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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.

XI. Early Transition English

§ 3. Literary Revolt of the 13th Century

But literature was not destined to remain a religious monotone: other and subtler influences were to modify its character. The twelfth century renascence was a period of popular awakening and the vigorous young nations found scope for their activities in attempting to cast off the fetters which had bound them in the past. As the imperial power declined, individual countries wrested their freedom, and in England, by 1215, clear ideas had been formulated as to the rights of the individual citizens. This groping for political freedom found its intellectual counterpart in France, not only in the appearance of secular littérateurs but also in that school of laic architects which proceeded to modify French Gothic style. In England it appeared in a deliberate tendency to reject the religious themes which had been all but compulsory and to revert to that which was elemental in man. Fancy, in the shape of legend, was among these ineradicable elements, long depised by erudition and condemned by religion; and it was because the Arthurian legend offered satisfaction to some of the inmost cravings of the human heart, while it led the way to loftier ideals, that, when revealed, it succeeded in colouring much of the subsequent literature. The Brut of Layamon is, therefore, a silent witness to a literary revolt, in which the claims of legend and fancy were advanced anew for recognition in a field where religion had held the monopoly. And this spirit of revolt was further reinforced by the general assertion of another side of elemental man, viz.: that connected with the passion of love. France, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, had been swept by a wave of popular love-poetry which brought in its wake the music of the troubadours. Germany, in the twelfth century, produced the minnesingers. The contemporary poets of Italy were also lovepoets, and, at a slightly later date, Portugal, too, possessed many of the kind. This general inspiration, originating in France, and passing over the frontiers on the lips of the troubadours (for, in each country, the original form of the popular poetry was one and the same), was destined to touch English soil soon after 1200. Though it failed for some time to secularise English poetry, it imparted a note of passion to much of the religious work; and, further, in The Owl and Nightingale religious traditions were boldly confronted with newborn ideas, and the case for Love was established beyond all dispute.

The religious writings of the time may be divided into four sections, according to the aims which they severally have in view. The purport of the first is to teach Biblical history; the second to exhort to holier living; the third is connected with the religious life of women; the last with the Virgin cult and mysticism.