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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.

XVI. Later Transition English

§ 1. Robert of Gloucester

IT is significant, both of the approaching triumph of the vernacular, and of the growing importance of the lower and middle classes in the nation, that some of the chief contributions to our literature during the two generations immediately preceding that of Chaucer were translations from Latin and Norman-French, made, as their authors point out, expressly for the delectation of the common people. Not less significant are the facts that much of this literature deals with the history of the nation, and that now, for the first time since the Conquest, men seemed to think it worth while to commit to writing political ballads in the English tongue.

The productions of this time, dealt with in the present chapter, fall into two main classes, religious and historical, the former comprising homilies, saints’ lives and translations or paraphrases of Scripture, and the latter the chronicles of Robert of Gloucester, Thomas Bek of Castleford and Robert Mannynge, the prophecies of Adam Davy and the war songs of Laurence Minot. The two classes have many characteristics in common, and, while the homilists delight in illustrations drawn from the busy life around them, the historians seldom lose an opportunity for conveying a moral lesson.

The earliest of the three chronicles mentioned above was written about 1300, and is generally known by the name of Robert of Gloucester, though it is very uncertain whether he was the original author of the whole work. It exists in two versions, which, with the exception of several interpolations in one of them, are identical down to the year 1135. From this point the story is told in one version, which may be called the first recension, in nearly three thousand lines, and in the other, the second recension, in rather less than six hundred. From an investigation of the style it has been supposed that there was a single original for lines 1–9137 of the Chronicle, that is to say, to the end of the reign of Henry I, composed in the abbey of Gloucester, and that, at the end of the thirteenth century, a monk, whose name we know from internal evidence to have been Robert, added to it the longer continuation. This must have been made after 1297, as it contains a reference to the canonsation of Louis IX of France, which took place in that year. Then, in the first half of the fourteenth century, another writer found the original manuscript, added the shorter continuation, and also interpolated and worked over the earlier part.

In any case there can be little doubt that the Chronicle was composed in the abbey of Gloucester. The language is that of south Gloucestershire; and Stow, who may have had access to information now lost, speaks in his Annals (1580) of the author as Robert of Gloucester, or Robertus Glocestrensis. The detailed acquaintance with local affairs shown by the writer of the longer continuation proves that he lived near the city, while we have his own authority for the fact that he was within thirty miles of Evesham at the time of the battle so ably described by him. But, in the earlier part of the Chronicle, also, there are traces of special local knowledge, which, apart from the dialect, would point to Gloucester as the place of its origin.

The poem begins with a geographical account of England, borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry of Huntingdon and the life of St. Kenelm in the South English Legendary.

Next, Nennius, or, perhaps, Geoffrey of Monmouth, is followed for the genealogy of Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain; and, from this point down to the English conquest, Geoffrey ofMonmouth is the chief authority. The compiler is, however, by no means a slavish translator, and he treats his original with considerable freedom. Thus, he sometimes elaborates, giving the speeches of historical personages in a fuller form, while, on the other hand, he frequently omits long passages. But the episodes which stand out in the memory of the reader—the stories of Lear, of the “virgin-daughter of Locrine” and of Arthur—are also those which arrest us in the Latin original.

Although it has sometimes been stated that the author of this part of the Chronicle was indebted to Wace, it seems very doubtful whether the work of his predecessor was known to him. Such lines as those which hint at the high place taken by Gawain among Arthur’s knights, or make mention of the Round Table may be due to verbal tradition, which was especially rife in the Welsh marches. The coincidences are certainly not striking enough to justify the assertion that the Gloucester Chronicle owed anything to the Geste des Bretons, though Aldis Wright has shown that the writer of the second recension was acquainted with Layamon’s version of Wace’s poems.