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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 1. French Influences

  • Men speke of romances of prys,
  • Of Horn child and of Y potys,
  • Of Bevis and sir Gy,
  • Of sir Libeux and Pleyn-damour;
  • But sir Thopas, he bereth the flour
  • Of royal chivalry.

  • IT is hard to understand the process of change that made so much difference between Old and Middle English storytelling. At first, one is inclined to account for it by the Norman conquest, and, no doubt, that is one of the factors; the degradation of the English and their language naturally led to a more popular and vulgar sort of narrative literature. Beowulf was composed for persons of quality, Havelok for the common people. Old English narrative poetry was, in its day, the best obtainable; English metrical romances were known by the authors, vendors and consumers of them to be inferior to the best, i.e. to the French; and, consequently, there is a rustic, uncourtly air about them. Their demeanour is often lumbering, and they are sometimes conscious of it. The English look to the French for instruction in good manners and in the kinds of literature that belong properly to a court. In the old times before the Conquest they had the older courtliness which was their own, and which is represented in the Old English epic remains, Beowulf, Waldhere and other poems.

    But it will not do to regard the Conquest as a full and complete explanation of the difference, because the same kind of change is found in other Teutonic countries, where there was no political conquest. In Denmark and Sweden and Germany and the Netherlands there are to be found rhyming romances of the same sort as the English, written about the same time. In Germany, itis true, the romantic school of the early thirteenth century is much more refined than anything in England before the days of Chaucer and Gower; but besides the narrative work of the great German poets of that time there are many riming tales that may very well be compared with English popular romances; while in Denmark and Sweden there is a still closer likeness to England. There the riming narrative work is not a bit more regular or courtly than in England; there is the same kind of easy, shambling verse, the same sort of bad spelling, the same want of literary standard. But in those countries there was no Norman conquest; so that it will not do to make the political condition of the English accountable for the manners of their popular literature. The Norman conquest helped, no doubt, in the depression of English literature, but like things happened in other countries without a foreign conqueror. Just as all the Teutonic languages (except that of Iceland) pass from the Old tothe Middle stage, so in literature there is a parallel movement in Germany, England, and Denmark from an earlier to a later medieval type. In all the Teutonic countries, though not at the same time in all, there was a change of taste and fashion which abandoned old epic themes and native forms of verse for new subjects and for riming measures. This meant a great disturbance and confusion of literary principles and traditions; hence, much of the new literature was experimental and undisciplined. It took long for the nations to find a literary standard. The Germans attained it about 1200; the English in the time of Chaucer; the Danes and Swedes not until long after the close of the Middle Ages. The progress from Old to Middle English narrative verse is not to be understood from a consideration of England alone; it is part of a general change in European fashions, a new mixture of Teutonic and Roman elements, not to speak of Celtic and oriental strains in the blending.

    In the history of English narrative poetry there is a great gap of two centuries between The Battle of Maldon and Layamon’s mon’s Brut, with very little to fill it or even to show what sort of things have been lost, what varieties of story-telling amused the English in the reign of Harold Godwinsson or of Henry I. In France, on the other hand, these centureis are rich in story books still extant; and, as the English metrical romances depend very largely upon the French, the history of them may to some extent be explained from French history; though often more by way of contrast than of resemblance.

    In France, the twelfth century witnessed a very remarkable change of taste in stories which spread over all Europe and affected the English, the Germans, and other peoples in different ways. The old national epics, the chansons de geste, were displaced by a new romantic school, which triumphed over the old like a young Olympian dynasty over Saturn and his peers, or like the new comedy of the restoration over the last Elizabethans. The Chansons de geste were meant for the hall, for Homeric recitation after supper; the new romances were intended to be read in my lady’s bower; they were for summer leisure and daylight, as in the pretty scene described by Chrétien de Troyes in his Chevalier au Lion, and translated into English:

  • Thurgh the hal sir Ywain gase
  • Intil ane orcherd, playn pase;
  • His maiden with him ledes he:
  • He fand a knyght, under a tre,
  • Opon a clath of gold he lay;
  • Byfor him sat a ful fayr may;
  • A lady sat with tham in fere.
  • The mayden red, at thai myght here,
  • A real romance in that place,
  • But I ne wote of wham it was;
  • Sho was but fiftene yeres alde.
  • The knyght was lorde of al that halde,
  • And that mayden was his ayre;
  • She was both gracious gode and fayre.
  • These French romances were dedicated to noble ladies, and represented everything that was most refined and elegant in the life of the twelfth century. Furthermore, like other late romantic schools, like Scott and Victor Hugo, authors travelled wide for their subjects. The old French poet’s well-known division of stories according to the three “matters”—the “matter of France,” the “matter of Britain” and the “matter of Rome the great”—very imperfectly sums up the riches and the variety of French romantic themes, even when it is understood that the “matter of Rome” includes the whole of antiquity, the tales of Thebes and Troy, the wars of Alexander. It is true that (as in later romantic schools) the variety of scene and costume does not always prevent monotony. The romantic hero may be a knight of king Arthur’s court, may take his name from Protesilaus or Palaemon or Archytas; the scene in one story may be Logres or Lyonesse, in another Greece or Calabria; it does not really make much difference. So Mrs. Radcliffe’s heroes, or Victor Hugo’s, are of the same sort, whether their scene be in the Pyrenees or in Italy. But, nevertheless, the freedom of wandering over the world in search of plots and characters was exhilarating and inspiriting in the twelfth century in France; there was great industry in fiction, a stirring literary competition. The following ages very largely lived on the products of it, to satisfy their own wants in the way of romance.