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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

§ 9. Anonymity of the work embodied in the Romances

In certain respects these romances may be said to reflect the age in which they were written. They bear witness in two ways to the communistic conception of society which then prevailed: first, by the anonymous character of the writings generally and, secondly, by the absence of the patriotic note. The individual, from the communistic standpoint, was but a unit of the nation, the nation merely a section of a larger Christendom. The sense of individualism, and all that is implied, was yet to be emphasised by a later renascence. It is, therefore, clear that the anonymity of the romances, as in the case of the Legendaries and Chronicle, was, in part, the outcome of such conceptions and notions. The works represent

  • The constant service of the antique world
  • When service sweat for duty, not for meed.
  • And the absence of patriotism from the romances results from the same conditions: national consciousness was not yet really awakened. The mental horizon was bounded not by English shores, but by the limits of the Holy Roman Empire. Coeur de Lion’s career alone appealed to latent sympathies; for the rest, the romance is untouched by national feeling. French and other material was adapted without any re-colouring.

    The romance also reflects the medieval love of external beauty. The picturesqueness of the actual, of medieval streets and buildings, the bright colours in dress, the love of pageantry and pictorial effects, all helped to inspire, and are, indeed, reflected in, the gay colouring of the romances. If the stories, again, make considerable demands upon the credulity, it was not remarkable in regard to the character of the times. All things were possible in an age of faith: the wisdom of credo quia impossible was to be questioned in the succeeding age of reason. Moreover, the atmosphere which nourished the romantic growth was that of feudalism, and an aristocratic note everywhere marks its tone and structure. But it is a glorified feudalism which is thus represented, a feudalism glorious in its hunting, its feasting and its fighting, in its brave men and fair women; the lower elements are scarcely ever remembered, and no pretence is made at holding up the mirror to the whole of society.

    Lastly, like so much of the rest of medieval work, the romance moves largely amidst abstractions. It avoids close touch with the concrete: for instance, no reflection is found of the struggles of the Commons for parliamentary power, or even of the national strivings against papal dominion. The problems of actual life are carefully avoided; the material treated consists, rather, of the fanciful problems of the courts of love and situations arising out of the new-born chivalry.