed
  And sat upon a noble steed
      By his father side;
  And when he met the emperour
  He valed his hood with great honour
      And kissed him in that tide;
  And other lords of great valour
  They also kissèd Segramour
      In heart is not to hide.                                (_Emaré._)

For that reason, because of the monotonous beat of the tail-rhymes in the
middle and at the end of the stanza, it is chosen by the parodists of
Wordsworth in the _Rejected Addresses_ when they are aiming at what they
think is flat and insipid in his poetry. But it is a form of stanza which
may be so used as to escape the besetting faults; the fact that it has
survived through all the changes of literary fashion, and has been used
by poets in all the different centuries, is something to the credit of
the minstrels, as against the rude common-sense criticism of the Host of
the Tabard when he stopped the Rime of _Sir Thopas_.

Chaucer’s catalogue of romances is well known—

  Men speken of romances of prys
  Of Horn Child and of Ypotys
      Of Bevis and Sir Gy,
  Of Sir Libeux and Pleyndamour,
  But Sir Thopas he bereth the flour
      Of royal chivalry.

In this summary, the name of _Pleyndamour_ is still a difficulty for
historians; it is not known to what book Chaucer was referring. _Ypotis_
is curiously placed, for the poem of _Ypotis_ is not what is usually
reckoned a romance. ‘Ypotis’ is Epictetus the Stoic philosopher, and the
poem is derived from the old moralizing dialogue literature; it is
related to the Anglo-Saxon dialogue of Solomon and Saturn. The other four
are well known. _Horn Childe_ is a later version, in stanzas, of the
story of _King Horn_. Bevis of Southampton and Guy of Warwick are among
the most renowned, and most popular, of all the chivalrous heroes. In
later prose adaptations they were current down to modern times; they were
part of the favourite reading of Bunyan, and gave him ideas for the
_Pilgrim’s Progress_. _Guy of Warwick_ was rewritten many times—Chaucer’s
pupil, Lydgate, took it up and made a new version of it. There was a
moral and religious strain in it, which appealed to the tastes of many;
the remarkable didactic prose romance of _Tirant the White_, written in
Spain in the fifteenth century, is connected with _Guy of Warwick_. Sir
Bevis is more ordinary and has no particular moral; it is worth reading,
if any one wishes to know what was regularly expected in romances by the
people who read, or rather who listened to them. The disinherited hero,
the beautiful Paynim princess, the good horse Arundel, the giant
Ascapart—these and many other incidents may be paralleled in other
stories; the history of Sir Bevis has brought them all together, and all
the popular novelist’s machinery might be fairly catalogued out of this
work alone.

_Sir Libeaus_—Le Beau Desconnu, the Fair Knight unknown—is a different
thing. This also belongs to the School of Sir Thopas—it is minstrels’
work, and does not pretend to be anything else. But it is well done. The
verse, which is in short measure like that of _Sir Tristrem_, but not in
so ambitious a stanza, is well managed—

  That maide knelde in halle
  Before the knightes alle
    And seide: My lord Arthour!
  A cas ther is befalle
  Worse withinne walle
    Was never non of dolour.
  My lady of Sinadoune
  Is brought in strong prisoun
    That was of great valour;
  Sche praith the sende her a knight
  With herte good and light
    To winne her with honour.

This quotation came from the beginning of the story, and it gives the one
problem which has to be solved by the hero. Instead of the mixed
adventures of Sir Bevis, there is only one principal one, which gives
occasion to all the adventures by the way. The lady of Sinodoun has
fallen into the power of two enchanters, and her damsel (with her dwarf
attendant) comes to the court of King Arthur to ask for a champion to
rescue her. It is a story like that of the Red Cross Knight and Una. If
Sir Bevis corresponds to what one may call the ordinary matter of
Spenser’s _Faerie Queen_, the wanderings, the separations, the dangerous
encounters, _Sir Libeaus_ resembles those parts of Spenser’s story where
the plot is most coherent. One of the most beautiful passages in all his
work, Britomart in the house of the enchanter Busirane, may have been
suggested by _Sir Libeaus. Sir Libeaus_ is one example of a kind of
medieval story, not the greatest, but still good and sound; the Arthurian
romance in which Arthur has nothing to do except to preside at the
beginning, and afterwards to receive the conquered opponents whom the
hero sends home from successive stages in his progress, to make
submission to the king. Sir Libeaus (his real name is Guinglain, the son
of Gawain) sets out on his journey with the damsel and the dwarf; at
first he is scorned by her, like Sir Gareth of Orkney in another story of
the same sort, but very soon he shows what he can do at the passage of
the Pont Perilous, and in the challenging of the gerfalcon, and many
other trials. Like other heroes of romance, he falls under the spell of a
sorceress who dazzles him with ‘fantasm and faerie’, but he escapes after
a long delay, and defeats the magicians of Sinodoun and rescues the lady
with a kiss from her serpent shape which the enchanters have put upon
her. Compared with Spenser’s house of Busirane, the scene of Sir Libeaus
at Sinodoun is a small thing. But one does not feel as in _Sir Tristrem_
the discrepancy between the miniature stage, the small bright figures,
and the tragic meaning of their story. Here the story is not tragic; it
is a story that the actors understand and can play rightly. There are no
characters and no motives beyond the scope of a fairy tale—

  Sir Libeaus, knight corteis
  Rode into the paleis
    And at the halle alighte;
  Trompes, homes, schalmeis,
  Before the highe dais,
    He herd and saw with sight;
  Amid the halle floor
  A fire stark and store
    Was light and brende bright;
  Then farther in he yede
  And took with him his steed
    That halp him in the fight.

  Libeaus inner gan pace
  To behold each place,
    The hales in the halle;                                     _niches_
  Of main more ne lasse
  Ne saw he body ne face
    But menstrales clothed in palle;
  With harpe, fithele and rote,
  And with organes note,
    Great glee they maden alle,
  With citole and sautrie,
  So moche menstralsie
    Was never withinne walle.

As if to show the range and the difference of style in English romance,
there is another story written like _Sir Libeaus_ in the reign of Edward
III, taken from the same Arthurian legend and beginning in the same way,
which has scarcely anything in common with it except the general
resemblance in the plot. This is _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_, one
of the most original works in medieval romance. It is written in
alliterative blank verse, divided into irregular periods which have
rhyming tailpieces at the end of them—

  As hit is stad and stoken
    In story stif and stronge
  With leal letters loken
    In land so has been longe.

While the story of _Sir Libeaus_ is found in different languages—French,
Italian, German—there is no other extant older version of _Gawain and the
Green Knight_. But the separate incidents are found elsewhere, and the
scene to begin with is the usual one: Arthur at his court, Arthur keeping
high festival and waiting for ‘some main marvel’. The adventure comes
when it is wanted; the Green Knight on his green horse rides into the
king’s hall—half-ogre, by the look of him, to challenge the Round Table.
What he offers is a ‘jeopardy’, a hazard, a wager. ‘Will any gentleman
cut off my head’, says he, ‘on condition that I may have a fair blow at
him, and no favour, in a twelvemonth’s time? Or if you would rather have
it so, let me have the first stroke, and I promise to offer my neck in
turn, when a year has gone’. This is the beheading game which is spoken
of in other stories (one of them an old Irish comic romance) but which
seems to have been new at that time to the knights of King Arthur. It is
rightly considered dangerous; and so it proved when Sir Gawain had
accepted the jeopardy. For after Gawain had cut off the stranger’s head,
the Green Knight picked it up by the hair, and held it up, and it spoke
and summoned Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel in a year’s space,
and bide the return blow.

This is more surprising than anything in _Sir Bevis_ or _Sir Guy_. Not
much is done by the writer to explain it; at the same time nothing is
left vague. The author might almost have been a modern novelist with a
contempt for romance, trying, by way of experiment, to work out a
‘supernatural’ plot with the full strength of his reason; merely
accepting the fabulous story, and trying how it will go with accessories
from real life, and with modern manners and conversation. There is none
of the minstrel’s cant in this work, none of the cheap sensations, the
hackneyed wonders such as are ridiculed in _Sir Thopas_. Only, the
incident on which the whole story turns, the device of the beheading
game, is a piece of traditional romance. It is not found in every
language, but it is fairly well known. It is not as common as the lady
turned into a serpent, or the man into a werewolf, but still it is not
invented, it is borrowed by the English poet, and borrowed for a work
which always, even in the beheading scenes, is founded on reality.

It is probable that the author of _Sir Gawain_ is also the author of
three other poems (not romances) which are found along with it in the
same manuscript—the _Pearl_, _Cleanness_, and _Patience_. He is a writer
with a gift for teaching, of a peculiar sort. He is not an original
philosopher, and his reading appears to have been the usual sort of thing
among fairly educated men. He does not try to get away from the regular
authorities, and he is not afraid of commonplaces. But he has great force
of will, and a strong sense of the difficulties of life; also high
spirits and great keenness. His memory is well supplied from all that he
has gone through. The three sporting episodes in _Sir Gawain_, the
deer-hunt (in Christmas week, killing the hinds), the boar-hunt and the
fox-hunt, are not only beyond question as to their scientific truth; the
details are remembered without study because the author has lived in
them, and thus, minute as they are, they are not wearisome. They do not
come from a careful notebook; they are not like the descriptions of rooms
and furniture in painstaking novels. The landscapes and the weather of
_Sir Gawain_ are put in with the same freedom. The author has a talent
especially for winter scenes. ‘Grim Nature’s visage hoar’ had plainly
impressed his mind, and not in a repulsive way. The winter ‘mist hackles’
(copes of mist) on the hills, the icicles on the stones, the swollen
streams, all come into his work—a relief from the too ready illustrations
of spring and summer which are scattered about in medieval stories.

The meaning of the story is in the character of Gawain. Like some other
romances, this is a chivalrous _Pilgrim’s Progress_. Gawain, so much
vilified by authors who should have known better, is for this poet, as he
is for Chaucer, the perfection of courtesy. He is also the servant of Our
Lady, and bears her picture on his shield, along with the pentangle which
is the emblem of her Five Joys, as well as the Five Wounds of Christ. The
poem is the ordeal of Gawain; Gawain is tried in courage and loyalty by
his compact with the Green Knight; he is tried in loyalty and temperance
when he is wooed by the wanton conversation of the lady in the castle.
The author’s choice of a plot is justified, because what he wants is an
ordeal of courage, and that is afforded by the Green Knight’s ‘jeopardy’.

The alliterative poetry is almost always stronger than the tales in
rhyme, written with more zest, not so much in danger of droning and
sleepiness as the school of Sir Thopas undoubtedly is. But there is a
great difference among the alliterative romances. _William of Palerne_,
for example, is vigorous, but to little purpose, because the author has
not understood the character of the French poem which he has translated,
and has misapplied his vigorous style to the handling of a rather
sophisticated story which wanted the smooth, even, unemphatic, French
style to express it properly. _The Wars of Alexander_ is the least
distinguished of the group; there was another alliterative story of
Alexander, of which only fragments remain. The _Chevelere Assigne_, the
‘Knight of the Swan,’ is historically interesting, as giving the romantic
origin of Godfrey the Crusader, who is the last of the Nine Worthies.
Though purely romantic in its contents, the _Chevalier au Cygne_ belongs
to one of the French narrative groups usually called epic—the epic of
_Antioch_, which is concerned with the first Crusade. The _Gest historial
of the Destruction of Troy_ is of great interest; it is the liveliest of
all the extant ‘Troy Books’, and it has all the good qualities of the
fourteenth-century alliterative school, without the exaggeration and
violence which was the common fault of this style, as the contrary fault
of tameness was the danger of the rhyming romances. But the alliterative
poem which ranks along with _Sir Gawayne_ as an original work with a
distinct and fresh comprehension of its subject is the _Morte Arthure_.
This has some claim to be called an epic poem, an epic of the modern
kind, composed with a definite theory. The author takes the heroic view
of Arthur given by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and turns his warfare into a
reflection of the glory of King Edward III; not casually, but following
definite lines, with almost as much tenacity as the author of _Sir
Gawayne_, and, of course, with a greater theme. The tragedy of Arthur in
Malory to some extent repeats the work of this poet—whose name was
Huchoun of the Awle Ryale; it may have been Sir Hugh of Eglinton.

                               CHAPTER V
                           SONGS AND BALLADS

King Canute’s boat-song has some claim to be the earliest English song in

  Merie sungen the muneches binnen Ely
  Tha Knut king rew therby:
  Roweth, knihtes, ner the land
  And here we thes muneches sang.

If this claim be disallowed, then the first is St. Godric, the hermit of
Finchale in the reign of Henry II—his hymn to Our Lady and the hymn to
St. Nicholas. These are preserved along with the music (like the Cuckoo
song which comes later); the manuscript of the poems of Godric is copied
in the frontispiece to Saintsbury’s _History of English Prosody_; it
proves many interesting things. It is obvious that musical notation is
well established; and it seems to follow that with a good musical
tradition there may be encouragement for lyric poetry apart from any such
‘courtly’ circumstances as have been described in another chapter. There
is no doubt about this. While it is certain on the one hand that the
lyrical art of the Middle Ages was carried furthest in courtly society by
the French, Provençal, German and Italian poets, it is equally certain
that the art of music flourished also in out-of-the-way places. And as in
those days musical and poetical measures, tunes and words, generally went
together, the development of music would mean the development of poetical
forms, of lyric stanzas. Music flourished in England most of all in
Godric’s country, the old Northumbria. Giraldus Cambrensis, who has been
quoted already for his story of the wake and the English love-song, gives
in another place a remarkable description of the part-singing which in
his time was cultivated where it is most in favour at the present day—in
Wales, and in England north of the Humber. Where people met to sing in
parts, where music, therefore, was accurate and well studied, there must
have been careful patterns of stanza. Not much remains from a date so
early as this, nor even for a century after the time of Godric and
Giraldus. But towards the end of the reign of Edward I lyric poems are
found more frequently, often careful in form. And in judging of their art
it is well to remember that it is not necessary to refer them to the
courtly schools for their origin. Country people might be good judges of
lyric; they might be as exacting in their musical and poetical criticisms
as any persons of quality could be. Hence while it is certain that
England before the time of Chaucer was generally rustic and provincial in
its literary taste, it does not follow that the rustic taste was
uninstructed or that the art was poor. The beauty of the English songs
between 1300 and 1500 is not that of the nobler lyric as it was (for
example) practised and described by Dante. But the beauty is undeniable,
and it is the beauty of an art which has laws of its own; it is poetry,
not the primitive elements of poetry. In art, it is not very far from
that of the earlier Provençal poets. For everywhere, it should be
remembered, the noble lyric poetry was ready to draw from the popular
sources, to adapt and imitate the rustic themes; as on the other hand the
common people were often willing to take up the courtly forms.

The earliest rhyming songs are more interesting from their associations
than their own merits; though Canute and St. Godric are certainly able to
put a good deal of meaning into few words. Godric’s address to St.
Nicholas is particularly memorable for its bearing on his own history.
Godric had been a sea captain in his youth (like another famous author of
hymns, the Rev. John Newton) and St. Nicholas is the patron saint of
sailors. Godric, whose operations were in the Levant, had often prayed to
St. Nicholas of Bari, and he brings the name of the saint’s own city into
his hymn, by means of a sacred pun. ‘Saint Nicholas’, he says, ‘build us
a far sheen house—

  At thi burch at thi bare
  Sainte Nicholaes bring us wel thare.

‘Bare’ here means shrine, literally, but Godric is thinking also of the
name of the ‘burgh’, the city of Bari to which the relics of the saint
had been lately brought.

Religious lyric poetry is not separate from other kinds, and it
frequently imitates the forms and language of worldly songs. The _Luve
Ron_ of the Friar Minor Thomas de Hales is one of the earliest poems of a
type something between the song and the moral poem—a lyric rather far
away from the music of a song, more like the lyrics of modern poets,
meant to be read rather than sung, yet keeping the lyrical stave. One
passage in it is on the favourite theme of the ‘snows of yester year’—

  Where is Paris and Heleyne
  That were so bright and fair of blee!

This is earlier in date than the famous collection in the Harleian MS.,
which is everything best worth remembering in the old lyrical poetry—

  Betwene Mersche and Averil
  When spray beginneth to springe.

The lyrical contents of this book (there are other things besides the
songs—a copy of _King Horn_, e.g.)—the songs of this Harleian MS.—are
classified as religious, amatory and satirical; but a better division is
simply into songs of love and songs of scorn. The division is as old and
as constant as anything in the world, and the distinction between
‘courtly’ and ‘popular’ does not affect it. In the older court poetry of
Iceland, as in the later of Provence and Germany, the lyric of scorn and
the lyric of praise were equally recognized. The name ‘Wormtongue’ given
to an Icelandic poet for his attacking poems would do very well for many
of the Provençals—for Sordello, particularly, whose best-known poem is
his lyrical satire on the Kings of Christendom. It depends, of course, on
fashion how the lyrical attack shall be developed. In England it could
not be as subtle as in the countries of Bertran de Born or Walter von der
Vogelweide, where the poet was a friend and enemy of some among the
greatest of the earth. The political songs in the Harleian manuscript are
anonymous, and express the heart of the people. The earliest in date and
the best known is the song of Lewes—a blast of laughter from the
partisans of Simon de Montfort following up the pursuit of their defeated
adversaries—thoroughly happy and contemptuous, and not cruel. It is
addressed to ‘Richard of Almain’, Richard the king’s brother, who was
looked on as the bad counsellor of his nephew Edward—

  Sir Simon de Montfort hath swore by his chin,
  Hadde he now here the Erl of Warin
  Sholde he never more come to his inn
  With shelde, ne with spere, ne with other gin
      To helpe of Windesore!
  _Richard! thah thou be ever trichard,_
  _Trichen shalt thou never more!_

This very spirited song is preserved together with some others dealing
with later events in the life of Edward. One of them is a long poem of
exultation over the death of the King’s Scottish rebels, Sir William
Wallace and Sir Simon Fraser; the author takes great pleasure in the
treatment of Wallace by the King and the hangman—

  Sir Edward oure King, that full is of pité
  The Waleis’ quarters sende to his owne countré
  On four half to honge, here mirour to be
  Ther upon to thenche, that monie mihten see
          And drede:
      Why nolden hie be war,
      Of the bataile of Donbar
          How evele hem con spede?

The same poet gibes at a Scottish rebel who was then still living and
calls him a ‘king of summer’ and ‘King Hob’—

  Nou kyng Hobbe in the mures gongeth.

This King Hob of the moors was Robert the Bruce, wandering, as Barbour
describes him, over the land. There is another very vigorous and rather
long piece on a recent defeat of the French by the Flemings at Courtrai—

  The Frenshe came to Flaundres so light so the hare
  Er hit were midnight, hit fell hem to care
  Hie were caught by the net, so bird is in snare
        With rouncin and with stede:
  The Flemishe hem dabbeth on the hed bare,
  Hie nolden take for hem raunsoun ne ware
  Hie doddeth off here hevedes, fare so hit fare,
        And thare to haveth hie nede.

This style of political journalism in rhyme was carried on later with
much spirit, and one author is well known by name and has had his poems
often edited—Lawrence Minot, a good workman who is sometimes undervalued.
Lawrence Minot has command of various lyrical measures; he has the clear
sharp phrasing which belongs generally to his northern dialect, and he
can put contempt into his voice with no recourse to bad language. After
describing the threats and boasting of the French, when Minot remarks

  And yet is England as it was,

the effect is just where it ought to be, between wind and water; the
enemy is done for. It is like Prior’s observation to Boileau, in the
_Ode_ on the taking of Namur, and the surrender of the French garrison—

  Each was a Hercules, you tell us,
  Yet out they marched like common men.

Besides the songs of attack, there are also comic poems, simply amusing
without malice—such is the excellent Harleian piece on the _Man in the
Moon_, which is the meditation of a solitary reveller, apparently
thinking out the problem of the Man and his thorn-bush and offering
sympathy: ‘Did you cut a bundle of thorns, and did the heyward come and
make you pay? Ask him to drink, and we will get your pledge redeemed’.

  If thy wed is y-take, bring home the truss;
    Set forth thine other foot, stride over sty!
  We shall pray the heyward home to our house,
    And maken him at ease, for the maistry!
  Drink to him dearly of full good bouse,
    And our dame Douce shall sitten him by;
  When that he is drunk as a dreynt mouse
    Then we shall borrow the wed at the bailie!

A Franciscan brother in Ireland, Friar Michael of Kildare, composed some
good nonsensical poems—one of them a rigmarole in which part of the joke
is the way he pretends to rhyme and then sticks in a word that does not
rhyme, asking all through for admiration of his skill in verse. As a
poetical joke it is curious, and shows that Brother Michael was a critic
and knew the terms of his art. There are many literary games in the
Middle Ages, nonsense rhymes of different sorts; they are connected with
the serious art of poetry which had its own ‘toys and trifles’—such feats
of skill in verse and rhyming as Chaucer shows in his _Complaint of
Anelida_. Tricks of verse were apt to multiply as the poetic imagination
failed—a substitute for poetry; but many of the strongest poets have used
them occasionally. Among all the artistic games one of the most curious
is where a Welsh poet (in Oxford in the fifteenth century) gives a
display of Welsh poetical form with English words—to confute the ignorant
Saxon who had said there was no art of poetry in Wales.

The stanza forms in the Harleian book are various, and interesting to
compare with modern stanzas. There is an example of the verse which has
travelled from William of Poitiers, about the year 1100, to Burns and his
imitators. Modern poetry begins with William of Poitiers using the verse
of Burns in a poem on _Nothing_—

  The song I make is of no thing,
  Of no one, nor myself, I sing,
  Of joyous youth, nor love-longing,
        Nor place, nor time;
  I rode on horseback, slumbering:
        There sprang this rhyme!

Two hundred years after, it is found in England—

  Her eye hath wounded me, y-wisse,
  Her bende browen that bringeth blisse;
  Her comely mouth that mightè kisse
        In mirth he were;
  I woldè chaungè mine for his
        That is her fere!

The romance stanza is used also in its original lyrical way, with a
refrain added—

  For her love I cark and care
  For her love I droop and dare
  For her love my bliss is bare
        And all I waxè wan;
  For her love in sleep I slake,
  For her love all night I wake
  For her love mourning I make
        More than any man.
      _Blow, northern wind!_
      _Send thou me my sweeting!_
      _Blow, northern wind!_
      _Blow! blow! blow!_

Technically, it is to be noted that some of those poems have the
combination of a six-line with a four-line passage which is frequent in
French lyrics of all ages, which is also found in the verse of _The
Cherrie and the Slae_ (another of Burns’s favourite measures), and also
in some of Gray’s simpler odes. It is found in one of the religious
poems, with the six lines first, and the four lines after, as in Burns.
The common French pattern arranges them the other way round, and so does
Gray, but the constituent parts are the same.

  Now shrinketh rose and lily flower
  That whilom bare that sweete savour,
    In summer, that sweete tide;
  Ne is no queene so stark ne stour,
  Ne no lady so bright in bower
    That death ne shall by glide;
  Whoso will flesh-lust forgon,
    And heaven bliss abide,
  On Jesu be his thought anon,
    That thirled was his side.

This poem is a good text to prove the long ancestry of modern verse, and
the community of the nations, often very remote from definite intercourse
between them. And there is one phrase in this stanza which goes back to
the older world: ‘bright in bower’ is from the ancient heroic verse; it
may be found in Icelandic, in the Elder Edda.

The fifteenth century, which is so dismal in the works of the more
ambitious poets (Lydgate, and Occleve, e.g.), is rich in popular carols
which by this time have drawn close to the modern meaning of the name.
They are Christmas carols, and the name loses its old general application
to any song that went with dancing in a round. In the carols, the art is
generally much more simple than in the lyrics which have just been
quoted; they belong more truly to the common people, and their authors
are less careful. Yet the difference is one of degree. The only
difference which is really certain is between one poem and another.

Speaking generally about the carols one may say truly they are unlike the
work of the Chaucerian school; the lyrics of the Harleian book in the
reign of Edward I are nearer the Chaucerian manner. It is hardly worth
while to say more, for the present.

And it is not easy to choose among the carols. Some of them are well
known to-day—

  When Christ was born of Mary free
  In Bethlehem that fair city
  Angels sang loud with mirth and glee
        _In excelsis gloria_.

Ballads in the ordinary sense of the term—ballads with a story in them,
like _Sir Patrick Spens_ or _The Milldams of Binnorie_—are not found in
any quantity till late in the Middle Ages, and hardly at all before the
fifteenth century. But there are some early things of the kind. A rhyme
of _Judas_ (thirteenth century) is reckoned among the ballads by the
scholar (the late Professor Child) who gave most time to the subject, and
whose great collection of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads has
brought together everything ascertainable about them.

By some the ballads are held to be degenerate romances; and they appear
at a time when the best of romance was over, and when even the worst was
dying out. Also, it is quite certain that some ballads are derived from
romances. There is a ballad of the young _Hynd Horn_ which comes from the
old narrative poem of _King Horn_ or of _Horn Childe_. There is a ballad
version of _Sir Orfeo_, the ‘Breton lay’ which has been described in
another chapter. But there are great difficulties in the way of this
theory. In the first place, there are many ballads which have no romance
extant to correspond to them. That may not prove much, for many old
romances have been lost. But if one is to make allowance for chances of
this sort, then many old ballads may have been lost also, and many extant
ballads may go back to the thirteenth century or even earlier for their
original forms. Again, there are ballads which it is scarcely possible to
think of as existing in the shape of a narrative romance. The form of the
ballad is lyrical; all ballads are lyrical ballads, and some of them at
any rate would lose their meaning utterly if they were paraphrased into a
story. What would the story of _Sir Patrick Spens_ be worth if it were
told in any other way—with a description of the scenery about
Dunfermline, the domestic establishment of the King of Norway, and the
manners at his Court? Further, the theory that the ballads are degenerate
romances is unfair to those ballads which are known to be descended from
romances. The ballad of _Hynd Horn_ may be derived from an older
narrative poem, but it is not a _corruption_ of any old narrative; it is
a different thing, in a lyrical form which has a value of its own.
‘Corruption’, ‘degeneracy’, does not explain the form of the ballads, any
more than the Miracle Plays are explained by calling them corruptions of
the Gospel.

The proper form of the ballads is the same as the _carole_, with
narrative substance added. Anything will do for a ring dance, either at a
wake in a churchyard, or in a garden like that of the _Roman de la Rose_,
or at Christmas games like those described in _Sir Gawayne and the Green
Knight_. At first, a love-song was the favourite sort, with a refrain of
_douce amie_, and so on. But the method was always the same; there was a
leader who sang the successive verses, the fresh lines of the song, while
the other dancers came in with the refrain, most often in two parts, one
after the first verse, the second after the second—

  When that I was and a little tiny boy
    _With a heigh-ho, the wind and the rain_,
  A foolish thing was but a toy
    _And the rain it raineth every day_.

The narrative ballad was most in favour where people were fondest of
dancing. The love-song or the nonsense verses could not be kept up so
long; something more was wanted, and this was given by the story; also as
the story was always dramatic, more or less, with different people
speaking, the entertainment was all the better. If this is not the whole
explanation, it still accounts for something in the history, and it is
certainly true of some places where the ballad has flourished longest.
The _carole_ has lasted to the present day in the Faroe Islands, together
with some very ancient types of tune; and there the ballads are much
longer than in other countries, because the dancers are unwearied and
wish to keep it up as long as may be. So the ballads are spun out,

The history of ballad poetry in Western Europe, if one dates it from the
beginning of the French _carole_ fashion—about 1100—is parallel to the
history of pure lyric, and to the history of romance. It is distinct from
both, and related to both. There are many mysterious things in it. The
strangest thing of all is that it often seems to repeat in comparatively
modern times—in the second half of the Middle Ages—what has been
generally held to be the process by which epic poetry begins. There is
reason for thinking that epic poetry began in concerted lyric, something
like the ballad chorus. The oldest Anglo-Saxon heroic poem, _Widsith_, is
near to lyric; _Deor’s Lament_ is lyric, with a refrain. The old Teutonic
narrative poetry (as in _Beowulf_) may have grown out of a very old sort
of ballad custom, where the narrative elements increased and gradually
killed the lyric, so that recitation of a story by the minstrel took the
place of the dancing chorus. However that may be, it is certain that the
ballads of Christendom in the Middle Ages are related in a strange way to
the older epic poetry, not by derivation, but by sympathy. The ballad
poets think in the same manner as the epic poets and choose by preference
the same kind of plot. The plots of epics are generally the plots of
tragedies. This is one of the great differences between the Anglo-Saxon
heroic poetry and the later romances. It is a difference also between the
romances and the ballads. Few of the romances are tragical. The story of
Tristram and the story of King Arthur are tragical; but the romantic
poets are beaten by the story of Tristram, and they generally keep away
from the tragedy of Arthur. The ballads often have happy endings, but not
nearly so often as the romances; in the best of the ballads there is a
sorrowful ending; in many there is a tragical mistake; in many (and in
how few of the romances!) there is a repetition of the old heroic scene,
the last resistance against the enemy as in Roncevaux or in the
_Nibelunge Nôt_. _Chevy Chase_ is the ballad counterpart of _Maldon_;
_Parcy Reed_ or _Johnny of Braidislee_ answers in the ballad form to the
fight at _Finnesburgh_, a story of a treacherous onset and a good
defence. Parcy Reed, beset and betrayed, is more like a northern hero
than a knight of romance.

The mystery is that the same kind of choice should be found in all the
countries where ballads were sung. The English and Scottish ballads, like
the English romances, are related to similar things in other lands. To
understand the history of the ballads it is necessary, as with the
romances, to compare different versions of the same matter—French or
German, Italian, Danish.

Many curious things have been brought out by study of this
sort—resemblances of ballad plots all over Christendom. But there is a
sort of resemblance which no amount of ‘analogues’ in different languages
can explain, and that is the likeness in temper among the ballad poets of
different languages, which not only makes them take up the same stories,
but makes them deal with fresh realities in the same way. How is it that
an English ballad poet sees the death of Parcy Reed in a certain manner,
while a Danish poet far off will see the same poetical meaning in a
Danish adventure, and will turn it into the common ballad form? In both
cases it is the death of a hero that the poet renders in verse; deaths of
heroes are a subject for poetry, it may be said, all over the world. But
how is it that this particular form should be used in different countries
for the same kind of subject, not conventionally, but with imaginative
life, each poet independently seizing this as the proper subject and
treating it with all the force of his mind?

The medieval ballad is a form used by poets with their eyes open upon
life, and with a form of thought in their minds by which they comprehend
a tragic situation. The medieval romance is a form used originally by
poets with a certain vein of sentiment who found that narrative plots
helped them to develop their emotional rhetoric; then it passed through
various stages in different countries, sinking into chapbooks or rising
to the _Orlando_ or the _Faerie Queene_—but never coming back to the old
tragic form of imagination, out of which the older epics had been
derived, and which is constantly found in the ballads.

Probably the old ballad chorus in its proper dancing form was going out
of use in England about 1400. Barbour, a contemporary of Chaucer, speaks
of girls singing ballads ‘at their play’; Thomas Deloney in the time of
Elizabeth describes the singing of a ballad refrain; and the game lives
happily still, in songs of _London Bridge_ and others. But it became more
and more common for ballads to be sung or recited to an audience sitting
still; ballads were given out by minstrels, like the minstrel of _Chevy
Chase_. Sometimes ballads are found swelling into something like a
narrative poem; such is the famous ballad of _Adam Bell, Clim o’ the
Clough, and William of Cloudeslee_, which has a plot of the right sort,
the defence of a house against enemies. _The Little Geste of Robin Hood_
seems to be an attempt to make an epic poem by joining together a number
of ballads. The ballad of _Robin Hood’s Death_ is worth reading as a
contrast to this rather mechanical work. _Robin Hood’s Death_ is a ballad
tragedy; again, the death of a hero beset by traitors. Red Roger stabbed
Robin with a grounden glave (‘grounden’ comes from the oldest poetic
vocabulary). Robin made ‘a wound full wide’ between Roger’s head and his
shoulders. Then he asks Little John for the sacrament, the housel of
earth (he calls it ‘moud’, i.e. ‘mould’) which could be given and taken
by any Christian man, in extremity, without a priest—

  ‘Now give me moud,’ Robin said to Little John,
  ‘Now give me moud with thy hand;
  I trust to God in heaven so high
  My housel will me bestand.’

And he refuses to let Little John burn the house of the treacherous
Prioress where he had come by his death. This is heroic poetry in its
simplest form, and quite true to its proper nature.

The beauty of the ballads is uncertain and often corrupted by
forgetfulness and the ordinary accidents of popular tradition. It is not
always true that the right subject has the best form. But the grace of
the ballads is unmistakable; it is unlike anything in the contemporary
romances, because it is lyrical poetry. It is often vague and intangible.
It is never the same as narrative romance.

  He’s tane three locks o’ her yellow hair,
    _Binnorie, O Binnorie!_
  And wi’ them strung his harp so fair
    _By the bonny mill-dams o’ Binnorie_.

It is the singing voice that makes the difference; and it is a difference
of thought as well as of style.

                               CHAPTER VI
                              COMIC POETRY

France sets the model for comic as well as romantic poetry, in the Middle
Ages. In romance the English were not able for a long time—hardly before
Chaucer and Gower—to imitate the French style properly; the French
sentiment was beyond them, not appreciated; they took the stories, the
action and adventures, and let the sentiment alone, or abridged it. The
reasons for this are obvious. But there seems to be no reason, except
accident, for the way in which the English writers in those times
neglected the French comic literature of the twelfth century. Very little
of it is represented in the English of the following centuries; yet what
there is in English corresponding to the French _fabliaux_ and to Reynard
the Fox is thoroughly well done. The English wit was quite equal to the
French in matters such as these; there were no difficulties of style or
caste in the way, such as prevented the English minstrels from using much
of the French romantic, sentimental rhetoric. There might have been a
thirteenth-century English _Reynard_, as good as the High or Low German
_Reynards_; that is proved by the one short example (295 lines) in which
an episode of the great medieval comic epic is told by an English
versifier—the story of _The Vox and the Wolf_. This is one of the best of
all the practical jokes of Reynard—the well-known story of the Fox and
the Wolf in the well. It is told again, in a different way, among the
Fables of the Scottish poet Robert Henryson; it is also one of the
stories of Uncle Remus.

  A vox gan out of the wodè go,

and made his way to a hen-roost, where he got three hens out of five, and
argued with Chauntecler the cock, explaining, though unsuccessfully, that
a little blood-letting might be good for him; thence, being troubled with
thirst, he went to the well. The well had two buckets on a rope over a
pulley; the Fox ‘ne understood nought of the gin’ and got into one of the
buckets and went down to the bottom of the well; where he repented of his
gluttony. The comic epic is as moral as Piers Plowman; that is part of
the game.

Then (‘out of the depe wode’) appeared the Wolf, Sigrim (Isengrim), also
thirsty, and looking for a drink; he heard the lamentations of his gossip
Reneuard, and sat down by the well and called to him. Then at last the
Fox’s wit returned and he saw how he might escape. There was nothing (he
said) he would have prayed for more than that his friend should join him
in the happy place: ‘here is the bliss of Paradise’. ‘What! art thou
dead?’ says the Wolf: ‘this is news; it was only three days ago that thou
and thy wife and children all came to dine with me.’ ‘Yes! I am dead’,
says the Fox. ‘I would not return to the world again, for all the world’s
wealth. Why should I walk in the world, in care and woe, in filth and
sin? But this place is full of all happiness; here is mutton, both sheep
and goat.’ When the Wolf heard of this good meat his hunger overcame him
and he asked to be let in. ‘Not till thou art shriven’, says the Fox; and
the Wolf bends his head, sighing hard and strong, and makes his
confession, and gets forgiveness, and is happy.

  Nou ich am in clene live
  Ne recche ich of childe ne of wive.

‘But tell me what to do.’ ‘Do!’ quoth the Fox, ‘leap into the bucket, and
come down.’ And the Wolf going down met the Fox half-way; Reynard, ‘glad
and blithe’ that the Wolf was a true penitent and in clean living,
promised to have his soul-knell rung and masses said for him.

The well, it should be said, belonged to a house of friars; Aylmer the
‘master curtler’ who looked after the kitchen-garden came to the well in
the morning; and the Wolf was pulled out and beaten and hunted; he found
no bliss and no indulgence of blows.

The French story has some points that are not in the English; in the
original, the two buckets on the pulley are explained to Isengrim as
being God’s balance of good and evil, in which souls are weighed. Also
there is a more satisfactory account of the way Reynard came to be
entrapped. In the English story the failure of his wit is rather
disgraceful; in the French he takes to the bucket because he thinks he
sees his wife Hermeline in the bottom of the well; it is a clear
starlight night, and as he peers over the rim of the well he sees the
figure looking up at him, and when he calls there is a hollow echo which
he takes for a voice answering. But there is no such difference of taste
and imagination here between the French and the English Reynard as there
is between the French and the English chivalrous romances.

The _Roman de Renart_ is generally, and justly, taken as the ironical
counterpart of medieval epic and romance; an irreverent criticism of
dignitaries, spiritual and temporal, the great narrative comedy of the
Ages of Faith and of Chivalry. The comic short stories usually called
_fabliaux_ are most of them much less intelligent; rhyming versions of
ribald jokes, very elementary. But there are great differences among
them, and some of them are worth remembering. It is a pity there is no
English version of the _jongleur_, the professional minstrel, who, in the
absence of the devils, is put in charge of the souls in Hell, but is
drawn by St. Peter to play them away at a game of dice—the result being
that he is turned out; since then the Master Devil has given
instructions: No Minstrels allowed within.

There are few English _fabliaux_; there is perhaps only one preserved as
a separate piece by itself, the story of _Dame Sirith_. This is far above
the ordinary level of such things; it is a shameful practical joke, but
there is more in it than this; the character of Dame Sirith, in her
machinations to help the distressed lover of his neighbour’s wife, is
such as belongs to comedy and to satire, not to the ordinary vulgar
‘merry tale’.

It is hard to find any other separate tale of this class in English; but
the stories of the Seven Wise Masters, the Seven Sages of Rome, are many
of them impossible to distinguish from the common type of the French
_fabliaux_, though they are often classed among the romances. There are
many historical problems connected with the medieval short stories.
Although they do not appear in writing to any large extent before the
French rhyming versions, they are known to have been current long before
the twelfth century and before the French language was used in
literature. There are Latin versions of some of them composed in Germany
before the _fabliaux_ had come into existence; one of them in substance
is the same as Hans Andersen’s story of Big Claus and Little Claus, which
also is found as one of the _fabliaux_. Evidently, there are a number of
comic stories which have been going about for hundreds (or thousands) of
years without any need of a written version. At any time, in any country,
it may occur to some one to put one of those stories into literary
language. Two of the German-Latin comic poems are in elaborate medieval
verse, set to religious tunes, in the form of the _Sequentia_—a fact
which is mentioned here only to show that there was nothing popular in
these German experiments. They were not likely to found a school of comic
story-telling; they were too difficult and exceptional; literary
curiosities. The French _fabliaux_, in the ordinary short couplets and
without any literary ornament, were absolutely popular; it needed no
learning and not much wit to understand them. So that, as they spread and
were circulated, they came often to be hardly distinguishable from the
traditional stories which had been going about all the time in spoken,
not written, forms. It was one of the great popular successes of medieval
French literature; and it was due partly to the French stories
themselves, and partly to the example which they set, that comic
literature was cultivated in the later Middle Ages. The French stories
were translated and adapted by Boccaccio and many others; and when the
example had once been given, writers in different languages could find
stories of their own without going to the _fabliaux_.

Does it matter much to any one where these stories came from, and how
they passed from oral tradition into medieval (or modern) literary forms?
The question is more reasonable than such questions usually are, because
most of these stories are trivial, they are not all witty, and many of
them are villainous. But the historical facts about them serve to bring
out, at any rate, the extraordinary talent of the French for making
literary profit out of every kind of material. Any one might have thought
of writing out these stories which every one knew; but, with the
exception of the few Latin experiments, this was done by nobody till the
French took it up.

Further, those ‘merry tales’ come into the whole subject of the relations
between folk-lore and literature, which is particularly important (for
those who like that sort of inquiry) in the study of the Middle Ages. All
the fiction of the Middle Ages, comic or romantic, is full of things
which appear in popular tales like those collected by Grimm in Germany or
by Campbell of Islay in the West Highlands. So much of medieval poetry is
traditional or popular—the ballads especially—that folk-lore has to be
studied more carefully than is needful when one is dealing with later
times. With regard to short comic tales of the type of the _fabliaux_,
part of the problem is easy enough, if one accepts the opinion that
stories like _Big Claus and Little Claus_, which are found all over the
world, and which can be proved to have been current orally for centuries,
are things existing, and travelling, independently of written books,
which may at any time be recorded in a written form. The written form may
be literary, as when the story is written in Latin verse by an early
German scholar, or in French medieval verse by a minstrel or a minstrel’s
hack, or in fine Danish prose by Hans Andersen. Or it may be written down
by a scientific collector of folk-lore keeping closely to the actual
phrasing of the unsophisticated story-teller; as when the plot is found
among the Ananzi stories of the negroes in the West Indies. The life of
popular stories is mysterious; but it is well known in fact, and there is
no difficulty in understanding how the popular story which is perennial
in every climate may any day be used for the literary fashion of that

It is rather strange that while there is so much folk-lore in medieval
literature there should be so few medieval stories which take up exactly
the plots of any of the popular traditional tales. And it is a curious
coincidence that two of the plots from folk-lore which are used in
medieval literature, distinctly, by themselves, keeping to the folk-lore
outlines, should also appear in literary forms equally distinct and no
less true to their traditional shape among the Tales of Andersen. One is
that which has just been mentioned, _Big Claus and Little Claus_, which
comes into English rather late in the Middle Ages as the _Friars of
Berwick_. The other is the _Travelling Companion_, which in English
rhyming romance is called _Sir Amadace_. There is something fortunate
about those two stories which has gained for them more attention than the
rest. They both come into the Elizabethan theatre, where again it is
curiously rare to find a folk-lore plot. One is Davenport’s _New Trick to
Cheat the Devil_; the other, the _Travelling Companion_, is Peele’s _Old
Wives’ Tale_.

With most of the short stories it is useless to seek for any definite
source. To ask for the first author of _Big Claus and Little Claus_ is no
more reasonable than to ask who was the inventor of High Dutch and Low
Dutch. But there is a large section of medieval story-telling which is in
a different condition, and about which it is not wholly futile to ask
questions of pedigree. _The Seven Sages of Rome_ is the best example of
this class; it has been remarked already that many things in the book are
like the _fabliaux_; but unlike most of the _fabliaux_ they have a
literary origin which can be traced. The Book of the Seven Wise Masters
of Rome (which exists in many different forms, with a variety of
contents) is an Oriental collection of stories in a framework; that is to
say, there is a plot which leads to the telling of stories, as in the
_Arabian Nights_, the _Decameron_, the _Canterbury Tales_. The _Arabian
Nights_ were not known in the West till the beginning of the eighteenth
century, but the Oriental plan of a group of stories was brought to
Europe at least as early as the twelfth century. The plot of the _Seven
Sages_ is that the son of the Emperor of Rome is falsely accused by his
stepmother, and defended by the Seven Masters, the Empress and the
Masters telling stories against one another. As the object of the Masters
is to prove that women are not to be trusted, it may be understood that
their stories generally agree in their moral with the common
disrespectful ‘merry tales’. Among the lady’s stories are some of a
different complexion; one of these is best known in England through W. R.
Spencer’s ballad of the death of Gelert, the faithful hound who saved the
child of his lord, and was hastily and unjustly killed in error. Another
is the story of the Master Thief, which is found in the second book of
Herodotus—the treasure of Rhampsinitus, king of Egypt.

One of those Oriental fables found among the old French short stories
comes into English long afterwards in the form of Parnell’s _Hermit_.

Although the _fabliaux_ are not very largely represented in medieval
English rhyme, there is a considerable amount of miscellaneous comic
verse. One of the great differences between Middle English and
Anglo-Saxon writings (judging from what is extant) is that in Middle
English there is far more jesting and nonsense. The best of the comic
pieces is one that might be reckoned along with the _fabliaux_ except
that there is no story in it; the description of the _Land of Cockayne_,
sometimes called the land of Readymade, where the geese fly about

  Yet I do you mo to wit
  The geese y-roasted on the spit
  Fleeth to that abbey, Got it wot
  And gredeth: Geese all hot, all hot!

The land of Cockayne is a burlesque Paradise ‘far in the sea by West of

  There beth rivers great and fine
  Of oil, milk, honey and wine;
  Water serveth there to no thing,
  But to sight and to washing.

This piece, and _Reynard and Isengrim (The Fox and the Wolf)_, and
others, show that fairly early, and before the French language had given
way to English as the proper speech for good society, there was some
talent in English authors for light verse, narrative or descriptive, for
humorous stories, and for satire. The English short couplets of those
days—of the time of Henry III and Edward I—are at no disadvantage as
compared with the French. Anything can be expressed in that familiar
verse which is possible in French—anything, except the finer shades of
sentiment, for which as yet the English have no mind, and which must wait
for the authors of the _Confessio Amantis_ and the _Book of the Duchess

But there is one early poem—a hundred, it may be a hundred and fifty,
years before Chaucer—in which not the sentiment but something much more
characteristic of Chaucer is anticipated in a really wonderful way. _The
Owl and the Nightingale_ is an original poem, written in the language of
Dorset at a time when nothing English was considered ‘courteous’. Yet it
is hard to see what is wanting to the poem to distinguish it from the
literature of polite society in the Augustan ages. What is there
provincial in it, except the language? And why should the language be
called, except in a technical and literal sense, rustic, when it is used
with a perfect command of idiom, with tact and discretion, with the good
humour that comprehends many different things and motives at once, and
the irony which may be a check on effusive romance, but never a hindrance
to grace and beauty? Urbanity is the right word, the name one cannot help
using, for the temper of this rustic and provincial poem. It is urbane,
like Horace or Addison, without any town society to support the author in
his criticism of life. The author is like one of the personages in his
satire, the Wren, who was bred in the greenwood, but brought up among
mankind—in the humanities:

  For theih heo were ybred a wolde
  Heo was ytowen among mankenne,
  And hire wisdom broughte thenne.

_The Owl and the Nightingale_ is the most miraculous piece of writing,
or, if that is too strong a term, the most contrary to all preconceived
opinion, among the medieval English books. In the condition of the
English language in the reign of Henry III, with so much against it,
there was still no reason why there should not be plenty of English
romances and a variety of English songs, though they might not be the
same sort of romances and songs as were composed in countries like France
or Germany, and though they might be wanting in the ‘finer shades’. But
all the chances, as far as we can judge, were against the production of
humorous impartial essays in verse. Such things are not too common at any
time. They were not common even in French polite literature in the
thirteenth century. In the century after, Froissart in French, Gower and
of course Chaucer in English have the same talent for light familiar
rhyming essays that is shown by Prior and Swift. The early English poet
had discovered for himself a form which generally requires ages of
training and study before it can succeed.

His poem is entitled in one of the two MSS. _altercatio inter Philomenam
et Bubonem_: ‘A debate between the Nightingale and the Owl.’ Debates,
contentions, had been a favourite literary device for a long time in many
languages. It was known in Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was common in France.
There were contentions of Summer and Winter, of the Soul and the Body,
the Church and the Synagogue, of Fast and Feasting; there were also
(especially in the Provençal school) debates between actual men, one poet
challenging another. The originality of _The Owl and the Nightingale_
argument is that it is not, like so many of those poetical disputations,
simply an arrangement of all the obvious commonplaces for and against one
side and the other. It is a true comedy; not only is the writer
impartial, but he keeps the debate alive; he shows how the contending
speakers feel the strokes, and hide their pain, and do their best to face
it out with the adversary. Also, the debate is not a mere got-up thing.
It is Art against Philosophy; the Poet meeting the strong though not
silent Thinker, who tells him of the Immensities and Infinities. The
author agrees with Plato and Wordsworth that the nightingale is ‘a
creature of a fiery heart’, and that the song is one of mirth and not
lamentation. Yet it is not contrasted absolutely with the voice of the
contemplative person. If it were, the debate would come to an end, or
would turn into mere railing accusations—of which there is no want, it
may be said, along with the more serious arguments. What makes the
dispute worth following, what lifts it far above the ordinary medieval
conventions, is that each party shares something of the other’s mind. The
Owl wishes to be thought musical; the Nightingale is anxious not to be
taken for a mere worldling.

                              CHAPTER VII

Allegory is often taken to be the proper and characteristic mode of
thought in the Middle Ages, and certainly there is no kind of invention
which is commoner. The allegorical interpretation of Scripture was the
regular, the universal method employed by preachers and commentators.
Anglo-Saxon religious writings are full of it. At the Revival of
Learning, five hundred years after Ælfric, the end of the Middle Ages is
marked by a definite attack upon the allegorical method, an attack
carried on by religious reformers and classical scholars, who held that
allegory perverted and destroyed the genuine teaching of Scripture, and
the proper understanding of Virgil and Ovid.

The book in which this medieval taste is most plainly exhibited is the
_Gesta Romanorum_, a collection of stories, in Latin prose, drawn from
many different sources, each story having the moral interpretation
attached to it, for the use of preachers.

One of the most popular subjects for moral interpretation was natural
history. There is a book called _Physiologus_—‘the Natural
Philosopher’—which went through all the languages in the same way as the
story of Alexander or the book of the Seven Wise Masters. There are
fragments of an Anglo-Saxon rendering, in verse—the _Whale_, and the
_Panther_, favourite examples. The Whale is the Devil; the Whale lying in
the sea with his back above water is often mistaken by sailors for an
island; they land on his back to rest, and the Whale goes down with them
to the depths. The common name for these natural histories (versions or
adaptations of _Physiologus_) is ‘Bestiary’; there is an English
_Bestiary_ of the beginning of the thirteenth century, most of it in the
irregular alliterative verse which seems to have been common at that
date; some of it is in fairly regular rhyme.

Allegorical interpretation of Scripture, or of stories, or of natural
history is not the same thing as allegorical invention. This is sometimes
forgotten, but it is clear enough that an allegory such as the _Pilgrim’s
Progress_ has a quite different effect on the mind, and requires a
different sort of imagination, from the allegorical work which starts
from a given text and spins out some sort of moral from it. Any one with
a little ingenuity can make an allegorical interpretation of any matter.
It is a different thing to invent and carry on an allegorical story. One
obvious difference is that in the first case—for example in the
_Bestiary_—the two meanings, literal and allegorical, are separate from
one another. Each chapter of the _Bestiary_ is in two parts; first comes
the _nature_ of the beast—_natura leonis, etc._—the natural history of
the lion, the ant, the whale, the panther and so forth; then comes the
_signification_. In the other kind of allegory, though there is a double
meaning, there are not two separate meanings presented one after the
other to the mind. The signification is given along with, or through, the
scene and the figures. Christian in the _Pilgrim’s Progress_ is not
something different from the Christian man whom he represents
allegorically; Mr. Greatheart, without any interpretation at all, is
recognized at once as a courageous guide and champion. So when the Middle
Ages are blamed for their allegorical tastes it may be well to
distinguish between the frequently mechanical allegory which forces a
moral out of any object, and the imaginative allegory which puts fresh
pictures before the mind. The one process starts from a definite story or
fact, and then destroys the story to get at something inside; the other
makes a story and asks you to accept it and keep it along with its
allegorical meaning.

Thus allegorical invention, in poetry like Spenser’s, or in imaginative
prose like Bunyan’s, may be something not very different from imaginative
work with no conscious allegory in it at all. All poetry has something of
a representative character in it, and often it matters little for the
result whether the composer has any definite symbolical intention or not.
_Beowulf_ or _Samson Agonistes_ might be said to ‘stand for’ heroism,
just as truly as the Red Cross Knight in Spenser, or Mr. Valiant for
Truth in the _Pilgrim’s Progress_. So in studying medieval allegories
either in poetry, painting or sculpture, it seems advisable to consider
in each case how far the artist has strained his imagination to serve an
allegorical meaning, or whether he has not succeeded in being imaginative
with no proper allegorical meaning at all.

By far the best known and most influential of medieval allegories is the
_Romance of the Rose_. Both in France and in England it kept its place as
a poetical example and authority from the thirteenth century till well on
in the sixteenth. It is the work of two authors; the later, Jean Clopinel
or Jean de Meung, taking up the work of Guillaume de Lorris about 1270,
forty years after the death of the first inventor. The part written by
Jean Clopinel is a rambling allegorical satire, notorious for its slander
against women. The earlier part, by Guillaume de Lorris, is what really
made the fame and spread the influence of the _Roman de la Rose_, though
the second part was not far below it in importance.

Guillaume de Lorris is one of those authors, not very remarkable for
original genius, who put together all the favourite ideas and sentiments
of their time in one book from which they come to be distributed widely
among readers and imitators. His book is an allegory of all the spirit
and doctrine of French romantic poetry for the past hundred years; and as
the French poets had taken all they could from the lyric poets of
Provence, the _Roman de la Rose_ may be fairly regarded as an abstract of
the Provençal lyrical ideas almost as much as of French sentiment. It was
begun just at the time when the Provençal poetry was ended in the ruin of
the South and of the Southern chivalry, after the Albigensian crusade.

No apology is needed for speaking of this poem in a discourse on English
literature. Even if Chaucer had not translated it, the _Roman de la Rose_
would still be a necessary book for any one who wishes to understand not
only Chaucer but the poets of his time and all his successors down to
Spenser. The influence of the _Roman de la Rose_ is incalculable. It is
acknowledged by the poet whose style is least like Chaucer’s, except for
its liveliness, among all the writers in the reign of Edward III—by the
author of the alliterative poem on _Purity_, who is also generally held
to be the author of the _Pearl_ and of _Sir Gawayne_, and who speaks with
respect of ‘Clopyngel’s clene rose’.

It is thoroughly French in all its qualities—French of the thirteenth
century, using ingeniously the ideas and the form best suited to the
readers whom it sought to win.

One of the titles of the _Roman de la Rose_ is the _Art of Love_. The
name is taken from a poem of Ovid’s which was a favourite with more than
one French poet before Guillaume de Lorris. It appealed to them partly on
account of its subject, and partly because it was a didactic poem. It
suited the common medieval taste for exposition of doctrine, and the
_Roman de la Rose_ which follows it and copies its title is a didactic
allegory. In every possible way, in its plan, its doctrine, its
sentiment, its decoration and machinery, the _Roman de la Rose_ collects
all the things that had been approved by literary tradition and conveys
them, with their freshness renewed, to its successors. It concludes one
period; it is a summary of the old French romantic and sentimental
poetry, a narrative allegory setting forth the ideas that might be
extracted from Provençal lyric. Then it became a storehouse from which
those ideas were carried down to later poets, among others to Chaucer and
the Chaucerian school. Better than anything else, the descriptive work in
the _Roman de la Rose_ brings out its peculiar success as an intermediary
between earlier and later poets. The old French romantic authors had been
fond of descriptions, particularly descriptions of pictorial subjects
used as decoration, in painting or tapestry, for a magnificent room. The
_Roman de la Rose_, near the beginning, describes the allegorical figures
on the outside wall of the garden, and this long and elaborate passage,
of the same kind as many earlier descriptions, became in turn, like
everything else in the book, an example for imitation. How closely it is
related to such arts as it describes was proved in Ruskin’s _Fors
Clavigera_, where along with his notes on the _Roman de la Rose_ are
illustrations from Giotto’s allegorical figures in the chapel of the
Arena at Padua.

The ‘formal garden’ of the Rose is equally true, inside the wall—

  The gardin was by mesuring
  Right even and squar in compassing.

The trees were set even, five fathom or six from one another.

  In places saw I wèlles there
  In whiche ther no froggès were
  And fair in shadwe was every welle;
  But I ne can the nombre telle
  Of stremès smale that by device
  Mirth had done comè through coundys,
  Of which the water in renning
  Can make a noyse ful lyking.

The dreamer finds Sir Mirth and a company of fair folk and fresh, dancing
a _carole_.

  This folk of which I telle you so
  Upon a carole wenten tho;
  A lady caroled hem, that highte
  Gladnesse the blisful the lighte;
  Wel coude she singe and lustily,
  Non half so wel and semely,
  And make in song swich refreininge
  It sat her wonder wel to singe.

The dream, the May morning, the garden, the fair company, the carole all
were repeated for three hundred years by poets of every degree, who drew
from the _Romaunt of the Rose_ unsparingly, as from a perennial fountain.
The writers whom one would expect to be impatient with all things
conventional, Chaucer and Sir David Lyndsay, give no sign that the May of
the old French poet has lost its charm for them; though each on one
occasion, Chaucer in the _Hous of Fame_ and Lyndsay in the _Dreme_, with
a definite purpose changes the time to winter. With both, the May comes
back again, in the _Legend of Good Women_ and in the _Monarchy_.

Even Petrarch, the first of the moderns to think contemptuously of the
Middle Ages, uses the form of the Dream in his _Trionfi_—he lies down and
sleeps on the grass at Vaucluse, and the vision follows, of the Triumph
of Love.

The _Pearl_, one of the most beautiful of the English medieval poems, is
an allegory which begins in this same way; the _Vision of Piers Plowman_
is another. Neither of these has otherwise much likeness to the _Rose_;
it was by Chaucer and his school that the authority of the _Rose_ was
established. The _Pearl_ and _Piers Plowman_ are original works, each
differing very considerably from the French style which was adopted by
Chaucer and Gower.

The _Pearl_ is written in a lyrical stanza, or rather in groups of
stanzas linked to one another by their refrains; the measure is unlike
French verse. The poem itself, which in many details resembles many other
things, is altogether quite distinct from anything else, and
indescribable except to those who have read it. Its resemblance to the
_Paradiso_ of Dante is that which is less misleading than any other
comparison. In the English poem, the dreamer is instructed as to the
things of heaven by his daughter Marjory, the Pearl that he had lost, who
appears to him walking by the river of Paradise and shows him the New
Jerusalem; like Dante’s Beatrice at the end she is caught away from his
side to her place in glory.

But it is not so much in these circumstances that the likeness is to be
found—it is in the fervour, the belief, which carries everything with it
in the argument, and turns theology into imagination. As with Dante,
allegory is a right name, but also an insufficient name for the mode of
thought in this poem.

In the _Pearl_ there is one quite distinct and abstract theory which the
poem is intended to prove; a point of theology (possibly heretical): that
all the souls of the blessed are equal in happiness; each one is queen or
king. In _Sir Gawayne_, which is probably by the same author, there is
the same kind of definite thought, never lost or confused in the details.
_Piers Plowman_, on the other hand, though there are a number of definite
things which the author wishes to enforce, is wholly different in method.
The method often seems as if it were nothing at all but random
association of ideas. The whole world is in the author’s mind,
experience, history, doctrine, the estates and fortunes of mankind, ‘the
mirror of middle-earth’; all the various elements are turned and tossed
about, scenes from Bartholomew Fair mixed up with preaching or
philosophy. There is the same variety, it may be said, in _The Pilgrim’s
Progress_. But there is not the same confusion. With Bunyan, whatever the
conversation may be, there is always the map of the road quite clear. You
know where you are; and if ever the talk is abstract it is the talk of
people who eat and drink and wear clothes—real men, as one is accustomed
to call them. In _Piers Plowman_ there is as much knowledge of life as in
Bunyan; but the visible world is seen only from time to time. It is not
merely that some part of the book is comic description and some of it
serious discourse, but the form of thought shifts in a baffling way from
the pictorial to the abstract. It is tedious to be told of a brook named
‘Be buxom of speech’, and a croft called ‘Covet not men’s cattle nor
their wives’, when nothing is made of the brook or the croft by way of
scenery; the pictorial words add nothing to the moral meaning; if the Ten
Commandments are to be turned into allegory, something more is wanted
than the mere tacking on to them of a figurative name. The author of
_Piers Plowman_ is too careless, and uses too often a mechanical form of
allegory which is little better than verbiage.

But there is more than enough to make up for that, both in the comic
scenes like the Confession of the Seven Deadly Sins, and in the sustained
passages of reasoning, like the argument about the righteous heathen and
the hopes allowable to Saracens and Jews. The Seven Sins are not
abstractions nor grotesque allegories; they are vulgar comic personages
such as might have appeared in a comedy or a novel of low life, in London
taverns or country inns, figures of tradesmen and commercial travellers,
speaking the vulgar tongue, natural, stupid, ordinary people.

Also there is beauty; the poem is not to be dismissed as a long religious
argument with comic interludes, though such a description would be true
enough, as far as it goes. The author is no great artist, for he lets his
meaning overpower him and hurry him, and interrupt his pictures and his
story. But he is a poet, for all that, and he proves his gift from the
outset of his work ‘in a May morning, on Malvern hilles’; and with all
his digressions and seemingly random thought the argument is held
together and moves harmoniously in its large spaces. The secret of its
construction is revealed in the long triumphant passage which renders
afresh the story of the Harrowing of Hell, and in the transition to what
follows, down to the end of the poem. The author has worked up to a
climax in what may be called his drama of the Harrowing of Hell. This is
given fully, and with a sense of its greatness, from the beginning when
the voice and the light together break in upon the darkness of Hell and
on the ‘Dukes of that dim place’—_Attollite portas_: ‘be ye lift up, ye
everlasting doors’. After the triumph, the dreamer awakes and hears the
bells on Easter morning—

  That men rongen to the resurrexioun, and right with that I waked
  And called Kitte my wyf and Kalote my doughter:
  Ariseth and reverenceth Goddes resurrexioun,
  And crepeth to the crosse on knees, and kisseth it for a juwel,
  For Goddes blessid body it bar for owre bote,
  And it afereth the fende, for suche is the myghte
  May no grysly gost glyde there it shadoweth!

This is the end of one vision, but it is not the end of the poem. There
is another dream.

  I fel eftsones aslepe and sodeynly me mette
  That Pieres the plowman was paynted al blody
  And come on with a crosse before the comune people
  And righte lyke in alle lymes to oure lorde Jhesu
  And thanne called I Conscience to kenne me the sothe:
  ‘Is this Jhesus the juster’ quoth I ‘that Jewes did to death?
  Or is it Pieres the plowman? Who paynted him so rede?’
  Quoth Conscience and kneled tho: ‘This aren Pieres armes,
  His coloures and his cote-armure, ac he that cometh so blody
  Is Cryst with his crosse, conqueroure of crystene’.

The end is far off; Antichrist is to come; Old Age and Death have their
triumph likewise. The poem does not close with a solution of all
problems, but with a new beginning; Conscience setting out on a
pilgrimage. The poet has not gone wrong in his argument; the world is as
bad as ever it was, and it is thus that he ends, after scenes of ruin
that make one think of the Twilight of the Gods, and of the courage which
the Northern heroes opposed to it.

It is not by accident that the story is shaped in this way. The
construction is what the writer wished it to be, and his meaning is
expressed with no failure in coherence. His mind is never satisfied;
least of all with such conclusions as would make him forget the
distresses of human life. He is like Blake saying—

  I will not cease from mental fight
  Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.

The book of _Piers Plowman_ is found in many manuscripts which were
classified by Mr. Skeat in his edition of the poem as representing three
versions, made at different times by the author who twice revised his
book, so that there is an earlier and a later revised and expanded
version besides the first. This theory of the authorship is not accepted
by every one, and attempts have been made to distinguish different hands,
and more particularly to separate the authorship of the first from the
second version. Those who wish to multiply the authors have to consider,
among other things, the tone of thought in the poem; it is hard to
believe that there were two authors in the same reign who had the same
strong and weak points, the same inconsistencies, wavering between lively
imagination and formal allegory, the same indignation and the same
tolerance. _Piers Plowman_ is one of the most impartial of all reformers.
He makes heavy charges against many ranks and orders of men, but he
always remembers the good that is to be said for them. His remedy for the
evils of the world would be to bring the different estates—knights,
clergy, labourers and all—to understand their proper duty. His political
ideal is the commonwealth as it exists, only with each part working as it
was meant to do: the king making the peace, with the knights to help him,
the clergy studying and praying, the commons working honestly, and the
higher estates also giving work and getting wages. In this respect there
is no inconsistency between the earlier and the later text. In the second
version he brings in Envy as the philosophical socialist who proves out
of Plato and Seneca that all things should be in common. This helps to
confirm what is taught in the first version about the functions of the
different ranks. If the later versions are due to later hands, they, at
any rate, continue and amplify what is taught in the first version, with
no inconsistency.

                              CHAPTER VIII

It is one of the common difficulties in studying ancient literature that
the things preserved are not always what we would have chosen. In modern
literature, criticism and the opinion of the reading public have
generally sorted out the books that are best worth considering; few
authors are wrongfully neglected, and the well-known authors generally
deserve their reputation. But in literature such as that of the
thirteenth century, or the fourteenth before the time of Chaucer, not
much has been done by the opinion of the time to sift out the good from
the bad, and many things appear in the history of literature which are
valuable only as curiosities, and some which have no title to be called
books at all. The _Ayenbite of Inwit_ is well known by name, and passes
for a book; it is really a collection of words in the Kentish dialect,
useful for philologists, especially for those who, like the author of the
book, only care for one word at a time. The _Ayenbite of Inwit_ was
translated from the French by Dan Michel of Northgate, one of the monks
of St. Augustine’s at Canterbury, in 1340; it is extant in his own
handwriting; there is no evidence that it was ever read by any one else.
The method of the author is to take each French word and give the English
for it; if he cannot read the French word, or mistakes it, he puts down
the English for what he thinks it means, keeping his eye firmly fixed on
the object, and refusing to be distracted by the other words in the
sentence. This remarkable thing has been recorded in histories as a
specimen of English prose.

The _Ormulum_ is another famous work which is preserved only in the
author’s original handwriting. It is a different thing from the
_Ayenbite_; it is scholarly in its own way, and as far as it goes it
accomplishes all that the author set out to do. As it is one of the
earliest books of the thirteenth century, it is immensely valuable as a
document; not only does it exhibit the East Midland language of its time,
in precise phonetic spelling (the three G’s of the _Ormulum_ are now
famous in philology), but it contains a large amount of the best ordinary
medieval religious teaching; and as for literature, its author was the
first in English to use an exact metre with unvaried number of syllables;
it has been described already. But all those merits do not make the
_Ormulum_ much more than a curiosity in the history of poetry—a very
distinct and valuable sign of certain common tastes, certain
possibilities of education, but in itself tasteless.

One of the generalities proved by the _Ormulum_ is the use of new metres
for didactic work. The Anglo-Saxon verse had been taken not infrequently
for didactic purposes—at one time for the paraphrase of _Genesis_, at
another for the moral emblems of the _Whale_ and the _Panther_. But the
Anglo-Saxon verse was not very well fitted for school books; it was too
heavy in diction. And there was no need for it, with Anglo-Saxon prose
established as it was. After the Norman Conquest, however, there was a
change. Owing to the example of the French, verse was much more commonly
used for ordinary educational purposes. There is a great deal of this
extant, and the difficulty arises how to value it properly, and
distinguish what is a document in the history of general culture, or
morality, or religion, from what is a poem as well.

One of the earliest Middle English pieces is a Moral Poem which is found
in several manuscripts and evidently was well known and popular. It is in
the same metre as the _Ormulum_, but written with more freedom, and in
rhyme. This certainly is valuable as a document. The contents are the
ordinary religion and morality, the vanity of human wishes, the
wretchedness of the present world, the fearfulness of Hell, the duty of
every man to give up all his relations in order to save his soul. This
commonplace matter is, however, expressed with great energy in good
language and spirited verse; the irregularity of the verse is not
helplessness, it is the English freedom which keeps the rhythm, without
always regularly observing the exact number of syllables.

  Ich am eldrè than ich was, a winter and eke on lorè,
  Ich weldè morè than ich dyde, my wit oughtè be morè.


  I am older than I was, in winters and also in learning;
  I wield more than I did [I am stronger than I once was], my wit ought
              to be more.

The first line, it will be noticed, begins on the strong syllable; the
weak syllable is dropped, as it is by Chaucer and Milton when they think
fit. With this freedom, the common metre is established as a good kind of
verse for a variety of subjects; and the _Moral Ode_, as it is generally
called, is therefore to be respected in the history of poetry. One vivid
thing in it seems to tell where the author came from. In the description
of the fire of Hell he says—

  Ne mai hit quenchè salt water, ne Avene stream ne Sture.

He is thinking of the rivers of Christchurch, and the sea beyond, as
Dante in Hell remembers the clear mountain waters running down to the

Layamon’s _Brut_ shows how difficult it might be for an Englishman in the
reign of King John to find the right sort of verse. The matter of the
_Brut_ is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, originally in Latin prose. This
had been translated into French, and of course into rhyme, because
nothing but rhyme in French was thought a respectable form. Layamon has
the French rhyming version before him, and naturally does not think of
turning it into prose. That would be mean, in comparison; once the
historical matter has been put into poetical form, it must not be allowed
to fall back into any form less honourable than the French. Layamon,
however, has no proper verse at command. He knows the old English
alliterative verse, but only in the corrupt variety which is found in
some of the later Anglo-Saxon pieces, with an increasing taste for rhyme;
Layamon, of course, had also in his head the rhymes of the French
couplets which he was translating; and the result is a most disagreeable
and discordant measure. The matter of Layamon in many places compensates
for this; much of it, indeed, is heavy and prosaic, but some of it is
otherwise, and the credit of the memorable passages is at least as often
due to Layamon as to the original British history. He found the right
story of the passing of Arthur, and that makes up for much of his
uncomfortable verse and ranks him higher than the mere educational

The _Bestiary_ and the _Proverbs of Alfred_ are two other works which
resemble the _Brut_ more or less in versification, and are interesting
historically. It ought to be said, on behalf of the poorer things in this
early time, that without exception they prove a very rich colloquial
idiom and vocabulary, which might have been used to good effect, if any
one had thought of writing novels, and which is in fact well used in many
prose sermons, and, very notably, in the long prose book of the _Ancren

Looking at the _Ancren Riwle_ and some other early prose, one is led to
think that the French influence, so strong in every way, so distinctly
making for advance in civilization, was hurtful to the English, and a bad
example, in the literature of teaching, because the French had nothing
equal to the English prose. French prose hardly begins till the
thirteenth century; the history of Villehardouin is contemporary with the
_Ancren Riwle_. But the English prose authors of that time were not
beginners; they had the Anglo-Saxon prose to guide them, and they
regularly follow the tradition of Ælfric. There is no break in the
succession of prose as there is between Anglo-Saxon and Plantagenet
verse; Anglo-Saxon prose did not lose its form as the verse did, and
Ælfric, who was copied by English preachers in the twelfth century, might
have taught something of prose style to the French, which they were only
beginning to discover in the century after. And there might have been a
thirteenth-century school of English prose, worthy of comparison with the
Icelandic school of the same time, if the English had not been so
distracted and overborne by the French example of didactic rhyme. French
rhyme was far beyond any other model for romance; when it is used for
historical or scientific exposition it is a poor and childish mode,
incomparably weaker than the prose of Ælfric. But the example and the
authority of the French didactic rhyme proved too strong, and English
prose was neglected; so much so that the _Ancren Riwle_, a prose book
written at the beginning of the thirteenth century, is hardly matched
even in the time of Chaucer and Wycliffe; hardly before the date of
Malory or Lord Berners.

The _Ancren Riwle_ (the _Rule of Anchoresses_) is a book of doctrine and
advice, like many others in its substance. What distinguishes it is the
freshness and variety of its style. It is not, like so many excellent
prose works, a translation. The writer doubtless took his arguments where
he found them, in older books, but he thinks them over in his own way,
and arranges them; and he always has in mind the one small household of
religious ladies for whom he is writing, their actual circumstances and
the humours of the parish. His literary and professional formulas do not
get in his way; he sees the small restricted life as it might have
appeared to a modern essayist, and writes of it in true-bred language,
the style in which all honest historians agree. The passages which are
best worth quoting are those which are oftenest quoted, about the
troubles of the nun who keeps a cow; the cow strays, and is pounded; the
religious lady loses her temper, her language is furious; then she has to
beseech and implore the heyward (parish beadle) and pay the damages after
all. Wherefore it is best for nuns to keep a cat only. But no one
quotation can do justice to the book, because the subjects are varied,
and the style also. Much of it is conventional morality, some of it is
elementary religious instruction. There are also many passages where the
author uses his imagination, and in his figurative description of the
Seven Deadly Sins he makes one think of the ‘characters’ which were so
much in fashion in the seventeenth century; there is the same love of
conceits, though not carried quite so far as in the later days. The
picture of the Miser as the Devil’s own lubberly boy, raking in the ashes
till he is half blind, drawing ‘figures of augrim’ in the ashes, would
need very little change to turn it into the manner of Samuel Butler,
author of _Hudibras_, in his prose _Characters_; so likewise the
comparison of the envious and the wrathful man to the Devil’s jugglers,
one making grotesque faces, the other playing with knives. Elsewhere the
writer uses another sort of imagination and a different style; his
description of Christ, in a figure drawn from chivalry, is a fine example
of eloquent preaching; how fine it is, may be proved by the imitation of
it called the _Wooing of Our Lord_, where the eloquence is pushed to an
extreme. The author of the _Ancren Riwle_ felt both the attraction and
the danger of pathos; and he escaped the error of style into which his
imitator fell; he kept to the limits of good prose. At the same time,
there is something to be said in defence of the too poetic prose which is
exemplified in the _Wooing of Our Lord_, and in other writings of that
date. Some of it is derived from the older alliterative forms, used in
the _Saints’ Lives_ of found something Ælfric; and this, with all its
faults and excesses, at any rate kept an idea of rhythm which was
generally wanting in the alliterative verse of the thirteenth century. It
may be a wrong sort of eloquence, but it could not be managed without a
sense of rhythm or beauty of words; it is not meagre or stinted, and it
is in some ways a relief from the prosaic verse in which English authors
copied the regular French couplets, and the plain French diction.

One of the best pieces of prose about this time is a translation from the
Latin. _Soul’s Ward_ is a homily, a religious allegory of the defence of
Man’s Soul. The original Latin prose belongs to the mystical school of
St. Victor in Paris. The narrative part of the English version is as good
as can be; the mystical part, in the description of Heaven and the
Beatific Vision, is memorable even when compared with the greatest
masters, and keeps its own light and virtue even when set alongside of
Plotinus or Dante. Here, as in the _Ancren Riwle_, the figures of
eloquence, rhythm and alliteration are used temperately, and the phrasing
is wise and imaginative; not mere ornament. By one sentence it may be
recognized and remembered; where it is told how the souls of the faithful
see ‘all the redes and the runes of God, and his dooms that dern be, and
deeper than any sea-dingle’.

The greatest loss in the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman and
Angevin times was the discontinuance of prose history, and the failure of
the Chronicle after the accession of Henry II. It made a good end. The
Peterborough monk who did the reign of Stephen was much worse off for
language than his predecessors either in the time of Edward the Elder or
Edward the Confessor. His language is what he chooses to make it, without
standard or control. But his narrative is not inferior in style to the
best of the old work, though it is weaker in spelling. It is less
restrained and more emotional than the Anglo-Saxon history; in telling of
the lawlessness under King Stephen the writer cannot help falling into
the tone of the preachers. In the earlier Chronicle one is never led to
think about the sentiments of the writer; the story holds the attention.
But here the personal note comes in; the author asks for sympathy. One
thinks of the cold, gloomy church, the small depressed congregation, the
lamentable tones of the sermon in the days when ‘men said openly that
Christ slept and his saints’. With the coming of Henry of Anjou a new
order began, but the Chronicle did not go on; the monks of Peterborough
had done their best, but there was no real chance for English prose
history when it had come to depend on one single religious house for its
continuance. The business was carried on in Latin prose and in French
rhyme; through the example of the French, it became the fashion to use
English verse for historical narrative, and it was long before history
came back to prose.

Of all the rhyming historians Robert of Gloucester in the reign of Edward
I is the most considerable by reason of his style. Robert Manning of
Brunne was more of a literary critic; the passage in which he deals
severely with the contemporary rhyming dunces is singularly interesting
in a time when literary criticism is rare. But Robert of Brunne is not so
successful as Robert of Gloucester, who says less about the principles of
rhyme, but discovers and uses the right kind. This was not the short
couplet. The short couplet, the French measure, was indeed capable of
almost anything in English, and it was brilliantly used for history by
Barbour, and not meanly in the following century by Andrew Wyntoun. But
it was in danger of monotony and flatness; for a popular audience a
longer verse was better, with more swing in it. Robert of Gloucester took
the ‘common measure’, with the ordinary accepted licences, as it is used
by the ballad poets, and by some of the romances—for example, in the most
admirable _Tale of Gamelyn_. He turns the history of Britain to the tune
of popular minstrelsy, and if it is not very high poetry, at any rate it

The same kind of thing was done about the same time with the _Lives of
the Saints_—possibly some of them by Robert of Gloucester himself. These
are found in many manuscripts, with many variations; but they are one
book, the Legend, keeping the order of Saints’ Days in the Christian
Year. This has been edited, under the title of the _South English
Legendary_, and there are few books in which it is easier to make
acquaintance with the heart and mind of the people; it contains all sorts
of matter: church history as in the lives of St. Dunstan, St. Thomas of
Canterbury and St. Francis ‘the Friar Minor’; and legend, in the common
sense of the word, as in the life of St. Eustace, or of St. Julian ‘the
good harbinger’. There is the adventure of Owen the knight in St.
Patrick’s Purgatory; there is also the voyage of St. Brandan. In one
place there is a short rhyming treatise on natural science, thoroughly
good and sound, and in some ways very modern. The right tone of the
popular science lecture has been discovered; and the most effective
illustrations. The earth is a globe; night is the shadow of the earth;
let us take an apple and a candle, and everything is plain. Astronomical
distances are given in the usual good-natured manner of the lecturer who
wishes to stir but not to shock the recipient minds. The cosmography, of
course, is roughly that of Dante and Chaucer; seven spheres beneath the
eighth, which is the sphere of the fixed stars and the highest visible
heaven. The distance to that sphere from the earth is so great that a man
walking forty miles a day could not reach it in eight thousand years. If
Adam had started at once at that rate, and kept it up, he would not be
there yet—

  Much is between heaven and earth; for the man that mightè go
  Every day forty mile, and yet some deal mo,
  He ne shoulde nought to the highest heaven, that ye alday y-seeth
  Comen in eighte thousand year, there as the sterren beeth:
  And though Adam our firstè father had begun anon
  Tho that he was first y-made, and toward the heaven y-gon,
  And had each day forty mile even upright y-go
  He ne had nought yet to heaven y-come, by a thousand mile and mo!

Encyclopedias and universal histories are frequent in rhyme. The Northern
dialect comes into literary use early in the fourteenth century in a long
book, the _Cursor Mundi_ or _Cursor o Werld_, which is one of the best of
its kind, getting fairly over the hazards of the short couplet. In the
Northern dialect this type of book comes to an end two hundred years
later; the _Monarchy_ of Sir David Lyndsay is the last of its race, a
dialogue between Experience and a Courtier, containing a universal
history in the same octosyllabic verse as the _Cursor Mundi_. The Middle
Ages may be dated as far down as this; it is a curiously old-fashioned
and hackneyed form to be used by an author so original as Lyndsay, but he
found it convenient for his anti-clerical satire. And it may be observed
that generally the didactic literature of the Middle Ages varies
enormously not only as between one author and another, but in different
parts of the same work; nothing (except, perhaps, the _Tale of Melibeus_)
is absolutely conventional repetition; passages of real life may occur at
any moment.

The _Cursor Mundi_ is closely related to the Northern groups of _Miracle
Plays_. The dramatic scheme of the _Miracle Plays_ was like that of the
comprehensive narrative poem, intended to give the history of the world
‘from Genesis to the day of Judgement’. It is impossible in this book to
describe the early drama, its rise and progress; but it may be observed
that its form is generally near to the narrative, and sometimes to the
lyrical verse of the time.

The _Cursor Mundi_ is one of a large number of works in the Northern
dialect, which in that century was freely used for prose and
verse—particularly by Richard Rolle of Hampole and his followers, a
school whose mysticism is in contrast to the more scholastic method of
Wycliffe. The most interesting work in the Northern language is Barbour’s
_Bruce_. Barbour, the Scottish contemporary of Chaucer, is not content
with mere rhyming chronicles; he has a theory of poetry, he has both
learning and ambition, which fortunately do not interfere much with the
spirit of his story.

                               CHAPTER IX

Chaucer has sometimes been represented as a French poet writing in
English—not only a ‘great translator’ as his friend Eustache Deschamps
called him, but so thoroughly in sympathy with the ideas and the style of
French poetry that he is French in spirit even when he is original. This
opinion about Chaucer is not the whole truth, but there is a great deal
in it. Chaucer got his early literary training from French authors;
particularly from the _Romance of the Rose_, which he translated, and
from the poets of his own time or a little earlier: Machaut, Deschamps,
Froissart, Granson. From these authors he learned the refinements of
courtly poetry, the sentiment and the elegant phrasing of the French
school, along with a number of conventional devices which were easier to
imitate, such as the allegorical dream in the fashion of the _Roman de la
Rose_. With Chaucer’s poetry, we might say, English was brought up to the
level of French. For two or three centuries English writers had been
trying to be as correct as the French, but had seldom or never quite
attained the French standard. Now the French were equalled in their own
style by an English poet. English poetry at last comes out in the same
kind of perfection as was shown in French and Provençal as early as the
twelfth century, in German a little later with narrative poets such as
Wolfram von Eschenbach, the author of _Parzival_, and lyric poets such as
Walther von der Vogelweide. Italian was later still, but by the end of
the thirteenth century, in the poets who preceded Dante, the Italian
language proved itself at least the equal of the French and Provençal,
which had ripened earlier. English was the last of the languages in which
the poetical ideal of the Middle Ages was realized—the ideal of courtesy
and grace.

One can see that this progress in English was determined by some general
conditions—the ‘spirit of the age’. The native language had all along
been growing in importance, and by the time of Chaucer French was no
longer what it had been in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, the only
language fit for a gentleman. At the same time French literature retained
its influence and its authority in England; and the result was the
complete adaptation of the English language to the French manner of
thought and expression. The English poetry of Gower is enough to prove
that what Chaucer did was not all due to Chaucer’s original genius, but
was partly the product of the age and the general circumstances and
tendencies of literature and education. Gower, a man of literary talent,
and Chaucer, a man of genius, are found at the same time, working in the
same way, with objects in common. Chaucer shoots far ahead and enters on
fields where Gower is unable to follow him; but in a considerable part of
Chaucer’s work he is along with Gower, equally dependent on French
authority and equally satisfied with the French perfection. If there had
been no Chaucer, Gower would have had a respectable place in history as
the one ‘correct’ English poet of the Middle Ages, as the English
culmination of that courtly medieval poetry which had its rise in France
and Provence two or three hundred years before. The prize for style would
have been awarded to Gower; as it is, he deserves rather more
consideration than he has generally received in modern times. It is easy
to pass him over and to say that his correctness is flat, his poetical
art monotonous. But at the very lowest valuation he did what no one else
except Chaucer was able to do; he wrote a large amount of verse in
perfect accordance with his own critical principles, in such a way as to
stand minute examination; and in this he thoroughly expressed the good
manners of his time. He proved that English might compete with the
languages which had most distinguished themselves in poetry. Chaucer did
as much; and in his earlier work he did no more than Gower.

The two poets together, different as they are in genius, work in common
under the same conditions of education to gain for England the rank that
had been gained earlier by the other countries—France and Provence,
Germany and Italy. Without them, English poetry would have possessed a
number of interesting, a number of beautiful medieval works, but nothing
quite in the pure strain of the finest medieval art. English poetry would
still have reflected in its mirror an immense variety of life, a host of
dreams; but it would have wanted the vision of that peculiar courteous
grace in which the French excelled. Chaucer and Gower made up what was
lacking in English medieval poetry; the Middle Ages did not go by without
a proper rendering of their finer spirit in English verse.

But a great many ages had passed before Chaucer and Gower appeared, and
considered as spokesmen for medieval ideas they are rather belated.
England never quite made up what was lost in the time of depression, in
the century or two after the Norman Conquest. Chaucer and Gower do
something like what was done by the authors of French romance in the
twelfth century, such as Chrestien de Troyes, the author of _Enid_, or
Benoît de Sainte More, the author of the _Romance of Troy_. But their
writings do not alter the fact that England had missed the first
freshness of chivalrous romance. There were two hundred years between the
old French romantic school and Chaucer. Even the _Roman de la Rose_ is a
hundred years old when Chaucer translates it. The more recent French
poets whom Chaucer translates or imitates are not of the best medieval
period. Gower, who is more medieval than Chaucer, is a little behind his
time. He is mainly a narrative poet, and narrative poetry had been
exhausted in France; romances of adventure had been replaced by
allegories (in which the narrative was little worth in comparison with
the decoration), or, more happily, by familiar personal poems like those
in which Froissart describes various passages in his own life. Froissart,
it is true, the contemporary of Chaucer, wrote a long romance in verse in
the old fashion; but this is the exception that proves the rule:
Froissart’s _Meliador_ shows plainly enough that the old type of romance
was done. It is to the credit of Gower that although he wrote in French a
very long dull moralizing poem, he still in English kept in the main to
narrative. It may have been old-fashioned, but it was a success.

Gower should always be remembered along with Chaucer; he is what Chaucer
might have been without genius and without his Italian reading, but with
his critical tact, and much of his skill in verse and diction. The
_Confessio Amantis_ is monotonous, but it is not dull. Much of it at a
time is wearisome, but as it is composed of a number of separate stories,
it can be read in bits, and ought to be so read. Taken one at a time the
clear bright little passages come out with a meaning and a charm that may
be lost when the book is read too perseveringly.

The _Confessio Amantis_ is one of the medieval works in which a number of
different conventions are used together. In its design it resembles the
_Romance of the Rose_; and like the _Romance of the Rose_ it belongs to
the pattern of Boethius; it is in the form of a conversation between the
poet and a divine interpreter. As a collection of stories, all held
together in one frame, it follows the example set by _The Book of the
Seven Wise Masters_. Like the _Romance of the Rose_ again it is an
encyclopaedia of the art of love. Very fortunately, in some of the
incidental passages it gets away from conventions and authorities, and
enlarges in a modern good-tempered fashion on the vanities of the current
time. There is more wickedness in Gower than is commonly suspected.
Chaucer is not the only ironical critic of his age; and in his satire
Gower appears to be, no less than Chaucer, independent of French
examples, using his wit about the things and the humours which he could
observe in the real life of his own experience.

Chaucer’s life as a poet has by some been divided into three periods
called French, Italian and English. This is not a true description, any
more than that which would make of him a French poet merely, but it may
be useful to bring out the importance of Chaucer’s Italian studies.
Chaucer was French in his literary education, to begin with, and in some
respects he is French to the end. His verse is always French in pattern;
he did not care for the English alliterative verse; he probably like the
English romance stanza better than he pretended, but he uses it only in
the burlesque of _Sir Thopas_. In spite of his admiration for the Italian
poets, he never imitates their verse, except in one short passage where
he copies the _terza rima_ of Dante. He is a great reader of Italian
poems in the octave stanza, but he never uses that stanza; it was left
for the Elizabethans. He translates a sonnet by Petrarch, but he does not
follow the sonnet form. The strength and constancy of his devotion to
French poetry is shown in the Prologue to the _Legend of Good Women_. The
_Legend_ was written just before the _Canterbury Tales_; that is to say,
after what has been called the Italian period. But the ideas in the
Prologue to the _Legend_ are largely the ideas of the _Roman de la Rose_.
As for the so-called English period, in which Chaucer is supposed to come
to himself, to escape from his tutors, to deal immediately in his own way
with the reality of English life, it is true that the _Canterbury Tales_,
especially in the Prologue and the interludes and the comic stories, are
full of observation and original and fresh descriptive work. But they are
not better in this respect than _Troilus and Criseyde_, which is the
chief thing in Chaucer’s Italian period.

The importance of Chaucer’s Italian reading is beyond doubt. But it does
not displace the French masters in his affection. It adds something new
to Chaucer’s mind; it does not change his mind with regard to the things
which he had learned to value in French poetry.

When it is said that an English period came to succeed the Italian in
Chaucer’s life, the real meaning of this is that Chaucer was all the time
working for independence, and that, as he goes on, his original genius
strengthens and he takes more and more of real life into his view. But
there is no one period in which he casts off his foreign masters and
strikes out absolutely for himself. Some of his greatest imaginative
work, and the most original, is done in his adaptation of the story of
Troilus from an Italian poem of Boccaccio.

Chaucer represents a number of common medieval tastes, and many of these
had to be kept under control in his poetry. One can see him again and
again tempted to indulge himself, and sometimes yielding, but generally
securing his freedom and lifting his verse above the ordinary traditional
ways. He has the educational bent very strongly. That is shown in his
prose works. He is interested in popular philosophy and popular science;
he translates ‘Boece’, the Consolation of Philosophy, and compiles the
Treatise on the Astrolabe for ‘little Lewis my son’. The tale of
_Melibeus_ which Chaucer tells in his own person among the Canterbury
pilgrims is a translation of a moral work which had an extraordinary
reputation not very easy to understand or appreciate now Chaucer took it
up no doubt because it had been recommended by authors of good standing:
he translates it from the French version by Jean de Meung. The _Parson’s
Tale_ is an adaptation from the French, and represents the common form of
good sermon literature. Chaucer thus shared the tastes and the aptitudes
of the good ordinary man of letters. He was under no compulsion to do
hack work; he wrote those things because he was fond of study and
teaching, like the Clerk of Oxford in the _Canterbury Tales_. The
learning shown in his poems is not pretence; it came into his poems
because he had it in his mind. How his wit could play with his science is
shown in the _Hous of Fame_, where the eagle is allowed to give a popular
lecture on acoustics, but is prevented from going on to astronomy.
Chaucer dissembles his interest in that subject because he knows that
popular science ought not to interfere too much with the proper business
of poetry; he also, being a humorist, sees the comic aspect of his own
didactic tastes; he sees the comic opposition between the teacher anxious
to go on explaining and the listener not so ready to take in more. There
is another passage, in _Troilus_, where good literary advice is given
(rather in the style of Polonius) against irrelevant scientific
illustrations. In a love-letter you must not allow your work for the
schools to appear too obviously—

  Ne jompre eek no discordant thing y-fere,
  As thus, to usen termes of physik.

This may be fairly interpreted as Chaucer talking to himself. He knew
that he was inclined to this sort of irrelevance and very apt to drag in
‘termes of physik’, fragments of natural philosophy, where they were out
of place.

This was one of the things, one of the common medieval temptations, from
which he had to escape if he was to be a master in the art of poetry. How
real the danger was can be seen in the works of some of the Chaucerians,
e.g. in Henryson’s _Orpheus_, and in Gawain Douglas’s _Palace of Honour_.

Boethius is a teacher of a different sort from Melibeus, and the poet
need not be afraid of him. Boethius, the master of Dante, the disciple of
Plato, is one of the medieval authors who are not disqualified in any
century; with him Chaucer does not require to be on his guard. The
_Consolation of Philosophy_ may help the poet even in the highest reach
of his imagination; so Boethius is remembered by Chaucer, as he is by
Dante, when he has to deal solemnly with the condition of men on earth.
This is not one of the common medieval vanities from which Chaucer has to

Far more dangerous and more attractive than any pedantry of the schools
was the traditional convention of the allegorical poets, the _Rose_ and
all the attendants of the _Rose_. This was a danger that Chaucer could
not avoid; indeed it was his chief poetical task, at first, to enter this
dreamland and to come out of it with the spoils of the garden, which
could not be won except by a dreamer and by full subjection to all the
enchantments of the place. It was part of Chaucer’s poetic vocation to
comprehend and to make his own the whole spirit and language of the
_Roman de la Rose_ and also of the French poets who had followed, in the
century between. The _Complaint to Pity_ shows how he succeeded in this;
also the _Complaint of Mars_ and the poem called the _Complaint of
Venus_, which is a translation from Oton de Granson, ‘the floure of hem
that maken in France’. Chaucer had to do this, and then he had to escape.
This sort of fancy work, a kind of musical sentiment with a mythology of
personified abstract qualities, is the least substantial of all
things—thought and argument, imagery and utterance, all are of the finest
and most impalpable.

  Thus am I slayn sith that Pité is deed:
  Allas the day! that ever hit shulde falle!
  What maner man dar now holde up his heed?
  To whom shall any sorwful herte calle,
  Now Crueltee hath cast to sleen us alle
  In ydel hope, folk redelees of peyne?
  Sith she is deed, to whom shul we compleyne

If this sort of verse had not been written, English poetry would have
missed one of the graces of medieval art—a grace which at this day it is
easy to despise. It is not despicable, but neither is it the kind of
beauty with which a strong imagination can be content, or indeed any mind
whatsoever, apart from such a tradition as that of the old ‘courtly
makers’. And it is worth remembering that not every one of the courtly
makers restricted himself to this thin, fine abstract melody. Eustache
Deschamps, for example, amused himself with humorous verse as well; and
for Froissart his ballades and virelais were only a game, an occasional
relief from the memoirs in which he was telling the story of his time.
Chaucer in fact did very little in the French style of abstract
sentiment. The longest of his early poems, _The Book of the Duchess_, has
much of this quality in it, but this does not make the poem. _The Book of
the Duchess_ is not abstract. It uses the traditional manner—dream,
mythology, and all—but it has other substance in it, and that is the
character of the Duchess Blanche herself, and the grief for her death.
Chaucer is here dealing with real life, and the conventional aids to
poetry are left behind.

How necessary it was to get beyond this French school is shown by the
later history of the French school itself. There was no one like Chaucer
in France; except perhaps Froissart, who certainly had plenty of real
life in his memoirs. But Froissart’s Chronicles were in prose, and did
nothing to cure the inanition of French poetry, which went on getting
worse and worse, so that even a poetic genius like Villon suffered from
it, having no examples to guide him except the thin ballades and rondeaux
on the hackneyed themes. R. L. Stevenson’s account of Charles d’Orleans
and his poetry will show well enough what sort of work it was which was
abandoned by Chaucer, and which in the century after Chaucer was still
the most favoured kind in France.

It should not be forgotten that Chaucer, though he went far beyond such
poetry as that of his French masters and of his own _Complaint to Pity_,
never turned against it. He escaped out of the allegorical garden of the
Rose, but with no resentment or ingratitude. He never depreciates the old
school. He must have criticized it—to find it unsatisfying is to
criticize it, implicitly at any rate; but he never uses a word of blame
or a sentence of parody. In his later writings he takes up the devices of
the Rose again; not only in the Prologue to the _Legend of Good Women_,
but also, though less obviously, in the _Squire’s Tale_, where the
sentiment is quite in harmony with the old French mode.

Chaucer wrote no such essay on poetry as Dante _de Vulgari Eloquentia_;
not even such a practical handbook of versification as was written by his
friend Eustache Deschamps. But his writings, like Shakespeare’s, have
many passages referring to the literary art—the processes of the
workshop—and a comparison of his poems with the originals which suggested
them will often bring out what was consciously in his mind as he
reflected on his work—as he calculated and altered, to suit the purpose
which he had before him.

Chaucer is one of the greatest of literary artists, and one of the
finest; so it is peculiarly interesting to make out what he thought of
different poetical kinds and forms which came in his way through his
reading or his own practice. For this object—i.e. to bring out Chaucer’s
aims and the way in which he criticized his own poetry—the most valuable
evidence is given by the poem of _Anelida and the False Arcite_. This is
not only an unfinished poem—Chaucer left many things unfinished—it is a
poem which changes its purpose as it goes on, which is written under two
different and discordant influences, and which could not possibly be made
harmonious without total reconstruction from the beginning. It was
written after Chaucer had gone some way in his reading of the Italian
poets, and the opening part is copied from the _Teseide_ of Boccaccio,
which is also the original of the _Knight’s Tale_. Now it was principally
through Boccaccio’s example that Chaucer learned how to break away from
the French school. Yet here in this poem of _Anelida_, starting with
imitation of Boccaccio, Chaucer goes back to the French manner, and works
out a theme of the French school—and then drops it, in the middle of a
sentence. He was distracted at that time, it is clear, between two
opposite kinds of poetry. His _Anelida_ is experimental work; in it we
can see how he was changing his mind, and what difficulty he had with the
new problems that were offered to him in his Italian books. He found in
Italian a stronger kind of narrative than he had been accustomed to,
outside of the Latin poets; a new kind of ambition, an attempt to rival
the classical authors in a modern language. The _Teseide_ (the _Theseid_)
of Boccaccio is a modern epic poem in twelve books, meant by its author
to be strong and solid and full; Chaucer in _Anelida_ begins to translate
and adapt this heroic poem—and then he turns away from the wars of
Theseus to a story of disappointed love; further, he leaves the narrative
style and composes for Anelida the most elaborate of all his lyric poems,
the most extreme contrast to the heavy epic manner in which his poem is
begun. The lyrical complaint of Anelida is the perfection of everything
that had been tried in the French school—a fine unsubstantial beauty so
thin and clear that it is hardly comprehensible at first, and never in
agreement with the forcible narrative verse at the beginning of the poem.

Chaucer here has been caught escaping from the Garden of the Rose; he has
heard outside the stronger music of the new Italian epic poetry, but the
old devotion is for the time too strong, and he falls back. His return is
not exactly failure, because the complaint of Anelida, which is in many
respects old-fashioned, a kind of poetry very near exhaustion, is also
one of the most elaborate things ever composed by Chaucer, such a proof
of his skill in verse as he never gives elsewhere.

The _Teseide_ kept him from sleeping, and his later progress cannot be
understood apart from this epic of Boccaccio. When Chaucer read the
Italian poets, he found them working with a new conception of the art of
poetry, and particularly a fresh comprehension of the Ancients. The
classical Renaissance has begun.

The influence of the Latin poets had been strong all through the Middle
Ages. In its lowest degree it helped the medieval poets to find matter
for their stories; the French _Roman d’Eneas_ is the work that shows this
best, because it is a version of the greatest Latin poem, and can be
easily compared with its original, so as to find out what is understood
and what is missed or travestied; how far the scope of the _Aeneid_ is
different from the old French order of romance.

But neither here nor generally elsewhere is the debt limited to the
matter of the stories. The sentiment, the pathos, the eloquence of
medieval French poetry is derived from Virgil and Ovid. The Latin poets
are the originals of medieval romance, far beyond what can be reckoned by
any comparison of plots and incidents. And the medieval poets in their
turn are the ancestors of the Renaissance and show the way to modern

But the old French poets, though they did much for the classical
education of Europe, were inattentive to many things in classical poetry
which the Italians were the first to understand, even before the revival
of Greek, and which they appropriated for modern verse in time for
Chaucer to be interested in what they were doing. Shortly, they
understood what was meant by composition, proportion, the narrative
unities; they appreciated the style of Latin poetry as the French did
not; in poetical ornament they learned from Virgil something more
spiritual and more imaginative than the French had known, and for which
the term ‘ornament’ is hardly good enough; it is found in the similes of
Dante, and after him in Chaucer.

This is one of the most difficult and one of the most interesting parts
of literary history—the culmination and the end of the Middle Ages, in
which the principles of medieval poetry are partly justified and partly
refuted. As seen in the work of Chaucer, the effect of this new age and
the Italian poetry was partly the stronger and richer poetical language
and (an obvious sign of this strengthening) the similes such as were used
by the classical authors. But far more than this, a change was made in
the whole manner of devising and shaping a story. This change was
suggested by the Italian poets; it fell in with the change in Chaucer’s
own mind and with the independent growth of his strength. What he learned
as a critic from study he used as an artist at the time when his
imaginative power was quickest and most fertile. Yet before his journey
to Italy, and apparently before he had learnt any Italian, he had already
gone some way to meet the new poetry, without knowing it.

His earlier narrative poems, afterwards used for the tales of the Second
Nun, the Clerk of Oxford and the Man of Law, have at least one quality in
which they agree both with the Italians and with Chaucer’s maturest work.
The verse is stately, strong, _heroic_ in more senses than one. Chaucer’s
employment of the ten-syllable line in the seven-line stanza for
narrative was his own discovery. The decasyllabic line was an old
measure; so was the seven-line stanza, both in Provençal and French. But
the stanza had been generally restricted to lyric poetry, as in Chaucer’s
_Complaint to Pity_. It was a favourite stanza for ballades. French
poetry discouraged the stanza in narrative verse; the common form for
narrative of all sorts, and for preaching and satire as well, was the
short couplet—the verse of the _Roman de Troie_, the _Roman de Renart_,
the _Roman de la Rose_, the verse of the _Book of the Duchess_ and the
_Hous of Fame_. When Chaucer used the longer verse in his _Life of St.
Cecilia_ and the other earlier tales, it is probable that he was
following a common English opinion and taste, which tended against the
universal dominion of the short couplet. ‘Short verse’ was never put out
of use or favour, never insulted or condemned. But the English seem to
have felt that it was not enough; they wanted more varieties. They had
the alliterative verse, and, again, the use of the _rime couée_—_Sir
Thopas_ verse—was certainly due to a wish for variety. The long verse of
Robert of Gloucester was another possibility, frequently taken. After
Chaucer’s time, and seemingly independent of him, there were, in the
fifteenth century, still more varieties in use among the minstrels. There
was a general feeling among poets of all degrees that the short couplet
(with no disrespect to it) was not the only and was not the most powerful
of instruments. The technical originality of Chaucer was, first, that he
learned the secret of the ten-syllable line, and later that he used it
for regular narrative and made it the proper heroic verse in English. The
most remarkable thing in this discovery is that Chaucer began to conform
to the Italian rule before he knew anything about it. Not only are his
single lines much nearer to the Italian rhythm than the French. This is
curious, but it is not exceptional; it is what happens generally when the
French decasyllable is imitated in one of the Teutonic languages, and
Gower, who knew no Italian, or at any rate shows no sign of attending to
Italian poetry, writes his occasional decasyllabic lines in the same way
as Chaucer. But besides this mode of the single verse Chaucer agrees with
the Italian practice in using stanzas for long narrative poetry; here he
seems to have been led instinctively, or at least without any conscious
imitation, to agree with the poet whom he was to follow still further,
when once Boccaccio came in sight. This coincidence of taste in metre was
one thing that must have struck Chaucer as soon as he opened an Italian
book. Dante and Boccaccio used the same type of line as Chaucer had taken
for many poems before ever he learned Italian; while the octave stanzas
of Boccaccio’s epic—the common verse, before that, of the Italian
minstrels in their romances—must have seemed to Chaucer remarkably like
his own stanza in the _Life of St. Cecilia_ or the story of _Constance_.

This explains how it was that Chaucer, with all his admiration for
Italian poetry, never, except in one small instance, tries to copy any
Italian verse. He did not copy the Italian line because he had the same
line already from another source; and he did not copy Boccaccio’s octave
stanza because he had already another stanza quite as good, if not
better, in the same kind. One need not consider long, what is also very
very probable, that Chaucer felt the danger of too great attraction to
those wonderful new models; he would learn what he could (so he seems to
have thought to himself), but he would not give up what he had already
gained without them. Possibly the odd change of key, the relapse from
Italian to French style in _Anelida_, might be explained as Chaucer’s
reaction against the too overpowering influence of the new Italian
school. ‘Here is this brand-new epic starting out to conquer all the
world; no question but that it is triumphant, glorious, successful; and
we cannot escape; but before we join in the procession, and it is too
late to draw back, suppose we draw back _now_—into the old garden—to try
once more what may be made of the old French kind of music’. So possibly
we might translate into ruder terms what seems to be the artistic
movement in this remarkable failure by Chaucer.

Chaucer spent a long time thinking over the Italian poetry which he had
learned, and he made different attempts to turn it to profit in English
before he succeeded. One of his first complete poems after his Italian
studies had begun is as significant as _Anelida_ both with respect to the
difficulties that he found and also to the enduring influence of the
French school. In the _Parliament of Birds_, his style as far as it can
be tested in single passages seems to have learned everything there was
to be learned—

  Through me men goon into the blisful place
  Of hertès hele and dedly woundès cure;
  Through me men goon unto the welle of Grace,
  There grene and lusty May shal ever endure;
  This is the way to all good aventure;
  Be glad, thou reader, and thy sorrow offcaste!
  All open am I; passe in and hy thee faste!

And, as for composition, the poem carries out to the full what the author
intends; the digressions and the slackness that are felt to detract from
the _Book of the Duchess_ have been avoided; the poem expresses the mind
of Chaucer, both through the music of its solemn verse, and through the
comic dialogue of the birds in their assembly. But this accomplished
piece of work, with all its reminiscences of Dante and Boccaccio, is old
French in its scheme; it is another of the allegorical dreams, and the
device of the Parliament of Birds is in French older than the _Romaunt of
the Rose_.

Chaucer is still, apparently, holding back; practising on the ground
familiar to him, and gradually working into his poetry all that he can
readily manage out of his Italian books. In _Anelida_ Italian and French
are separate and discordant; in the _Parliament of Birds_ there is a
harmony, but as yet Chaucer has not matched himself thoroughly against
Boccaccio. When he does so, in _Troilus_ and in the _Knight’s Tale_, it
will be found that he is something more than a translator, and more than
an adapter of minor and separable passages.

The _Teseide_ of Boccaccio is at last after many attempts—how many, it is
impossible to say—rendered into English by Chaucer, not in a translation,
but with a thorough recasting of the whole story. _Troilus and Criseyde_
is taken from another poem by Boccaccio. _Troilus_ and the _Knight’s
Tale_ are without rivals in English for the critical keenness which has
gone into them. Shakespeare has the same skill in dealing with his
materials, in choosing and rejecting, but Shakespeare was never matched,
as Chaucer was in these works, against an author of his own class, an
author, too, who had all the advantages of long training. The
interest—the historical interest at any rate—of Chaucer’s dealings with
Boccaccio is that it was an encounter between an Englishman whose
education had been chiefly French, and an Italian who had begun upon the
ways of the new learning. To put it bluntly, it was the Middle Ages
against the Renaissance; and the Englishman won on the Italian ground and
under the Italian rules. Chaucer judged more truly than Boccaccio what
the story of Palamon and Arcite was worth; the story of Troilus took
shape in his imagination with incomparably more strength and substance.
In both cases he takes what he thinks fit; he learned from Boccaccio, or
perhaps it would be truer to say he found out for himself in reading
Boccaccio what was the value of right proportion in narrative. He refused
altogether to be led away as Boccaccio was by the formal classical ideal
of epic poetry—the ‘receipt to make an epic poem’ which prescribed as
necessary all the things employed in the construction of the _Aeneid_.
Boccaccio is the first modern author who writes an epic in twelve books;
and one of his books is taken up with funeral games, because Virgil in
the _Aeneid_ had imitated the funeral games in Homer. In the time of Pope
this was still a respectable tradition. Chaucer is not tempted; he keeps
to what is essential, and in the proportions of his story and his
conception of the narrative unities he is saner than all the Renaissance.

One of the finest passages in English criticism of poetry is Dryden’s
estimate of Chaucer in the Preface to the _Fables_. Chaucer is taken by
Dryden, in the year 1700, as an example of that sincerity and truth to
Nature which makes the essence of classical poetry. In this classical
quality, Dryden thinks that Ovid is far inferior to Chaucer. Dryden makes
allowance for Chaucer’s old-fashioned language, and he did not fully
understand the beauty of Chaucer’s verse, but still he judges him as a
modern writer with respect to his imagination; to no modern writer does
he give higher praise than to Chaucer.

This truth to Nature, in virtue of which Chaucer is a classic, will be
found to be limited in some of his works by conventions which are not
always easy to understand. Among these should not be reckoned the dream
allegory. For though it may appear strange at first that Chaucer should
have gone back to this in so late a work as the Prologue to the _Legend
of Good Women_, yet it does not prevent him from speaking his mind either
in earlier or later poems. In the _Book of the Duchess_, the _Parliament
of Birds_, the Prologue to the _Legend_, one feels that Chaucer is
dealing with life, and saying what he really thinks, in spite of the
conventions. The _Hous of Fame_, which is a dream poem, might almost have
been written for a wager, to show that he could bring in everything
traditional, everything most common in the old artificial poetry, and yet
be original and fresh through it all. But there are some stories—the
_Clerk’s Tale_, and the _Franklin’s Tale_—in which he uses conventions of
another sort and is partially disabled by them. These are stories of a
kind much favoured in the Middle Ages, turning each upon one single
obligation which, for the time, is regarded as if it were the only rule
of conduct. The patience of Griselda is absolute; nothing must be allowed
to interfere with it, and there is no other moral in the story. It is one
of the frequent medieval examples in which the author can only think of
one thing at a time. On working out this theme, Chaucer is really tried
as severely as his heroine, and his patience is more extraordinary,
because if there is anything certain about him it is that his mind is
never satisfied with any one single aspect of any matter. Yet here he
carries the story through to the end, though when it is finished he
writes an epilogue which is a criticism on the strained morality of the
piece. The plot of the _Franklin’s Tale_ is another of the favourite
medieval type, where the ‘point of honour’, the obligation of a vow, is
treated in the same uncompromising way; Chaucer is here confined to a
problem under strict rules, a drama of difficulties without character.

In the _Legend of Good Women_ he is limited in a different way, and not
so severely. He has to tell ‘the Saints’ Lives of Cupid’—the Legends of
the Heroines who have been martyrs for love; and as in the Legend of the
Saints of the Church, the same motives are repeated, the trials of
loyalty, the grief and pity. The Legend was left unfinished, apparently
because Chaucer was tired. Yet it is not certain that he repented of his
plan, or that the plan was wrong. There may possibly have been in this
work something of the formalism which is common in Renaissance art, the
ambition to build up a structure in many compartments, each compartment
resembling all the others in the character of the subject and its general
lines. But the stories are distinct, and all are beautiful—the legends of
Cleopatra Queen and Martyr, of Thisbe and Ariadne, and the rest. Another
poem which may be compared with the _Legend of Good Women_ is the _Monk’s
Tale_—an early work to which Chaucer made later additions—his book of the
_Falls of Princes_. The Canterbury pilgrims find it too depressing, and
in their criticism of the Monk’s tragedies Chaucer may possibly have been
thinking also of his unfinished _Legend of Good Women_. But what has been
said of the Legend may be repeated about the _Monk’s Tale_; there is the
same kind of pathos in all the chapters, but they are all varied. One of
the tragedies is the most considerable thing which Chaucer took from
Dante; the story of Ugolino in the _Inferno_, ‘Hugelyn Erle of Pise’.

It is uncertain whether Chaucer knew the _Decameron_ of Boccaccio, but
the art of his comic stories is very like that of the Italian, to whom he
owed so much in other ways. It is the art of comic imagination, using a
perfect style which does not need to be compared with the unsophisticated
old French ribaldry of the _fabliaux_ to be appreciated, though a
comparison of that sort will show how far the Middle Ages had been left
behind by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Among the interludes in the _Canterbury
Tales_ there are two especially, the monologues of the Wife of Bath and
the Pardoner, where Chaucer has discovered one of the most successful
forms of comic poetry, and the Canon’s Yeoman’s prologue may be reckoned
as a third along with them, though there, and also in the _Canon’s
Yeoman’s Tale_, the humour is of a peculiar sort, with less character in
it, and more satire—like the curious learned satire of which Ben Jonson
was fond. It is remarkable that the tales told by the Wife of Bath and
the Pardoner are both in a different tone from their discourses about

Without _Troilus and Criseyde_ the works of Chaucer would be an immense
variety—romance and sentiment, humour and observation, expressed in
poetical language that has never been equalled for truth and liveliness.
But it is only in _Troilus_ that Chaucer uses his full powers together in
harmony. All the world, it might be said, is reflected in the various
poems of Chaucer; _Troilus_ is the one poem which brings it all into a
single picture. In the history of English poetry it is the close of the
Middle Ages.

                             NOTE ON BOOKS

For the language: Anglo-Saxon can be learned in Sweet’s _Primer_ and
_Reader_ (Clarendon Press). Sweet’s _First Middle English Primer_ gives
extracts from the _Ancren Riwle_ and the _Ormulum_, with separate
grammars for the two dialects. But it is generally most convenient to
learn the language of Chaucer before attempting the earlier books. Morris
and Skeat’s _Specimens of Early English_ (two volumes, Clarendon Press)
range from the end of the English Chronicle (1153) to Chaucer; valuable
for literary history as well as philology. The nature of the language is
explained in Henry Bradley’s _Making of English_ (Clarendon Press), and
in Wyld’s _Study of the Mother Tongue_ (Murray).

The following books should be noted: Stopford Brooke, _Early English
Literature_ (Macmillan); Schofield, _English Literature from the Norman
Conquest to Chaucer_ (Macmillan); Jusserand, _Literary History of the
English People_ (Fisher Unwin); Chambers’ _Cyclopædia of English
Literature_, I; Ten Brink, _Early English Literature_ (Bell); Saintsbury,
_History of English Prosody_, I (Macmillan); Courthope, _History of
English Poetry_, I and II (Macmillan).

Full bibliographies are provided in the _Cambridge History of English

The bearings of early French upon English poetry are illustrated in
Saintsbury’s _Flourishing of Romance and Rise of Allegory_ (Blackwood).
Much of the common medieval tendencies may be learned from the earlier
part of Robertson’s _German Literature_ (Blackwood), and Gaspary’s
_Italian Literature_, translated by Oelsner (Bell). Some topics have been
already discussed by the present author in other works: _Epic and
Romance_ (Macmillan); _The Dark Ages_ (Blackwood); _Essays on Medieval
Literature_ (Macmillan).

The history of medieval drama in England, for which there was no room in
this book, is clearly given in Pollard’s _Miracle Plays, Moralities and
Interludes_ (Clarendon Press).

                           SUPPLEMENTARY NOTE

                           By R. W. Chambers

_Many years have passed since the publication of Ker’s volume in the_
Home University Library, _yet there is hardly a paragraph in it which
demands any serious addition or alteration. It is a classic of English
criticism, and any attempt to alter it, or ‘bring it up to date’, either
now or in future years, would be futile_.

_Ker deliberately refused to add an elaborate bibliography. But his_ Note
on Books _reminds us how, though his own work remains unimpaired, the
whole field of study has been altered, largely as a result of that work_.

Sweet’s books mark an epoch in Anglo-Saxon study, and have not lost their
practical value: to his _Primer_ and _Reader_ (Clarendon Press) must be
added the _Anglo-Saxon Reader_ of A. J. Wyatt (Cambridge University
Press, 1919, etc.). The earlier portion of Morris’s _Specimens of Early
English_, Part I (1150-1300), has been replaced by Joseph Hall’s
_Selections from Early Middle English_, 1130-1250, 2 vols. (Clarendon
Press, 1920); Part II, _Specimens_ (1298-1393), edited by Morris and
Skeat, has been replaced by _Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose_, edited
by Kenneth Sisam (Clarendon Press, 1921). To Wyld’s _Study of the Mother
Tongue_ must now be added his _History of Modern Colloquial English_ and
Otto Jespersen’s _Growth and Structure of the English Language_
(Blackwell, 1938).

_The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records_, edited by G. P. Krapp and others
(Columbia Univ. Press and Routledge, 6 vols, 1931, etc.), provide a
corpus of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

It is impossible to review editions of, or monographs on, individual
poems or authors, but some work done on _Beowulf_ and Chaucer may be
noted: editions of _Beowulf_, by Sedgefield (Manchester Univ. Press,
1910, etc.), by Wyatt and Chambers (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1914, etc.)
and by Klaeber (Heath & Co., 1922, etc.); R. W. Chambers, _Beowulf, an
Introduction_ (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1921, etc.), and W. W. Lawrence,
_Beowulf and Epic Tradition_ (Harvard Univ. Press, 1928, etc.); G. L.
Kittredge, _Chaucer and his Poetry_ (Harvard Univ. Press, 1915); J. L.
Lowes, _Geoffrey Chaucer_ (Oxford Univ. Press, 1934); F. N. Robinson,
_The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer_ (Oxford Univ. Press, 1933).

Fresh aspects of medieval literature are dealt with in G. R. Owst’s
_Preaching in Medieval England_ (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1926) and
_Literature and the Pulpit in Medieval England_ (Cambridge Univ. Press,
1933); R. W. Chambers, _The Continuity of English Prose_ (Oxford Univ.
Press, 1932); C. S. Lewis, _Allegory of Love_ (Clarendon Press, 1936);
Mr. Owst’s books serve to remind us that Ker’s work can still be
supplemented by minute study of fields which he, with his vast range over
the literatures of all Western Europe, had of necessity to leave
unexplored, when he closed his little book with Chaucer. The two most
startling new discoveries in Medieval English Literature fall outside the
limits which Ker set himself; they are _The Book of Margery Kempe_,
edited in 1940 for the Early English Text Society by Prof. S. B. Meech
and Miss Hope Emily Allen, and the Winchester manuscript of Malory’s
_Morte Darthur_, upon which Prof. Eugene Vinaver is now engaged.

The student will find particulars of the books he wants by consulting the
new bibliography of the _Cambridge History of English Literature_ or _A
Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1400_, by Prof. J. E.
Wells (Yale and Oxford Univ. Presses, 1916, with supplements).



    The Cædmon MS. in Oxford.
    The Exeter Book.
    The Vercelli Book.
    The book containing the poems _Beowulf_ and _Judith_ in the Cotton
              Library at the British Museum.


  Ælfric, 17, 40, 42, 43, 154, 155, 157
  Alexander the Great, 51, 53, 105, 137
  Alfred, King, 17, 19, 33, 34, 35, 41, 43
  _Amadace, Sir_, 84, 130
  _Amadas et Ydoine_, 55, 77
  _Ancren Riwle_, 154-7
  Andersen, Hans, 83, 128
  _Anelida and Arcite_, 113, 174, 175, 180, 181
  _Apollonius of Tyre_, 57
  Arnold, Matthew, 8
  Arthur, King, 50, 86, 87, 120
  _Auchinleck MS._, 90
  _Ayenbite of Inwit_, 150

  Ballads, 116-23
  Barbour, 162
  Bede, 34, 37
  Bentham on the Middle Ages, 10
  _Beowulf_, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 34, 43, 45, 52
  _Bestiary_, 138, 154
  _Bevis of Southampton, Sir_, 25, 98
  Boccaccio, 28, 174, 175, 179, 181, 182, 185
  Boethius, 34, 41, 43, 171
  _Book of the Duchess_, 173, 178, 181, 183
  _Book of the Duchess Blanche_, 133
  Britain,’ ‘Matter of, 50-1, 52, 53, 85
  _Bruce_, 162
  Bunyan, John, 98, 132, 138, 139, 145
  Burne, Minstrel, 58
  Burns, Robert, 56, 114, 115
  Byrhtnoth, 29

  Cædmon, 34, 35, 37
  _Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, The_, 186
  Canute, his boat song, 107, 109
  _Canterbury Tales, The_, 28, 64, 168, 170, 184, 185, 186
  _Carole, The_, 61, 63, 64
  _Chansons de Geste_, 52, 70
  Charlemagne, 52, 53, 87
  Chaucer, 20, 43, 55, 63, 64, 69, 94, 96, 97, 113, 133, 134, 140,
          141, 143, 160, 163-86
  _Chevelere Assigne_, 105
  Chrestien de Troyes, 79, 80, 81, 82, 85, 166
  Chronicle, The English, 41
  _Clerk’s Tale, The_, 184
  Clopinel, Jean, 140
  _Cockayne, Land of_, 132
  _Complaint to Pity_, 173, 178
  _Confessio Amantis_, 133, 167
  Courtly Poets, 63, 64, 66, 68
  _Cuckoo Song_, 57, 59
  _Cursor Mundi, The_, 161
  Cynewulf, 37, 38, 39, 44

  Dante, 8, 9, 65, 66, 75, 144, 160, 168, 171, 177, 179, 181, 185
  _Deor’s Lament_, 38, 119
  Deschamps, Eustace, 174
  _Dream of the Rood, The_, 36, 37
  Dryden on Chaucer, 183

  _Emaré_, quoted, 97

  _Fabliaux_, 127-32
  _Faerie Queene, The_, 26, 99
  _Fall of the Angels, The_, 36, 44
  Faroese Ballads, 53, 119
  _Ferabras, Sir_, 54
  _Finnesburgh, The Fight at_, 26, 29
  _Floris and Blanchefleur_, 89
  France,’ ‘The Matter of, 50-1, 52, 53
  _Franklin’s Tale, The_, 184
  French Poetry, 48, 49, 50, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 59, 60, 69, 70, 72,
          163, 176
  _Friars of Berwick_, 130
  Froissart, 166, 173

  Gawain, Sir, 50, 52
  _Gawain and the Green Knight_, 45, 60, 86, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105,
  _Genesis_, Anglo-Saxon poem, 35
  Geoffrey of Monmouth, 52, 86, 87
  _Germania, The_, 18, 20, 21, 27
  Giraldus Cambrensis, 62, 84, 108
  Godric, St., 107, 108, 109
  Gower, John, 55, 56, 63, 69, 134, 164, 165, 166, 167
  Grimm, 13, 129
  Guillaume de Lorris, 140
  _Guy of Warwick_, 98

  Hampole, Richard Rolle of, 63, 162
  Harleian MS., the, 110-3, 114,116
  _Havelock the Dane_, 45, 88, 89
  Henryson, Robert, 125
  _Hous of Fame, The_, 143, 170, 178, 184
  Huchoun, 106
  Huon of Bordeaux, Sir, 25

  Ipomedon, Romance of, 76, 77, 78, 79

  _Kerry Recruit, The_, 57, 58
  _King Horn_, 88, 89, 98
  _Knight’s Tale, The_, 175, 181, 182

  _Lais_, Breton, 83, 86, 94
  _Launfal, Sir_, 83, 84, 93
  Layamon’s _Brut_, 45, 52, 87, 88, 153, 154
  _Legend of Good Women, The_, 66, 72, 143, 168, 174, 183, 184
  Lewes, Song on the Battle of, 111
  _Libeaus, Sir_, 98, 99, 100, 102
  _Luve Ron_, 109
  Lydgate, John, 98
  Lyndsay, Sir David, 161
  Lyric poetry, 56-63, 107-23

  Maldon, Battle of, 29, 30, 33, 39, 40, 43, 52
  Malmesbury, William of, 44
  Malory, 86, 88
  _Man in the Moon_, 113
  Map, Walter, 84, 87
  Marie de France, 83, 84, 86, 94
  _Melibeus_, 169
  Michael of Kildare, Friar, 113
  Minnesingers, 67, 69
  Minot, Laurence, 95, 112
  _Monk’s Tale, The_, 185
  _Moral Ode_, 152, 153
  _Morte Arthure_, in alliterative verse, 45, 60, 86, 105, 106

  _Nibelungenlied_, 21, 22, 29, 48

  _Odyssey, The_, 24
  Ohthere, 19, 20
  _Orfeo, Sir_, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 117
  _Ormulum_, 57, 58, 59, 151
  Osborne, Dorothy, 81
  Ovid, read by French poets, 72, 176
  _Owl and the Nightingale, The_, 64, 133-6

  _Parliament of Birds_, 181, 183
  _Pearl_, 103, 143
  Petrarch, 49, 65, 66, 75, 143
  _Piers Plowman_, 30, 31, 45, 143, 144-9
  Provençal poetry, 67, 68, 69

  Reynard the Fox, 124-7
  _Riddles_, Anglo-Saxon, 40
  _Rime of Sir Thopas_, 79, 94, 96, 97, 103, 104, 168, 178
  Robert of Brunne, 159
  Robert of Gloucester, 158, 178
  Robin Hood, 122
  Roland, 51, 52, 53
  _Roman d’Eneas_, 71, 73, 176
  _Roman de Troie_, 51, 52, 53, 71, 105
  Rome,’ ‘The Matter of, 50, 51
  _Rood, Dream of the_, 36, 37
  _Rose, Roman de la_, 139-43, 163, 166, 167, 171, 173
  _Ruin, The_, 39, 44
  Ruskin, 8, 9
  Ruthwell verses, the, 37

  _St. Cecilia, Life of_, 178, 179
  _Saints, Lives of the_, 43, 159
  _Salomon and Saturnus_, 40
  Saxo Grammaticus, 28, 48, 66
  Science, popular, 160
  _Scottish Field, The_, 30
  _Seafarer, The_, 39
  _Seven Wise Masters of Rome_, 137, 167
  Sidney, Sir Philip, 72
  Sigfred (Sigurd, or Siegfried the Volsung), 21, 22, 27
  _Sirith, Dame_, 127
  _Soul’s Ward_, 157
  Spenser, 65, 73, 75, 99, 139

  Tacitus, 18
  Thomas de Hales, Friar, 109
  _Thopas, Rime of Sir_, 79, 94, 96, 97, 103, 104, 168, 178
  _Tristrem, Sir_, 90, 94, 99, 100, 120
  _Troilus and Criseyde_, 51, 168, 170, 181, 182, 186

  Verse, Anglo-Saxon, 30-40
      —later alliterative, 45, 46
      —rhyming, 57, 58, 59, 79, 114, 115, 178, 179

  Voltaire, 49
  _Vox and the Wolf, The_, 124

  _Waldere_, Anglo-Saxon poem, 16, 22, 29
  _Wanderer, The_, 39, 44
  Wayland Smith, 34
  Welsh poet writing English, 114
  _Widsith_, 22, 26, 33, 38, 119
  _Wife’s Complaint, The_, 39
  William of Malmesbury, 28, 44
  _William of Palerne_ (or _William and the Werwolf_), 55, 105
  William of Poitiers, 47, 48, 114
  Wycliffe, 42

  _Ypotis_, 98
  _Ywain and Gawain_, 80


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