Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: II. The Norman Conquest to Shakespeare (1066–1564)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: II. The Norman Conquest to Shakespeare (1066–1564)

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

The Norman Conquest
WHEN the Romans left Britain never to return, they left it with a crude social life, with no central political power, with a heathen religion, and with no literature. When the Normans landed six centuries later on the same shore from which the Romans had departed, they found the Anglo-Saxons united under one leader to repel the invasion; they found a civilized social life, a Christian people, and a national literature of no mean excellence.

Whatever may have been the momentary disorganization brought into the political life of England by the advent of William the Conqueror, or the hardship engendered in the lives of the common people by the grafting on of a new social system, there can be no doubt in our minds, as we look back from the vantage-point of later history, that the Normans supplied elements which were lacking in English life and which were essential to its further successful development. The Anglo-Saxons had always suffered from lack of organization and centralization of power; the Normans had a genius for centralized administration. The Anglo-Saxons lacked that ability for enacting law and for maintaining order which was a strong characteristic of their latest conquerors. The Anglo-Saxons lacked the mobility of spirit and the power of imagination which were fundamental elements in the intellectual life of the Normans and which helped so much in their adaptation of themselves to new conditions and in the literary expression of characteristic aspects of the new era which they were making in English life.

Upon every phase of English national life the Norman régime had a deep and far-reaching influence. Government, church, social life, foreign relations, literature, and art—all these felt the effects of the new force, and the result was a new England in which the genius of the Anglo-Saxon and that of the Norman were fused.

Among the effects of the Norman Conquest of England was the closer relation with continental affairs, political and religious, that was bound to follow. The result was that England was drawn into wars involved by the changing dominions of the French kings and was brought into close commercial contact with the trading centres of the time. The history of this political and territorial adjustment which begins in the reign of William the Conqueror (1066–1087) extends through many centuries of war at home and abroad until the union of England and Scotland under James I. (1603–1625); and the commercial relation of England with continental cities which started as a result of the Crusades carries us well into the Elizabethan period with its new geographical interests and its zeal for discovery.

Much of this struggle was in reality the result of the inevitable give-and-take, the mutual adjustment of two different races with their own social organization and their own ideals, placed in the unstable position of conqueror and conquered. But there was much in the national and social life of the day to show that English life and thought were emerging from a state of servitude to the past, and were developing into what is really modern English. The Normans and the Anglo-Saxons soon became welded into a nation whose characteristics were thoroughly improved by the blend, for intermarriage and common aims are two of the strongest influences to bind a people together.

The machinery of government was one of the first phases of the national life to feel the new influence. The old, crude Anglo-Saxon sense of justice which conceived trial by combat or the ordeal of fire gave place to a loftier and more humane conception of the relationship of man to man. There was established a system of justice which involved the circuit court and the beginnings of the jury system. Parliament began its first long series of steps toward independence and toward adequate representation of the people of the land. The Magna Charta which the nobles wrested from King John in 1215, and the deposition of Edward II. and of Richard II. for an undue and unjust use of their powers, are sufficient illustrations of the growing strength of the people. But the rise of a free and independent nation from a people who were merely serfs and little better than slaves is necessarily a slow and difficult process. In 1349, the Black Death swept over Europe and its ravages seriously interfered with the agriculture of England, and helped to break down the old idea that men should live all their lives and do all their work in one place. In 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt is another indication of the approaching economic change to which the growth of commerce and the increasing power of labor were to add significant contributions; so that, while in France the condition of servitude remained as a social blot until so late a date as the French Revolution, and in America more than half a century later, in England the bondage of one part of the people to another had disappeared almost entirely by the end of the fifteenth century.

The English army, which at the beginning of this period suffers complete defeat at the hands of William the Conqueror, has an important and adventurous history during the next four or five hundred years and sees much service on the continent, where Calais for over two centuries remains an English foothold across the channel. But these wars have more significance in the history of politics than they have in the history of literature, where their chief influence is seen through the closer relationship of England to the rest of the continent and the facilitating of that literary interaction which is so important in the process of individual expression.

The era following the Norman conquest was not, at first, a promising one for English literature. The land was exhausted with the old military struggles; it was in a state of social transition; it had not yet accumulated that reserve of energy which is so necessary for the fostering of creative or reflective writing.

But even in the unrest and confusion of this time three types of literature stand out prominently: there was first the literature of the court and castle, consisting of a large body of mediæval Romance which has been preserved and of the lays of the troubadours, those half-professional and half-bohemian poets of an age in which adventure and romance were the order of the day; there was, in the second place, the popular ballad of the common people—a simple poetry for a simple folk easily roused to lyric enthusiasm and easily pleased with simple and oft-recurring metrical devices of a somewhat primitive character; and there was lastly the religious drama of which the English Bible was the chief inspirer, the one book of greatest significance also in the development of a simple, direct, and effective English prose style.

Each of these groups deserves separate consideration as well for its inherent interest as for the significance, from the point of view of comparative literature, of its affiliation with the literatures of the continent. In connection with the English romance and popular poetry the student should read the sections on Mediæval Literature.

It is rather a bleak age that we find in the literature of England between the time of the Norman Conquest and that early-blooming flower of English literature, ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ The language of the country is in a state approaching anarchy. There are first of all three languages: roughly speaking, French may be said to be the language of the court and of official circles; Latin, the accepted language of the Church; and English, the speech of the common people. But even this last consisted of a large number of different dialects, some of them varying so completely in vocabulary and in pronunciation as to make them almost as incomprehensible, in other parts of the country, as a foreign language. Gradually, however, as time goes on we find that the differences begin to drop away. The old vowel endings become more uniform; the old Anglo-Saxon inflections begin to disappear; new uninflected words are introduced from the French; and, most important of all, the greatest writer of these early centuries—Chaucer—begins the process of standardization and really makes the English language by giving pre-eminence to the East Midland dialect which thus becomes the direct ancestor of our modern speech.

Latin Writers
There is a fair amount of writing during this period which is literary in character but which, however, does not properly belong to the history of English literature, since it is written not in English but in Latin. Many a monastery or city church in those early days kept a sort of diary of national events, a chronicle of the time, and some of these are the original sources for our historical and social knowledge of the period. The critical faculty, however, was not strong in those days and the historic sense was not yet developed; as a consequence, we find legend and report creeping into these chronicles, so that many of them give us rather highly colored and romantic accounts of early heroes of whose existence we of to-day are not even sure.

Among these early writers, William of Malmesbury (c. 1095–c. 1142), Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1084–1155), and Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100–c. 1154) are of importance for the accounts which they have given us of the old stories of King Arthur; and Richard Rolle (c. 1290–1349) for his sober exalted and religious writings. It is interesting to note how long Latin dominated educated thought in England. Bacon used this language for his philosophical writing, and considered English suitable only for the “dispersed meditations” of his leisure hours, and Milton wrote Latin with as great facility as he did English. In parliamentary oratory in the nineteenth century an apt quotation from the classics did not fall upon dull or uncritical ears. We must remember, too, that one way in which the English schoolboy learns to write English is by writing Latin.

Mediæval England
For convenience the life and the literature of the Middle Ages may be divided, with a fair degree of exactitude and truth, into three:

1. There is first the Feudal System and the aristocratic form of literature which grew out of it—the romance of chivalry.

2. In the second place, there is the life of the common people, organized in the Guild System, and the literary feeling of the common people expressing itself in the popular ballad.

3. Finally, there is the religious life of the Church, in which the English Drama was born, but from which it soon departed under the care of the guild until it became entirely independent in the Elizabethan theatre.

For purposes of convenience we shall first consider briefly the life of the time as represented in Feudalism, in the Guild System, and in the Church; and then we will consider the unique and characteristic literature fostered by each of these phases: the Popular Ballad, the Mediæval Romance, the English Bible, and the English Drama.

The Feudal System
The Feudal System was a more extended and more highly organized type of social interdependence than the old Anglo-Saxon bond between the war-lord and his warriors. It had a profound influence upon the politics, the economics, and the literature of the Middle Ages. It is based upon the value of land in an age of undeveloped commerce; upon the value of personal labor and service in a century which had not yet dreamed of machinery; and upon the necessity of protection at a time when neither property nor peace could be enjoyed with a sheathed sword. In its most highly developed conception, the king was regarded as lord of the whole kingdom; from him the more powerful barons held large sections of the land as their domains, and from them the lesser nobility carried on the condition of vassalage down to the small portions of land cultivated by the serfs. After a vassal had performed homage to his lord and had been invested with the rights of his holding, he received the protection of his lord, whom he in turn was bound to aid. In the thirteenth century, owing partly to the rapid growth of cities, partly to the stimulus of commerce afforded by the Crusades, with the consequent rise of the third estate or mercantile class, the Feudal System declined, and European life began to shift to an economic rather than a military basis.

Originally, however, and when at the height of its power, the Feudal System was both a thoroughly organized system of land tenure and an effective instrument of government. It was, in idea at least, a great hierarchical system of protection, service, and ownership of which the king was the head. As resources, both land and population were of prime importance, and in the old ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,’ continued at the Cathedral of Peterborough, and in the “Doomsday Book” we find interesting and detailed information regarding the England of this period. King William, we are told, “took much thought and held much deep speech with his Wise Men over the land, how it was finally settled or established, and with what kind of men. Then he sent over all England into each shire and had it made out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, and what the King himself had in lands, and of livestock on the land, and what rights he ought to have every twelve months off the shire. Also, he had written how much land his archbishops had, and his suffragan bishops, and his abbots and earls, and, though I tell it at length, what or how each man that owned land in England had in land and livestock, and how much money it might be worth. So very narrowly he had it inquired into that there was not one single hide nor one yard of land, nor even—it is shame to be telling of, but he did not think it shame to be doing it—one ox nor one cow nor one swine was left out that was not set down in his record, and all the records were afterwards brought to him.”

This attention to the details of agricultural conditions in England, with the side-light thrown by other records upon the life of the hind and serf, reminds us that this is a period during which the popular consciousness begins to awake, through suffering and oppression, to a dim sense of its rights. The responsibilities of kingship, the privileges of nobles, the rights of commons, and the early forebodings of the long struggle of the English people for constitutional justice and personal liberty soon meet the eye of any reader of the history of this period.

For one of the most significant of the various movements in England between the time of Chaucer and that of Shakespeare was the growth of democratic self-consciousness on the part of the common people. Parliamentary government, which was to have a long and tempestuous career before it became adequately representative, originated from Henry II.’s (1154–1189) policy of thorough organization and aggressive administration. It received no small impetus from the achievement of the Magna Charta (1215) in the reign of John, and it may be fairly considered as established in the reign of Edward I. (1272–1307) who, by calling together his Parliament of Three Estates, marked an era in the constitutional history of England.

The Guild System
Side by side with these important political changes in the governmental machinery of England runs the alteration in the social relations of those who dwelt within the island. The baronial struggles against the Crown which marked the reign of King John, the Barons’ War (1262–66), the gradual disintegration of the Feudal System, the introduction of gunpowder (referred to by Roger Bacon in 1242), the gradual growth of a sense of nationality, and an increasing realization of the mercantile basis of national life,—all these tended to make the common people slowly but surely more powerful, and to raise to consciousness of itself the great “middle” class which has given England so much of its renown in the history of politics, of literature, of science, and of art. It is true that even in Shakespeare’s plays the common people do not yet in drama come to their own, and that it is only after the Restoration wits had carried to its “reductio ad adsurdum” the aristocratic idea of literature, that Wordsworth came forward with his championship of the common people and common speech. But this pre-Shakespearian period is the seed-time of democratic practice in England which is to rise first to political pre-eminence in the Commonwealth (1649–1660) and subsequently to poetic power with the Romantic Movement.

The life and activities of the lower classes in England fall into two great groups: there is, in the first place, the large number of men, more or less scattered, who are engaged in agriculture in the country; and, in the second place, there are the more homogeneous and compact bodies of tradespeople and artisans in the villages and towns. These latter gradually organized themselves into groups, or guilds, having common aims and interests. Roughly speaking these guilds fall into four classes: (1) The Merchant Guilds, which were primarily business organizations of men engaged in the same trade; (2) the Craft Guilds, which were similar bands of men engaged not in the distribution, but in the production of goods and commodities; (3) the Social and Religious Guilds, which had for their object the entertainment of the body or the edification of the soul of man; and, (4) the Peace Guilds, which were formed in certain parts of England for protection in time of invasion or war.

As the religious interests of men led them to band themselves into monasteries, so their economic interests fostered the development of the Guild System, which is the germ out of which has grown the whole industrial organization of modern England. It is significant also, indirectly, for its influence upon legislation and upon the early history of the drama. As a system it was based upon the two fundamental ideas of mutual assistance and mutual restraint. In some respects much like the modern working man’s club or fraternal beneficial order in its general idea, the guild had in its earlier days more of the close relationship of family life and more of the educative responsibility of the family than are to be found in modern analogues. Apprentices were received and, after sometimes as much as seven years of supervised labor, were admitted to the guild as working men.

There was the master-workman, who had charge of the training of his apprentices. These looked forward to becoming masters in time, meanwhile giving their services in return for their technical education. The members of any trade or profession, such as tanners, or butchers, or weavers, were, in time, bound together into a sort of professional union. They had their offices, their rules, their distinctive costumes, and their corporate celebrations.

We know the names of ninety of these associations in London alone, beginning with the institution of the Weavers in 1164, and including such groups as Bakers, Goldsmiths, Carpenters, Fishmongers, Brewers, Tallow-Chandlers, Dyers, Plasterers, Plumbers, and so on.

The apprentice usually lived with his master, and was often treated as a son. The guild had regular meetings, fixed the hours of labor, supervised the quality and quantity of work produced, and kept a strong hand on attempts at competition. In many respects it was the precursor of the labor union of the present day. The existence of the trade guild was permitted by royal charter; the Church welcomed it to corporate celebrations, and, in the processions on certain holy days, entrusted the representation of certain pageants or floats to certain guilds. When the drama moved from the churchyard to the city streets or square, the organized assistance of the guilds became necessary for the suitable presentation of the many scenes based upon Biblical history that constitute the early steps of the development of religious drama.

The Church
Inextricably bound up with the uncertain politics and with the growing literature of the Middle Ages is the life of the Church of that period. The temporal power of the Pope, firmly established under Gregory the Great (590–604) and lasting until 1870; the willing co-operation, sometimes the forced assistance, of powerful monarchs; the spread of an intricate network of ecclesiastical establishments over the whole of Europe; the rearing of great Gothic cathedrals; the almost imperial power of Innocent III. (1198–1216); the unscrupulous strangling of incipient heresy; and the inspiration to the most stupendous of all pilgrimages which have ever shifted the population of Europe—all these are important phases of the complex life of the Church of Rome in the Middle Ages.

This is also a great and eventful age in the history of the Church in England. The few missionary centres of Anglo-Saxon times become episcopal sees; monasteries become centres of economic as well as of religious life. The Friars carry education and spiritual consolation far and wide among the poor. Besides the seeds of religious piety, they occasionally sow the seeds of social revolt. The great Gothic cathedrals of England begin to rise all over the land: Rochester, about 1077; Durham, about 1093; Lincoln, from 1123–1147; Canterbury, in 1175; Winchester, about 1325; and Ely, about 1350. There is noticeable a closer relation with the continent in affairs of the Church, and the struggle of the English sovereigns with the temporal interests of the Vatican, which culminated in the break of Henry VIII., started as early as the reign of King John (1199–1216).

Important events in the history of the Church, both historically and for their influence, direct or indirect, upon the literature of England, were: the Crusades, started largely by Peter the Hermit, with the active approval of Pope Urban II., at the Council of Clermont, in 1095 and lasting until the fifteenth century; the activities of the Lollards, the followers of Wycliffe (c. 1324–1384), in attempting to reform abuses in the Church, and thereby bringing down persecution upon themselves; the schism in the reign of Henry VIII., and the confiscation of the monasteries; the translation of the Bible and the formation of the Book of Common Prayer. But this takes us a long step from the Norman Period, in which the seeds of these changes were obscurely but deeply and surely sown.

Though the Crusades were originally inspired by religious motives and were followed by thousands with the most devout and self-sacrificing zeal, they nevertheless tended as time went on to attract to their train men who were led by less idealistic desires and by the lower motive of mere love of adventure, selfish advancement, or personal gain. From the First Crusade of 1096, preached by Urban II., down to the Sixth Crusade in 1270, the sincere and the self-seeking suffered together over the length and breadth of Europe in these futile and disastrous expeditions, and it is perhaps fortunate for us that the details of the Children’s Crusade (1212) are veiled by the passing of the years. The significant fact for us is that the Church had the power to set up this star in the East which throughout two centuries attracted to it the wise men and the simple of heart, strong warriors and weak children.

But it is in all departments of life, public or private, in the Middle Ages that the Church seems to be the determining factor. It dictated the policies of empires and it regulated the detailed routine of private life. It not only explained to a man what he must do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but it also in no uncertain terms told him what he must not do on earth. It not only gave him a convenient creed to believe, but it taught him how to use his mind. When he thought, he thought according to the minute rules of scholastic logic, and when he was tempted to use his imagination this exuberant energy of his mind was carefully guided into the pleasing and quaint paths of allegory.

Never perhaps has any method of human thought been harder worked or put to such diverse uses. The simplest form in which we find allegory is in the parables of the Bible with their attendant interpretations. This method is one of the easiest devices for teaching, and the mediæval Church was nothing if not didactic. But allegory can become an inconsiderate master if not kept in its place, and the Bible was not the only book which was illuminated or obscured by this method of interpretation, which was also applied to other aspects of Church teaching. Even the pagan writings of classical Greece and Rome, otherwise a region beset with danger for the good and loyal sons of the Church, became a safe and pleasant garden under the illuminating guidance of spiritual allegory, and even the “Arma virumque cano,” dear to the heart of schoolboys of many subsequent centuries, became but a type of unconscious Christianity.

We shall at a later period find allegory the servant of moral virtue in Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene,’ of evangelical sectarianism in Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ and of inconsiderate satire in Swift’s ‘Tale of a Tub,’ but upon the development of mediæval literature, allegory as a method exercised an immediate and double influence.

In the first place it afforded a convenient and interesting device for poetical story-telling. Chaucer in his ‘House of Fame,’ for instance, and in his ‘Parlement of Fowles,’ either rises to the heights of personification or else disguises lofty persons behind the fine feathers of fine birds. As the infection spread to the poetry of Love, the complexity, the intricacy, and the artificiality of the method increased. At an earlier date Dante in his ‘Vita Nuova’ had inserted a running explanatory comment to avoid misinterpretation. Scarcely a European poet of this time escapes the temptation to gaze upon two worlds at once.

It was upon the drama, however, that allegory had perhaps an even stronger influence. In fact, it is hard to conceive how the English drama could have developed without the aid of allegory, symbolism, and personification. The mediæval mind, when left to itself, thought concretely and it had to be taught picturesquely. The Church had early realized this. Its ceremonial, though elaborate, was symbolical. The mass was a sacrifice. The presence of God was a real fact. The crucifix and the stations of the Cross were startlingly realistic. At Christmas and Easter the services were filled with the spirit of sacred drama. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil were not concepts of philosophy, but were real beings, fighting against the powers of good for the soul of man, and were to be believed in with the same simplicity and the same intensity with which, as children, we believed in Santa Claus. Everyman had to go on a long journey. He was deserted by his old companions, Fellowship and Kindred and Riches, and by his five Senses; but Good Deeds, the patient nun, and Knowledge, staunch supporter, stay with him to the end. They are visible to the eye in human form. They are as real as he is. The whole course of life is dramatized. Thus the Church taught man to see the meaning of ideas, and to imagine concepts concretely, and it began to foster that sensitiveness, so essential in later Romanticism, to the things that lie deepest, to the vision of the old and the dream of the young as they

  • flash upon that inward eye
  • Which is the bliss of solitude.”
  • Chronological Table
  • 1066–1087Reign of William the Conqueror
  • 1086Domesday Book completed
  • 1096–1099First Crusade
  • 1104Henry I. invades Normandy
  • 1136Civil War between Stephen and Matilda
  • 1166The assize of Clarendon
  • 1170Murder of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury
  • 1171Henry II. invades Ireland
  • 1187Richard Cœur-de-Lion becomes King
  • 1212Pope Innocent III. deposes King John
  • 1215King John signs Magna Charta
  • 1258Provisions of Oxford
  • 1264Revolt of the barons under Simon de Montfort
  • 1265The first great English parliament
  • 1307–1377Edward II.
  • 1314Scotch victories at Bannockburn
  • 1327Edward II. deposed
  • 1338Hundred Years’ War begins
  • c. 1340Birth of Chaucer
  • 1341Parliament divided into two houses
  • 1349Black Death
  • 1377–1399Richard II.
  • 1381Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler and John Bull
  • 1388English defeated at Chevy Chase
  • 1400Death of Chaucer
  • Reading Recommended

    The Ballad
    Just as the chivalric romance is the literary product which is the reflection of the life of the nobility in the Middle Ages, so, in very much the same way, the ballad gives us a picture of the life of the common people with all their love of adventure, their belief in the supernatural, their domestic joys and troubles. Nowhere else in literature do we get so close to the heart of the common people, nowhere else is so intimate a glimpse given us into their lives and their beliefs.

    Just exactly what was the origin of the popular ballad is one of the disputed problems in the history of literature. Leaving aside, however, the complexities in dispute, we may say roughly that the ballad is really not an individual product in the sense of having a definite writer for its author, but rather that it is the work of “the folk”—in other words, it is really the expression of the feelings of the people, a sort of crystallization of their attitude toward experience. Probably the best definition of a ballad that scholars have given is that it is “a tale telling itself in song.” In this rough description of the popular ballad we have really all its essential elements. In the first place it is a “tale”—that is, a story or narrative. It is, therefore, not philosophical, not introspective, not analytical. It deals with action rather than with the motives of action, and here it differentiates itself entirely from the drama which very soon in its history began to lay emphasis on the springs of action. In the second place, it is a tale “telling itself,” and by this phrase is meant that the personality of the author never obtrudes itself into the narrative as, for instance, it frequently does in the novels of Thackeray. In the popular ballad we have no hint of individual authorship. We do not even know who composed the ballads. All we can say is that they have come down to us from a distant time and that whoever gave them their final form has disappeared in name from all memory. In the third place, the ballad is a tale telling itself “in song,” and this phrase means that the ballad was not intended to be read with the eye by a solitary individual, but that it was intended to be sung or recited by or to a number of people united for the same purpose. It was really not until the eighteenth century that the ballads existed in any form other than oral tradition, and the old Scotch woman spoke the truth when she said to Sir Walter Scott, “They were made for singing and no’ for reading; but ye ha’e broken the charm now an’ they’ll never be sung mair.” And, in truth, since the ballads have been put into print, they have become a fragment of the past history of human imagination and have ceased very largely to be really living things.

    There are in existence only a few more than three hundred of these original popular ballads. Exactly how they were composed we do not know, but possibly when a number of people were gathered together talking about some exciting event, such as a border raid or an incident of the hunt, some person in the group was found to tell the story with more color and action than another. On subsequent occasions he would be called upon to repeat his version, which thus, in a sense, became the standard one. When it was carried to other parts of the country and repeated by other people, slight changes in phraseology or in incident were introduced, and it is probable that in this way there gradually grew up the number of variants that we find of a single ballad.

    As the ballads were intended for singing, certain characteristics of structure can be explained on this ground. Usually one person would recite the main part of the story, and at the end of each stanza the audience would join in with a kind of chorus, as for example in ‘Babylon,’ where the words “Eh vow bonnie” represent the contribution of the group to the recital. In somewhat the same way, but partly also from the popular love of repetition (reflected, for instance, in the three tasks of the fairy tales), we find in the ballad that a favorite device was what is known as “incremental repetition.” By means of this device, the phraseology of one stanza would be repeated with a slight change in a subsequent stanza, substituting, for example, the word “Mother” or “Brother” or “Sister” for the word “Father” in the original stanza.

    The subject-matter of the ballad covers a wide range of incident: riddles, songs of mourning for the dead, domestic tragedy in which the heartless brother or the cruel stepmother play a large part, fairy-tales, ghost stories and accounts of supernatural visitations, stories of romantic love, accounts of the cruel border warfare, and, perhaps most charming of all, the ballads of the open air. For these were days when the oppression of the nobles drove into the “merry greenwood” the bands of outlaws and fugitives from the harsh justice of baronial days. Every walk of life has its hero, and Robin Hood has come down to us in literature as the outstanding figure of his time, together with Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and Little John. Indeed, one may almost say that the Robin Hood ballads form a sort of popular epic, or ballad cycle, rude enough at times in form, but full of stirring action, and still making an appeal that the modern reader cannot deny.

    One of the chief characteristics of the ballad is its objectivity. There is no use of psychology: things just happen. One has to take the motive for granted in each case. The movement of the action is swift, direct, uncompromising. Sometimes there are gaps in the action which the reader’s imagination has to bridge as best it can. There is a simplicity and naïveté of speech and a reality of emotion which give one the complete illusion of reality. In language there is a love of the descriptive phrase: all ships are “gude,” all steeds are “milk-white,” all brides are “bonnie,” and so on. There is also frequent use of mystical numbers, such as three or seven, and of fundamental situations and characters, such as the persecuted daughter, the cruel step-mother, the ghostly lover, the test of love, and so forth.

    The ballad stanza is a simple example of versification. The stanza consists usually of four lines, of which the first and third, and the second and fourth, rhyme. To our modern ears, accustomed to the stately blank verse of Milton or to the exquisitely involved melody of Swinburnian verse, the ballads are likely to seem somewhat singsong; but we must remember that they belong to a comparatively primitive age and to a people whose artistic sensibilities had not been highly trained by familiarity with literature that has a history behind it.

    Reading Recommended: I. The Ballad

    Reading Recommended: II. Folk Songs

    Reading Recommended: III. Fairy Tales and Poems

    Reading Recommended: IV. Modern Ballads (so-called)
  • Bland, E. N.Ballad of a Bridal
  • Knox, I. C.Ballad of the Brides of Quair
  • Garnett, RichardBallad of the Boat
  • de Banville, ThéodoreBallad of the Common Folk
  • Jones, L. C.Song of the Lower Classes
  • Cawein, M. J.The Strollers
  • Kipling, RudyardBarrack-Room Ballads
  • Rhys, ErnestThe Wedding of the Pale Bronwen
  • Preston, N. J.The Mystery of Cro-a-tàn
  • Nicholson, WilliamThe Heath-Cock
  • Ulster BalladWilly Reilly
  • Leland, C. G.Songs of the Sea
  • Dorr, J. C. R.Sealed Orders
  • For comparative study, the reader should consult:

    Of all the literature that has come down to us from the Middle Ages, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is the romance which holds for us the greatest charm. It is at this time that the imagination of the English begins to feel its power; and the Romance of the mediæval period, though naïve in form and frequently lacking in consecutiveness, has nevertheless an attraction and a reality which still make a strong appeal to the modern reader. Whether with Tennyson, we find in these old imperfect tales a shadowy hero
  • “Touched by the adulterous finger of a time
  • That hover’d between war and wantonness,
  • And crownings and dethronements,”
  • or whether, with Keats, we gaze through
  • “Magic casements, opening on the foam
  • Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,”
  • we find ourselves in a land that never changes, and from whose confines we always come unwillingly back to the humdrum routine of everyday life. The chief function of romance is to liberate the human spirit, to free it from the necessities of the moment, and to offer it an opportunity for that enlargement of one’s personality which is, after all, the fundamental justification of all art. Romance has existed everywhere and in every century, and it has always striven to find a suitable or permanent channel in which to express itself. In the fairy-tales and in the folk-lore of different races we find the imagination of the race making its first childish attempt to liberate itself from the domination of fact. When language becomes a more efficient servant for the expression of the inmost thoughts of man and for those yearnings which lie almost too deep for words, then we find, in Shakespeare for instance, that the subjective life of man objectifies or dramatizes itself in romance. This is one of the many ways in which this particular form of literature is produced. Another means of approach, fundamental in Wordsworth for example, is the idealization of the ordinary, the magnifying of the minute or commonplace, until it becomes glorified by a light that never was on land or sea, so that the tawdry and the tinsel become gold, and Cinderella leaves the hearth and becomes a princess in a new reality. Some such view as this of the nature of romance is necessary if we are to see the perennial youth of the romantic spirit in English literature, flowering in the great romances of the Middle Ages, and breaking once more into a riotous though belated bloom at the end of the eighteenth century when Burns rediscovered the significance of a simple human life, and Wordsworth called men’s attention once more to the sustaining and illuminating power of Nature.

    The story-telling instinct is one of the fundamental energies of man. At every age we find story-tellers, and the stories that they tell sometimes grow out of the great deeds of antiquity which, like those of the Anglo-Saxon King Arthur, become in a later age “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”; sometimes the makers of story look with an eye of hero-worship upon the great lord and lady of their own day and weave around these noble creatures a series of glorified incidents which give to the knight and damsel an immortality of which they did not dream, and which make them live for all time in the enchanted pages of the world’s romance.

    The greatest mediæval story of the continent was the ‘Romance of the Rose,’ an allegorical poem of the thirteenth century, composed in part by that pleasant spirit, Guillaume de Lorris, and written in part by the satirical pen of Jean de Meung. Here we have all the stage-setting of the typical mediæval romance: the brave knight and the fair lady, the garden and the quest, and over them all the pale light of allegory seeking to give a spiritual appearance to men and women and scenes which would otherwise be frankly real. The ‘Romance of the Rose’ was to a certain extent the model “par excellence” of the mediæval story-teller.

    It was not from allegory alone but also from history that Sir Thomas Malory (d. c. 1470) drew his inspiration. Caxton printed Malory’s book from copy which he asserts the mediæval knight “dyd take oute of certeyn bookes of Frensshe and reduced it in to Englysshe.” Malory had, indeed, an enormous fund of pseudo-historical fact, legend, and monkish chronicle upon which to draw. These he boiled down to a fraction of their original size and retold in an English prose which is one of the fine and dignified examples from the pre-Shakespearian period. Malory himself was a gentleman of an ancient house and a soldier, and he was closely associated with that “father of courtesy,” the Earl of Warwick. He had, then, plenty of opportunity for knowing at first hand, as well as from books, the subject which forms the theme of ‘Le Morte d’Arthur.’

    There is really no unity to this collection of tales, though Arthur stands out as its central figure. Malory succeeds in giving us a many-sided picture of chivalric life rather than any idea of historical continuity. He has a pictorial sense, and weaves out of the tangled threads of mediæval life huge literary tapestries in which the dim figures of armored knights move through the deepening shadows of the forest, and in which fair ladies walk through the unfading and still fragrant gardens of olden times. His book is really a prose epic of chivalry in which men and women move, looking larger than human, through the mist of time. Here we may see depicted the mysterious birth of Arthur, the gray figure of the sage Merlin, the marriage of Arthur to the fair Guinevere, the war-like figure of the good knight Launcelot, strong of arm and strong of heart, and the other knights of the Table Round—Gareth, Galahad, and Tristram, and the traitor Mordred whose little soul finally brought ruin upon the realm.

    Many a poet of a later age has found inspiration in the simple and picturesque tales of Malory: Spenser in his ‘Faerie Queene’ found there the source of the stories which he retold in Shakespeare’s day; Milton for a long time contemplated using Arthur as the central figure of the great epic which he purposed writing; and Tennyson gave to the Victorian age a modern and smoother version of these same stories, set in verse which is as simple, as picturesque, and as flowing as the unaffected prose of Malory.

    Other stories of Arthur and of his knights which Malory did not include in his collection are to be found in the so-called ‘Mabinogion,’ a group of Welsh romances of now unknown authorship, still preserved at Oxford in a fourteenth-century manuscript with the title of the ‘Red Book of Hergest,’ and well known in the translation by Lady Charlotte Guest.

    Reading Recommended

    The English Bible
    Its Historical Importance. The importance of the Bible in the religious and literary life of the people of the world can hardly be overestimated. During the nineteenth century one Bible Society alone distributed over one billion copies of the Bible or portions of it in eighty-three languages besides English; and in English literature since the time of Chaucer no great writer has failed to come under the stimulating influence of this great book in subject or in style. Such writers as Milton in his ‘Paradise Lost’ and Bunyan in his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ are outstanding examples of its inspiration of English literature, but from the ‘Paraphrases’ of Cædmon to ‘The Sin of David’ of Stephen Phillips, the number of minor writers who owe their inspiration or their phraseology to familiarity with the Old and New Testaments cannot be briefly stated. The questions may then not unnaturally be asked as to the causes for the popularity of this book, as to our attitude toward it as students, and the course of its history in so far as it concerns English literature.

    The Bible belongs to that great group of sacred books which together form the foundation of the religious literature of the world, and which include, among others, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the literature of the Vedas, and the Mohammedan Koran. Perhaps more than any other book, the Bible embodies within its pages those fundamental interests which George Eliot in the introduction to ‘Romola’ describes as “Hunger and Labor, Seed-time and Harvest, Love and Death.” These are at the heart of the life of literature, and these are the dominant motives of the books of the Old and the New Testaments.

    The Contents of the Bible. The very name Bible indicates the character of the work. In reality it is a library or collection of books, for it comes from the Greek words “ta Biblia” (cp. Byblus or Papyrus) meaning “the books.” An interpretation of the plural form as a singular by the mediæval Latin writers led to its being called “The Book,” which it literally was throughout many centuries. It is, then, not one but many books; for the Old Testament consists of thirty-nine and the New Testament of twenty-seven, besides a number of apocryphal writings which are not included in the orthodox canon of the Bible. The authorship of the Bible is a complex problem; some of the books (e.g., Job) are anonymous; others (e.g., the Pauline epistles) have a definitely known author; while still others (e.g., Psalms and Proverbs) are the work of several different men. The Bible was not written at one time but at vastly different periods of history. It has been calculated that between the covers of the Bible is enclosed the record of some two thousand years of history, and that as much as nine hundred years separate some of the Psalms.” The civilization and the spiritual point of view that are reflected in these ancient writings range from the crude ethics of a primitive barbarism to rare heights of idealism and mysticism; and the variety of the contents of the Bible is so broad as to include such different forms of literary composition as war-songs, rhapsodies, laments for the dead, love-songs for the living, parables, fables, riddles, proverbs, stories, laws, history, biographies, dramas, orations, letters, prayers, and visions. In spiritual attainment we pass from an age whose motto was “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” to a time whose ideal was a vicarious sacrifice of the individual for some far-seen good of society. The table that follows gives an idea of the contents of the Bible and of the apocrypha.

    Contents of the Bible
  • I. The Torah, or Law (Pentateuch):
  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
  • II. The Prophets:
  • (1) The Former Prophets
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • 1, 2 Samuel
  • 1, 2 Kings
  • (2) The Latter Prophets
  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel
  • Twelve Minor Prophets:
  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Malachi
  • III. The Writings (Hagiographa):
  • (1) The Poetical Books
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Job
  • (2) The Megilloth or Rolls:
  • Song of Solomon
  • Ruth
  • Lamentations
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Esther
  • (3) Other books:
  • Daniel
  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • 1, 2 Chronicles
  • I. Gospels:
  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke
  • John
  • II. Acts of the Apostles
  • III. Epistles:
  • (1) Pauline Epistles
  • 1, 2 Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • 1, 2 Corinthians
  • Romans
  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • Philemon
  • Philippians
  • 1, 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • (2) Other Epistles
  • Hebrews
  • St. James
  • St. Peter
  • St. Jude
  • 1, 2, 3 St. John
  • IV. Apocalypse:
  • Revelation of St. John the Divine
  • I. Old Testament:
  • (1) Historical
  • 1 Ezra, Maccabees additions to Daniel and Esther, Epistle of Jeremy, Prayer of Manasses, History of Johannes Hycanus.
  • (2) Legendary
  • Book of Baruch, Judith, Book of Jubilees, Paralipomena Jeremiæ, Martyrdom of Isaiah, Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitation, Book of Adam, Jannes and Jambres, Joseph and Asenath
  • (3) Apocalyptic
  • 2, 4 Ezra, Book of Noah, 1, 2 Enoch, Testaments of Twelve Patriarchs, Psalms of Solomon, Assumption of Moses, Apocalypse of Baruch, of Zephaniah, of Abraham, of Elijah, Prayer of Joseph, Book of Eldad and Modad, Oracles of Hystaspes, Testament of Job, of the Three Patriarchs, Sibylline Oracles.
  • (4) Didactic and Sapiential
  • Sirach, Tobit, Book of Wisdom, Pirke Aboth.
  • II. New Testament:
  • (1) Gospels
  • Uncanonical sayings of the Lord, Gospel according to the Egyptians, according to the Hebrews, Protevangel of James, Gospel of Nicodemus, of Peter, of Thomas, of the Twelve, Gnostic Gospels of Andrew, Apelles, Barnabas, Bartholomew, Basilides, Cerinthus, etc.
  • (2) Acts of the Apostles:
  • Acts of Andrew, of John, of Paul, of Peter, of Thomas, Preaching of Peter, Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, Apostolic Constitutions.
  • (3) Epistles:
  • Epistles of Barnabas, of Clement, of Ignatius, of Polycarp; Clement’s 2nd epistle to the Corinthians, on Virginity, and to James; Pauline epistles to the Laodiceans and Alexandrians and 3rd epistle to the Corinthians.
  • (4) Apocalypses:
  • Apocalypse of Peter, of Paul, of Thomas, of Stephen, of Esdras, of John, of The Virgin, of Sedrach, of Daniel, Testament of Hezekiah, of Abraham, Oracles of Hystaspes, Vision of Isaiah, Shepherd of Hermas, 5 and 6 Ezra, Christian Sibyllines, Revelations of Bartholomew, Questions of Bartholomew.
  • (5) The Apocrypha Proper (Protestant):
  • 1, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the rest of Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremy, Additions to Daniel (Song of the Three Holy Children, History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon), Prayer of Manasses, and 1, 2 Maccabees.
  • The Student’s Point of View. In studying the Bible and in seeking to appreciate its influence upon English literature, one must assume a point of view which will not interfere with a clear understanding of the literary significance of this translation of a literature from the eastern end of the Mediterranean. He must be particularly on his guard against an unintelligent prejudice which would lead him to neglect a literary masterpiece because he does not at all points agree with it theologically. He should remember that few books appeal to him in their entirety, and that the Bible can be read with appreciation as literature even by those who cannot accept its doctrines. It is to be regarded, therefore, as a great library of literature and of history, and the reader should remember that some of the greatest masterpieces of European painting, sculpture, and architecture were inspired by it, and that the drama in England, France, and Germany owes its origin to a deep-rooted devotion to this original library of the world’s best literature. One should remember also that the Bible is one of the best teachers of effective and clear writing and that the greatest writers of good English have always been willing to acknowledge their indebtedness to it.

    History of the Bible. The books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew, usually on skins, but those of the New Testament were written in Greek, usually on papyrus, though no original manuscripts of either remain. Several important copies of these, however, are still preserved among the treasures of the great libraries, notably ‘The Codex Vaticanus,’ ‘The Codex Sinaiticus,’ and ‘The Codex Alexandrinus.’ An early translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, known as ‘The Septuagint’ was made, according to tradition, by seventy translators in the third century B.C., and is still in use in the Greek Church. An early translation of the Scriptures into Latin, known as ‘The Vulgate’ (i.e., the commonly circulated version) of St. Jerome, belongs to the fourth century A.D. It was taken to Ireland by missionaries, whence by way of Iona it found its way into Northumberland.

    About 700 A.D. portions of the Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and numerous versions and paraphrases were made by Bede, by Cædmon, and under the direction of King Alfred. The table that follows indicates the chief events in the history of the text of the Bible:

    History of the Bible
  • 690–700Lindisfarne Gospels.
  • 1380Wycliffe translated New Testament.
  • 1382Wycliffe translated Old Testament.
  • 1453Taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and spread of Greek scholarship.
  • 1455First printed Bible: Mazarin Bible printed in Latin at Mainz by Gutenberg or Fust and Schoeffer.
  • 1466First German Bible printed at Strassburg.
  • 1471First Italian Bible printed at Venice.
  • c. 1475Caxton introduces printing press into England.
  • 1477First Dutch Bible printed at Delft.
  • c. 1480Revival of classical studies and of theology under Grocyn, Colet, Warham, More, etc.
  • 1497Erasmus in England.
  • 1526Tyndale’s translation of New Testament printed at Cologne and Worms.
  • 1535Tyndale and Coverdale publish the first complete English Bible at Zurich and Antwerp.
  • 1537Matthew’s Bible, based on Tyndale, authorized by Cranmer.
  • 1539The Great Bible, translated by Coverdale, first authorized for use in Churches.
  • 1548–1552Cranmer: English liturgy.
  • 1559Book of Common Prayer.
  • 1560Geneva or Breeches Bible, translated by Whittingham of Oxford et al., and used by Puritans in the Civil War.
  • 1568Bishop’s Bible, a revision of the Great Bible, placed in Cathedrals and Churches.
  • 1571Thirty-nine Articles.
  • 1582Rheims New Testament.
  • 1604Hampton Court Conference.
  • 1609Douai Bible.
  • 1611King James’s Authorized Version.
  • 1881Revised Version of New Testament.
  • 1884Revised Version of Old Testament.
  • 1895Revised Version of Apocrypha.
  • Characteristics of the Bible. The simplicity and directness of the prose used in the English translation of the Bible cannot be over-estimated as an influence upon English style, especially as a corrective to the florid ornateness to be found in the prose of Elizabeth’s day. The Anglo-Saxon element in the language of the Bible is very prominent and constitutes about ninety-three per cent. of the whole. It has been calculated that while Shakespeare used about twenty thousand words, and Milton thirteen thousand, the vocabulary of the Bible is limited to six thousand. Its chief characteristics may be summed up briefly as follows:

    1. The Bible shows a lack of systematic arrangement of the books according to any general principle of chronology, historical relationship, or association of subject matter.

    2. It does, however, preserve a unity of theme throughout, since it deals with “the ways of God to men” from the early primitive legendary record

  • Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
  • Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
  • Brought Death into the world, and all our woe
  • With loss of Eden, till one Greater Man
  • Restore us.”
  • 3. The type of thought which prevails throughout is predominantly intuitive rather than logical. There is a passionate earnestness of aspiration and a forceful directness of expression foreign to the subtleties of logical discussion which, in a later age, were so to delight the minds of the mediæval Schoolmen.

    4. As a consequence, the Bible lacks a scientific interest or method. It leans rather to an anthropomorphic conception of the universe and to an idealistic interpretation of individual experience. Whatever realism there is comes from vivid experience and from a characteristic eastern fondness for the concrete and the picturesque, tinged with an innate oriental love for the beauty or the charm of external nature.

    5. In style we find an abundance of that repetition of ideas and of that antithesis of phraseology which are characteristic literary devices of Hebrew thought, and a prevalence of concrete pictures and suggestive images in which even abstract ideas and relationships manifest themselves concretely to the pictorial eye of the Hebrew poet.

    Literary Influence. Leaving aside the influence of the Bible on religion and theology, as well as on painting and architecture, one finds that its literary influence is enormous. Whole libraries of sermons and devotional books have grown from it; it crops up everywhere in direct or in modified quotations, even in the daily newspaper; phrases from it have become part of the current speech of the common people; innumerable allusions to its characters or its events are on the tongues of men each day. Apart from this, however, it runs like a thread of gold through the tapestry of English literature and has stimulated the imagination and ennobled the style of writers in every century. To it perhaps more than to any other cause are due the deep earnestness and religious feeling which characterize so much of English literature, and which echo as the dominant note of Carlyle and of Ruskin in his later years.

    Chronology of Bible History
  • c. 2130–2088 B.C.Hammurapi unified Babylonia.
  • c. 2100Abraham.
  • 1300–1234Rameses II.
  • c. 1230The Exodus.
  • c. 1025–1010Saul.
  • c. 1010–970David.
  • c. 970–933Solomon.
  • 933Kingdom divided between Rehoboam (Judah) and Jeroboam I. (Israel).
  • 876Ahab, King of Israel.
  • 873Jehoshaphat, King of Judah.
  • 722Fall of Samaria and end of the Northern Kingdom.
  • 668–626Assur-bani-pal reigns in Assyria.
  • 597First captives carried to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar.
  • 586Destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldæans.
  • 539Capture of Babylon by Cyrus.
  • 538Many Jews return to Palestine under Zerubbabal.
  • 458Return of exiles with Ezra.
  • 445, 432Nehemiah visits Jerusalem.
  • 332Palestine becomes part of the empire of Alexander.
  • 323Death of Alexander the Great.
  • 320Palestine comes into the hands of the Ptolemies.
  • 312Era of the Seleucidæ begins.
  • c. 280Septuagint translation of the Bible completed.
  • 198Antiochus of Syria obtains possession of Palestine.
  • 168Antiochus tries to suppress Jewish religion. Temple services cease.
  • 167Rise of the Maccabees.
  • 165Re-dedication of the Temple.
  • 65Pompey captures Jerusalem. Palestine is made part of the Roman province of Syria.
  • 44Assassination of Julius Cæsar.
  • c. 4Birth of Jesus Christ.
  • c. 29 A.D.Crucifixion of Christ.
  • 64First persecution of the Christians.
  • 70Siege and capture of Jerusalem by Titus.
  • Reading Recommended

    The old artificial division of the text of the Bible into chapters and verses destroys for the modern reader much of the narrative continuity of the original text. ‘The Modern Reader’s Bible’ (ed. R. G. Moulton), the ‘Century Bible’ (ed. W. F. Adeney), or the ‘Historical Bible’ (ed. C. F. Kent) will be found useful for those who wish to read wisely in the Bible; and ‘Uncanonical and Apocryphal Scriptures’ (ed. E. T. Churton) and ‘The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha’ (ed. R. H. Charles) supply the text of those books which are not included in the canon of the Bible. Reference may also be made to J. H. Gardiner’s ‘The Bible as English Literature,’ and to R. G. Moulton’s ‘The Literary Study of the Bible,’ to R. E. Prothero’s ‘The Psalms in Human Life,’ and to the ‘International Critical Commentary’ (ed. Driver, Plummer, and Briggs).

    The Drama before Shakespeare
    Introduction. In England, as in ancient Greece, the drama arose out of religious ceremonies. In Greece it was around the altar of Dionysos that the primitive Greek drama evolved. In the England of the Middle Ages it was before the altar of the Roman Catholic Church that the English drama began. The description of the drama as an attempt of a people to see itself is true only of the later stages of development. In the beginning it was a form of ritual, an attempt to make obvious to the eye certain spiritual truths which lay at the heart of popular worship—a description that is true of primitive peoples and of both Greece and England.

    Religious Drama. It is not without reason that the mediæval drama in England had its birth in the services of the Church. In the Mass, especially at Christmas and at Easter, the dramatic element of the Bible stories represented in the gospel selections for the day made an extraordinary demand upon the visual imagination and gave an unusual opportunity for the use of objective elements of representation. At Christmas, for instance, it had long been the custom of the Church to set up a manger representing the Nativity, so that the central truth of the season might be brought home vividly to the eyes and hearts of the people. With a similar purpose in view, on Good Friday the crucifix was taken down from the altar and was laid in a recess underneath it or in a specially prepared sepulchre in the choir. On Easter morning, with a procession and much rejoicing, the crucifix was restored to its place on the altar. In this way the burial and resurrection of Christ were symbolized in action and with the use of what we may not inappropriately call stage properties.

    There remains one more element before such representation can be called dramatic, and that element is language. This was supplied in a very small but effective fashion by the words of the gospel lesson for the day. On Easter Day, for example, a monk clothed in white would sit at the altar where the crucifix lay hidden. To him would come other monks clothed to represent the apostles and the Maries. To them the monk representing the angel would say, using the words of the gospel, “Quem quæritis in sepulchre, O Christicolæ?” The followers of Christ would then reply, “Iehsum crucifixum, O Cœlicole,” and would receive the answer, “Non est hic. Resurrexit sicut prædixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.” Those who represented the disciples would then depart singing a hymn of rejoicing.

    This simple scene contains all the elements that go to make up true drama. In the first place, there is impersonation; in the second place, dialogue; in the third place, a definite action accompanying the speech. All that remains then for drama to do in the future is to elaborate the number of actors, the dialogue, and the series of actions. This formula holds as much for a play of Shakespeare or for the modern play as it does for the simple, old, mediæval dramas.

    Mystery, Miracle, and Morality Plays. The next step in the development of the drama was to use somewhat the same formula at Christmas time, substituting the manger for the sepulchre, and the Wise Men from the East for the disciples. It was not difficult, then, to apply this same method of simple dramatic representation to other Bible stories, and before long most of the important incidents of the Old Testament and of the New were represented in crude dramatic form in the church at the appropriate season. Stones from the lives of the saints also began to be acted on the saints’ days, and we get in this way the distinction between the “mystery” play, which dealt with the mysteries of God’s ways with men as recorded in the stories of the Bible, and the “miracle” play, which represented the extraordinary or miraculous events in the lives of the Christian saints.

    Another form of play which grew up somewhat later was called the “morality.” In this, the place of Bible characters or of saints was taken by personifications of human virtues and vices, usually struggling for the possession of the human soul, which is frequently represented as being besieged in the castle of the body by an army of vices, to be finally rescued by a counter-attack of the virtues. In these plays the devil is a prominent character and one who lends himself, as the drama becomes more and more popular, to humorous purposes.

    Secularization of the Drama. Plays were first of all acted at the foot of the altar and in the choir of the church. The actors were monks or priests; the costumes were the vestments of the church. The ordinary Gothic church, however, is not by its structure very well adapted to dramatic representation. It is long, narrow, and dark, and the view of the people standing in the nave and transepts is often interrupted by heavy pillars. It is not, therefore, unnatural that the place of representation should, as time went on, be moved outside to the churchyard, and that the aid of the laity be called upon for the representation of the more elaborate spectacles. This was the first step towards the secularization of the drama. The churchyard, however, had its disadvantages and, when the acting of various Bible stories was put into the hands of the guilds, the scene of representation was transferred to the town. Each guild was entrusted with the suitable representation of a Bible story on a “pageant” (from “pagina,” a platform). These floats, which are very much like those in use to-day in labor processions, were drawn on wheels through the streets of the town. They would stop at stated places, such as in front of the church or in the public square, and there the little plays would be acted. The people would gather at these recognized places and remain there until the whole series of pageants had passed in succession before them. Later on, the square courtyard of the old-fashioned inn, with its tiers of galleries, was found a convenient spot, and this hollow square provided the inspiration for the construction of the first Elizabethan theatres which were erected in Shakespeare’s time.

    Staging. The stage of the pageant consisted usually of two stories, of which the bottom one was curtained in to serve as a dressing-room, while the upper platform provided space for the action in full view of the populace. Every attempt was made to introduce realism. The mouth of Hell was represented by the gaping jaws of an enormous dragon from which issued clouds of smoke made by burning wet straw below. Devils dressed in red, with long tails and pitchforks, drove the damned into perdition. God was represented, with a gilt mask and hair, as a benevolent old man attended by angels with wings. Some of the accounts of the time contain such entries as four pence to the man who hanged Judas, and five pence more for cock-crowing. Some unknown person received three pence for mending Hell, and another five pence for “setting the world on fire.” The guilds were heavily fined for any failure to give a suitable representation of the stories entrusted to them.

    Cycles. Gradually these plays grouped themselves into what are known as “cycles” in which the Bible stories were arranged in chronological series. Several important collections of these plays which remain are the Woodkirk or Wakefield (Towneley) cycle, consisting of 32 plays; York, 48 plays; Chester, 25 plays; Coventry, 32 plays. From the size of these collections, it is obvious that at a very early date England had a large body of religious drama.

    Early Writers. Secular drama, however, was soon to grow out of the religious plays, partly through the influence of the morality play, partly through the influence of the chronicle histories of the time. In the reign of Henry VI., John Bale wrote a Protestant morality called ‘King John,’ which is the first of the historical plays which were to have such a vogue in Shakespeare’s day. Another writer, John Heywood, developed the morality in the direction of comedy, and in his little play ‘The Four P’s, or The Merry Interlude of the Palmer, the Pardoner, the Potycary and the Pedlar,’ he started the love of comedy in English drama which is to mingle itself in even the high tragedies of Shakespeare. The first real English comedy, however, is ‘Ralph Roister Doister’ (1552–3) by Nicholas Udall, a well-known scholar of the day, who adapted his play from Latin comedy. ‘Gammer Gurton’s Needle’ (1575) is a more original comedy by John Still, another scholar of the time. The first English tragedy, written by two lawyers, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, was, like the first comedy, based on classical models. The first edition bore the name ‘Gorboduc’ (1562); the second, that of ‘Ferrex and Porrex.’ It is a play which reaches the highest point of poetic power between Chaucer and Shakespeare, and was praised by Sir Philip Sidney as being “full of stately speeches and well-sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca his style.” This play is also interesting because it has five acts, each preceded by dumb-show and followed by a chorus, and because it is written in blank verse, first introduced some five years before by Surrey in his translation of the ‘Æneid.’ Here, then, we find most of the elements which Shakespeare will use for his greatest plays. Another play of the time, by one Thomas Hughes, ‘The Misfortunes of Arthur,’ is significant for two reasons. It shows the influence of Seneca with his love of tragedy and gloom, which was to have such an influence through Kyd upon Elizabethan drama; and it draws its inspiration from English history. Both of these elements, a love of tragedy and a use of English history, Shakespeare is to raise to lofty heights within a generation.

    Geoffrey Chaucer
    Now that we have traced in a general way the broad movements of mediæval literature in England and have seen the main outlines of the development of such types of writing as the popular ballad and romance, and have glanced at the history of the Bible and the rise of the English drama, we must turn back for a moment to glance at some of the individuals who were writing during these centuries.

    Foremost in time, and chief in importance among these is Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400), who is significant because he is the “Father of English poetry,” and who is also interesting to the modern reader as a teller of good tales and as a gentle humorist. With him began modern English literature, for he fixed the fluent language and gave the supremacy to the London speech in which he wrote. But Chaucer deserves attention for other than linguistic or historical reasons. Though at first sight his poetry seems to present difficulties, these disappear if he is read with the ear as well as with the eye, and a little perseverance brings a rich reward. Chaucer has enthralled the readers of every succeeding century, and he is one of our literary possessions that we “will not willingly let die.”

    To appreciate Chaucer one needs a little knowledge of the conditions of life in his day, a leisurely disposition, and a sense of humor. In a measure, Chaucer did for England what his great contemporaries, Petrarch (1304–1374) and Boccaccio (1313–1375), did for Italy: he polished the technique of verse and told a good story excellently. At the same time he reflected the main literary interests of his day: he introduced into England the intricacies of the love allegory so popular in France (‘Romance of the Rose’ and ‘Parliament of Fowles’); he showed the influence of Italy in that admirable example of a tale well told, ‘Troilus and Criseyde,’ in the allegorical ‘House of Fame,’ and in the early series, the ‘Legende of Good Women’; while in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ he gave the world an English collection of tales to take rank with the ‘Arabian Nights’ and Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’ as stories “not of an age but for all time.”

    In the ‘Prologue’ to ‘The Canterbury Tales’ Chaucer apparently plans to write one hundred and twenty tales, of which he completed less than twenty-four. He uses skilfully a convenient device to give a semblance of unity to his work. At the Tabard Inn at Southwark, near where the theatres of Shakespeare’s day were to stand, meet a company of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury.

  • Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
  • Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
  • In fellawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
  • That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”
  • They include all sorts and conditions of men and several women, notably the capable and much-traveled Wife of Bath and the gentle Prioress. The jovial Host of the Tabard, with a keen eye for business, proposes that each tell two tales on the journey to Canterbury, and two on the way back. He who tells the best story shall have a supper at the Tabard as his reward, and the Host himself shall be the judge. And so we see them riding forth in the early morning, “all in a flock,” a gentle company eager to pass the time pleasantly on the highroad to Canterbury. It is, indeed, a fair and pleasant countryside through which their horses amble, with the May sunlight on the broad downs of Kent and on the daisies by the roadside. “The smale birdes singen clear” so that the trees and garden-closes are filled “with their sweet jargoning” as the pilgrims move leisurely, with full enjoyment of life and story, toward the distant spires of Canterbury.

    The reader should note in the ‘Prologue’ Chaucer’s power of vivid description, the many touches of his quiet humor, often at his own expense, and his keen and kindly character drawing. It must be remembered that Chaucer is writing for a leisurely age, whose delight in detail was not spoiled, as ours is, by the modern magazines. It must be remembered that the favorite subjects of the stories of Chaucer were drawn from the misfortunes of great men (‘Monk’s Tale’), from the mediæval ‘Bestiaries’ (‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’), from the legends of the Church (‘Man of Law’s Tale’), from the great body of romances of England and France (‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’), or from the classic stories of Greece and Rome (‘Physician’s Tale’).

    Like every other writer of the day, Chaucer drew heavily upon the common fund of classic literature for his materials and even upon his Italian and French contemporaries. Shakespeare did likewise, and this accepted literary method of an age before ideas of copyright, literary property, and plagiarism developed, must not blind us to the achievement of these early makers of fine verse. It is what the writer does with his raw material that is the test of art, and the originality of Chaucer, like that of Shakespeare, consists in his use of his sources and in the charm of his narrative and verse. Something of the old-world atmosphere of the morning of English literature ought to come back to the reader who joins Chaucer’s company on the pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. The poet’s own words are invitation hearty enough for any reader:

  • “This is the way to all good aventure;
  • Be glad then, reader, and thy sorrow off cast:
  • All open am I: pass in and speed thee fast.”
  • As one looks back over Chaucer’s poetry, certain characteristics stand out prominently. Chief of all these is his fundamental humanity, his broad and genuine sympathy with all sorts of men and women in all sorts of situations. He has within himself the spirit of comedy, as in a later age Shakespeare and Balzac and Meredith were to have it. Balance of character and saneness of outlook on life he has, and delicate humor in a coarse age, nimble wit, and impartiality. He achieved that unusual distinction of the great genius: he could live in the world of men and in the world of art. The flowers and the birds, blue sky and running water, the ever-changing stream of men and women—these were intensely real to him, and their color, their beauty, and their individuality caught his eye and touched his heart.

    As Dante portrayed the soul of the Middle Ages, so Chaucer gives us a picture of its outward aspects, of its multitudinous interests, of its throbbing physical life. Dante saw the world darkly in a somber glass. Chaucer makes the sunshine of his gentle humor play upon his people and his scenes. His gaiety is infectious. His charm is a permanent one. With Dryden we say, on coming to the end of his ‘Tales’—“Here is God’s plenty.”

    Chaucer’s Followers
    Chief among the contemporaries of Chaucer is the “Moral Gower” (c. 1325–1408) whose doubts as to the value of English as a literary medium led him to write his ‘Speculum Meditantis’ in French, and his ‘Vox Clamantis’ in Latin. His third work ‘Confessio Amantis’ (Confession of a Lover) is in English, a collection of over one hundred short tales well told, but without Chaucer’s dramatic sense or his narrative skill. After the death of Chaucer, “the maister dere and fadir reverent,” come facile writers but dull souls who serve but to show the pre-eminence of their model by their own falling-short. John Lydgate (c. 1370–1451) and Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1368–c. 1426) are the most conspicuous among the followers of the Chaucerian tradition. Chaucer guided the “rude penne” of the former; and the latter, though he was the friend and pupil of Chaucer, “was dulle, and lerned lytle or naught”—a statement from which the modern reader is not likely to dissent.

    Scottish Poetry
    We must remember that the dialect spoken to the north of the river Humber was just as much English at this day as was the Midland dialect which Chaucer used in London, and that much of the best poetry of the fifteenth century is written in this northern speech.

    John Barbour (c. 1320–1395) was writing his poem on ‘Bruce’ while Chaucer was telling his ‘Canterbury Tales.’ James I., of Scotland (1394–1437), a cultured prince and an admirer of Chaucer and Gower, wrote his artificial and uninspired ‘King’s Quair.’ Better poets are Robert Henryson (1430?–1506?) and Gawain Douglas (?1474–?1522), both of whom show a keen delight in nature; but greatest of all is William Dunbar (1460?–1520?), the outstanding figure in the arid interval between Chaucer and Spenser, and one who in some of his characteristics foreshadows Robert Burns.

    Reading Recommended
  • Geoffrey Chaucer
  • John Gower
  • DunbarWilliam Dunbar
  • The Renaissance
    The Renaissance is a general term applied to all European literature to indicate a re-birth or a revival of an educated and artistic interest in the classics, and an appreciation of those characteristic aspects of life which are really cultural. In this way we have the additional descriptive terms “Revival of Learning” and “Humanism” to denote this new period which older historians are fond of contrasting with the so-called “Dark Ages.” We are beginning to realize that the darkness was more in our own minds than it was in a period which had been too little studied in the light of modern historical methods.

    In 1453, the city of Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and hundreds of Greek scholars took refuge with their precious manuscripts in Western Europe. Greek culture and the love of scholarship were thus dispersed throughout the continent and had an incalculable influence upon the literature of Europe. Everywhere schools and universities were founded; and the study of Greek became not a fashionable fad but a serious passion with the scholars of the Renaissance. In those days manuscripts were rare and precious things: a manuscript Bible was worth the wages of a man for eight months, and a manuscript book on astronomy is known to have been worth as much as eight hundred pounds of butter. Manuscripts were loaned by one monastery to another and were copied laboriously by the monks. One of the Florentine nobles employed forty-five copyists who produced two hundred volumes in a period of two years.

    Such were the conditions when Gutenberg, Fust, and Schoeffer began to experiment with movable type in Germany. The advantages of this mechanical means of making books, though obvious to us to-day, need to be emphasized as a factor of great moment in the history of literature. About 1476, Caxton set up the first English printing press in Westminster Abbey, and published “The Dictes and Notable Wise Sayings of the Philosophers”—the first of a long series of books which came from his press and which included such works as Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur,’ Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ Gower’s ‘Confessio Amantis,’ and a translation of Virgil’s ‘Æneid.’

    The university at Oxford, which had been the scene of a notable decline of learning and which still handed down the old scholastic curriculum which no longer had any close relation to contemporary life, was now revivified by the lives of a group of enthusiasts in the new learning, sometimes called ‘The Oxford Reformers.’ This group included William Grocyn (?1440–1519), Thomas Linacre (c. 1460–1524), John Colet (?1467–?1519), and, greatest of all, Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1467–1536), whose chief English follower was Sir Thomas More (1478–1535). These men helped to bring into England a new love of the classics and to instill into the minds of English writers the ideals of Italian Humanism, which can be traced back to the work of Petrarch (1304–1374) and Boccaccio (1313–1375). Erasmus in his ‘Praise of Folly’ (‘Encomium Moriæ,’ 1511) and More in his ‘Utopia’ (1516), both written in Latin though soon translated into all European languages, stir up the minds of Englishmen upon subjects of immediate interest and in close connection with the life of their own day. The former calls attention to the three great enemies of human progress, vice, ignorance, and superstition; and More gives us an ideal study of social conditions, especially from an economic and political point of view.

    More’s ‘Utopia’ or ‘Nowhere’ was located in a world which, geographically at least, was becoming rapidly better known, for already the names of Columbus, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Cabot were prominent in the story of the exploration of the New World, and Raleigh, Drake, and Frobisher were Elizabethan sea-dogs who were beginning to show their teeth to that hereditary enemy of England, Spain, her great rival in the partitioning of the New World. It is with the opening of the Western Hemisphere that we enter the realm of Elizabethan literature and find it ruled by Shakespeare.

    Reading Recommended

    The New Poetry
    While the daring sailors of the Tudor sovereignty were seeking a new world beyond the confines of the old, and while the theologians at home were building a new church after the upheaval which had shaken the structure of the old, the “courtly makers” were finding new possibilities in poetry.

    Wyatt and Surrey. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (?1517–1547), many of whose poems were published in ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’ (1557), were giving new life to English verse. Of these “two chief lanternes of light to all others that have since employed their pennes upon English poesie,” the former, through travel on the continent, came under the influence of the classics and the broad Humanism of Petrarch’s works. Gifted with a cultivated taste, he imitated and translated the European authors then popular, introduced into England the “amoristic” genre of poetry, and experimented with the possibilities of English metre under the inspiring guidance of Italian forms. The Earl of Surrey, with a finer ear for metrical niceties than Wyatt, also cultivated the Sonnet, but is chiefly significant for having translated the ‘Æneid’ into blank verse, which he introduced into England. This greatest of all English metrical forms was used with strength by Marlowe, with the utmost variety and skill and melody by Shakespeare, and with a sonorous organ-note by Milton, so that we have come to believe it to be the characteristic metre of tragedy and of epic poetry.

    The Sonnet. No other form of verse has perhaps endeared itself so much to the poet’s heart as has the Sonnet. If the epic may be compared to a tapestry or a mural painting, then the Sonnet is most like a miniature, for it is suitable only for certain subjects and it requires, above all, a delicate art and a fine discriminating skill. Nowhere else in literature can we find so much beauty in so small a space, and the greatest artists in words from the time of Petrarch to the present day have delighted to distill the quintessence of their poetry into this fine and clear-cut form.

    The Sonnet consists of fourteen lines, divided into two sections: the first, known as the “Octave,” consists of eight lines in which the poet starts from some objective cause for his emotions and briefly and significantly describes the situation; the second, known as the “Sestet,” consists of the remaining six lines and is much more subjective in tone than the preceding part, for the poet now changes from the external to the internal, and, leaving aside the world, proceeds to reveal his inmost heart until he finally arrives at the climax of his emotion in the last line.

    The rhyme scheme of the Sonnet admits of certain variations. The Italian type, which Wordsworth occasionally follows, uses abba abba for the Octave, and cde cde, or cde dcd, or cde dce, or cde edc for the Sestet. Wyatt, Surrey, and Shakespeare usually use abab cdcd efef gg, and Spenser, abab bcbc cdcd ee; but there are to be found a number of slight variations from these dominant types.

    In the Elizabethan age, the Sonnet had an enormous vogue. It was frequently addressed to patrons and was often written in a connected series known as a sequence or a cycle, of which Sidney’s ‘Astrophel and Stella’ (1591), Spenser’s ‘Amoretti’ (1595), and Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ (c. 1594) are the most important as well as the most beautiful.

    Reading Recommended

    Pre-Spenserian Poets. There still remain two notable poets who were precursors of the author of ‘The Faerie Queene.’ The first of these, Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst (1536–1608), contributed an ‘Induction’ to ‘The Mirror for Magistrates,’ a lengthy poem of composite authorship intended to be a continuation of Lydgate’s ‘Fall of Princes’; the other, George Gascoigne (1536?–1577), is notable for ‘The Steel Glass’ (1576), a strong satirical poem on contemporary conditions after the fashion of More’s ‘Utopia,’ but still more for a translation of Ariosto’s ‘Gli Suppositi,’ which he published in 1566 as ‘The Supposes,’ and which is the first prose comedy in the English language.