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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.

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 1. The Carolingian Element

THE METRICAL romances which form during three centuries a distinctive feature of our literature must in no sense be regarded as an isolated phenomenon. They begin under the auspices of the twelfth century renascence. They supply a want while feudalism lasts. And they begin to vanish when feudalism crumbles in the wars of the Roses. It has been already said that legend and love were the two main themes of the twelfth century literary revolt against earlier religious traditions, and it is not without significance that they were precisely the themes of this new creation, the romance. It is true that the crusading zeal, and occasional Christianising tendencies, which characterise some of the romances, still point to militant religious forces, but religion ceases to supply the initial impulse, or to give direction. The raison d’être of the romances is of a secular kind. It was felt to be good to indulge the fancy and to hear of love, and so legendary and historical narratives and cheerful love-stories were, from time to time, related with no other motive than the telling of a good tale. The romance, then, obviously forms part of, or is, perhaps, the sequel to, that general emancipatory movement in literature which marked the twelfth century.

But the form and tone of the English romance were determined by more than one consideration. Political and social connections with France and Brittany rendered available a store of French material, and Welsh traditions, through the medium of Brittany, were found to increase that store. The movements of the crusaders brought the west into closer touch with the east. And, amidst all these alien influences, something of what was native still persisted. Nor must internal considerations be entirely forgotten. Neither social nor intellectual development failed to leave its mark upon this branch of literature. Women had come to be regarded as of more importance than ever in the community. The literary tendencies which made for love-tales found their counterpart in the striving towards higher ideals of conduct in relation to woman. Manners became more refined and a code of chivalry was evolved. Heightened sensibility was, moreover, revealed in the increased appreciation of the beautiful—the beauty of womanhood, the beauty of nature, the beauty of noble conduct. And the refinement of fancy made fairyland seem possible.

Jean Bodel’s classification of the romances has already been mentioned. Regarding them, however, from the point of view of the motives and influences they embody, it is seen that they fall into certain groups: Carolingian or Old French, Old English, classical, oriental and Celtic.

The Carolingian element is represented in medieval English romance by Sir Otuel, Roland and Vernagu and Sir Ferumbras. The first is an account of a Saracen attack upon France. Sir Otuel is the Saracen emissary who insultingly defies Charlemagne in his own hall and is, in consequence, challenged by Roland. A stiff fight follows; but, in answer to Charlemagne’s prayers, a white dove alights upon the shoulders of the Saracen; whereupon he capitulates and undertakes to embrace the Christian faith. Roland and Vernagu deals with Charlemagne’s exploits in Spain. Its main incident consists of a combat, spread over two days, between Roland and Vernagu, the gigantic black champion of the sultan of Babylon. At one point of the protracted duel the giant is overcome with sleep; and this leads to an exhibition of knightly courtesy. So far from taking advantage of his slumbering rival, Roland seeks to make those slumbers easy by improvising a rough pillow beneath his head. Sir Ferumbras relates the capture of Rome by the Saracen hosts and its relief by Charlemagne. The usual combat takes place, this time between Olivier and Ferumbras, son of the sultan of Babylon. The Saracen is, as usual, overcome and accepts Christianity. His sister Floripas, who is in love with the French Sir Guy, afterwards her husband, assists the Christians, and both brother and sister are subsequently rewarded with territory in Spain.

In these works there is obviously embalmed the fierce heroic temper of the Carolingian era. The animating spirit is that of the crusades. Saracen champions are consistently worsted and forcibly persuaded, after sanguinary combat, of the beauties of Christian doctrine. The chivalrous ideal is still in the making, and the self-restraint and courtesy of Christian heroes are shown to contrast favourably with the brutal manners of Saracen warriors. But chivalry, as such, is still a battle-field grace; its softening virtues have yet to be developed in other spheres of activity. The glory of womanhood lies in ferocity and daring, in a strong initiative, if needs be, in affairs of love. Floripas in Sir Ferumbras, for the sake of her love, deceives her father, overpowers her governess and brains a jailor; and other Carolingian heroines like Blancheflour and Guiboux are similarly formidable.