Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 4. History of the English Romances

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

§ 4. History of the English Romances

Briefly and roughly, the history of the English romances might be put in this way: About the year 1200 French literature came to dominate the whole of Christendom, especially in the matter of stories; not only sending abroad the French tales of Charlemagne and Roland, but importing plots, scenery and so forth, from many lands, Wales and Britanny, Greece and the further east, and giving new French forms to them, which were admired and, as far as possible, borrowed by foreign nations, according to their several tastes and abilities. The English took a large share in this trade. Generally speaking, their taste was easily satisfied. What they wanted was adventures: slaughter of Saracens, fights with dragons and giants, rightful heirs getting their own again, innocent princesses championed against their felon adversaries. Such commodities were purveyed by popular authors, who adapted from the French what suited them and left out the things in which the French authors were most interested, viz. the ornamental passages. The English romance writers worked for common minstrels and their audiences, and were not particular about their style. They used, as a rule, either short couplets or some variety of that simple stanza which is better known to most readers from Sir Thopas than from Horn Childe or Sir Libeaus. Sir Thopas illustrates and summarises, in parody, all the ways of the popular romance for a long time before Chaucer and for long after his death. Of course there are many differences in particular cases, and Sir Thopas, with all his virtue, does not so far outshine the others as to make them indistinguishable. Beves is not exactly the same kind of thing as Sir Guy, and the story of Sir Libeaus has merits of its own not to be confounded with those of the other heroes. Nevertheless, they are all of one kind, and their style is popular and hackneyed. The authors were well enough pleased to have it so; they did not attempt to rival their eminent French masters.